Leading the Field: Alejandro Mayoral Baños

A conversation with the Executive Director of the Indigenous Friends Association

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Native American Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Indigenous leaders who are working to ensure the field of tech and government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Alejandro Mayoral Banos (he/him), the Executive Director of the Indigenous Friends Association, a group that works with Indigenous communities to create, engage and renovate digital technologies through ethical and communal values. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.

How did you identify that this career path—in decolonial computing, Indigenous data sovereignty, and other tech projects that benefit Indigenous communities—was the right niche for you?

Digital platforms and technologies are becoming more complex (e.g., AI, big data, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, virtual reality, etc.), and at the same time, these technologies are increasingly having a significant impact on the economy, society, and the environment. With the spread of mobile devices and internet usage among Indigenous people in the last decade, there is now significant momentum for engagement and conception around digital technology and Indigeneity. Indigenous communities are now exploring new opportunities for managing and protecting information while continuously resisting threats to their infrastructure as individual or collective tech users.

Simultaneously, digital tech companies are producing new forms of colonization and power structures that reinforce forms of control and domination over Indigenous knowledge and bodies. The lack of understanding of community needs by these digital entities produces new complex scenarios where community representatives must fight for their sovereignty not only on the natural/physical level but also in the digital/virtual world. Furthermore, the vulnerable socioeconomic circumstances of the majority of Indigenous communities around the globe caused by historical and ongoing colonization processes generate environments where the majority of Indigenous peoples are not part of the conversation around software, digital embodiment, infrastructure, and data.

Recently, new approaches to creating and designing digital technology by, for, and with Indigenous peoples are allowing innovative community responses to emerge as counteractions to the colonial consequences of the digital world. However, most of these intersections between decoloniality and digital technologies lack practical applications in their analyses and do not incorporate design principles and pragmatic specifications that enable them to be deployed and replicated at the local level. I know that there is an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to become creators and designers of digital tech that serves us. 

Tell us a little bit about the work of the Indigenous Friends Association.

The Indigenous Friends Association (IFA) is an Indigenous-led tech not-for-profit organization in Canada that bridges the gaps between Indigeneity and digital technologies through education, software development, and research. The IFA’s vision is to work with Indigenous communities in training and supporting them to  develop digital skills that help them access educational and employment opportunities in the tech sector. This factor will create a more inclusive tech industry that allows us to bring other forms of knowledge to design more ethical and responsible digital technologies for everyone. 

According to a 2019 study from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Brookfield Institute, only 2.2% of the tech workforce is Indigenous. Despite Indigenous people being one of the fastest-growing populations in Canada, they continue to experience inequitable access to programs focused on digital technology. Systemic barriers and their exclusion from participation and leadership in the tech industry further narrows the possibilities for inclusive and ethical digital solutions. Moreover, the well-established tech sector in the main cities in the country (e.g. Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax) continues to replicate colonial practices (i.e., extractivism, centralization) that create barriers for Indigenous communities in the tech market.

Our differentiator from other organizations is that IFA has developed a curriculum that integrates traditional knowledge into the digital curriculum, strengthening the learning environments of Indigenous learners. In addition, we impart training in digital literacy skills through the lens of Indigenous pedagogies and experiential learning. The IFA believes that significant untapped talent exists among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis youth and their communities.

What principles do you follow to ensure that Indigenous traditional knowledge is incorporated into digital products?

This is a complex question that can not be answered in a few paragraphs; however, certain initial parameters can guide the design of digital products. First, it is about creating truthful and meaningful relationships with different Indigenous groups and individuals who will create and design the digital product. It is important to be able to actively listen. That’s the only way to understand the richness of the traditional knowledge and teachings and how it can be transferred and applied in the digital spaces. Second, the digital product must foster a connection with the natural and physical world, especially with nature. The disembodiment through digital attachment (e.g. infinite scrolling) disturbs the conception of balance which is essential in many Indigenous worldviews. Finally, it is important to have a road map on how the digital product can transition to more decentralized infrastructures detached from big tech companies and how it can propel the local economy and sovereignty. 

Ask yourselves who is creating and managing the technology you use and how your organization is removing barriers for individuals not commonly represented.

What can organizations and individuals in the field of civic tech do to help decolonize digital spaces?

First and foremost, allow more representation within your organizations and groups. Ask yourselves who is creating and managing the technology you use and how your organization is removing barriers for individuals not commonly represented. This is an important responsibility for individuals who might need to start uncomfortable conversations at different organizational levels. Also, through your communication channels, foster Black, Indigenous, People of Color and other visible minorities who are content creators, so their voices and experiences are amplified. 

What values are most important to you as an organizational leader? How do those show up in your day to day work?

In this work, the most important values I hold are ethics and empathy. Digital technologies are evolving quickly and creating new challenges within our work environments. Knowledge coming from a mainstream Western perspective could pose a constant challenge to instilling the concept of decolonization in my daily work. Re-educating the self involves emptying and then immersing myself in the wisdom of the Indigenous framework of “two-eyed seeing.” This works best when I am able to look and learn in-depth the strength of the Indigenous ways of knowing through one eye and also see the strengths of Western pedagogies through the other eye. All seeing focuses on using these eyes primarily for the benefit of those unseen and least represented.

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