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Developing and Sustaining Mixtec Thought Leadership:

Immigrant Indigenous Women’s Construction of Community Serving Research

Lorri M. J. Santamaría (Choctaw descent)

The University of Auckland & California State University San Marcos

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

Genevieve Flores-Haro

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

Silvia García (Mixteco)

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

Luisa López (Mixteco)

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

Claudia Lozáno

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

Alberta Salazár (Mixteco)

The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP)

This work was supported by a grant funded by the California Mental Health Services
Act (MHSA) written in collaboration and parity with the Mixteco/Indígena
Community Organizing Project (MICOP) and Ventura County Behavioral Health


This research investigates ways in which a nonprofit organization enacts womanist

leadership to sustain indigenous Mixtec cultural norms by engaging research to

benefit its constituents. When a group of Mixtec women from Oaxaca, Mexico (the

third-largest indigenous group in Mexico after the Nahua and Maya) living in

Southern California become leaders in research processes addressing a critical need

impacting their communities, the study becomes decolonizing, critical, and culturally

sustaining. This contribution reveals ways in which the women learned to conduct and

adapt culturally grounded and sustaining research, transformed protocols to match

indigenous community norms, and engaged data analysis to meet community needs.

This dynamic exercise in thought leadership and research action occurred while the

group negotiated project terms with non-indigenous state and county partners

involved in the grant process. This chapter chronicles culturally sustaining critical

leadership as a community phenomenon, whilst suggesting an emergent anti-colonial

womanist Mixteco/ Indígena research methodology. Data reveal (a) specific ways in

which anti-colonial womanist leadership was developed/expressed, (b) a new

application of critical leadership theory, and (c) potential for impact in similar

communities. Critical and culturally sustaining ways of women leading their

communities with social justice and equity were evidenced and may inform like

organizations and indigenous or non-indigenous communities across sectors (e.g.,

health, education, civic).

Keywords: cultural sustainability, critical theory, Mixteco indigenous

immigrant, leadership, nonprofit, womanist


Developing and Sustaining Mixtec Thought Leadership:

Immigrant Indigenous Women’s Construction of Community Serving Research

“When indigenous1 peoples become the researchers and not merely the researched,

the activity of research is transformed. Questions are framed differently, priorities are

ranked differently, problems are defined differently; people participate on different

terms” (Smith, 2012, p. 193).

This quote from the book Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai

Smith, a well-known Māori indigenous scholar, provides the foundation for this

chapter which features research that serves to test, build, and extend existing

leadership theory and womanist/ feminist thought in an effort to contribute to

leadership practices in increasingly complex local, global, and intersecting

international spaces. The research presented asks what might happen if a critical mass

of indigenous, First Nations, or Native American peoples in the United States became

researchers of themselves or their surroundings to meet their own or the self-

identified needs of their communities? What if historically and systemically colonized

indigenous women garnered resources and tools to authentically lead research

initiatives in their communities and thus become ‘the ones they have been waiting

for,’ as proposed by Hopi American Indian elders and further suggested by Smith

(2012)? And what if those indigenous women happened to also be immigrants from

Oaxaca, Mexico living and working in the United States (U.S.)?

The work featured in this chapter features the latter group, Mixtec: indigenous

women from Oaxaca, Mexico who have immigrated to the United States of America

engaging a research agenda to meet the direct needs of their communities. This

A network of peoples worldwide who have shared experiences of being “subjected
to the colonization of their lands and cultures and the denial of their sovereignty by a
colonizing society that has come to dominate and determine the shape and quality of
their lives” (Smith, 2012).

contribution answers an intriguing call to culturally sustaining women’s leadership

and social action by chronicling the research activities of an indigenous immigrant led

research team investigating the phenomena of traditional indigenous healing

modalities in culturally and linguistically diverse Mixteco/Indígena Mexican

communities. The community residing in Southern Coastal California consists of

20,000 linguistically diverse indigenous individuals, from more than 20 pueblos in

Oaxaca, Mexico all of whom have recently immigrated to the geographic region.

Mixteco/ Indígena Mexican peoples in Ventura County community comprise the vast

majority of farmworker, day laborer, and other low paying labor-intensive jobs in the


The investigative research team for this project is entirely comprised of

women of color, most of whom are indigenous. Those involved include a

director/principal investigator (D/PI), four (4) promotora/ community specialists

(PSs), ten (10) grupo consejo/ advisory council (AC) members, and four elders who

are also curanderas/ community-based healers. The D/PI, PSs, and five members of

the AC are Mixteco or indigenous descent women and employees of a nonprofit

organization that seeks to support, organize, and empower the indigenous community

in the County. Other AC members are Latinx, whilst the four elders are all Mixteco

from various regions of Oaxaca.

The research within the overarching research project involves research

activities with more than 450 members of the local Mixteco/ Indígena Mexican

community as participants and beneficiaries of the work. These activities include the

authentication, validation, integration, and celebration of indigenous healing practices

traditionally used to alleviate mental health symptoms associated with stress, anxiety,

and depression as a result of racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression faced by


the community. The integration aspect follows authentication and validation of

indigenous healing practices used in the community that are also practiced in Oaxaca.

It consists of a defined process: communal interviews, interactive one-on-one

community surveys, and the identification of effective treatments measured through

the use of pre and post intervention surveys. Figure 1 provides an overview of the

study, taking place within the current study.

[Insert Fig. 1 Here]

The overarching premise, is that the women’s leadership activity that occurs as a

result of this Mixteco/Indígena-led project will serve to bring traditional indigenous

healing modalities on par with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (e.g.,

acupuncture, meditation, yoga, Reiki healing) in alleviating targeted symptoms

impacting the Mixteco/Indígena immigrant community. When this has been achieved,

the practices can be shared with and taught to mental health care practitioners in the

county and subsequently identified as culturally sustaining CAM practices in their

own right.

