Carol A. Hand
In my last university faculty position, I taught an undergraduate practice class – interviewing lab. As one of the few faculty who was not an expert in clinical practice, I found it a rather odd assignment. And then I realized that it was a topic I had used in a variety of cross-cultural settings. Ethnographic research does involve many opportunities to “practice” this skill.
Working on a chapter of my book today, I was reminded of some of the more challenging learning opportunities I have had. Crossing cultures and disciplines is uncomfortable, but in this case, it was crucial. I wanted to understand what was happening in the educational system. Schools were the primary source of referrals for child protective services for both Native and Euro-American children. More importantly, few Ojibwe youth graduated from the local high school.
Many Ojibwe people in the community had raised serious issues about their education. Like Native youth on many reservations, they attended public school in the town outside of the reservation. These “border towns” are typically controlled by the dominant Euro-American setter population, and anti-Native prejudice is sometimes particularly virulent.
At the end of August, 2002, I set off for an interview with a teacher in the border town high school. Following is an excerpt from my interview with Mr. Hanson (not his real name), a teacher who had been teaching at the high school for more than 30 years.
Research Field Notes Wednesday, August 28, 2002
I headed back to the border town for my interview with Mr. Hanson. When I entered his classroom, I introduced myself.
He replied. “To be honest, Agnes, I left my schedule at home today and had forgotten when we scheduled the interview.”
We shook hands, and sat at the two corner desks closest to the door. Before we began, he asked if I was Indian, and I told him I was and where I was enrolled. Then, I handed him a copy of the paper I had written about my research for the U.S. Children’s Bureau. He briefly leafed through it.
I could tell from his nonverbal cues that he was uncomfortable and I tried to put him more at ease.
“I realize you’re concerned about confidentiality Mr. Hanson, and how any information you share might be used. The consent form and project overview spell that out, but the paper demonstrates how the information will be used. I’ve been meeting with people to make sure they approve of my interpretations of what they shared. As you can see from the paper I’ve written, there are no personal identifiers or place names in order to protect identity.”
He still seemed reluctant, but he read through the consent form and signed it, admitting that he was still reluctant.
“It is a small community and word does get out. And I don’t know anything about the child welfare system, so I’m not sure how helpful I can be.”
I told him that was okay – he did know a lot about kids. And since schools were a major referral source to child welfare, it was important for me to learn what I could.
Again carefully choosing his words, he responded. “Bias is not obvious in the class. It is present in the hallways, but it is hidden within the student culture from which I am excluded. It’s there.”
At this point in the conversation, he wanted his comments to be off the record, so I stopped taking notes and just listened. It’s a challenge to reconstruct the conversation, since I was often the one being interviewed.
It was hard to keep him talking, and his reluctance remained obvious so I packed up my briefcase and stood up as I thanked him. All of a sudden, he became more animated and started telling me what he teaches his students in the Native American class. He was excited as he talked about his class, and he grabbed a piece of yellow chalk and went to the blackboard to illustrate his points. He said that he draws four circles on the board to illustrate Native American culture, which he illustrated:
“If you want to destroy a culture, you take the youth and put them in boarding schools – they don’t pass on the culture when they become adults and elders. It isn’t true that Europeans didn’t understand Native American culture – they understood it very well. Taking youth shows how well they understood.
Photo: Carlisle …
“The government located settlers on the borders of peaceful, well-functioning Native societies, knowing full well what the settlers were like given where they came from. It was Jefferson who sent out Lewis and Clark to survey Indian Territory and planned how to create indebtedness among Natives so their land would become forfeit.”
He was excited about his Native American class, so I asked him if he involved local community members.
“I used to,” he replied, “but now it’s taught through distance learning. It was meant to be much more hands-on, but it still seems to work. I developed it when I first came to the school and have been teaching it ever since. “
He also listed a number of projects tribes have asked him to participate in, including language preservation and the creation of a museum.
Even though this was a tough interview with someone who clearly was not willing to give many specifics, it was a good beginning. I noticed that he was skillful at dancing around my questions. But he seems to be a good teacher who encourages critical thinking and presents a balanced and very well-informed view of culture and history.
As I left, I told him that I thought the high school was lucky to have him there.
I’m grateful for the chance to revisit this uncomfortable interview more than a decade later. And I’m grateful to Mr. Hanson for sharing his gifts as a teacher in a challenging context. Yet I was left with deep concerns. He noted that things have improved for Native American youth. One to two Ojibwe students from each class in recent years have stayed in school long enough to graduate.
Taken by itself, this should be cause for alarm. Other interviews added crucial context. County child welfare staff reported that 45 percent of their juvenile justice caseload were Ojibwe youth. The tribal staff person who worked with child welfare voiced her concerns about Ojibwe youth, described in an earlier post.
“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.
- The youth would need to find at least one adult to volunteer to work with them on the project.
- They would need to invite all youth in the community to participate.
- Using internet and library resources, they would need to conduct research on skateboard park designs and select one that was feasible.
- As a group, they would need to prepare a formal proposal for the tribal council to ask for additional financial support. And,
- 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.
As I reread these old interview summaries and fieldnotes, I descend once again into the discomfort and self-doubt I felt long ago. I question why this study is worth writing about. And then I remember why it’s important to ask questions and care about the answers.
Perhaps the most important thing to emphasize when we teach interviewing skills is to be clear about our purpose. When we interview others about their lives, we carry a responsibility to listen deeply and care enough about the people who share their lives with us to give back in whatever ways we can.
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