In the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, we use “stakeholders” all the time.
Stakeholders have a stake or interest in a particular project or program. They might be community members, businesses, government representatives, or Tribal members.
But it’s time to find a new word for “stakeholders.”
One of my early mentors and colleagues, Brad Hermanson, PE, PMP, brought to my attention that the term “stakeholder” can be offensive to Indigenous people and is viewed as a colonialist term.
Colonizing settlers staked their claims on land occupied by Indigenous peoples.
They violently stole land and resources that had sustained Indigenous peoples for centuries. European settlers killed 56 million Indigenous people in 100 years in South, Central, and North America. The offspring of those settlers continue to prosper from the generational wealth they gained from the land theft.
From 1778 to 1871, the United States signed more than 500 treaties with Tribes across North America. The treaties acknowledged that each Tribe was an independent nation, with their own right to self-determination and self-rule. All of these treaties have been violated or broken by the U.S. government, with Native Americans and First Nations peoples still fighting for treaty rights in federal courts and at the United Nations.
The flourishing Land Back movement calls for acknowledgement and return of Indigenous sovereignty over traditional territories.
Two reasons why we need to replace the word “stakeholders”:
Calling Indigenous peoples “stakeholders” is an insult. They are not mere interested parties in projects on land that was once theirs. They are rights and title holders. In addition, the word can bring up generational trauma and pain.
It’s time to decolonize our language. Some recommend not using “stakeholders” when Native Tribes are involved in a project, but I believe we need to strike it from our usage entirely. Why continue to use a term that causes pain for anyone? Let’s use our language to heal and connect, rather than continue injustice. The whole purpose of the term "stakeholders" is to collaborate and communicate.
Alternatives to stakeholders:
Interested, affected, or relevant parties
List of people’s roles (e.g., land owners, community members, Tribal rights and title holders)
I asked a musician and dancer from the Siletz Tribe, Fish Martinez, for his thoughts on the word. I love the approach he recommends:
“I am aware of phrases or words that may trigger others based on injustice and racist colonialism. My thoughts are to always work towards being open to educating ourselves. For understanding to be at the forefront of our decision making.
When we come in contact with someone that may say they do not like a word or phrase that is spoken, take time to hear them out and better understand why. --Fish Martinez
There are reasons we may not be aware of at the time when we say something. Hopefully all of our actions will be transparent in our compassion and ability to be open and learn from these types of instances.
I'm someone who usually speaks my mind or advocates for others. Thanks for reaching out and asking how I feel about this. Love and caring can make a difference more so than the ignorance we all may have.”
Let’s use our words to heal, not harm.
Learn more about ways to support Indigenous people in the workplace in these two articles: Eight Ways to Support Indigenous People (Part 1) and Eight Ways to Support Indigenous People, Part 2: Recruit, Retain, and Engage Native Employees.
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