4 Decolonizing Community Development Practice

Sama Bassidj, MSW, RSW and Dr. Mahbub Hasan MSW, Ph.D.


  1. What Is Decolonization? Why Does It Matter?
  2. Indigenization


Video source: https://youtu.be/7xOrUo-SoJw

1. What Is Decolonization? Why Does It Matter?

Material in this section is adapted from:

Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors by Ian Cull; Robert L. A. Hancock; Stephanie McKeown; Michelle Pidgeon; and Adrienne Vedan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

If we want to challenge social injustice and contribute to systemic change, we need to understand and integrate concepts of decolonization and Indigenization in community practice in an intentional and ongoing way.

Decolonization is the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies that claim the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches (Cull et al., 2018). On the one hand, decolonization involves dismantling structures that perpetuate the status quo and address unbalanced power dynamics. On the other hand, decolonization involves valuing and revitalizing Indigenous knowledges and approaches, and challenging settler biases and assumptions that have impacted Indigenous ways of being (Cull et al., 2018).

Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 3). While unquestionably connected to human rights and social justice, it is not a substitute for these concepts (Ritskes, 2012). Specifically, decolonizing demands a centering of Indigenous ways of knowing and being, Indigenous Land, and Indigenous sovereignty.


Source: YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xestqqmz600

The physical and mental aspects of decolonization apply equally to Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities (Gray, Coates, Yellow Bird, & Hetherington, 2016).

For non-Indigenous people, decolonization is the process of critically examining your beliefs about Indigenous Peoples and cultures by learning about yourself in relationship to the Land and communities where you live and the people with whom you interact.

We work in systems that perpetuate colonial ideals and privilege Western ways of being and doing. For example, many community services use forms and procedures instead of first initiating relationships with community members. This is a colonial process that tends to create environments of exclusion rather than inclusion.

Q – What other community practices and approaches can you think of that are rooted in colonial ways of thinking and doing?

Decolonization is an ongoing process that requires all of us to be collectively involved and responsible. Decolonizing our institutions means we create spaces that are inclusive, respectful, and honour Indigenous Peoples.

(Adapted from Decolonization and Indigenization)

Video: Ted Talk – Decolonization is for Everyone

Source: YouTube, https://youtu.be/QP9x1NnCWNY

2. Indigenization

Material in this section is adapted from:

Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors by Ian Cull; Robert L. A. Hancock; Stephanie McKeown; Michelle Pidgeon; and Adrienne Vedan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Indigenization is a collaborative process of naturalizing Indigenous intent, interactions, and processes and making them evident to transform spaces, places, and hearts. In the context of community development practice, this involves including Indigenous perspectives and approaches to the benefit of all community members (Cull et al., 2018)

Indigenization seeks a fundamental shift in the ways that communities:

  • Include Indigenous perspectives, values, and cultural understandings in daily practices
  • Position Indigenous ways of knowing at the heart of community development work
  • Integrate cultural protocols and practices in the operations of our organizations

Indigenization values sustainable and respectful relationships with First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities, Elders, and organizations. When Indigenization is practiced at the community level, Indigenous Peoples see themselves represented, respected, and valued and all community members benefit. We all gain a richer understanding of the world and of our specific location in the world through an awareness of Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. Indigenization also contributes to a more just world, creating a shared understanding that opens the way toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It also counters the impacts of colonization by upending a system of thinking that has typically discounted Indigenous knowledge and history.

Indigenization, like decolonization, is an ongoing process, one that will shape and evolve over time.

Starting With Ourselves: Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Good intentions are not enough for community development work. Our work must be grounded in anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and decolonizing practices and relations; otherwise, we risk repeating harmful mistakes of the past.

It is our responsibility to question the ways in which we show up in communities, the space we take up, the power and privilege we have been afforded, and how we (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuate systemic oppressions and settler-colonialism while engaged in community work.

Reflection Questions:

If you are a settler on this Land, it is your responsibility to reflect on how you have benefitted (and continue to benefit from) the ongoing devastation and genocide of Indigenous Peoples as a result of colonialism. How have you been complicit in upholding these colonial systems of oppression? Who are you accountable to?

A Shift In Perspective and Power

Indigenous Worldviews on working with communities are valuable for all community and social service workers. Decolonizing our practice requires an ongoing commitment to learning and unlearning; to critical thinking; and to inviting uncomfortable questions that interrogate and challenge accepted knowledge and ways of thinking.

Decolonizing community practice requires an intentional shift in perspective and power from working for a community to working with a community.

“If you come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson

As outlined in the Seven Sacred Teachings, the value of humility is critical in reminding us that we are merely one small piece of the bigger puzzle. Nobody is an expert on other people’s lives. Adopting a stance of “not-knowing”, humility, openness, and curiosity, together with a willingness to be held accountable by the communities we serve, are key ingredients for this work.

Change does not happen overnight. Social change takes intentional, ongoing, consistent actions from individuals, groups, and communities. We must look to – and listen to – Indigenous Peoples throughout the process.

Taking Action

We would like to acknowledge that this resource would not have been possible without the work of Indigenous scholars, who have been researching and writing in this field for decades.

When learning about settler colonialism and working in communities:

  • Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures.
  • Understand that [you] are secondary to the Indigenous Peoples that [you] are working with and that [you] seek to serve. [You] and [your] needs must take a back seat;
    – Lynn Gehl, “My Ally Bill of Responsibilities.”
  • Accept that you will make mistakes and upset people as you learn.
  • Take responsibility for your own learning. Where do you live? Whose Land are you on? Are you on unceded Land? Are you on Treaty Land? Learn what your responsibilities are and how you can act in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples in your community.

Some preliminary steps for settlers in decolonizing community development practice can be found here at the Community Development Learning Initiative.

To get started with your (un)learning journey, check out this database of anti-racism and decolonization resources. 

Key Takeaways and Feedback 

We want to learn your key takeaways and feedback on this chapter.

Your participation is highly appreciated. It will help us to enhance the quality of Community Development Practice and connect with you to offer support. To write your feedback, please click on Your Feedback Matters.

Thank you!



Cull, I., Hancock, R., McKeown, S., Pidgeon, M., & Vedan, A. (2018). Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfrontlineworkers/

Ritskes, E. (2012). What is Decolonization and Why Does It Matter? https://intercontinentalcry.org/what-is-decolonization-and-why-does-it-matter/

Gray, M., Coates, J., Yellow Bird, M., & Hetherington, T. (2016). In Gray M. (Ed.), Decolonizing social work. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315576206

Tuck, E. & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.


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Community Development Practice: From Canadian and Global Perspectives Copyright © 2022 by Sama Bassidj, MSW, RSW and Dr. Mahbub Hasan MSW, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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