April 15, 2024

How can you do ‘brave work’? A Q-and-A with Jennifer MacDonald and Jennifer Markides

Educators share more about their upcoming talk at Conference for Post-secondary Learning and Teaching
Jennifer MacDonald and Jennifer Markides on a white background with multi coloured hexagons
Jennifer MacDonald, left, and Jennifer Markides.

Every year, the University of Calgary hosts the Conference on Post-secondary Learning and Teaching, which brings together hundreds of people to hear talks, presentations, and research about relevant topics in teaching and learning. 

This year’s conference, Courageous Practices, is focused on equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in post-secondary learning and teaching. Taking place over three days, the conference has multiple keynotes that will dive into various aspects of EDIA in the post-secondary space. Over the next few weeks, we will share insights from speakers around their upcoming presentations.

During the in-person pre-conference, Dr. Jennifer MacDonald, PhD, University of Regina, and Dr. Jennifer Markides, PhD, University of Calgary, will explore the idea of ‘brave work’ as two scholars positioned differently within the intricacies of truth, reconciliation, and decolonization, and for nearly 10 years have sustained dialogue around the complexities of these topics in relation to our teaching and learning. Navigating the Tensions and Possibilities of Brave Work takes place April 24 in Calgary.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourselves and your work

MacDonald: I grew up in a small city on the northern shores of Lake Ontario and have an interdisciplinary background in outdoor and environmental education. I moved to Calgary in 2015 to pursue a doctoral program in educational research (curriculum studies) at the Werklund School of Education.

 As a non-Indigenous educator, questions at the centre of my studies focused on building the language, partnerships, and processes needed to repair deep separations caused by colonial ideologies. I was fortunate to meet Jennifer Markides on the first day of the program. Our conversations helped me build foundational insights around truth, reconciliation, and what both ask of us as educators. 

Here, I was constantly reminded of the need to go beyond theoretical considerations to engage in land-based and community-based practices. After completing my degree, I started an assistant professor position in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. 

Markides: I am a citizen of the Métis Nation, and I work in the faculties of education — the Werklund School — and  social work here at the University of Calgary. As Jennifer MacDonald mentioned, we have been friends since the first year of our doctoral program and have worked together on several projects over the past10 years. These have led to multiple publications and presentations based on our engagement and learning around reconciliation. 

Over the past five years I have been working with school divisions in northern Alberta to support Indigenous education through professional learning, develop ongoing and long-term research relationships, and co-create pathways to enact research findings that reflect the goals of the Indigenous communities and the needs of youth. 

Q: The first question in your session description is a fitting one — what does it mean to do ‘brave work’ to you both?

MacDonald: Most simply put, brave work means not shying away from challenge and embracing the unknown. These are central philosophies I learned in outdoor learning practices, where we intentionally generate situations of physical, social, and emotional discomfort. Of course, there is a lot of privilege wrapped up in these practices, but being alongside students in challenging situations has taught me a great deal about moving into and navigating the unknown. 

In the context of truth, reconciliation, and decolonization, similar sensibilities are at play. For example, for me, the work can expose the limits of knowledge or call my worldview into question, such that letting go of control and training an openness to work things out together is the only way forward. None of this work can be done in isolation so being open to the unknown needs to involve negotiation to build good relations. 

Markides: ‘Brave work’ means taking informed risks to educate and act in leading or supporting the initiatives and movements that are needed to make societal change. Anyone whose work speaks back to power, hegemony, racism, or other oppressive structures and narratives, does so at great personal risk. It is not done lightly, but with care and conviction. There can be missteps, setbacks, and big learning along the way. 

Specifically, Jennifer and I have reflected deeply around our learning journeys in Indigenous education, with many shared experiences as learners, educators, activists, and editors. In editing Brave Work in Indigenous Education, we grappled with accepting the terminology of calling our work or anyone else’s work “brave.” 

But it was evident that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors had important stories to tell about the stepping into spaces that often put them at risk to speak truth into classrooms, boardrooms, organizations, media outlets, institutions, public discourses, and personal interactions. Examples are everywhere and it is important for us to continue learning from each other in the work that is being done, so that we can strengthen our approaches, networks, and communities towards a more socially just and caring world.

Q: What does a courageous practice look or feel like to you?

MacDonald: In my experience, courageous practice involves vulnerability. However, the vulnerability will look different depending on who you are. As a non-Indigenous, white, middle class, cis-gender, able-bodied woman, for example, the practice means encountering my privilege. For example, even reflecting on how there seems to be a choice involved for me, that I get to decide if I want to be courageous, is telling. 

