Aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan are discovering their potential as people and as leaders through the Theatre for Living project – a three-day workshop designed to develop participants’ self-confidence, reflective decision-making and leadership.
The project is being con- ducted by researchers Jo-Ann Episkenew, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Centre, and Linda Goulet, a professor in the Department of Indigenous Education at the First Nations University of Canada, in collaboration with Warren Linds at Concordia University; Karen Schmidt, a health educator with File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council and other partners.
Youth from partnering Aboriginal communities spend three days creating vignettes, engaging in theatre games and other exercises structured to promote trust-building, sharing stories and discussing decision-making and youth leadership.
For Episkenew, one of the most important outcomes is the development of students’ sense of agency because it is a step in addressing the harm done when generations of Aboriginal people had the power of choice taken from them by things such as the Indian Act and residential schools.
“These kids might not understand all of this policy and political history, yet they have learned that the power lies outside of their communities,” says Episkenew. “What we want in developing their leadership is to show them that they do have choices in their life. It isn’t all coming from somebody else.
“(Participants) have told us that (the workshop) is a place where they are free to be themselves and that they are safe. They say it’s not like this ‘out there.’ If we can help them develop their confidence, maybe ‘out there’ could be bet- ter for them.”
The project fosters that sense of agency by getting stu- dents to examine the choices they make in their own lives. Goulet sees it as adding a layer to the health education many students receive in school.
“We are not going in with value judgements – ‘this is bad’, ‘this is good,’” says Linda Goulet and Jo-Ann Episkenew are helping Aboriginal youth develop self-confidence, reflective decision-making, and leadership abilities through a three-day workshop.
“We are trying to help them look at what decisions they are making and how they are coming to make those deci- sions, so that they can reflect and make a healthier choice. So, maybe they won’t quit drinking. But maybe when the decision comes to ‘do I get into a car with a person who has been drinking’ or not, they might decide not to get into that car.
“The other thing we are teaching is that there is no right answer, that you interpret reality through your own lens and that you have a right to do that, because often kids think there is one answer. Again, you are looking at the history of residential schools and, unfortunately, schooling that takes place where there is only one right answer.”
The Theatre for Living project got its start with the help of $10,000 from the Indigenous People’s Health Research Center four years ago and was recently awarded a $380,000 four-year operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Part of this money is being used for a community research assistant who, in addition to organizing the workshops, is tasked with forming an advisory committee of youth, adults, parents, health workers and Elders. This committee advises and informs the project. The research assistant also organizes a youth group that meets on a regular basis and helps youth engage in health-related projects based on their interests.