When Rachel Radyk was a teenager, her voice as an AnishinaabeKwe was not always heard. She recalls being dissuaded by a guidance counsellor from studying nursing, citing insufficient marks.
“It was a different time,” Radyk said. “People were close-minded. I just used the experience to fuel me.”
Today, in addition to being a registered nurse, Radyk holds a bachelor of communications, a bachelor of science, and is currently pursing her master’s of nursing at Western. Each step brought opportunities to find and strengthen her voice.
Now, as a recipient of a Head and Heart research fellowship from the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, she’s hoping to help lift the voices of young people, empowering them to help reduce Indigenous youth homelessness.
Working under the supervision of Abe Oudshoorn, and alongside fellow Head and Heart recipient Miranda Plain, BA’22, Radyk is assisting on the project, EQUIP Housing: Enacting Culturally Safe Housing Stability for Indigenous Youth Finding Home.
By engaging Indigenous research and participatory implementation methods, the objective of the project is to adapt and test “EQUIP,” an equity-oriented model used in primary health care to address homelessness prevention and response.
Recognizing that Indigenous youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population, Oudshoorn’s project includes community collaborators at Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), a London, Ont., organization that provides services and operates a shelter for young people aged 16 to 24.
Radyk and Plain are helping the research group’s work by adapting and testing EQUIP model survey tools to discover potential barriers preventing Indigenous youth from accessing the organization’s services.
“We want it to help YOU develop a culturally aware and safe space where Indigenous youth feel supported accessing services,” Radyk said.
Sarah Palmer, a youth development counsellor at YOU, said shelter staff are excited to work with Western and the Head and Heart fellows to adapt the EQUIP model.
“Decolonization of services is work that needs to be done,” she said, “and we’re lucky to have Rachel’s and Miranda’s voices contributing to this process.”
Now in its fifth year, the Head and Heart program offers undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines a paid, 10-week, culturally relevant research fellowship that teaches and incorporates Indigenous methodologies.
Established in 2018, the fellowship responds directly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action 62 to 65, which concern “Education for Reconciliation” by utilizing Indigenous knowledge and epistemologies to drive learning and research. The program has helped advance the eight strategic directions of Western’s Indigenous Strategic Plan and the institutional strategic plan, Towards Western at 150.
More students are recognizing the value of the program, with the number of fellowship recipients doubling from 17 to 34 in just five years.
“Head and Heart is a great way for Indigenous students to get hands-on experience and gain a theoretical understanding of what it takes to conduct research within academic spaces,” said program coordinator Tammy Johnson. “It also provides opportunities for fellows and mentors to explore what it means to conduct Indigenous research in a way that considers the concepts of respect, relationality, relevance, refusal, responsibility and reciprocity.”
For Plain, who majored in psychology and sociology, the research fellowship offers a chance to broaden her skill set and explore her interests.
“I’m happy to be placed with a research team working to prevent and end Indigenous youth homelessness and look forward to engaging with Indigenous youth,” Plain said.
Empowering Indigenous youth
Radyk’s and Plain’s fellowships focus mostly on the “exploration phase” of the four-stage project that also includes an installation, early implementation and full implementation phase.
The pair have become familiar with YOU’s services and shelter, shadowing staff and seeing how the organization operates to understand how to best modify and incorporate the EQUIP model of care.
The next step involves recruiting and establishing an Indigenous youth council, comprised of Indigenous youth who have accessed YOU’s services in the past, and those from surrounding communities, to gain insights on creating a culturally safe space.
“At the end of the day, it’s important for us to listen, uplift and give space to that voice if that can help reduce some barriers,” Radyk said. “It’s the really exciting part of this project for me, allowing me to work on something I’m really passionate about – empowering Indigenous youth and discussing the opportunities that can come when we take on leadership roles.”
Radyk hopes youth-led research can be implemented across all areas of care delivery and support services for Indigenous Peoples.
“I think Indigenous youth voices need to be at every table and hope this model can be adopted into different service settings to continue that youth empowerment. In my experience, when I found my place in my community and my own voice, it really surprised me how many people were willing to listen. I think it’s really important for others to do the same, and for us to help them build the relationships and safe spaces that allow them to do so.”
A full listing of Head and Heart fellowship recipients and their projects can be found in the current issue of Laotsyá:n, the Office of Indigenous Initiatives newsletter.