When I think about the question in this way it causes me confusion as I am unsure how to rectify privilege on my own. This is an understanding at the core of the book Jennifer and I co-edited, Brave Work in Indigenous Education. As part of the first generation of trying to build different relationships, we wanted to honour that there are different experiences involved; some people are being asked to revisit intergenerational traumas and to share lifeways in institutions that have historically denied their existence, while other people are being asked to give up old ideas and be willing to see anew. 

Therefore, through all of this, I have learned that courageous practice involves ongoing dialogue, deep reflection, learning through the stumbling of mistakes, asking questions and being questioned, and taking responsibility to do my part in collective change.

Markides: I think it takes courage to step into learning or teaching or dialogue from a place of humility and/or vulnerability. Courageous practices are ones that push us to share or cede power in relationships to learn from other’s knowledge, experience, and perspectives. These practices can feel intimidating, uncomfortable, disruptive, and unpredictable; this is what makes the work brave. 

Conversely, courageous practice can also feel rewarding, meaningful, and transformative; yet these feelings often come only after investing significant effort and time. Fortunately, we have seen from our partnerships and work together that we do not have to this alone. Our learning and teaching relationships are ongoing and supportive. We can lean on and learn from each other, knowledgeable Elders, experts, colleagues, and friends to share in the emotional burdens, challenging moments, hard-fought battle, and shared triumphs. Our webs of relations (Little Bear, 2000*) are sustaining. 

Q: Tensions are inevitable in challenging topics — how can people best manage these in their day-to-day lives? 

MacDonald: Being thoughtful within the complexities of challenging topics means experiencing tensions in often unpredictable ways. I have experienced many times how easy it is to lose myself in the anxiety and nervousness of this work. Likewise, especially in Indigenous education, I have heard countless times the fear people have of being disrespectful or of making mistakes. 

The biggest way that I have learned to manage these dynamics is by remembering that it is not about me as an individual, but about me as part of a wider system. Doing so, moves away from personal shame and blame. Instead, space is opened for us to consider ourselves as part of stories that we did not start but that we have potential to influence for the better. 

I have learned that contentious topics require process, tensions are part of the process, and they will ebb and flow. There will also be instances when tensions signal a need to take a step back, to reflect, or to seek guidance. Likewise, in my day-to-day life, I have a few trusted friends who will listen and hold me to account. I encourage others to build their circles since I lean on and draw strength from mine often, and I hope they feel the same support from me. Most of all, however, within this work there needs to be hope in the possibility that something new will emerge through the struggle.

Markides: One thing that Jennifer and I discussed a lot over the past years is where we spend our energies. There is so much work that needs to be done to educate people — to change hearts and minds. Systemic changes need to be made and there are often not enough people for all the work that needs attention. The most difficult is when you are faced with minds, hearts, systems, and structure that are resistant to change and reinforce existing stereotypes, prejudices, oppression, and injustices. We found ourselves asking, where are our efforts best spent? This was a big moral and ethical question. 

For me, I go into spaces where I feel that my time and efforts will have the most impact. I enter into dialogue knowing that everyone is at a different point in their learning journey and where they get to will depend on factors that are beyond my control, such as their readiness and open-mindedness. Not every person, organization, or system is willing to learn and grow and change. We can only do so much, and we also have to trust that over time things will change for the better, as more people learn and take action to live differently. Reconciliation is a process of constantly striving to improve, renew, and right relationships. 

Q: What can attendees expect from your session? 

MacDonald: In our session, we will share stories from our process together and also discuss our learning from editing the brave work collection. We want to offer insights that surfaced through working together from different positionalities. Attendees can also anticipate participating in a dialogic process around what it means to be brave in teaching and learning. 

Markides: Participants can anticipate being called on to reflect, dialogue, and share knowledge with each other. They can expect to hear our stories, including our honest trepidations, questioning, and vulnerabilities. They will consider where they are being called to be courageous in their own lives and may dig into the muddiness of this space, first-hand. They may grapple with trying to be courageous amidst self-doubt and responsibilities to what is needed of them, well. They will share in the tensions and contemplate the supports needed to make bold changes in the world.

*Little Bear, L. (2000). Jagged worldviews colliding. In M. Battiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision (pp. 77-85). UBC Press.

The 2024 University of Calgary Conference on Post-Secondary Learning and Teaching takes place April 24-26, with an in-person pre-conference and two days of virtual proceedings.

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