Western-Led Projects

Every project humans carry out has four main parts, even when they are not consciously recognized: agenda, goals, methods, and values. Indigenous-led environmental projects differ from Western-led environmental projects in each and every one of these four parts. People in Western culture generally think about a project as being something like a bridge. It gets people from where they are now to a place they would rather be. The project is the roadway the bridge supports, that you drive or walk on to get to the destination, which is the project goal.

A standard bridge diagram that’s been modified into a model of Western-led projects.

The structures that hold up the bridge, high enough for you to easily see them because they are right alongside the road, are the methods people use to carry out the project. We are not going to talk much about those here, because Western culture pays so much attention to them. Think about the Scientific Method, for instance. Western culture has very rigorous ideas about what sort of knowledge is acceptable or of value, and this strongly influences the methods people use. It influences your ideas about the proper way to do things, too, not just the way science is done. You think about the importance of being objective rather than subjective, about finding a way to measure things in order to know what’s going on, and about analyzing your measurements with statistics so you can “prove” what happened. As a simple example, think about the way we monitor a baby’s growth in Western culture. The baby is weighed periodically, and the baby’s weight and growth are compared to curves plotted statistically from millions of other babies. Then an authority (pediatrician or baby book) tells us how a given individual baby compares, statistically, to babies in general: that its growth is in the 90th percentile or the 10th percentile. And then parents feel they are raising their baby well or poorly, and either brag to friends and family or agonize over whether they need to add solid food to the baby’s diet. So yes, we are all very familiar with Western methods.

What we’re not as familiar with is the deeper support structures that hold up the same bridge. These are the foundations and the ground they connect the bridge to so it’s supported. In our diagram model, the foundations are agenda and the ground is worldview. Worldview is the set of deep assumptions we hold about Reality. It is the ground on which we stand. A paradigmatic element of worldview is usually held in common by a group of people, and that group can be as big as a culture or as small as a community. In our diagram, worldview is the literal ground itself — the earth. The concrete foundations that support the bridge on both ends, and the heavy footings in the middle of the bridge, are the project’s agenda. The foundations are sunk deeply into the bedrock of the worldview or ground. In a similar way, agenda connects a project to worldview. Agenda connects and grounds the projects we carry out to our deepest assumptions about what matters most.

Let’s apply this simple model to an even simpler example. Let’s say you were raised in a family with many pets. You had pets growing up, your parents had pets growing up, and your grandparents had pets growing up. The way everyone in your family sees it, children learn responsibility from having pets they care for, feed, water, and brush. When children play with animals outdoors they develop better motor skills, get healthy exercise, and breathe in lots of fresh air. So having pets develops healthier children. The people in your family also believe that being around pets helps children learn important life lessons about discipline, training, illness, and death that are essential but very hard to teach. These ideas about children and pets are part of the way you see Reality, your worldview. But it’s familial rather than cultural, and it’s not subconscious. Aspects of our worldview, like any other paradigm, are not uniform in size or significance. Some are deep and fundamental, more subconscious, and culturally-based.  Others are regional, professional, or familial — community-based. In fact, we usually form or join communities based on shared worldview elements about subsets of our worldview such as how children should be educated, how people should worship, what people should do to stay healthy, how important museums are to humanity, and so on. We’re often more consciously aware of community-based elements of our worldview such as these, and make intentional choices about them.

In this example, if your children can’t have a pet because you live in a small apartment that doesn’t allow pets, you’re going to be uncomfortable because you’ll feel your children aren’t growing up properly. You have now identified a problem. You are on the left side of the diagram, on the land just to the left of the bridge. In identifying a problem, you realize you are in a place you don’t want to be. When you do that, you immediately visualize the place you want to go instead. So when you identify a problem, a destination comes into existence. And right away, you know you need a path or a bridge that will get you from where you are now to where you want to be. That path or bridge is a project.

The project bridge has to be built in such a way that it supports your effort and actually gets you to your destination. There are two parts to this support. As you imagine the bridge road surface you’ll walk or drive on to get where you want to go, you can imagine the necessary series of supports needed to hold up a structure so it gets you from here to there. On the bridge, those are the cables that hold up the road, and the pillars that hold up the cables. The pillars and cables are the methods you use to carry out your project, step by step, as you go from here to there.

But a bridge has to be attached to and supported by the ground. It has to have concrete footers on each end that connect it to the ground, and it also has to have concrete footers under each of the pillars that sticks up out of the water. Those footers are sunk deeply into the ground underneath the water, so the ground is holding up the bridge even in the middle of the span where you can only see water when you’re driving or walking on the bridge. These concrete footers that connect the bridge and its structures to the ground of worldview are agenda. Agenda is the means by which worldview supports every project and determines how it’s structured. But notice that agenda is slightly different from worldview. Worldview is passive in our diagram. It’s literally the ground. Agenda is active; it’s holding up the bridge. It’s not there until people put it there so they can build a bridge. So agenda connects worldview to a project idea in a way that actually puts things into motion.

In our example, your community worldview is that children need to have pets to grow properly. The problem you’ve identified is that your children don’t have a pet and can’t have one in your present home. The agenda that connects these two things is your determination (notice the action aspect there) to be a good parent who raises their children properly, so they develop as they should. When that agenda of parental responsibility encounters your worldview about children and pets, it generates a project bridge. Then you go from here to there so you solve your problem.

