Courtesy Deanna Del Vecchio
Eve Tuck found her calling in urban education and is trying to make schools feel more local, relational and intergenerational for indigenous students.

Change for the Better: How One Native Researcher Is Improving the Lives of Young People

Lynn Armitage

As a young girl, Eve Tuck spent a lot of time visiting relatives in St. Paul Island, Alaska—the largest of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea where fur seals migrate and breed. It’s a place she fondly calls home, even though she was born and raised in Pennsylvania. “It is the most beautiful place I have ever been, but my memory can never compare to the experience of being there,” says the 37-year-old Unangax.

It’s also a place where she learned to mistrust researchers. Family members often told stories about the U.S. government working with these scholars on the island to harvest and process seals, eventually driving her ancestors into forced labor and relocation.

When she applied to graduate school at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she learned that research would be a significant part of her academic work, and she considered dropping out of the program. “Becoming a researcher was a big ethical dilemma for me.” But thanks to the encouragement of her mentor, Tuck went on to earn her Ph.D. in Urban Education, and found her calling.

“I was able to find in participatory action research an ethic that was really working against exploitation, honoring the expertise of participants and following the lead of young people and community members who have real research needs,” says the associate professor of Critical Race and Indigenous Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Tuck’s research centers on the experiences of youth and communities around education and social policy. “So instead of doing research on people, I do research WITH people,” she explains. One of her passions is showing how indigenous social thought can address/is relevant to addressing social problems. “From a very early age, I understood that inequity and inequality are created by society. To me, that means we can change them.” Tuck says it is important to look at the theories of Native and indigenous people who have lived in Canada and the U.S. to analyze social problems. “So much of that knowledge can inform how we make change and how we make space for one another in our societies.”

One of her earlier studies highlighted the consequences of the Regents Exam. When it became mandatory, she says it contributed to a culture of pushing out students from New York City high schools. “This narrowing of routes to graduation was going to choke graduation opportunities for youth who were never going to pass those tests,” says Tuck, who discovered that teachers and school administrators were frequently encouraging certain students to drop out and pursue a GED. She said this unwanted population was more likely to be students of color, queer, disabled, or politically vocal and critical of school procedures.

“Our research found that the GED can’t be the last remaining alternative for young people who are not going to pass Regents exams in New York. There is a need for multiple routes to graduation, not in a tiered system, but so that each of those routes is challenging and meaningful, not just based on a test,” she explains the outcome. Her research also resulted in a “Youth to Youth Guide to the GED,” widely printed and distributed in libraries and GED centers.

Tuck is the author/co-editor of several books. But is perhaps best known for a 2012 article she wrote with colleague K. Wayne Yang called “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” which garnered widespread attention. “Through that paper, we heard from a lot of community organizations about the land-based work they are doing and created the Land Relationship Super Collective to help bring all these people together.”

Currently, Tuck is in the first year of a five-year study working with migrant youth, ages 12 to 20, in New York City on issues involving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This national immigration policy implemented in 2012 allows some illegals to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. “New York is a state where a large population of young people are eligible for DACA, but don’t participate. And we are trying to find out why,” she says.

For this study, Tuck trained these young migrants to collect data using photovoice research, a participatory method by which researchers use photography to answer the questions being posed. “They are so enthusiastic about it and see it as a way to push back against the injustices they see in the world,” she says.

Tuck defines herself as a teacher, researcher and writer. “I’m lucky that I do the work that I do because it puts my hope and despair in balance. If I just worked on policy, I would be in despair all the time. But because I do work with youth and communities, I am more often very hopeful.”

One area of education that deeply concerns this Native academic is the standardization of learning, such as the Common Core-aligned test standards adopted by 42 states and the District of Columbia. “I am troubled by any kind of curriculum or test-based policy that says learning happens only in one particular way. The process of learning, by definition, cannot be standardized,” she explains.

She believes standardization is an especially bad fit for indigenous children. “They come from communities where place really matters and attend schools which ask them to leave all that at the door in order to learn a knowledge that says everything is the same everywhere. It’s ridiculous!”

Tuck says the result can be quite detrimental. “It teaches young people that school is not for them, and that they are not meant for this place that we require them to go by law.”

What really excites Tuck is finding ways to organize schools by trying to answer the question: What does schooling feel like? “Making schools more local, more relational, more intergenerational and as bases that are the hubs of communities and sites for conversations … I welcome policies that will make this happen.”

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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