Carol A. Hand
“In every community there is work to be done. In every heart there is the power to do it. People will support what they help create.” (Bliss Browne, 1999, p. 10).
Photo Credit: Compassion
Sometime ago, I wrote about my research on the topic of Indian child welfare and described critical ethnographic methodology.
A long description of research would be out of place in this essay, but it is important for me to mention that I chose critical ethnography as my methodology because its focus is liberatory. Like traditional ethnography, critical ethnography typically involves several methods: extended cultural immersion, participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and document review. Yet critical ethnography differs in a crucial way. It is concerned with the ways in which the power of institutions, symbols, and meaning are used to “construct and limit choices, confer legitimacy, and guide our daily routine” (Thomas, 1993, p. 6). The significance of a critical stance in the process of ethnographic work is to explore not only what is, but what could be, to question the “unnecessary social domination” that promotes inequality (Thomas, 1994, p. 5). In the context of the present study, an historical component was added to explore “what was” based primarily on ethnographic interviews and document reviews. Understanding history is particularly important when trying to make sense of present conditions for tribal communities (Weaver, 1999; Flemming, 1992).
Long before I conducted this study I learned the importance of asking questions to understand people and social institutions – to explore the deeper meaning behind behaviors and beliefs. Questions often encourage people to stop and think about things in new ways in order to respond. Ethnographic interviews, repeated sessions with the same people over the course of a study, are one of the greatest strengths of this approach from my perspective. Ongoing interviews provide an opportunity to build trust, rapport, and understanding, and in between interviews, people often take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of what they believe and do.
As Freire (2000) observes, transforming action requires oppressed people to become aware of the creative options that they have the power to pursue. They can dream of the best they can imagine for themselves and their communities. It is not easy for people to question authority or existing institutions if they have been indoctrinated from generation to generation to accept dominant values and institutions as legitimate. The power of critical ethnography as a research methodology within oppressed communities lies in the opportunity and legitimation it gives people to think about “what could be” (Thomas, 1993, p. 20). “The core of critical ethnography is the study of the process of domestication and social entrapment … by which we are made content with our life conditions” (Thomas, 1993, p. 7). Repeated interviews during the course of the study provided Ojibwe participants, as well as system level staff, with an opportunity to reflect critically about what was, what is, and what could be. All of them used that opportunity to begin to identify community strengths and to consider ways to incorporate those strengths into child welfare institutions and approaches.
Although Ojibwe children represented 8-9 percent of the county population under the age of 18 in the community I studied, they were over-represented in the county’s foster care and juvenile justice caseloads. In the year 2000, 27 percent of the county’s child welfare investigations involved Ojibwe families: during the first 8 months of 2001, they represented almost 28 percent (County Staff Persons 1 and 3, August 7, 2002). The county controlled most funding resources and made decisions based on very different assumptions than tribal staff. Thomas Kuhn (1970, p. viii) describes the ways in which blueprints for defining problems and taking action, or “paradigms,” continue to influence professionals from one generation to the next. As a result of rigid and rigorous education in dominant cultural policies and approaches, professionals are prepared and licensed through an initiation process that firmly indoctrinates them to uncritically accept the prevailing paradigms. For example, county social service staff viewed it as their duty to remove an infant from “an abysmal” mother (County Staff Persons 1 and 3, August 7, 2002). Tribal social services staff viewed the same case from a contextual perspective, defining their job as the provision of formal and informal supports to help a struggling but caring family provide adequate care (Tribal Staff Person 1, August 2, 2002).
During the same time periods, county staff noted that 45 percent of the juvenile delinquency referrals were for Ojibwe youth. Situations like the police profiling incident described in the previous post about restorative justice are the situations the county system is equipped to address, primarily by removing children and placing them elsewhere. The police who intervened with Ojibwe youth who came to town at night automatically responded in a confrontational, coercive manner, invoking threats and intimidation rather than seeking information and initiating an opportunity for dialogue. The tribal social service staff person was concerned about Ojibwe teens and their disproportionate representation on the county’s juvenile justice case load. She observed,
The youth now are being taken by the criminal justice system (Tribal Staff Person 1, June 26, 2002).