Our aim through the current project, which considers ways in which identified

Mixteco indigenous-led research activities are implemented, is to make theoretical

contributions that offer an alternative to positivist eurocentric frames of

knowledge/reference that align with womanist and anti-colonial theories resulting in

pedagogical interventions. First, we extend existing work on culturally situated

critical leadership in education and nonprofit organizations, suggesting organizations

be grounded in cultural and linguistic strengths of indigenous women leaders’

identities as valuable resources--- particularly when members of their communities

are the people being served (Johnson & Fuller, 2014; Rishworth, 2015; Santamaría &

Santamaría, 2012; Santamaría, 2016). Second, we offer new insights into the role

cultural sustainability in curriculum studies in terms of how indigenous immigrant

multilingual communities are impacted by colonial parameters and norms (Paris,

2012; Paris & Alim, 2014). Third, we extend scholarly understanding of Mixteco

indigenous immigrant womens’ leadership practices by advancing a new Mixteca

Feminist theoretical research method or curriculum, in order to identify critical

leadership tendencies as uniquely indigenous ways of being, in accordance with

indigenous Māori scholar contributions (Pihama, Reynolds, Smith, Reid, Smith, &

Tenana, 2014; Santamaría, Santamaría, Santamaría, & Santamaría, 2014; Santamaría

& Santamaría, 2016). As such, we introduce ways in which this understanding can

enhance greater societal leadership practices where indigenous or similarly impacted

groups are present in the U.S., New Zealand, and other like countries.

Ultimately, our investigation extends prevailing theoretical models of both

culturally responsive leadership and cultural sustainability, borrowed largely from the

educational sector, where socially oriented research of this nature has been previously

carried out. It does so by presenting these phenomena as critical – and thus able to add

valuable sociocultural and equity lenses to ways in which scholars and practitioners

think about and engage leadership in a variety of multi-sector organizations. Research

previously published on these topics has focused on ways in which organizations

respond to historically marginalized cultures by becoming more relevant to the needs

of indigenous and often systemically underserved people (e.g., Bogotch, 2002;

Brooks & Normore, 2010). Our work adds to an emergent and growing body of

literature, which suggests culturally relevant and sustaining leadership exist on an

important continuum. This continuum, we argue, shifts when power differentials and

ways of executing organizational leadership functions are shared or led by indigenous

players who are women and women of color, which opens the door to innovative and

previously underexplored avenues for research (e.g., Santamaría et al., 2104; Smith,


For this study, the original grant authors proposed and were funded for a study

on the benefits of indigenous healing practices within the Mixteco community in a

region of Southern California. The authors proposed a well-known and implemented

mixed-methods research approach consisting of focus group interviews,

questionnaires, and a treatment phase with pre and post surveys to examine

indigenous healing practices with regard to different modality types used and their

effectiveness. This paper reflects the cultural and multilingual [Mixteco (5 variants),

English, Spanish] evolution of the research preparation, design, and focus group

interview phase of the research under consideration, with a focus on emergent

women’s’ indigenous leadership as empirical and theoretical contributions to the

discipline of organizational leadership and/or the execution of leadership functions.

Figure 2 illustrates the unique nesting doll nature of the study within a study of the

research presented in this chapter.

[Insert Fig. 2 Here]

The leadership practices observed in the non-profit organization as a whole were also

considered, however the leadership practices employed by the Mixteco/Indígena

research team of women involved in the study of indigenous healing practices, serve

to provide the centerpiece and core focus for this contribution. As a result of the

multidimensional multicultural, multilingual, intergenerational complexities existing

within the indigenous communities served, the nature of the data collection process,

leadership implications, and the key indigenous personnel involved--- a unique

women centric and anti-colonizing leadership phenomenon that adds to the current

understanding od intersectionality in contemporary literature has begun to surface that

we assert is worthy of further scholarly exploration.

A Culturally Appropriate and Critical Stance in Leadership

The era of political correctness has seemingly come to an end, at least in the

United States (U.S.) under the leadership of President Donald Trump. As a result, the

U.S. and the world have seen a resurgence of blatant right wing hateful actions in the

form of public freedom of speech demonstrations, increased police brutality, and

domestic terrorism. The current administration has added insult to injury with

punitive U.S. legislation ranging from Muslim travel bans and illegal immigrant

deportation to threats of building a wall separating the country from Mexico. These

practically unimaginable perspectives and actions are underscored by the troubling

‘Make America Great Again’ ethos, which has demonstrated an utter and complete

disregard of women’s individual and collective voices. Most recently, actual words

associated with critical theory and work with members of historically and

systemically underserved and indigenous communities (e.g., diversity, transgender,

entitlement) were banned from use in the Center for Disease Control (CDC) financial

reporting documents (Ravitz, 2017). Meanwhile critical theoretical academic

contributions that serve to uncover these phenomena through a critical pedagogical

lens are being written off. It seems and feels as if these actions and changes of

protocol and practice are moving from hidden to subtle to blatant, at a rapid pace

resulting in unprecedented difference-based inequities. An acceleration of out right

hatred has been consistent with no signs of letting up in the near future, testing

various systems of ‘checks and balances’ to keep just and equitable laws in place to

protect vulnerable populations.


Fortunately, leadership in every sector, and particularly that of education and

nonprofit organizations tend to carry moral and/or ethical imperatives with the

intention of doing what is right, good, or beneficial to people being impacted.

Unfortunately, what is right, good, or beneficial is open to interpretation and often

tends to benefit those who comprise the majority. It is important to understand that

moral and ethical leadership concerned with the impact of race, ethnicity, gender

expression, culture, class, and difference on constituents, can be characterized as

critical leadership. In this contribution, we venture into ‘academic knowledge forms’

joining Denzin and other scholars (2008) who define critical leadership as practice

that empowers and emancipates people by engaging them in “critical thought

including how to participate in democratic dialogue” with a belief and yearning for

social justice (p. 28). To be clear, this contribution though written in mostly academic

prose is a push back--- a call to change, and a living contribution also joining the

growing chorus of previously marginalized voices, perspectives, and counter-stories

to the existing canon and scholarly narrative concerning leadership, management,

research, and indigenous people (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).

