Voices from the Margins
Educative research with, for and by youth
The Young Lives Research Laboratory places the voices of youth at the core of their work. Using a research process conducted with, for, and by youth, the lab invites young people, many of whom have been marginalized and silenced in society, to learn while making their lives more knowable to those who teach and support them. This article describes two projects, each undertaken in collaboration with Indigenous communities, that invited and activated youth voice through conversation and artistic productions.
“There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing.” – Rebecca Solnit
IN MY YOUNG LIVES Research Laboratory,[i] we design research projects that place the voices of youth at the core, so as to hear and see young lives in new ways. Doing so does not provide an easy recipe for the complete story or truth. Singular and collective youth voices always defy a complete picture, but we continue to invite, hear, interpret and share them. Voiced research opens up possibilities for educative experiences as youth actively write and tell their life stories. It makes for fascinating, imaginative and deep social analysis. But youth voice alone holds no guarantee of liberation. Our hearing does not end debates about how to fix education or how to better support young people. Rather, it could simply make us care.[ii] It is then up to everyone to act.
Our research focus on young lives means that the experiences, joys and struggles of young people are placed into holistic frames, surrounded by families, friends, schools, communities, society, and the natural world. Authentic voice does not fracture or reduce lives into small pieces, but rather invites open-ended and imaginative ways to frame, develop and respond to research questions. It invites participation, a critical aspect of the development of citizenship, empowerment and well-being of youth.
Most of the young people we work with and for are those who have been made marginal to society, their voices never heard or carelessly erased or ignored. Many struggle in school due to poverty and/or discrimination and/or mental health issues. Our goal is to design research with them that helps to hear what these young people are up against and what they dream for themselves. We employ the research process as an educative space, so that youth can learn while making their lives more knowable to those who teach and support them.
What follows are two examples of projects that invited and activated youth voice through conversation and artistic productions. These young people have created and shared powerful voiced artifacts that have affected the way we develop research and curriculum. Equally valuable are the discussions and relationships that evolved (and continue to evolve) through these creative processes.[iii]
“Keyboard Warriors” as Film Makers[iv]
In 2015 we were honoured with an invitation to an after-school youth program on Lennox Island First Nation by the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island (MCPEI), which promotes and protects Mi’kmaq rights, culture, traditions and the development and well-being of P.E.I.’s Mi’kmaq people. We worked with them in designing a youth-centered participatory project about youth, wellbeing, mental health and technology.[v] While the scientific literature tends to frame these concepts in terms of medical and psychological insights to develop digital applications (apps), there is a small but interesting literature on the challenges that digital media is creating for young people (e.g. Facebook depression, sexting, ringxiety).[vi] We wanted to know how young First Nations people would illustrate these concepts if they were given the space to do so. Was digital media helping or hindering? What does wellbeing mean?
One good way to frame a problem is to do it literally, in the frame of a photograph, video or painting. MCPEI immediately saw value in a filmmaking project as an opportunity for youth to a) have expressive outlets for cultural history storytelling, b) learn skills in filmmaking to preserve stories of Mi’kmaq elders, and c) take responsibility, rights and power in storytelling. Thus, we co-developed a decolonized and ethical project with the youth worker, Brent Chaisson, as an instrumental and supportive guide. Over one year and through six talking circles, four workshops, visual concept mapping, snacks, meals, chatter, and music, eleven young people worked with filmmakers and researchers to learn and apply digital storytelling and filmmaking.
Space does not permit the details, but suffice to say, it was a joyful, intense, creative cultural process. We considered and debated concepts, developed storyboards, learned to use GoPro and video cameras, workshopped the editing process, held critique sessions, and screened the films in the community. We worked with a talented filmmaker, Brian Sharp, who volunteered his time to workshop filmmaking and editing techniques with the youth. “Like any other artist, you are creating something and putting yourself out there; because this medium can be so difficult, [filmmakers] can receive positive feedback and accolades… for just getting it done,” he says. “Self-esteem can be boosted by just knowing you finished it, even if you’re not entirely happy with the finished product… Even if it is just a positive comment on Facebook you think: Yay, somebody liked it!”
