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The Pathway of Resilience for Northwest Alaskan Youth

Family Research Scholar Dr. Lisa Wexler (’07-’08) Shares Findings from National Science Foundation Grant

The Center for Research on Families is thrilled to highlight the research of Dr. Lisa Wexler, assistant professor of Community Health Education in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. As a 2008 Family Research Scholar, Wexler was granted a three year award from the National Science Foundation entitled,“Collaborative Research: IPY: Negotiating Pathways to Adulthood: Social Change and Indigenous Culture in Five Circumpolar Communities.

Her Circumpolar Indigenous Pathways to Adulthood (CIPA) study has significant implications for the field of indigenous suicide prevention and resilience. She focuses on how the rapid and imposed social and economic changes occurring over the last century are shaping everyday youth challenges, and most importantly, looks at how young people are responding to these changes in indigenous communities. Wexler’s study is one of the first of its kind to use international, participatory approaches to understand these challenges and provide insight into how to bolster the necessary community-level factors that can increase indigenous youth wellness.

 

Wexler’s research draws from intergenerational narratives and indigenous wisdom to illuminate the problem of youth suicide in ways that offer encouraging possibilities for action to individuals, families, and tribal communities. She is also committed to the translation of her research findings to practical applications and has worked directly with tribal communities and organizations to secure support for locally-meaningful service projects. Together, these community-based programs have brought over $5 million into the Alaska Native villages with whom she works. Increasing resources and researching Indigenous resilience in arctic communities is both timely and important since the unprecedented, rapid social change taking place has been strongly associated with poor circumpolar indigenous health outcomes, particularly for young people.

 

This ambitious study required that Wexler work with researchers from anthropology, psychology, and public health, as well as to collaborate with diverse indigenous communities from different parts of the world. “I had to focus on the details while holding out the vision of what we collaboratively set out to do. I was vigilant about communicating with everyone so they were aware of our progress.”  In this process, Wexler learned how to translate ideas across disciplines and education levels, to negotiate shared goals, and to share important decisions. “Balancing community and academic values and priorities was a challenge, but is absolutelycritical to furthering this area of youth research”, Wexler stated.

 

Using the knowledge and the relationships she cultivated in the CIPA project, Wexler took the lead in developing an EArly-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) proposal that was subsequently awarded by the National Science Foundation. This collaborative research effort involved youth and adults from five circumpolar communities -- Northwest and Southwest Alaska, Canada, Norway, and Siberia. The Principal Investigators at each site helped youth co-researchers to contextualize their community’s findings about schooling, community and family, and hopes for the future, by producing a short film. These youth-produced videos were then shown in a multi-day, cross-site international meeting to engage other community youth and adults in thinking and talking about the stressors and challenges arctic indigenous youth face, as well as resources and resilience strategies.  This participatory visual approach engaged indigenous youth and other community members in cross-site analysis and collaborative learning, while encouraging horizontal knowledge sharing among academics and circumpolar indigenous community members. The scale of this type of research had not been done previously in Arctic social science. The research, productions, and youth and community insights were presented at the international Inuit Studies Conference in Washington, DC in October 2012.

 

(photo: Alaskan and Siberian community members meeting with Alaskan Senator Begich)

Wexler believes that working directly with the community to understand key topics, accurately captures the contrasts and continuities of their culture, and provides a context for advocacy and change. Her research has already made a significant impact on the field of indigenous resilience and youth support.  By securing funding for both her own research and resources for the communities she studies, Wexler has provided insight into this population which has implications not only for Alaskans but for indigenous youth across the world.

 

For more information on Wexler and a list of her publications go to: http://www.umass.edu/sphhs/chs/che/faculty/wexler.html