Positioning of this kind, places us and other critically minded leaders who are

women at the forefront of ‘doing the right thing’ when it comes to practices and

actions as ‘curriculum’, in this case ‘research’ to meet the needs of culturally and

linguistically different and indigenous constituents functioning in mainstream

contexts where they are often systemically oppressed. Research on the topic states

that culturally appropriate leadership occurs when leaders are able to enact practices

drawn from their own cultural and/or linguistic experiences, as well as the identities

of the communities they are called to lead (Johnson & Fuller, 2014; Santamaría &

Santamaría, 2014; Santamaría et al., 2014). For instance, these leaders are able to

draw upon lived experiences of injustice and oppression to challenge dominant,

mainstream social structures in their leadership practice. These may also be

individuals of historically privileged identities who consciously choose to enact

critical leadership as a means of empowering others to promote equality and justice

for all (Freire, 1968/2012; Santamaría & Santamaría, 2012). Merely reacting to the

diversity backlash as a stance is not enough, however. Critically conscious leaders

tend to move forward along a continuum of cultural responsiveness toward socially

just and equitable leadership actions that are culturally sustainable (Santamaría &

Santamaría, 2016).

The Role of Cultural Sustainability in Thought Leadership

It is essential that in this piece, we call out the notion of ‘cultural relevance.’

Though it looks and sounds like best practice, cultural relevance has limitations when

it comes to organizational and thought leadership. Culturally relevant leadership or

influence most often occurs when there are a number of systemically underserved

individuals impacted and the norms of the organization are drawn from a dominant

societal group. Under these circumstances, culturally responsive practices are

rightfully needed and hopefully employed as a minimum means of inclusion for

groups or people who are marginalized socially, professionally, or otherwise excluded

from full participation. Culturally relevant leadership practices are therefore

responsive, in that they occur as a reaction to inherent inequities in the organizational

environment (Santamaría, 2017).

Inversely, where culturally sustainable leadership activity is realized,

innovations are primarily informed by and sourced directly from the cultural values

of neighboring community norms. The input and influence of stakeholders who may

not be members of the community, even those deeply vested in the community, is

secondary. Culturally sustaining leadership, as complementary to culturally

responsive leadership practices, is possible and imperative where there exists a strong

thriving cultural base or a critical mass of individuals (see García, Melgar, & Sorde,

2013). For culturally sustaining leadership to occur, a fundamental overhaul and

mental/ spiritual transmutation of the ways in which leading and organizational

leadership are approached is required. Certainly for the Mixteco/Indígena community

featured in this investigation, the leadership development and expression presented is

a departure from mainstream and hegemonic ways of leading. These women who are

also critical indigenous leaders offer a unique approach that affirms indigenous

culture while building upon and extending what is known about leadership in

complex and culturally different spaces. This work demonstrates the women’s

professional development as their ability to adapt and sustain original culturally

sourced thought forms, comprising the most innovative aspect of the project.

Indigenous Research and Thought Leadership

The words ‘research’ and ‘indigenous people’ are historically contradictory

for native communities of people. For the Mixteco people in particular, cultural

appropriation and empirical knowledge concerning the use of medicinal plants and

mushrooms, including the exploitation of indigenous peoples, is a well-known

phenomenon (Santiago et al., 2016). To this point, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) writes

about ‘research’ being “one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s

vocabulary,” bringing to mind images of historically negative information

dissemination about savage folk and the “excesses of colonization” (p. 1). Over time,

investigative research of indigenous peoples has overwhelmingly resulted in findings


that reaffirm stereotypes, ignorance, and inferiority of the ‘other.’ When indigenous

peoples are involved in the act of conducting research in order to answer community-

generated questions to meet the needs of their communities, the act might be called

“talking or researching back” and thus considered an act of decolonization (p. 9).

Furthermore, because of the paucity of such contributions, any research that is

conducted by indigenous peoples may be considered as much decolonization as it is

leadership activity (Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, 2008; Hoskins & Jones, 2017; Smith,


Therefore, when the stars do align, and indigenous-led research takes place,

there is much to be learned to inform the disciplines of thought leadership. Care must

be taken, however, as cultural appropriation of indigeneity is ingrained in the U.S. and

other Western nations, as can be currently witnessed in ‘New Age’ spirituality touting

indigenous everything, sports’ mascots, adaptations of indigenous Mexican foods,

‘holidays’ (5 de Mayo), and the like. In the research presented here, from the inside of

the Mixteco/Indígena immigrant community as a result of these and similar concerns,

we are very much aware of the “sensitivity, skill, maturity, experience, and

knowledge needed” to work through indigenous contextual issues inherent to a study

of this kind (García, Melgar, & Sorde, 2013; Smith, 2012, p. 11). All processes, even

this chapter, are vetted by members of the community for authenticity and truth


Parallel Research Design and Methodology: A Study within a Study

In this investigation we qualitatively look to better understand ways in which

Mixteco/ Indígena community members who are also women working in a nonprofit

agency engage culturally sustaining research as well as critical thought leadership


practices. We chose a qualitative mode of inquiry for this work because of the

complex human-based interactions involved, which according to Anderson (2010)

cannot be easily explained nor expressed numerically in a way that makes logical

sense. Certainly research involving indigenous people should not only be qualitative

for these reasons but also critical and as such involve the voices of those being

‘studied’ as center and not peripheral to the research (Denzin et al., 2008). Finally, as

stated by Anderson (2010), “qualitative research can sometimes provide a better

understanding of the nature of [social] problems and thus add to insights into …a

number of contexts” (p. 141).

Specifically, in this study we examined the ways in which indigenous women

researchers critically investigate traditional healing practices to treat stress, anxiety,

and depression within their local community base--- rather than present results from

the study being undertaken by the researchers. In this way, this study is about the

way another larger study is being carried out. It is a study about a study, to understand

the thought leadership practices undergirding the research at hand.

