Society and Culture

Arts-based education helps Indigenous youth see themselves as leaders

Drawing on drama techniques can create more meaningful learning experiences for youth, says U of A education professor who will present at upcoming Congress 2021.

  • January 29, 2021
  • By Bev Betkowski

Getting teens to picture themselves as tomorrow’s leaders can be a big ask, but making it playful can spark their excitement.

That’s what happened when University of Alberta drama educator Diane Conrad got together with 40 Indigenous youths for a weekend workshop that had them moving their bodies to share their ideas, and then bringing those thoughts to life in a comic book.

“They were able to see themselves as leaders, in a fun and creative way, and it showed what they see as leadership and what they value.”

The event, held as part of a larger youth conference hosted by the community of Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories a few years ago, used arts-based education to get the participants—aged 14 to their early 20s—thinking about how they could be community leaders in their day-to-day lives.

Conrad, a professor in the Faculty of Education, will be sharing the experience of that dynamic weekend at Congress 2021 of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is celebrating the theme of Northern Relations and will be hosted virtually by the University of Alberta this spring. 

Evoking images of leadership

Conrad’s drama-based workshop had the young participants, who came from all across the Sahtú Region of the Northwest Territories, using a process called image theatre to explore what they thought youth leadership looked like in their communities. 

“I asked them to use their own and others’ bodies to sculpt an image of what youth leadership looks like; to create frozen images using their bodies to show an example of youth leadership in the community.” The youths who were looking on were then asked to imagine what they saw in the images.

“Together we generated understanding and dialogue through that theatrical process.”

All of the images were photographed and discussed by the youths. “They talked to each other about leadership and why it’s important and what’s included in the idea of youth leadership. If we want youth to take leadership roles, they have to have a common understanding of what that means,” Conrad noted.

They talked about how youth leadership exists in the community, which showed how they can support one another to take on those roles, she added.

“They realized they could show leadership even in small ways, like supporting one another at sporting events or encouraging each other in their friendships.”

Arts-based methods are more effective than a written report—more engaging and accessible for young people, for families, for all community members.

Diane Conrad

Levi Lelis
(Photo: Laura Sou)

Showing a community what youth leadership looks like

The youths’ images and thoughts from the workshop were then crafted by Conrad and Stacey Keeler, one of her graduate students at the time, into a digital comic book that featured the youths’ sculpted poses and their discussion in text bubbles. Copies of the 13-page full-colour creation were then presented to the community.

“They seemed to enjoy it, and it showed the community their youth have an understanding of what youth leadership looks like and how they see that in the community. That lets communities build on that to create more commitment to youth leadership.”

The comic book is also being considered by the community as an example of how its members could potentially evaluate a government-funded project currently underway that includes land-based activities, Conrad noted.

“Arts-based methods are more effective than a written report—more engaging and accessible for young people, for families, for all community members.”

Copies of the comic book were also provided to the school in Fort Good Hope, Conrad said. “They thought it was a great way to engage youth in thinking about issues.”

In her presentation to Congress 2021, which will include images of the comic book, Conrad hopes to convey the value of the project to fellow academics and researchers.

“I want to show that young people have voices and ideas about what youth leadership looks like, that they can be leaders in their communities, and that arts-based methods are ways of generating knowledge. They’re more holistic, bringing in the body, emotions, experiences—engaging the whole person, which also makes them compatible with Indigenous ways of knowing.”