When her four grown children look at her, Nikki Peters hopes they see determination and that it’s never too late to start or accomplish something new.
“I quit school at Grade 10. Life happened. I’m going to get my GED sooner or later. If my children see that I’ve achieved this, at this stage in my life, they will see it’s never too late to achieve something,” said Peters.
At the age of 52, Peters is taking literacy classes through Nokee Kwe, a local agency that provides employment and educational support for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals in the community. Because of her involvement with the organization, she recently participated in +Positive Voice, a multimedia program that encourages Aboriginal women to look at their life stories through a positive lens.
The program was created last fall, with grant funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, by Nokee Kwe employment counsellor and Western alumna Summer Thorp, BA’11, Med’14. Peters is one of 11 participants of the program, whose storytelling work is currently featured in the Warrior Womyn: Reclaiming Our Identity exhibit at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London. The exhibit runs until March 28.
“We worked through the lack of education of being a stay-at-home mom, and leaving that comfort and spreading your wings to achieve other goals,” said Peters. “It was very uplifting. I found it was a place of non-judgement where we women came together to speak about issues and concerns we have in pursuing our education and our follow-through on career direction.”
As an employment counsellor at Nokee Kwe, Thorp noticed a “narrative of failure” barrier, something Aboriginal women faced when trying to move forward with education or employment.
“I would frequently meet with women who would say things like, ‘I had to leave school because I had to look after my family’ or ‘I had to leave employment due to tragedies in my family related to suicide’, or other responsibilities like that. Or they struggled with addiction,” said Thorp. “Before we could really move forward with a concrete plan as far as education and potential employment, I found we had to do an inventory of their strengths. When we identified their strengths, they were able to change their perception of their abilities and also their perception of the social capital they had – they realized they were able to contribute.”
Through the +Positive Voice program, participants learned skills related to social media, photography, writing and graphic design to create content that re-framed their personal stories into positive narratives.
“The stories they shared are of breaking cycles in their families, resilience in the face of opposition, overcoming addiction and patterns of intergenerational trauma, and the self-perception of value and defining themselves as someone who has something to offer the world as a whole,” Thorp said.
“(It’s) developing that pride in themselves as an Aboriginal woman: ‘This is who I am. This is my story. This is who I am proud to be, regardless of what other people think of me’ – it’s disrupting the narrative of victimhood.”
One of the ultimate goals of the program was to reduce feelings of isolation and forge friendships between participants, and Peters feels this was one of the greatest gifts to come out of her involvement. “It was a great comfort to build relationships with the other ladies in the program. The sisterhood we built was amazing.”
The Warrior Womyn exhibit, which features the work of all 11 +Positive Voice participants, is sponsored by Western’s Canada 150 Committee.
“We (the committee) worked to ensure there’s a strong voice for Indigenous issues and projects in our university celebrations,” said Sociology professor Jerry White, co-chair of Western’s Canada 150 Committee. “We felt this project really represented building community and empowering people and could be part of the process of telling the truth and building reconciliation.”
The exhibit’s official opening last month drew the largest crowd in the museum’s history. White said the whole evening left him feeling warm and positive.
“It’s a really great exhibit. It’s very moving,” he said. “It’s an extremely intelligent and exciting way of presenting the world from these women’s points of view and people are really moved by the photographs and other materials they’ve produced.”