Our hypothesis is that when indigenous women researchers engage culturally

sustaining research in their own community, the investigative process is transformed

into critical thought leadership activity impacting the entire community. The

nonprofit setting was appropriate for testing our hypothesis, for several reasons. First,

the setting is a place where Mixteco/Indígena people gather in community daily for

work, comeraderie, and to receive services. Second, this is a setting where training,

resources, and space are available for the research team to carry out the tasks

associated with the research. Thus, we could be confident that we had everything

needed to engage the research project, and that we were studying in environs where

Mixteco/Indígena people felt comfortable convening. Third, focus groups and


questionnaires are instruments regularly used in research with the community to

collect data for a variety of reasons; therefore the concept of focus group interviews

was not foreign. Finally, the purpose for the research was critical and transformative

as it was co-generated by the group, for the group, to benefit needs identified by the

Mixteco/Indígena people themselves. Even the idea of reflecting on the thinking,

development of knowledge forms, and thought leadership were ideas generated by the

Mixteca women involved.


The nonprofit where the research initiative takes place is comprised of

English, Spanish, and Mixteco indigenous language speakers who work in teams for a

variety of programs designed mainly to aid Mixtec and Zapotec Oaxacan immigrants

along the central coast of California. The organization provides direct services to the

community including the distribution of clothing, diapers, blankets, and other items as

needed. The nonprofit also has programs, which provide food, resources for medical

care, education, and literacy classes for adults, and holds monthly informational

community meetings. Voz Indígena is the radio station that runs out of the nonprofit.

This project speaks to and provides a voice for the County’s 20,000 Mixtec and

Zapotec people in their own languages and language variants. Programming includes

local events, national news, public health information, and popular indigenous music

that cannot be found on mainstream Spanish language networks. Voz Indígena

reaches indigenous farmworkers in the fields and workplaces building pride,

promoting unity, and remedying isolation.

The research project was slated to begin with the hiring of a Director/

Principal Investigator (D/PI) followed by the selection of an advisory council

consisting of ten members. It was recommended that some individuals on the board

come from within the organization, some from the surrounding community, and

others represent County Mental Health Services. The project was also budgeted to

hire four health promoters to work with the D/PI to assist in research, outreach, and

treatment over the course of the three-year project. A cadre of four community healers

joined the team in the latter part of the year.

The Players

The majority (11/15) of the advisory board and promoter research team is

Mixtec (N=9) with members speaking three different variants of the Mixteco

language, while two team members are Zapotec. The D/PI is a Spanish speaking,

indigenous descent (American Indian, Choctaw) Black woman of color who is a

retired Professor of education. She is an award winning international critical

researcher with extensive experience working on research initiatives with indigenous

Māori communities as well as Latino, African American, Romani, Mexican and other

systemically underserved communities in New Zealand, the U.S., Spain, and Mexico.

The D/PI was brought onto the team first by Mixteco/ Indígena Executive Directors of

the nonprofit. It was her primary responsibility to recruit for and invite participation

onto the advisory board. She was then to hire four community-based promoters.

An outsider to the organization, upon arrival the D/PI engaged leadership in

the organization (e.g., program managers, project coordinators, community

organizers) through one-on-one trust-building conversations to: (1) learn about the

programs and the roles of the leaders in the nonprofit, (2) introduce the current

research project, (3) identify individuals interested in serving on the advisory board,

and (4) discuss ideas for recruiting a team of promoters for the project. From these

informal and often casual (e.g., away from the office) meetings, individuals were

suggested to fulfill advisory board promoter positions. Because many of the names

suggested were people who worked for or were affiliated with the organization, the

D/PI made it a point to walk around within the surrounding community visiting small

business owners, introducing herself and the project with a flyer, and recruiting for

both board and promoter positions. The positions were also advertised on the

organization’s email list serve, to County Mental Health stakeholders, and on social

media like Facebook and Craigslist.

Within three weeks of the advertising launch, a group of ten board members

was identified and invited to serve on the project advisory board along with the hiring

of four promoters. All of the board members are women, four from the surrounding

community. These include a natural health physician and storeowner, a holistic

healer, an indigenous activist, and a traditional indigenous healer. Four board

members also work for the nonprofit being served by this project. Two members,

work for the County, one a Psychologist and the other a nurse. All members of the

board are bilingual (Spanish-Mixteco; Spanish-Zapotco; Spanish-English). Board

members meet with the research team twice a month during the planning phase of the

research and will meet once a month thereafter. Their participation and vested interest

in the project serves as a layer of accountability and community input.

The four promoters - promotoras were interviewed in the Spanish, English,

and appropriate variants of the Mixteco language to ensure those hired were able to

communicate with all members of the research team and assist with translation of the

data collected as necessary. One promotora is trilingual with functional

communicative abilities in Spanish, English, and Mixteco. Three are bilingual

(Spanish-Mixteco N=2; Spanish-English N=1). The team is intergenerational with one

promotora in her early 50’s, one in her 40’s, one in her 30’s and who recently turned

20 years old. Promotora research experience ranges from none to minimal. However,

each promotora expressed interested in research, leadership development, and

personal growth afforded by participating in the administration of the study.

After welcoming the board members and promotoras, the D/PI convened both

groups for an orientation to the research project and to learn about proposed protocols

associated with focus groups as the first order of data collection. Upon learning more

about the project, and receiving training on the practice of focus group research

(Kreuger & Casey, 2002; Morgan, 1997), the promotoras led a discussion questioning

the fit of this type of data collection for the population under consideration. Their

queries led to a closer look by the D/PI and advisory council at whether focus group

interviews, as described in qualitative research literature, were appropriate for the

Mixteco/Indígena community under investigation. Leadership actions suggested by

the team were captured and acted upon, resulting in substantive adaptation of the

research rendering it more communicative and culturally sustaining (Gómez, Elboj, &

Capllonch, 2013; Habermas, 1984). These actions are described in the data collection

as planned activity juxtaposed with leadership actions and actual research activity.