The three digital stories provided (see box for links) are some of the final fruits; these short films speak for themselves. But the journey itself was as meaningful and rich in developing relationships, critical thinking, educative experiences, artistic skill, and contemplation of the paradoxes of digital media. Consider two of the youth voices from a talking circle:
“Well, if I’ve had a horrible time and everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, I would first try to laugh it off… But if it so happens that it did get my spirits down then… jump on the [video] game, or jump on YouTube… it can always cheer you up. You can just, like, watch a funny video when you’re having a bad day. Get a good couple of laughs in… [or] make a video of yourself fooling around and trying to make other people laugh, brighten up their day… It brightens up my mood and helps me forget.”
“Heavy use, like six to 12 hours a day… that’s like you’re pretty much ruining yourself… like that could be six to 12 hours learning how to draw, learning how to paint, to be a musician, going out and visiting an elder around your community, and being more in with the traditions of your community… instead of going on Facebook and being a keyboard warrior and just, friggin’ like, dissing someone’s life… Why not just get the hell out of the house… and be more of yourself instead of something that you’re not really?”
The young filmmakers described being in constant communication with peers via texting, instant messaging or video chatting – even when in the same room together! They described a daily routine where digital media is perpetual and ubiquitous, seamlessly intertwined with their day unless prevented or deliberately “unplugged.” Yet from within this “glass cage”[vii] an imaginative critical reflection was heard. The space to think, discuss, and reflect led to critical debates and developing important distinctions and concepts such as “keyboard warriors.” These insightful voices have informed the direction of our ongoing research.
Watch the Films
Three of the digital stories created by Lennox Island youth can be seen here:
Young Anthropologists as School Designers
I took my first 9,900 km journey to southern Chile in 2012, to meet a group of profound Indigenous people. I was invited by the Williche Council of Chiefs (WCC), who represent many Williche people of the province of Chiloe’s islands. We met to discuss and plan our new collaborative project: a unique intercultural school and curriculum that could re-engage the most marginalized youth and open new pathways to wellbeing and livelihoods. Most of the Williche youth with whom we work live on remote islands in the archipelago of Chiloe and have no access to suitable public schools in their communities. They had been learning informally through other traditional and modern experiences. Youth and elders were ready to re-ignite the fires of a new kind of formal education. Wekimün means “new knowledge” in Mapudungun, the traditional Williche language. It refers to the integration of traditional and modern ways of knowing in a respectful, collaborative and critical dialogue about what is best for youth from each culture and perspective. Thus, Wekimün Chilkatuwe is the official name of the new school we built and designed. To date, over 350 students have been offered a unique intercultural education embedded in the holistic lives, hopes and dreams of Williche youth and communities.[viii]
A core goal of our shared vision is to incite, animate and value the participation of youth and the cosmo-vision of the Williche people. We began our school development with a collaborative inquiry in the five communities from which most students would come. Sixteen young people volunteered to come to the main island and work together for three days in the Chafun (the traditional sacred building with central fire pit that has now become the central heart of the school buildings) to attend workshops on anthropology and educational research. They debated ideas for the school and curriculum, and they learned to interview, audiotape, observe, write field notes, invite storytelling, and engage community. They returned to their communities after these three days, armed with a new sense of purpose, friendships, packsacks, notebooks and tape recorders to inquire about how elders, families and friends viewed education, well-being and Wekimün Chilkatuwe.
When they returned to the Chafun the following month, they shared many gifts with the group: feelings of a new and valued role in their community, feeling “like a journalist and someone with a job,” experiencing the joys and challenges of research, and the powerful and thoughtful stories from over one hundred of their youth, elders, families and community members.
The curriculum for Wekimün Chilkatuwe has been carefully designed around these voices, stories, hopes and fears, melding the knowledge gained through this process with that of official statistics and trends. Three teaching areas emerged as crucial:
- traditional language (Mapudungun) through history, culture and human rights
- sustainable community and environmental development
- traditional health and medicine.
In addition to suggested courses, the stories and observations provided in our youth-led community research emphasized the importance of the lives of youth, and the insistence on vast community input, support and collaboration in education. It also gave us two more lessons for school design:
1. It matters what you teach! Two programs of study have evolved from these voices: Intercultural Health and Sustainable Development, and Intercultural Education and Sustainable Development. Classes in each program include the three subject areas listed above. Each is based in traditional practice with integrated lessons in modern “western” knowledge. Curriculum design is supported by Canadian university faculty[ix] with input from Wekimun educators, students and elders, who teach and provide traditional knowledge.
