Knowledge Brokering: Emerging Art for Sign Language Interpreters?

September 10, 2014

With various demands on time and attention, sign language interpreters may find it difficult to keep abreast of the latest trends, research and practices in the profession. Laurie Shaffer describes how the field can apply collaborative Knowledge Brokering approach to stay current.

Whether you are a community interpreter working 50 hour weeks, a staff interpreter, or a Deaf community member spending hours engaged in local advocacy, little time is left for the pursuit of the academic side of the profession at the end of the day.

[Click to view post in ASL]

There is a level of risk involved in operating with blind spots in best practices, recent regulatory changes, or cutting-edge research on the field of sign language interpreting. The consequences of missing these evolutionary changes in the field cover the full range from minor to potentially life-changing.  Utilizing Knowledge Brokers may provide the solution we need in the evolving field of sign language interpreting.

What is a Knowledge Broker?

A Knowledge Broker is someone who moves information from the research arena to various audiences (Meyer, 2010). The role appears to have emerged organically in response to information glut and time shortage in our modern world. There is a plethora of research out there, too much for one individual to stay abreast of even if one focuses solely on a particular discipline. Thus the Broker comes into being as one who not only makes the esoteric understandable but also applicable to the reality of the chosen audience. Where does a Knowledge Broker fit in the field of sign language interpreting?

From a historical perspective, Knowledge Brokering has played a critical role in the establishment of the field of sign language interpreting and the traditions within the profession. This process, based strongly in oral tradition, is the reason the field has progressed in the last 50 years. Without pioneering spirits in the Deaf community and interpreters in our field acting in a Knowledge Brokering capacity, the evolution and advancement of the field might look very different than the current landscape. It is also important to understand that we all can participate in the process on various levels.

In our profession, a Knowledge Broker would be one who moves between the rapidly expanding numbers of colleagues, both Deaf and non-Deaf, pursuing advanced degrees, spending countless hours producing research to better our understandings, and the people on the frontline. The Broker may help to harvest information from the world of academia that specifically responds to the query presented by the day-to-day practitioner.   In addition, she or he may assist the practitioner in digesting information in more easily accessed pieces.

What are the characteristics of a Knowledge Broker? I asked several colleagues this question and although I collected several responses, this one in particular sums it up:

“For me, a knowledge broker is someone who has valuable, sought after, and/or in depth knowledge or experience—general or specific—and is willing to share. (Who) does so generously, completely; thoroughly and thoughtfully, (and who) has an attitude of advancing one advances us all.”

Another factor to consider is that not everyone is immediately aware of his or her question.  Again one respondent says it best:

“In addition to trust, I value the ability to assist in finding the question, before looking for an answer. I don’t know what I don’t know. When discussing my questions with a valuable ‘knowledge broker,’ he or she helps me figure out my real need and then look for answers with me. I value the honest interest in my work and studies; the relationship of trust, so that I can ask the questions; the guidance and back-channeling to lead me to my real questions; the information sent, or resources suggested; and the follow-up to make sure I received everything I could from our conversation.”

How Does Knowledge Brokering Work?

Knowledge Brokers may not be used to full advantage in the field of interpreting at present. We, as practitioners, don’t always know what to do or where to go. We often know we need support but we can’t define it. Finding individuals who have more experience in the landscape should be part of the answer.

I have been on both sides of the interaction; as one seeking and as one providing.

The Seeker

As a seeker, there are specific things I am looking for:

  • Providers – students, faculty, friends, family. Colleagues and community members may all be used as a constant resource and sounding board for questions
  • Access – in person conversations, telephone conversations, as well as electronic interactions, may all be of benefit and can range from lengthy to telegraphically short.
  • Resources – all kinds of communications can be valuable resources including conversations, articles, research links, opinion-sharing, etc.
The Provider

As a provider, I work with the seeker to determine the need. Some examples of this type of work include but are not limited to:

  • working with people to identify literature and/or evidence to allow for the creation of strategies for critical conversations.
  • Assisting in the design of online coursework and assessment materials
  • Collaboration with Deaf professionals on a range of topics (Deaf Professional/Designated Interpreter, Deaf/Hearing Interpreter Teams, etc.)

There may be circumstances where an individual acts equally as seeker and provider. These experiences can be very rich and enlightening experience on many levels. One critical note: It is important is to be clear about what can actually be accomplished. Asking the right questions about timelines and clarifying dates, setting boundaries and expectations clearly at the outset allow for a successful interaction. In this way, we preserve our resources and maintain the trust that is so critical in this process.