Data Collection

Data collection for the 3-year project is in Year 1 and consists of three (3)

focus group interviews of five to seven (5-7) Mixtec, Zapotec, or other Mexican

indigenous participants from Oaxaca, Mexico. Participants would be brought together

to identify core-healing practices used to treat stress, anxiety and depression. Focus

group interview data analysis provides the basis for surveys of 150 community

members to substantiate findings from the focus group results. It is the intention that

findings from these two data sources will identify healing practices to authenticate

and validate indigenous healing practices as ideal for the development of new

culturally affirming complementary and alternative medicinal (CAM) practices to


integrate with cognitive behavior treatment (CBT) as (the previously identified

effective county mental health treatment method of choice). This study features the

Year 1 phase of the research undertaken (See Fig. 1).

Also as depicted in Figure 1, Years 2 and 3 will involve testing a hybrid

treatment based on a combination of Year 1 findings and cognitive behavior theory

(CBT), the therapy modality used by the county. This new culturally affirming

treatment will be “tested” with 300 community members. If the implementation of

these treatments by the research team and community healers is deemed effective

(based on Year 2-3 pre and post-test quasi-experimental research), the treatment will

be celebrated. Year 4 will involve the D/PI, advisory council members, promotoras,

and indigenous healers providing training workshops to 40 county mental health

professionals on the use and integration of effective Mixteco/Indígena healing

practices identified, learned, and implemented as a result of this research project.

Written communication, training materials, researchers’ notes, and

photographs of research activity reflecting the ‘process’ of Year 1 research

implementation--- as well as the actual study data captured, provided ‘data’ that was

consecutively analyzed for the current manuscript. Supplemental data was gleaned

from documents, meeting agendas, and administrative activity supporting the project.

Data Analysis

The focus group interview data analysis for the study within the study was

structured to complement systemic analysis processes suggested by Kreuger and

Casey (2002, p. 10). Analysis included the use of field notes taken during the

interviews, probing participants for additional information, debriefing moderators,

reviewing field notes after the data collection, the preparation of draft reports,

comparing and contrasting results by categories, sequencing questions, and sharing


the report for verification with other researchers. Although challenged with the

trilingual nature of the data analysis, researchers analyzed data for repetition and

frequency of words used by participants, the context in which the words were used,

internal consistency of the use of language, intensity/depth of feeling of participant,

and specificity of the response offered (Kreuger & Casey, 2002, p. 11).

For the most part, the data analysis process carried out by the researchers was

consistent with suggested protocols, although one significant departure was the layer

upon layer of multiple language translations occurring throughout the activity.

Leadership innovations that resulted and captured as culturally affirming analysis

adaptions are described in findings. Figure 3 reflects the ways in which the analysis

of the work moved from that of considering the research at hand to that of looking

more closely at the phenomena of the culturally responsive research leadership

activity that organically emerged throughout the course of the project.

[Insert Figure 3 Here]

When the research protocols began to change to accommodate the community,

the team agreed to engage a secondary qualitative analysis of the research and

leadership activity that occurred as a result of the project. This layer of data analysis

involved a thorough and rigorous check of the indigenous led scholarly research and

culturally sustaining leadership activity in the nonprofit organization, against

established research on similar topics. Checks were made for frequency and

profundity of adaptation as well as corroboration or a departure from what had

already been found with respect to these topics by researchers and scholars whose

works were considered for the literature review. Patterns and themes were identified

and organized under headings associated with the literature reviewed. When a

leadership activity or practice was observed repeatedly, recent studies were consulted

and matched to the activity reflected in the data. As the primary research featured is in

progress, the secondary analysis of the research and leadership activity will be

featured in the findings and discussion.


Focus Group Interview Adaptation

Based on initial input from the research team regarding the inappropriate

nature of the focus group protocol for the Mixteco/Indígena community, we changed

and later adapted the protocol in several substantive ways to render it culturally

sustaining. The most significant change had to do with convincing potential and then

actual participants to come to the offices of the nonprofit for data collection as

opposed to a workshop or to receive assistance to meet a need. Rather, this project

sought out members of the community as valuable vessels of participatory knowledge

and experience whose cultural intelligence was sought and privileged as data to

further inform the study. This idea and approach signaled a paradigm shift for the

community that took some convincing by the promotoras including door-to-door

outreach and recruiting family and friends.

Beyond personal face-to-face outreach at events put on by the organization,

promotoras and advisory group members were equipped with written invitations in

the Spanish, Mixteco (the most commonly used variant), and English languages. The

invitations came with a simple gift, a vial of healing therapeutic essential oil.

Invitations were disseminated to community members in laundry mats, gardens,

parks, and grocery stores frequented by Mixteco/Indígena families. Lists were

created of interested participants followed up by a series of phone calls and home

visits on the days preceding the focus groups. Promotoras also provided

transportation for elderly participants who otherwise could not make it to the

interviews where local comfort food, drink, and childcare were provided. On the day

of the data collection, a welcoming culturally sustaining environment was deliberately

created in the space designated for the research activity. There was traditional music

playing in the background, candles lit, healing artifacts on the table surrounded by

comfortable chairs, dried sage, and palo santo. Oaxacan textiles covered the table.

The walls were adorned with visuals of healers working in Oaxaca, their healing

practices, and herbs in a variety of settings. Non-Mixteco members of the research

team were nearby but not working in the direct vicinity of the participants. Their role

was to support the conversation, take fieldnotes, and make note of body language or

other phenomena taking place during the data collection.

The data collection appeared to be more like highly interactive audio and

video recorded conversations than conventional focus group interviews. Rather than

ask questions, which the team believed would be interpreted as interrogative by

participants (who may have held undocumented status), Promotoras began the

conversations in the Mixteco language sharing anecdotal stories about their own

experiences with traditional indigenous healing practices. Through their stories they

also shared the rationale for the study and in this manner were able to ease

participants’ concerns with recording equipment and the idea that there was research

activity taking place. Promotoras facilitating the data capture couched the experience

as an opportunity for participants to share stories that would contribute to better

understandings of their own mental health remedies and what might be made

available to them and their communities in the US. Essentially, as a result, the first 30

minutes of the conversations consisted of a trust building time during which

participants listened to team members one by one disclose what certainly might have

been considered sacred information in their native languages and variants to a group

of unknown community members.

