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Research that rejects status quo is worth investment

Chhaya Kolavalli writes that Kauffman’s Inclusive Ecosystems grant is focused on research that values community voice and pushes back against the accepted norm to collect data, and frame problems and solutions on communities, rather than with them.

In 1771, British colonial powers claimed ownership of the entire Australian continent by declaring “terra nullius,” or “land belonging to no one” – this was despite an estimated 750,000 Aboriginal people who inhabited the island at that time.

How did the British justify this claim? They drew on research.

European scholars argued that the development of agriculture was a key component of “civilized” society. Scholars defined agricultural development as selection of seed, preparation of soil, storage of crop surplus, and permanent housing – practices that were not common for Indigenous Australians, who had distinct agricultural practices. So, the British argued, Australian land wasn’t owned by anyone – they could claim it.

Research has been used for centuries to validate systemic racism. Whether conscious, or unconscious, it continues to permeate the field today.

To leverage the full potential of our economy, we need knowledge to develop policy centered on equity and community voice that rejects the notion that race is merely a variable in America.

Research can do that, too.

How colonialism shaped research and knowledge production

Science, and academia in general, has deep links to colonialism and white supremacy. The goal of producing knowledge, and scalable interventions, was often to “civilize” and conquer those living on resource-rich land. Many research disciplines emerged during the colonial era as white Westerners were confronted by the existence of “others,” and cultures entirely unlike their own, and began to study them.

In some fields, the development of a research paradigm aligned clearly with colonial goals – British researchers in Sierra Leone, for example, were driven to find a cure for malaria because it was killing so many colonizers, and hindering imperial expansion in the African continent.

To leverage the full potential of our economy, we need knowledge to develop policy centered on equity and community voice that rejects the notion that race is merely a variable in America. Research can do that, too.

Other fields, such as anthropology, wouldn’t even exist without colonialism. Western expansion drove scholars to question the nature of culture and society. White colonizers, believing their culture and race superior, cast all else as “primitive,” and anthropology, as a research field, emerged as scholars tried to categorize and isolate the variables that separated “developed” and “undeveloped” communities. This kind of research was quite often used to justify colonial expansion, such as in the claim of terra nullius by the British.

It has been an unquestioned norm that knowledge was produced by white researchers as they “objectively” observed – or, often throughout history, harmed – people with racial and ethnic backgrounds different from their own. Methods of producing knowledge that relied on Western norms (measuring, tracking, and isolating variables) that quantify and categorize were seen as objective, true, and indisputable.

Put another way: they were seen as superior to other ways of making meaning.

This history has left an indelible mark on academia, and the field of knowledge production. For researchers in fields that center their analysis on culture and society, it has shaped norms around who studies whom, what questions get asked, and where knowledge is shared, discussed, and debated.

Academia, today

How exactly does this history manifest in the study of communities today when most scholars seek graduate training hoping to create knowledge that creates a positive impact in the world?

For one, long-lasting structures within institutions of higher education uphold colonial norms and power dynamics. Quantitative, measurable analyses are valued, often, uncritically. Researchers who work within communities, and seek to involve community voice and perspective in knowledge production, often have a harder time securing funding for their work, face harsher scrutiny during the tenure process, and have difficulty publishing their findings in ‘top-tier’ journals. Qualitative, community-informed research is seen as less rigorous, in terms of its applicability in making evidence-based policy decisions.

And, while more and more scholars with various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including scholars from the global South, are entering and reshaping the academy, the way knowledge is produced is slow to change.

What is forgotten, often, in entrepreneurship research is that entrepreneurial ecosystems are embedded within communities. And in our communities, peoples’ lives are impacted by a number of systemic and structural contexts that are not always visible.

For example, economist Dr. Lisa Cook  – through historical research on patents in the 19th and 20th centuries – found that violence toward African Americans led to fewer patent filings, less innovation, and lower-economic growth in the Unites States. Her work, when finally published, was considered groundbreaking scholarship within entrepreneurship and innovation. She struggled, however, for nine years, to get the work published. Peer reviewers rejected the paper, questioning what she meant by “former slave,” questioning her argument about the emotional impact of racial violence and calling the work “niche.”

What is forgotten, often, in entrepreneurship research is that entrepreneurial ecosystems are embedded within communities. And in our communities, peoples’ lives are impacted by a number of systemic and structural contexts that are not always visible.

What other ways does racial violence impact the entrepreneurial ecosystem? How do the disparate impacts of police brutality impact entrepreneurs in our community? How do entrepreneurs across identities navigate space, and experience belonging, in gentrifying communities? These are research questions that require holistic approaches, that take seriously all facets of a community.

Apply to the Inclusive Ecosystems RFP

Inclusive Ecosystems RFP

The Inclusive Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Request for Proposals (RFPs) intends to engage researchers and communities in examination of how structural issues shape equity and opportunity in entrepreneurial ecosystems within the Heartland states – Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Community engaged research teams – in which entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) – are invited to request up to $300,000, for research spanning 36 months.

Application deadline is April 29.

Apply now >

Inclusive Ecosystems RFP

The mantra “nothing about us without us” exemplifies this movement to rethink research. It’s been gaining a lot of momentum recently, within the body of researchers who work to engage communities, and uplift different ways of knowing. It asserts that communities themselves are experts in their own experience and pushes back against the research status quo in which researchers collect data and frame problems, and their solutions, on communities, rather than with them.

When we focus on what is most readily measurable, we zoom in for a myopic view: the entrepreneur, the capital, the idea. We miss some bigger questions, the birds-eye view of communities – where identities, structures, cultural forces all interplay, and aren’t neatly categorizable. Many of the most important questions facing our communities, that impact equitable entrepreneurial opportunity, are too messy for a simple causal analysis and they can’t be understood through numbers alone. They require diverse voices, narrative, and contextualization.

The Inclusive Ecosystems RFP will intentionally invest in the many different ways of knowing and spotlight the value of conversation between researchers and community. We need more research analysis that welcomes innovative thinking, and that centers equity and community voice, rather than dismissing race as a variable. The process of creating knowledge to develop policies and supports for entrepreneurs needs to center community voices to be truly impactful. As we pilot this RFP, we look forward to listening to, and learning from, communities and researchers within the Heartland. We know they have important things to say.

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