Accountability & apology in a feminist & anticolonial science lab

This week in lab we learned about accountability and the role of apology. In feminist and anticolonial work there are going to be mistakes. There aren’t a lot of roadmaps in science for this kind of work, and our lab members are at different stages of understanding and enacting our values. We need to know how to apologize in ways that are feminist and anticolonial, rather than the ways many of us have learned that tend to foreground logic, self-preservation, judgment, or demands for other people’s apologies rather than focusing on our own accountability.

Throughout this process, we had two amazing readings by Mia Mingus on accountability & apology to guide us. I highly recommend them!

How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

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We started with an accountability map we’d made in a previous lab meeting. We had listed all the people our work impacted, and thus who and what we were accountable to. The list includes our research partners, grantors, administrators that make our work possible, other lab members, fish, land, people we cite (and people we don’t!), readers of our papers, the places our wastes end up, CLEAR principles, Indigenous governments and landkeepers. It’s a long list and it exceeds the scale of mere interpersonal, face-to-face forms of accountability that many lab members imagined when we started talking about apology. How do you apologize to land? How do you recognize when you need to?

Then we went around the table and talked about what accountability meant to us. This is pretty hard since we don’t have practice scaling from individual & interpersonal accountability to some of the entities on our list.

In our ‘apology workshop’ lab members wrote down when they had made a mistake in upholding their obligations & should apologize. To my surprise, everyone started writing A LOT. No hesitation.

The step by step guide to apologizing by Mia Mingus is fantastic. We took considerable time for each step. We named the hurt our actions caused. We named the impact of that hurt. We owned it. Then we thought of actionable ways to change so it didn’t happen again beyond “I’ll do better” (after all, the definition of a bad experiment is loading your method with intent but doing the same thing and expecting a different result). 

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Screenshot from Mia Mingus’ “How to Give a Good Apology” step 2: Name the hurt/harm.

In our check out at the end of the meeting, lab members talked about how they were excited to go apologize, how upset they were at their own actions, and how thoughtful the exercise made them. Their homework: do the apology and report back next lab. I’m really looking forward to report backs at the start of the next meeting.

CLEAR’s guiding values are humility, equity, inclusive openness and a commitment to process. They’re in our lab book: when we do science we aim to reproduce them at every step. Maybe it’s time we add accountability. This is how our anticolonial & feminist science evolves. I’m not suggesting adding more and more guiding values– if there are too many then they aren’t a guide anymore! But when we do a refresh of the lab book, we’ll talk about how accountability is and isn’t present in our existing values and how we might nuance and even change them to ensure they reflect what we’ve been learning and doing in the lab.

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