Of note, the focus group work was entirely attended by women. In their

departure from the typical focus group protocol and in their effort to make the

experience less foreign and more culturally sustaining, the promotoras exhibited three

adaptive leadership actions. First, they sought out, appropriately approached, and

incorporated elders as key community knowledge holders for the study. During data

collection they deferred to the elders and modeling the ways in which their wisdom,

experiences, and stories are highly revered in the community. Secondly, the

promotora team took a critical stance including full and rightful ownership of the

counter-stories and other information garnered by the research process. Third, they

successfully empowered community participants to share culturally protected orally

transmitted information regarding traditional and indigenous healing practices with

the researchers.

Indigenous Thought Leadership and Adaptation of Data Analysis

Additional indigenous leadership actions were expressed throughout the data

analysis process. Per the protocols suggested by Kreuger and Casey (2002), scant if

any analysis activity occurred during the ‘interview’ process because the process was

more like informal conversation, recall of memories, or storytelling session than a

typical focus group interview where analysis begins as participants share. Analysis

during the conversations would have been highly improbable given the interactive

nature of the activity. Following eight hours of Master’s level research methods

training on data analysis, promotoras reviewed the data by listening to audio tapes

and watching video of the ‘interviews’ in pairs, triads, or groups of four to check for

understanding, translate data from Mixteco language variants to Spanish and identify

big ideas or most frequent responses. The team reviewed data sources a few times

more individually and then again in pairs to ensure the distillation of ideas was

consistent and that there was consensus in the ideas identified.

One team member travelled to Mexico during the data collection window and thus

was able to offer additional corroborating data as the result of an independent ‘focus

group’ of ten Mixteco elders conducted in Oaxaca, Mexico. This data was juxtaposed

with the primary data to authenticate the findings. Finally, when data had been

analysed the team shared findings with organization executive leadership, the project

advisory board, and members of ithe Mixteco indigenous community before

consensus was reached as to the findings and permission for dissemination granted.

Explicit Culturally Sustaining Thought Leadership Actions

Additionally, there were some explicit culturally sustaining thought leadership

actions exhibited by the research team, which we also consider to be womanist and

decolonizing in nature. From the beginning of the research activity, we deliberately

included people, and women in particular, from the indigenous community as part of

all decision making processes including who would sit on the advisory board and how

the research would be implemented. Throughout the project, accessibility of the

community to the process as well as the languages and culture of the participants has

been primary, authentically sourced, represented, and central to the activity---- all led

by the Mixteco/Indígena promotora team and supported by the advisory council. In

terms of personnel, project and research leadership is representative of

Mixteco/Indígena families and the greater indigenous community being served. The

leadership and research team explicitly integrate philosophical, spiritual, linguistic,

and culturally specific aspects of the participants’ community into the investigation as

reflected in the trilingual name, the multilingual data collection, analysis, and

dissemination. There is an underlying decolonizing, critical thought leadership, and

social justice and equity stance taken in the research that was not an add-on. This was

evidenced by the research team’s willingness to: engage in critical conversations—

most often with other women in the community regarding race, language, culture,

difference, access, and/or equity; choose or assume indigenous and social justice

lenses when making decisions about the project; the use of consensus with all

constituents; trust building for optimal research activity and data collection;

accessibility and inclusivity in every aspect of the project; desire to add an authentic

counter narrative to existing information on Mixteco/ Indígena people; leading by

example and building capacity for members of their community; and providing

leadership as a service to their community. These activities are evidence of thought

leadership practiced by the women involved prior to the project with further

development and building of these capacities as a result of this work with promise of

sustainability moving forward.


Despite the large number of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations

(NGOs) serving culturally and linguistically diverse indigenous/ immigrant peoples

who are often systemically underserved, the topic of culturally appropriate and

sourced thought leadership or research with, for, or serving similarly marginalized

populations is scant (Rishworth, 2016). In the current research, we borrow from

theories employed in critical educational thought leadership to consider culturally

sourced and sustaining leadership through a study of indigenous healing practices

undertaken by indigenous researchers working from within the indigenous led and

serving nonprofit (see Bogotich, 2002; Brooks & Normore, 2010). Across a study

within a study, involving Mixteco/Indígena people, an indigenous research team, and

the largely indigenous research project advisory board, we observed that a culturally

sustaining research approach quickly emerged that promoted greater ownership and

community participation than similar projects that are carried out with less

Mixteco/Indígena involvement and autonomy. Culturally sustaining critical thought

leadership was present in both the nonprofit organization and expressed in the

research process to the degree that it produced what may be considered an innovation

on curriculum as an emergent research methodology. The work resulted in theoretical

contributions with practical exemplars and a recognizable praxis.

Theoretical Contribution: Advancing Mixteca Women’s Ways of Knowing as a

Curriculum for Research Methodology

The research presented aimed to make theoretical contributions based on the

thought leadership development and research conducted by a team of indigenous

women, serving their multicultural multilingual indigenous immigrant community in

Southern California. Beyond the proposition of theory development, new knowledge

presented here introduces a nonprofit organizational example and narrative adding to

previous investigations featuring culturally situated leadership in education and

nonprofit organizations based on positive attributes of leaders’ community’s

languages and cultures (Johnson & Fuller, 2104; Rishworth, 2016; Santamaría &

Santamaría, 2102). This work endeavored to and succeeded in extending educational

leadership theory and emergent scholarly understandings of indigenous immigrant

ways of organizational leadership including that of adaptive research design,

methodology, and implementation (García et al., 2013), which for Mixteco peoples

living in the US is particularly rare. The research methodology can be considered


curriculum in that it can be replicated, taught, and further adapted as needed per

project or community.

