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What is a deficits based narrative?
When I talk with groups, I often try to reserve a small portion of time to talk about the importance of using assets-based research and assets-based reporting when we talk about Indigenous communities. This concept is hard for a lot of people to grasp, especially people who have been trained in western approaches to research and grant writing. In academia, we are taught to really drill down to the most compelling story in our writing, and the disparities narrative is usually the easiest compelling story to write.
We have all read these papers, and most of us have written them. I have. The format remains strong- start by introducing the population of interest. Describe who they are, describe the problem, and then describe how extensive the problem is with that population. Use whatever (reliable) statistics available to emphasize how that negatively that population is impacted by the problem. Try to pull statistics from recent publications, but if you can’t find them it’s okay to use older publications- just explain that this population is so overlooked, there just aren’t good statistics on this problem. If it were television, the camera would be guiding you through the dirtiest, ugliest slums, zooming in on children with their bellies plump from kwashiorkor, flies dipping in and out of their eyelashes. Some of us call this poverty porn.
Some defend this model, arguing that it is extremely effective for presenting their case, especially in grant writing. After all, in our environment of limited funding, if you want to convince your reader that your grant is the most important grant in the pile, you better be solving world hunger. The defenders tell me that sugar-coating the problems allows people to pretend these problems do not exist or allow other issues to gain attention over ours. We don’t want to capitulate to some dumb bench research about invisibility-linked ligands, after all.
The reason I fight so vociferously for assets-based research is multifold. First, I have vivid memories of being a teenager and reading statistics about Native Americans- that we had the highest rates of suicide mortality, the highest rates of alcoholism, the highest rates of drunk driving deaths, the highest everything- and feeling as though there was no reason to even try. The odds were clearly stacked against me. Deficits-based reporting does an excellent job of reinforcing stereotypes. If you want to believe that Native Americans are poor, alcoholic, and unemployed, it is incredibly easy to find academic papers that will support those beliefs. Finally, I believe there is an unintended consequence of this type of reporting, the reporting in which all the worse outcomes are cherry-picked from the reports and presented together to paint a worst-case scenario picture. This consequence is a prophecy for readers of what is to come, instead of what we are fighting against.
Thus, I urge all who write about our peoples to focus on the positive. If you want to write about health outcomes, also write about our rich cultural diversity, our incredible tenacity and the centuries-long resistance we have mounted against multiple colonial invaders. Remind readers about the insidious attempts at genocide that have been ongoing for generations that have included a systematically underfunded healthcare system that was treaty-guaranteed and a judicial system that has failed to take responsibility for the staggering rates of missing and murdered women. Place those statistics in context, and when you write up those reports, include the negative findings that show places of strength. Our lives depend on it.
I'm a Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Nurse Researcher. I write, speak, and think about health equity and parenting in our complicated world.
Views expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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