Conference ReflectionsProfessional Development

Honouring Complexity vs. Fetishizing Damage

On May 26, 2016, I arrived in an overheated, slightly sweaty state at the registration table for the 6th Annual OISE Indigenous Education Network’s Indigenizing Psychology Symposium: Healing & Education. On the walk from my uptown apartment I stopped a little bit too long to “smell the roses”, requiring me to beat feet to arrive on time.  

I walked into the large, airy room at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto where the day’s activities would unfold. I took note of the location of the incredible Cedar Basket Gift Shop. A Traditional Opening began the day, by Elder Jacqui Lavalley. As the smells of sage, cedar and sweetgrass permeated the space, I felt situated and grounded—ready to learn from the speakers and conversations that would come.

Each of the speakers throughout the day presented ideas, questions, and insights that laid new pathways in my consciousness. I was particularly struck, however, by Dr. Eve Tuck’s session.  Dr. Tuck, Associate Professor in Social Justice Education at OISE/UT, spoke about damage centred approaches to research in Indigenous communities as compared to desire based approaches.

Dr. Tuck mentioned that research centres on theory of change. Everything is a theory of change—psychotherapy, prayer, doing nothing, revenge, peace—each of these are methods we use to effect change. She discussed her criticism of approaching research using a theory of change that seeks only to collect and portray brokenness in Indigenous Communities. This reflects a damage-centred approach to research, and can flatten entire communities of people to one dimensional representations. This “flattening” is done in order to obtain resources, such as compensation or reparation, from a more powerful other. This type of approach to research can have the effect of recirculating common tropes of pain-based narratives from Indigenous communities.  

Dr. Tuck’s compared this damage based approach to a desire based approach to research.  A desire-based approach to research does not seek to ignore pain; it respects and showcases the wisdom that have resulted from that pain. It moves away from fetishizing damage and pain to emphasizing complexity, wisdom, and survivance. Survivance, she went on, is about moving beyond basic survival in light of cultural genocide towards deep synthesis and renewal. Survivance is rooted in the wisdom of a complicated life.

Dr. Tuck’s talk had me reflecting on research about student well-being, and especially student well-being in Indigenous communities. I thought of how often stories of pain and crisis can dominate the landscape. These stories are certainly important, however, Dr. Tuck’s talk made me reflect upon how I can act in Student Affairs to capture and tell student mental well-being stories from a desire based approach. I realized how important it is to capture and tell stories of resilience, survivance, wisdom gain, and complexity. I am not sure of how to go forward with this reflection, but I am committed to exploring ways to do this with the incredible staff in SA.