I asked her what might help. What activities might help provide a positive focus for youth? Were there adults in the community who might be interested in working with the youth? She had positive responses to both questions. Kids wanted the tribe to build a skateboard park, and she was willing to work with them as were several other community members, but the tribe wasn’t interested. And then, a possible resource appeared.
Early on, my study drew the attention of some national child welfare researchers. I was invited to submit an abstract of my study to be considered for possible development as a commissioned research paper that would be presented at a US. Children’s Bureau conference on racial disparities in the child welfare system (Hand, 2002). My study was selected as one of eight in the country, with a cash award for the commissioned paper I was asked to write and present to an invitation-only audience of child welfare experts in the country. (An edited version was later published in 2006.)
When my fieldwork ended and I was officially finished with my research, I contacted the tribal staff person and asked if she thought it would be helpful for her to have some funding to work with the teens on a skateboard project. I offered some of the money I received for the commissioned paper. (The rest went to offset the costs of a study funded only by my university salary.) My offer came with some conditions. First, if she agreed, I would send her a personal check, but I didn’t want anyone to know where the money came from. She could use the money to help support youth, but the youth would have to agree to some structure. Together, we developed some guidelines:
1. The youth would need to find at least one adult to volunteer to work with them on the project.
2. They would need to invite all youth in the community to participate.
3. Using internet and library resources, they would need to conduct research on skateboard park designs and select one that was feasible.
4. As a group, they would need to prepare a formal proposal for the tribal council to ask for additional financial support. And,
5. They would need to present their request during a council meeting.
I was surprised when she called to let me know that the teens were excited and eagerly agreed to all of the conditions. But they were mystified that somebody was willing to provide some money to help them. They were deeply touched that “Somebody cares about us!” Four months later, the tribal staff person called to let me know that there had been no new juvenile justice cases since the youth started working on the project. They had found a community mentor and even included youth from the surrounding Euro-American community. They had presented their proposal to the tribe, and the prospects for help looked promising.
Photo Credit: Dream Catcher
That was the last conversation we had, and I never had an opportunity to find out what the council decided. Yet regardless of the council’s decision, youth did know somebody cared about them, that their views for the future were important to others. And they did have the opportunity to build positive relationship and practice important life skills. Realizing that someone cares about us and our future can help open up transformative possibilities.
“Organizations […] [and communities] are centers of human relatedness, first and foremost, and relationships thrive when there is an appreciative eye – when people see the best in one another, when they share their dreams and ultimate concerns in affirmative ways, and when they are connected in full voice to create not just new worlds but better worlds.” (Cooperrider & Whitney, n.d., pp. 20-21)
Browne, B. (1999). What is appreciative inquiry? (Crafting Appreciative Questions). Available at http://www.imaginechicago.org/…/Crafting%20Appreciative%20Questions.doc
Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (n.d.). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative Inquiry. Available from http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/uploads/whatisai.pdf
Fleming, C. M. (1992). American Indians and Alaska Natives: Changing societies past and present. In Office of Substance Abuse Prevention (OSAP), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Ed.), Cultural competence for evaluators: A guide for alcohol and other drug abuse prevention practitioners working with racial/ethnic communities (pp. 147-172). Rockville, MD: OSAP.
Hand, C. (2002, September). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Lessons of the past and visions for the future. Paper presented at the Children’s Bureau Research Roundtable on Children of Color in Child Welfare, Washington, DC.
Hand, C. A. (2006). An Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children: Lessons of the past and visions for the future. Children and Youth Services Review, 28, 20-46.
Kuhn. T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Thomas, J. (1993). Doing critical ethnography. Qualitative Research Methods Series 26. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Weaver, H. N. (1999). Indigenous people and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services, Social Work, 44(3), 217-225.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr. Richard Grinnell, Chair of the Department of Social work at Illinois State University, for his support. He created a special faculty position that enabled me to have ever-other semester off to complete my field research and writing in exchange for carrying a double teaching load during my on-campus time.
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