Considerations for Seeking a Knowledge Broker

It is important to keep in mind that to ask for Knowledge Brokering is not easy. Another who was kind enough to respond to my questions on the topic of Knowledge Brokering shared that there are several hidden factors when people ask for the support of a knowledge broker.

A seeker must:

1. Be willing to be vulnerable before asking for information

2. Be willing to admit they don’t have all the answers.

3. Be willing to be humble and ask for help

4. Seek out role models they seek to emulate

5. Build trust relationships over time

6. Rely on trust relationships to gather additional knowledge

7. Maintain a level of awareness of how privilege may enter into this process.

And so we honor each other; respecting our vulnerability, taking to heart the trust we have been offered, thanking the other for sharing their wisdom.

Paying it Forward

Reciprocity, language brokering, and knowledge sharing are not new concepts to the Deaf community, to the children of that community and to interpreting professionals who have worked to become aware of the values of the community.  In her 1983 article, What goes around, comes around: Reciprocity and interpreters, in The Reflector,  Dr.Theresa Smith, calls out the importance of reciprocity in our profession, stating,“…within the Deaf community, reciprocity is the norm…. In a reciprocal system, every person has a role…Interpreters, like Deaf people, are expected to contribute knowledge, skill, time, and energy”  (Smith, 1983).

In a transcript of Bonnie Kraft‘s recent keynote speech for the 2014 Region I RID conference, she takes time to look back and reflect on experiences, both painful and encouraging, that inspired her to share her knowledge, wisdom and wealth of experience with others:

“sharing was the only way to go…. because not to do so intimately and ultimately hurts the Deaf and Interpreting communities…It was a time of sharing that knowledge as widely as possible, and hoping someone somewhere would learn something useful and pay it forward.”

Incorporating Knowledge Brokers in Professional Practice

In this modern age, we are living in a paradox of not enough time and exponential access to information. Today there is a great need to work together to truly advance us ALL.  And as Bonnie said, ”If we don’t have two minutes for each other, then who are we and why are we here?”

  • Consider the idea that knowledge brokers are all around you, not limited to academia.  The Broker you need is influenced by the knowledge you seek.
  • Aim for a frame of abundance rather than scarcity.  In this case, we often feel we don’t have time to seek a Knowledge Broker.  However, while I provide for you, another is doing the same for me.  A Broker who already knows saves time I would have spent spinning my wheels.
  • Don’t be afraid to not know – this applies to providers as well as seekers.  It may be that we end up seeking together which only creates more learning.
  • Come to the conversation open, listening deeply and respectfully to each other.

And keep in mind, the opportunities are endless.


I would like to thank Bonnie Kraft, Pam Whitney, Carrie Humphrey, Jean Miller and Brandon Arthur for working with me to craft this article.  And of course, thank you to all of my knowledge brokers and to those who have honored me by seeking me out as a broker for them.

Namaste to you all.


Kraft, B (2014) Keynote speech delivered at Region I RID conference.  Transcript quoted with permission from the author

Meyer, M. (2010). The rise of the knowledge broker. Science Communication, 32(1), 118-127.

Smith, T. (1983). What goes around, comes around: Reciprocity and interpreters. The Reflector 5 (Winter)  5-7.

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17 Comments on "Knowledge Brokering: Emerging Art for Sign Language Interpreters?"

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Doug Bowen-Bailey
Laurie – Thanks for your thoughtful post. I just wanted to take two minutes to say thanks for giving me something to think on today. All too often, I can get into a mindset of having a scarcity of time – and glad for the reminder that we need to slow down to nurture the relationships around us. I particularly appreciated how you pointed out that we play both roles – that of seeker and of provider. I think that is a really important part of my own role. When I find myself in the provider role, I think I… Read more »
Laurie Shaffer

Doug, I think many of us risk spreading ourselves too thin. Striking a balance is a lifelong project. I find, though, if engage in more collectivist thinking, I can more easily adopt an abundance perspective. You are a model of community participation for me. And, have served as a knowledge broker for me a number of times! Thank you!

Rachel Bavister

Laurie Shaffer writes clearly and well. One thing Laurie doesn’t address are people I call “Advantage-takers” which could be interpreted as so-called “Knowledge-Brokers” who share knowledge only when it’s to their personal advantage. These are people whom I also call hypocrites and are usually deafphobic. There is nothing reciprocal about advantage -takers.. nobody else has anything to offer! Seems like.