2. It matters how you teach it! Our inquiry- and project-based pedagogy holds youth and the cosmo-vision of the Williche people at its heart. Ours is a school without walls. The school operates both on-site and in the community, so that when the students go home they continue to learn through educational projects to support their livelihoods. Our classrooms are a Chafun, an old growth forest, the seashore, an ancient tribal archeological site, the UNESCO award-winning Mapu Ñuke (Mother Earth) Health Centre – all on our near the school property – and the five interconnected communities.
In classes, we strive to teach in ways that use practices of care, practices of relevance, and practices of Wekimun as described to us by the community, elders and youth. The aim is to reclaim education and school as a joyful, sacred, caring space where new and old wisdom is integrated.
Four years later we are still building upon these early teachings, finding new and better ways to engage youth and communities in what we teach and how we teach it. Manuel Munoz Millalonko, a Williche lonko, anthropologist and Academic Director who co-leads the project with me, says it best:
“Wekimün Chilkatuwe is a space in which our identity as Indigenous people is strengthened, where students are re-enchanted by life. They look again toward the territory where Williche life and culture has developed for thousands of years… It is exciting to learn from Wekimün. The construction of new kinds of knowledge comes true every day. And a significant intercultural development is happening here that helps all Indigenous people, a dynamic model where the Williche worldview harmoniously interacts with other worldviews from a place of dignity and deep honouring of our Mapu Ñuke (Mother Earth). Our elders and the Canadian faculty support our community and students in a virtuous circle of knowledge that impacts our work in very distant places on the planet.”
THE MARVEL, HONOUR AND HUMILITY of intercultural and international collaboration in youth-voiced education has changed me. I have come to hear, see and care in different ways that are difficult to articulate in text alone. Young voices remind me that hope and lament are constant companions, while naiveté is always to be tested.
Education is at a crossroads when it comes to responding to contemporary youth problems; it needs to acquire more authentic ways to hear and respond. No quantity of video, story or film can alone alter the educational and political structures that daily reproduce social inequalities for young people. That is where journey, imagination and action comes in. It is from this place that we can care to make a difference.
En Bref : Le Laboratoire de recherche sur la vie des jeunes place la voix des jeunes au cœur même de son travail. Utilisant un processus de recherche mené avec, pour et par des jeunes, le laboratoire invite des jeunes qui, souvent, ont été marginalisés et réduits au silence dans la société, à apprendre tout en aidant ceux qui leur enseignent et qui les soutiennent à mieux connaître leur vie. Cet article décrit deux projets, entrepris en collaboration avec des collectivités autochtones, qui ont invité et activé la voix des jeunes au moyen de la conversation et de productions artistiques.
Photo: Courtesy Kate Tilleczek
First published in Education Canada, December 2016
[ii] From Solnit, cited in Tilleczek and Loebach, 2015
[iii] I concur with Gaztambide-Fernandez in “Why the Arts Don’t Do Anything: Toward a new vision for cultural production in education,” Harvard Educational Review 83 (2013): 211-236, and hope that these examples illustrate the power of both process and product.
[v] I would like to acknowledge the leadership of Dr. Janet Loebach on this project. See K. Tilleczek and J. Loebach, “Research Goes to the Cinema: The veracity of videography with, for and by youth,” Journal of Research in Comparative and International Education 10, no. 3 (2015): 354-366; J. Loebach, K. Tilleczek, B. Chiasson, and B. Sharp, “Keyboard Warriors? Visualizing technology and mental health with, for and by Aboriginal youth through digital stories (submitted to Visual Methodology).
[vi] K. Tilleczek, and R. Srigley, “Young Cyborgs? Youth and the digital age,” in The Handbook of Youth and Young Adulthood A. Furlong (Abington, Oxon: Routledge, 2017).
[vii] Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and us (New York: Norton, 2014).
[viii] Wekimun School Project is funded by Global Affairs Canada and made possible by an incredible Chilean and Canadian team. See website for project details, team, video, photos, etc.:
[ix] See above website for listing of Canadian Faculty, Project Management team and volunteers. It is a collaborative project that could not succeed without all.