First and foremost, findings corroborate literature reviewed with regard to the

characteristics of applied culturally responsive and culturally sustaining leadership

(Santamaría & Santamaría, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2014) in that the researcher cum

leaders approached their work from indigenous multilingual multicultural

intergenerational critical perspectives with unapologetic intention to serve and lift up

the Mixteco/Indígena community and nonprofit organization and they served. What is

significant about these aspects of the findings is the expression of the observed

thought and applied leadership practices that translate these notions from realms that

are purely theoretical to practices that are observable, now as measureable praxis. The

ways in which our team of indigenous women researchers (most very recently trained

as necessary for the project) practiced leadership in the investigation and with their

community, makes a strong case for juxtaposing responsive and sustaining leadership

behaviors, where in response is largely within and answering to positivist majority

ways of knowledge construction and sustaining being organic in every way sourced

directly from the group for the group—wherein the community answers to the

community (Gómez et al., 2013). This is not to say the larger non-indigenous

organizational state and county funding partners had no say or influence in the project

and that it was protected from colonization. It is to make the point that these kinds of

Western, bureaucratic, and eurocentic regulations were mostly absent during this

stage of the project, providing freedom and a sense of respite for the team to function

in ways that led to the development and sustainability of Mixteco women thinking

about and conducting research.


Secondly, the execution of organizational leadership functions from budget

creation/ allocation (e.g., transportation, dinner, and child care for focus group

interviewees) to hiring practices (e.g., promotoras and curanderas – healers) to daily

project operations (e.g., use of Mixteco/ Spanish/ English) were all lead by indigenous

staff, and as such each and every one of these functions was carried out in ways that

were reflective, inclusive, and sustaining of Mixteco/Indígena ways of being. As a

result, the leadership practices can be further be considered critical, liberating, or

emancipatory for those practicing and being served, giving rise to the production of

counter-stories such as the text in this very manuscript (Denzin et al., 2008; Freire,

1968/2012; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).

Further, third and as indicated by Johnson and Fuller (2014), Santamaría and

Santamaría (2014) and Santamaría and others (2014), the essence of the adaptations

of and expressions of leadership practices observed (e.g., critical conversations; use of

a critical lens; the use of consensus; trust building; accessibility/ inclusivity; adding a

counter narrative; leading by example; and servant) were drawn directly from the

cultural practices and shared aspects of group identity of the Mixteco/Indígena

community. All innovations were sourced directly from the values and norms of the

community and are slated to continue as a sustainable departure from mainstream, and

often culturally responsive (vs. sustaining) or even more often oppressive thought

leadership models where the systemically underserved group of people in question

may also be minoritized and silenced.

Thus, the findings and adaptations of research methodology and leadership

practice indicate indigenous researchers participating in the act of ‘talking or

researching back’ as discussed by Smith (2012) in their contribution to scholarship on

both fronts.

[Insert Figure 4 Here]

Because the work was carried out by indigenous women, mostly independent of

influences outside of and beyond the indigenous nonprofit organization, the research

and leadership practice might be considered compounded acts of decolonization

within a feminist framework (Denzin et al., 2008; Hoskins & Jones, 2017).

Study Limitations

The study results presented here feature a limited number of participants (171

of 450), as well the research was undertaken from within the organization. More

specifically limitations include the fact that the research was influenced by the

researchers’ biases, rigor was not easily demonstrated, the volume and kind of

multicultural multilingual data made analysis and interpretation time consuming

(Anderson, 2010). Another limitation was newly trained researchers with no previous

training and their heavy involvement in every aspect of the data collection, planning,

and analysis rendered anonymity and confidentiality challenging.

Researcher bias was mediated with a peer review from outside of the

organization at each phase of the study. To mitigate lack of rigor, protocols (Kreuger

& Casey, 2002; Morgan, 1997) whilst handbooks for qualitative research with

indigenous peoples (see Denzin et al., 2008; Smith, 2012) were consulted. Multiple

language variants used in the data collection required Mixteco speakers of different

variants and languages involvement at every phase of the project. Analysis was

distributed among all team members and advisory board members in order to allow

for the time needed for thorough combing through and interpretation of the data.

Pseudonyms and locations were cloaked in order to protect the anonymity of the

research team and all participants.


Implications and Future Directions

Despite the limitations, our findings suggest a range of important

organizational and practical implications with evidence indicating potential for

advances in leadership and research within a diverse and more just society. Being or

becoming culturally relevant in thought leadership practice and research is a means to

an end. Organizations beyond educational contexts should strive to be culturally

sustaining in nature if the goal is to support, affirm, and empower systemically

underserved people and groups, from within those groups, to participate in society

with parity with more accessible and inclusive contributory ways. It is important for

leaders and managers to recognize that ways of executing organizational leadership

can vary and exist on a cultural continuum of relevance and sustainability dependent

on the members of the organization (Santamaría, 2017). Assuming leadership is

colorblind or culture-free can be a mistake closing the door on exploring,

understanding, and learning about different ways of leading. More specific to findings

presented, when critical leadership is employed by indigenous immigrant people

working to serve their community with practices sourced and drawn from their

specific cultural and linguistic background, leadership can resonate more profoundly

and research can be enacted that sustains, uplifts, and affirms the group.

The findings remind leadership in a variety of settings and sectors that

indigenous people, and women in particular, constitue an inherent and largely

untapped base of deeply rooted wisdom and thought leadership practice from which

to draw and serve to meet the needs of their people. These untapped people and

previously silenced ‘others’ when given the opportunity to hold positions of influence

and authority, inspire others working toward a more socially just and equitable

society. Given the departure from mainstream ways of leading and researching, both

the thought leadership and indigenous women’s research featured here might be

characterized as decolonizing behaviors contributing to self-actualization for the

Mixteco/Indígena community served. For opportunities such as this one to occur more

often, managers and leaders of culturally and linguistically diverse organizations may

want to free up some space and create thought leadership opportunities for people

whose identity is aligned with those in the community and who are able to speak the

language, even if organizational leadership doesn’t reside within and/or doesn’t speak

the language.

Motivation of those involved may increase with indigenous or local ownership

of the work, as was the case in the study here, as well as a product or new curriculum

(e.g., research project) that better matched and therefore suited the community. Top

organizational thought leadership teams and boards of directors interested in

productivity and authenticity of services may want to rethink and adjust their

practices to push beyond the hiring of indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse

employees to including them in decision making, research, development and

leadership development as well as training opportunities.

