How students are using Wikipedia as a tool toward decolonial-Indigenization

Wikipedia is not just a place where the world goes for quick and reliable information. It’s a place where stories can be reframed, where the record can be corrected, where longstanding inequities can be addressed. This is exactly what Professor Nicole Lugosi-Schimpf’s students at the University of Alberta attempted to do in her Fall 2020 course on Colonialism and the Criminal Justice System in Canada. Content related to Indigenous communities is woefully underdeveloped on Wikipedia, and Professor Lugosi-Schimpf’s students tackled this glaring content gap through the lens of criminal justice.

We wrote about Professor Lugosi-Schimpf’s class last year, highlighting some of the important contributions her students made. With the field being wide open, her students tackled everything from specific court cases involving Indigenous populations to the very broad subject of Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Criminal Justice System itself. As the student who wrote this article noted, “The most difficult part of selecting a topic was that every relevant topic I considered writing about would have first required educating the reader on the broader context of the Indigenous experience in Canada. This is because there was no relevant or accurate article to backlink to. This was the basis for the decision to write on the broad topic of ‘Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Criminal Justice System’.”

In her recent paper, Theorizing and implementing meaningful Indigenization: Wikipedia as an opportunity for course-based digital advocacy, Professor Lugosi-Schimpf and two of her students provide a systematic overview of how the Wikipedia assignment can be a critical tool in the process of decolonial-Indigenization. As they note, “To realize decolonial-Indigenization aims, instructors must acknowledge that it is not theoretically or pedagogically possible to understand and teach about Indigenous oppression without attention to how colonialism and systemic racism are intertwined.” In other words, it’s not enough to provide content where none exists, but to carefully curate that content in such a way that accurately represents the experience of Indigenous populations. All too often these communities are presented as victims and this idea is perpetuated in all aspects of society from the media to institutions of higher education. But as the article notes, “Wikipedia, if properly curated, can play an important role in decolonial-Indigenization projects.”

Who edits Wikipedia matters. As Lugosi-Schimpf and her co-authors so eloquently write, “A result of unrepresentative authorship is unrepresentative content.” This is especially true on Wikipedia where the majority of editors identify as white, male, and from Western countries. Wiki Education has long striven to not only diversify Wikipedia’s content, but to diversify its editor base as well. Diversity of content and authorship are two sides of the same coin. Though all Wikipedia articles are supposed to be neutrally written and entirely fact-based, the author ultimately decides which facts to include and which to leave out. Wikipedia can provide a diverse array of communities with an opportunity to shape their own narrative within Wikipedia’s guidelines designed to uphold accuracy and reliability. As Lugosi-Schimpf notes in the article, “Editing Wikipedia was an impetus for students to contemplate what narratives and histories are told, how they are told, and by whom. … Actively engaging the politics of citation affords students an invaluable opportunity to push back against disciplinary canons often found on syllabi to bring scholarship from the margins to the forefront.”

Peoples from historically marginalized communities have largely been left out of the story because they have rarely been given the chance to write their own narratives. If they are injected into mainstream history, it’s often as victims without agency or depth. Wikipedia offers such people a unique space to present history in and on their own terms. As Professor Lugosi-Schimpf notes, “From the course evaluations, it was clear the Wikipedia experience was rewarding for all of the students, and it was especially meaningful for the students that identify as BIPOC and/or sexual and gender minorities whose voices and perspectives are often missing from mainstream media.” And as one of Lugosi-Schimpf’s students confirmed, “As a Black bi-racial woman, I have embodied experiences with misrepresentation and stereotyping that stems from structures of white supremacy and systemic racism. The opportunity to create Wikipedia content that dispelled taken for granted assumptions for another equity seeking group, from within a supported environment, was both empowering and inspiring.”

Wikipedia is in many ways a reflection of the systemic biases present throughout society. Its reliance strictly on written sources means that many peoples and cultures are left out because they have been left out of the written record. It’s often argued that Wikipedia isn’t a place for activism. Its requirements around neutrality dictate that no single point of view should dominate an article. Its notability policies have often been criticized for excluding those who have been left out of the written record — namely historically marginalized communities. In spite of its limitations, Lugosi-Schimpf and her co-authors argue that Wikipedia is in fact a place where longstanding institutional biases can be overturned: “Despite its constraints, we assert that Wikipedia can still be leveraged as a site of digital advocacy to foster positive change. For example, once a reader has more facts and sees an assemblage of colonial projects, it is difficult to refute the damage done by settler-colonialism. Even a balanced viewpoint can cause readers to question their taken-for-granted assumptions. Striving for neutrality, while contentious, opens Wikipedia up to be an ideal place to rewrite history, because history as previously written has not been neutral.”

When students contribute to Wikipedia, it can be easy to get caught up in the technicalities of the project and the demands of the term. At its core though, students are engaging in the politics of knowledge production. They are the ones deciding which facts to include and which to leave out, and it’s our hope that the work they produce makes Wikipedia a more equitable place.

Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for more information.

Image: ibourgeault_tasse, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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