In this case, once you realize the problem stems from living in an apartment where pets are not allowed, you might come up with a goal (notice how goals come into this) of moving into a house with a yard. You could also come up with other solutions, such as moving into a pet-friendly apartment and taking both kids and dog to a nearby park daily, helping the children volunteer at a dog rescue, or getting the kids an aquarium to learn responsibility and life/death lessons but taking them to the gym for exercise. The agenda doesn’t determine which solution you choose, but simply sets things into motion. It makes you decide, “I need to do something to fix the problem of my kids not having any pets.”

Whatever you decide to do, your ideas about the value of pets in children’s lives will determine the intermediate steps of the project. So if you decide to move into a house in the suburbs, you might look for a house with a kitchen pantry that permits children to access a pet food storage area, and that has a yard big enough for children and dogs to run freely. If you choose the solution of taking your children to volunteer in a pet rescue, you’ll make sure they have the responsibility of feeding some of the animals each day so they learn that part of things, and that they exercise and play with the dogs so they get the motor and exercise benefits. So no matter what solution you choose, your worldview and its values are still going to determine what you actually do. And that one agenda of “I have to be a responsible parent who provides my children the opportunities pets give them” is going to be informing all these choices and decisions. It’s agenda that connects your actions to the bedrock of your worldview.

When your chosen solution has been carried out, you’ll assess or evaluate its success based on the very same criteria you used to set it up. If you chose to move to a house in the suburbs, you might tell friends after a year that your solution is working out well because the children play outside with the dogs every day and have learned to feed and clean up after them, or that it turns out the yard is too small for children and dogs to run so you are going to find yet another house with a much bigger yard. If you chose to have your children volunteer at the dog rescue, you might tell a friend later that it’s worked out well and that you’re pleased to see your kids are learning the things you hoped they would learn, and getting strong and healthy from playing outside with the animals. Or you might say that the rescue staff often feeds the dogs your children were supposed to feed, so your kids aren’t learning responsibility at all. In that case, you might look for a different rescue, speak to the staff, or try an entirely different solution such as moving to the suburbs after all. A project’s outcomes are assessed specifically to find out how well the project accomplished the intended goals.

Philanthropic individuals and foundations want to use their financial resources to help others. That is their agenda. It’s driven by the values of an ethical system that sees helping others as Good.1 If you think about it a moment, you can see that there’s a potential corollary to this value system, which is that if helping people, places, or situations is Good, then helping more people, places, or situations is even Better.

Another important paradigmatic element of Western worldview comes into play in environmental philanthropy. This element is is universal applicability, the idea that if a thing is true anywhere, it’s true everywhere. Universal applicability is particularly important in science, which is based on the idea that what’s learned about how genes work in a mouse, for instance, applies to the way genes work in a fruit fly or in a human.2 The philanthropic agenda that “helping more is even Better” connects to the Western worldview bedrock of “universal applicability” in environmental work. So the agenda for Western-led environmental projects is almost always to develop something that solves an environmental problem (taking us from here to there), and then to apply that solution in as many other places as possible to benefit as many people or places as possible. Universal applicability even involves values, because the unspoken assumption is that if a project is Good for a few Here, it’s Good for many There.3

The result of all this is that grant submission guidelines typically ask applicants to lay out the specific ways their project “scales up” to serve communities outside the immediate project area or has a “broader impact” that satisfies other Good things such as social justice or gender equity that the funder values (because they are also part of the person’s bedrock worldview). When it comes to environmental revitalization work, the Western agenda plays out in a desire to support efforts that provide information or generate infrastructure that will spread far beyond the original project area. Even when there’s interest in funding grassroots or local projects, a fundable project generally has to outline the ways its gains can and will be expanded to serve communities far beyond the group or place the grant directly supports. In other words, the work done must be global in applicability even if it’s local in scope.

At this point, you might feel like all this is so sensible that you wonder how Indigenous agenda, goals, methods, and assessment could be any different. But the point of all this material is to help you begin to feel a shift or a turning inside you as your perspective struggles with a change in orientation. To explore what that really looks like — now that you can see what Western-led projects are really about — please visit the web page listed immediately below, to start learning how environmental projects led by Indigenous people really are very different.

Indigenous-led Projects


1 Sometimes philanthropy is driven by the values of an ethical system that sees maximizing your own financial resource base as Good, coupled with tax laws that make it financially advantageous for wealthy people and organizations to give some of their resources to others. But those tax laws exist within the ethical system that sees helping others as Good. So the two values are very tightly connected in Western culture.

2 Universal applicability is one of the foundations of scientific research. For instance, research results are not considered valid if other researchers, in other places, cannot do the same work and get the same result. The idea is that if research results tell us something real about the natural world, then the same thing will be true absolutely everywhere else. (You can see here the impact of universal applicability on the Scientific Method.) The system of knowledge acquisition based on this assumption has been very productive. But it has some important limits that have not been explored very much in general media. Certain research scientists and philosophers of science take these limits very seriously, however, and feel they provide extremely important information about reality that humans need to pay attention to. Unfortunately, most of the literature that explores this issue is highly technical, so easily misunderstood and misrepresented.

3Universal applicability of values has led to some very serious environmental problems. This issue is laid out in a series of eight webpages under the heading of “West” that’s part of an online learning exercise publication here. If you review these pages, it’s essential to read all 8 pages so you have the opportunity to understand the information provided.

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