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Creating Culturally Safe Research by Empowering Indigenous Voices
Alissa Burrows, UBC CPD Research Assistant
When the Elder-led 2-day workshop hosted by Interior Health, called: ‘Planting the Seeds: Insights for Researchers Interested in Working with Indigenous People’ began, I was expecting to leave with step-by-step guidelines and checklists to follow to make any collaboration with Indigenous people culturally safe. What I was not expecting, and I suspect others were not expecting as well, was the realization that up until our feet stepped into that door, we truly did not understand what “culturally safe” meant.
Upon our arrival, myself and the other researchers awkwardly stood around tables that were pushed to one side of the room. With gentle encouragement from the Elders and facilitators, we all took a seat in an open circle on the other side of the room and began introducing ourselves and telling the stories of who we are, one by one, as we passed around a talking stick.
"It initially felt strange to me. I admit, I even had the passing thought of whether this would be the best use of my time."
Can’t I just tell everyone my job title and move on like in all my other meetings? Let’s get to the checklists!
But my first takeaway from the workshop quickly nipped this mentality in the bud. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to transfer knowledge in a way that shift people’s hearts as well as minds. Research in the Western world is often restricted within tight deadlines and so, naturally, we want to get the answers to our questions as quickly as possible. I learned that the importance of taking the time to tell and listen to stories is that it sets the context within which the answer lies, leading the listener to gain a deeper understanding of the answer that they are given.
"Storytelling can lead to answers that the listener didn’t think they were looking for."
A second takeaway that I gained is that creating a culturally safe space for Indigenous communities in research means approaching research with “two-eyed seeing”; incorporating Indigenous values and methodologies on equal footing with Western methodologies. The way this is done is not a simple cookie-cutter approach for all research with Indigenous people and will depend on the needs of the community. By working in partnership with Indigenous communities and their Elders throughout the research process and creating space for Indigenous people as partners to shape the research from the very start, we can ensure that the research we are conducting together is culturally safe and empowers Indigenous voices to speak up and be heard.
The workshop facilitators created a safe, non-judgmental, space for us to sit and discuss difficult topics such as colonization and inter-generational trauma. Everyone in the room went from strangers wondering around tables to connecting with each other emotionally through the stories we told. I believe that everyone working in the field of Indigenous health education can use workshops like this as an example of great effort towards reconciliation in a respectful way that we can apply in research and programming. The first step is simply to approach learning with humility and with ears ready to listen.
"It’s not about checklists. It’s about 'heart work'."
– Vanessa Mitchell, Workshop facilitator