Overall, given the potential benefits, organizations are faced with important

decisions about how to best incorporate the perspectives and knowledge base of all of

their employees. As can be gleaned here, nonprofit organizations are a good place to

begin to look for examples of more indigenous and/ or culturally sustaining way of

leading. Future research on this subject should consider other indigenous or

‘minority’ led nonprofit organizations where women are serving systemically

underserved groups. Because scholarship on leadership has largely come from a

mainstream, Western, Christian, male perspective; exploring the topic in a variety of

organizations (e.g., health, education, civic) employing research designed by


culturally and linguistically diverse people who understand critical methods of inquiry

may be an important next step for work of this nature.

There are a number of additional potential avenues for future research on

culturally sustaining research in thought leadership. First, future work should examine

whether culturally sustaining women’s leadership practices can be maintained in

organizations beyond nonprofits. Second, it should determine ways in which

culturally sustaining women’s thought leadership models can be replicated. Third,

non gender specific indigenous sourced or adapted research methodology should be

further explored, developed, tested, and shared with others who wish to explore the

idea of developing their own research methodologies.


The aims of this contribution were to test, build, and extend thought leadership

theories and practices designed to sustain the cultures of Mixteco/Indígena people

affiliated with the nonprofit organization serving their community to better

understand leadership practices within the group. As an indigenous-led group of

mostly Mixtec women researchers we tested theoretical notions of culturally

responsive and culturally sustaining leadership borrowed from the field of education,

to ascertain whether the researchers featured practiced these kinds of leadership

behaviors. We found that when we compared the researchers’ expressions of

leadership to the characteristics described in similar qualitative research on the

subject, the team exhibited behaviors aligned with and exceeding culturally sustaining

leadership with an emphasis on critical or decolonizing activity that served to further

empower the researchers who were all women, as well as the community (Santamaría

& Santamaría, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2012; Smith, 2012). In this way, the thought

leadership characteristics observed, affirmed, built upon, and added to the paucity of

research findings on culturally responsive leadership and its relevance to leadership

across organizations and disciplines. Further, the contribution serves to extend these

ideas out into the field of leadership from nonprofit leadership in this specific

indigenous organization, to other organizations serving systemically underserved

populations to organizations. This chapter will likewise inform professionals who

grapple with indigeneity, feminism, cultural and linguistic diversity, accessibility for

all, acts of practical and authentic decolonization, as well as those challenged with

the intricacies and messiness of a dynamic and changing society rife with difference

on infinite levels.

This research reveals that when thought leadership is pursued as the

development of an outcome, in this case a research method or curriculum in

previously unstudied contexts (as in the perspective of indigenous systemically

underserved peoples), the results are intriguing and may inform thought leadership for

a wider range of multidisciplinary organizations. Indigenous sourced and led thought

leadership enacted by indigenous immigrant women, reminds us that leadership is not

culture free and that organizational leadership activity can be more effective when it

is aligned with and reflects the values of the constituents being served. Linda Tuhiwai

Smith’s (2012) assertion that when indigenous people study themselves outcomes are

different was affirmed as, when presented the opportunity, the Mixteco/Indígena team

of women put their particular cultural and linguistic spin on focus group interviews

and data analysis in an act of cultural sustainability. This as a result of the group

having learned how to systemically conduct the research and analysis protocols,

organically adapt the protocols to match the cultural norms of the community, and

employ a novel and uniquely Mixteca approach to data analysis and the production of


Our work suggests two things regarding the notion of decolonizing research

methods as a form of curriculum in the 21st century and moving forward. First,

indigenous immigrant groups of people, and in this case Mixteca women, have the

capacity for leadership activity to organize themselves to learn more about what

works for their community on a range of subjects (Hoskins & Jones, 2017; Pihama et

al., 2014). Second, as we have introduced the notion of understanding Mixteco/

Indígena ways of leading, we can agree there is much to be learned about critical

leadership and research in indigenous and other historically underserved contexts in a

variety of organizational settings. These results though preliminary in terms of the

larger study of indigenous healing, provide significant thought leadership implications

for organizations in an ever-changing sociocultural society where diversity, social

justice, and equity are the norms, offering infinite opportunities to approach thought

leadership practice and research on the subject for the peoples being served as well as

the greater good of society overall.


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Figure 1. Proposed Data Collection for Study of Indigenous Healing Practices

YR 1
Focus Group Interviews Surveys
Authenticate (N= 15-21) (N=150)
& Validate

YRS 2 & 3 Development of Hybrid

(indigenous+ CBT)
Implementation of
Hybrid Treatment
Celebrate Treatment (N=300)

YR 4 Based on Effectiveness
Train County Mental
Health Professionals
(N=40) on use and
of Hybrid Treatment---
Integrate Integration of Culturally
Affirming Practices

Figure 2. Parallel Study or Study Within a Study

Investigation of Non-Profit Organizational

Thought Leadership Supporting the Study of
Indigenous Healing Practices

Investigation of Thought
Leadership Practices Employed in the
Study of Indigenous Healing Practices

Study of Indigenous Healing Practices


Figure 3. Progression of Data Analysis

Sustaining Critical
Thought Leadership
& Management
• Within Organizational

nonprofit space
• Within research process
on indigenous healing

Thought Leadership
& Emergent
•Unintended outcome/
Cultually Sustaining
• Primary Analysis
(research project)
• Secondary Analysis
(emergent leadership as a
result of research)

Figure 4. Two Types of Leadership Exhibited: Nonprofit and Research

•Research carried out to meet the direct
Leadership in needs of the indigenous community
Research •Methods adapted to meet the cultural needs
of the community

•Researchers cum Leaders of

Culturally Sustaining nonprofit sourced & trained
from Mixteco/Indígena
Mixteco/Indígena Community
•Ways of leading carried out
Critical Nonprofit to empower, support, and
nurture indigeneity of the
Leadership community served by