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Focusing on the positives: using narrative inquiry to understand leadership in Indigenous youth

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

By Ashleigh Mattern for SHRF

Some of the most powerful moments researcher Michael Dubnewick has witnessed at the Growing Young Movers program are also some of the smallest moments.

He remembers watching one of the teenage workers show one of the young after school program attendees how to bounce a basketball, patiently bringing the ball back every time it rolled away.

“In that little moment, I get to see him as a role model, as a teacher,” said Dubnewick, who is an assistant professor with the University of Regina Kinesiology and Health Studies Faculty.

Growing Young Movers (GYM) is an after-school program located at the mâmawêyatitân, Core Ritchie and Glencairn neighbourhood centres in Regina. But it’s more than just an after-school program — it was developed by researchers who want to support positive change in the community.

Not only does the program give elementary aged kids a positive place to go after school, it also hires high school students as staff and mentors, giving those older youth work experience and an opportunity to be positive role models. The adult staff and volunteers in turn mentor the high school students, giving them guidance as they transition out of high school.

Dubnewick first got involved with the program in 2020 and quickly became interested in the lived experiences of the youth. He proposed a research study that would narratively inquire into the leadership experiences of Indigenous youth in the program in a way that didn’t frame the youth as deficient and in need of fixing.

This research received Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation Establishment Grant funding, and Dubnewick said the support is instrumental to keeping the momentum going and allowing them to bring more people into the research. Undergrad researchers volunteer at the program, and they’re paying graduate studies researchers for their work.

‘It will lift up our young people’

Knowledge Keeper Joseph Naytowhow has been involved with the program since 2013, and he said he appreciates the longevity and consistency of the program. Students who were in grade two when they entered the program are now working as the student mentors as high school students.

“You can’t give hope to the kids and then shut it down,” Naytowhow said. “There has to be a commitment.”

He said one of the reasons he has stayed involved in the program all these years is because he can see it’s going to work.

“I see that it will lift up our young people,” he said. “It’s going to stop the old stereotypes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous not having a way out of their difficulties back at their homes.”

GYM Executive Director Brian Lewis says the youth staff are seen as leaders, and they already know how to conduct themselves with confidence and honesty around the younger kids.

“They can come and work and be positioned as a leader,” Lewis said. “Our society doesn’t provide enough opportunities for young people to be in those leadership roles.”

The programming was developed and the community was nurtured so the researchers could find a way to come alongside the youth, Lewis said, and it was all built through playing. The program is held in a gym, giving participants space and opportunity to move and play.

Studying experiences

Trust plays a key role both in the success of the program and the success of the research, especially because the research is being done through narrative inquiry.

Researcher Michael Dubnewick says in its most simple sense, narrative inquiry is studying people’s experience.

“Experience is a storied phenomenon; people live, tell, retell and relive stories,” he said, adding that this research style is all about listening. “How well we can listen and come alongside another person to hear their stories?”

He says people imagine researchers sitting down, asking questions, and then walking away with their data collected but it’s different in narrative inquiry.

“The person we sit with isn’t someone to collect data with; our first commitment is, are we building a relationship with them so they feel reciprocity, mutuality, so they feel heard, they feel whole?” Dubnewick said, as he works towards building a relational research process.

The positive change from the program is already apparent, and Knowledge Keeper Joseph Naytowhow hopes the program can continue long into the future so that some day the youth currently involved in the program will come back as researchers themselves.

“A lot of Indigenous kids have found their footing in this program,” Naytowhow said, noting that a program like this can give the youth direction and open doors.

Executive Director Brian Lewis also sees a brighter future for the youth in the program, and he sees the researchers coming alongside them in their journey to support them along the way.

“They can see themselves in university, they can see themselves as practitioners, wellness leaders,” Lewis said. “They’re amazing youth and they deserve to create their own pathway instead of having someone create it for them.”

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