Laurie Shaffer
Thanks for your comments, Rachel! Your perspective reveals the need to examine the ideas of authenticity and integrity. I did not mention these overtly and perhaps I should have for they are the underpinnings of trust. For trust to truly develop, the people involved must both bring authenticity and integrity to the table. Trust takes time to develop and could be seen as the “prerequisite” needed before approaching someone as a knowledge broker. Thank you for taking the time to engage in this conversation. You too are one of my knowledge brokers. Your wisdom, experience and humor have and continue… Read more »
Laurie Shaffer

One addition – There is an ASL article at Deaf Studies Digital Journal entitled “Deaf Friendly Research? Towards Ethical Practice in Research Involving Deaf Participants”

I believe it gets to an aspect of your idea on “advantage takers”

Susan Stange
Laurie, You have served as one of my knowledge brokers over the years and this piece beautifully embodies your consistent and loving approach to other interpreters. I believe this concept also applies to a variety of knowledge domains, of which you write about knowledge in the domain historic and current domain of the field of sign language interpreting in the US. I have had the good fortune to be approached by knowledge seekers too (both a seeker and broker myself) who fit the description you set forth in the piece. I believe that knowledge is power, and my privilege is… Read more »
Laurie Shaffer
Susan, Thank you for your thoughts. I can remember numerous times you and I have been seeker and provider for each other. The example that comes to mind are the times when you explained an aspect of content I did not have a grasp on so that, together, we could provide a more nuanced and rich interpretation. This is just one of the many ways that brokering can benefit more than just the two in the conversation. The lack of a ripple effect may be what Rachel in the previous comment may be implying… if the brokering goes no farther… Read more »
Lianne Moccia


Thank you for crafting this piece about sharing knowledge and experience. If we can see ourselves as giving and receiving in every interaction, how much richer we all could be. I strive to appreciate those arenas that I have access to by dint of class, gender, education, etc, at the same time as I am open to admitting what I don’t know. It is the generosity of sharing, rather than the hoarding of information for power’s sake, that makes all the boats rise.

Laurie Shaffer

Nicely said, Lianne. Thank you for taking the time to read the piece. Hoarding information for power’s sake as you say is not a path we want to travel.

Shannon M. Mulhall

This article popped into my inbox as I was discussing with a colleague about an idea of how to pull together working interpreters for discussion forums about current articles and research in the field. I cannot thank you (and the universe) enough for providing me with these terms and concepts just when I didn’t know I was in search of them. 🙂
“Aim for a frame of abundance rather than scarcity” – Yes! I’m curious to hear more about what you mean with this particular point.

Laurie Shaffer
Great to see that my article came at a good time for you, Shannon. To respond to your question regarding the abundance/scarcity comment. This came out of a conversation I had with Bonnie Kraft. Specifically in this writing, its being applied to time – we as a society are living in a world of not enough time. We don’t have time to respond to an other’s question. We don’t have time to ask the question- we’re too busy working. If I take time for you, I’ve lost time. This is a scarcity frame. Abundance thinking would be – I take… Read more »
Christine Walsh
Laurie- This article came at just the right time for me. I myself was struggling with a problem and needed to be the seeker of some expert knowledge from professionals. When one has to put themselves in the position of being the seeker it can make you extremely nervous and vulnerable especially if you are not used to asking for help. I am usually the provider of help in most situations and because I was helped so wonderfully by the individuals that I sought out I will always try to find the time help anyone that should come to seeker… Read more »
laurie shaffer

Thanks for your comments, Christine. I have had and continue to have the same experience you describe… when I ask for brokering it is most often given generously. I can say I am grateful but I think it says more to take action.. to be willing to be the broker for another. Words are nice but action gets us farther along..together

Margie Garcia
As an ASL student, reading this article just reassured me that interpreters and the entire Deaf community have this united way of thinking, its one of the many reasons I love the Deaf community and hope to one day have improved my skills enough to make some kind of impact. As Laurie said, its because of the pioneering spirits and drive to improve communication between the deaf and hearing worlds that we aren’t still using the Rochester Method. I fully accept my role as a seeker because as a student, I’m still learning the in and outs of the field.… Read more »
Laurie Shaffer

Thank you for taking the time to read the article, Margie. We are most certainly all seekers. I believe we certified interpreters in some ways need to be the most active seekers as we are in daily interaction with the communities, languages, and cultures – Deaf, hearing, different ethnic, racial and religious groups and more.


This article sounds interesting to me for example another way of how to ask questions on the job without sounding like you don’t know what your doing. There is no problem with asking questions on the job, or even helping those who don’t understand. I find that this is also a way, to bring awareness to those who are just curious about what you do.


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