Dr. Robert Henry speaks about innovative research on Indigenous gangs

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On Monday, Brock University’s Department of Sociology and Department of History, in conjunction with McMaster University’s Indigenous Research Institute, held a talk given by Dr. Robert Henry. Dr. Henry was the first speaker to visit Brock in 2018 as a part of Brock’s Speaker Series, where at least once a month Brock hosts a distinguished guest to discuss their work or an important issue. In Dr. Henry’s case, it’s both. A Metis scholar originally from Saskatchewan, Dr. Henry is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Sociology, and his research focuses on using Photovoice to work with Indigenous gangs and help members tell their story.

Photovoice is a form of qualitative methodology in community research, meaning it focuses on the lived experiences of people and communities. The method is used by researchers to work alongside the people they are researching in an equitable fashion, and is often a way to express social and community issues.

The technique was developed by Caroline C. Wang, a researcher at the University of Michigan, and May Ann Burris, an officer with the Women’s Health Foundation in Beijing.  It was a way of moving past language and literacy barriers to allow participants in a research study to tell their own stories using photography.

“The Photovoice research method allows participants to take a photograph of what a phenomenon is to them,” Dr. Henry explained. “Researchers can go in with questions, but oftentimes photographs can engage in deeper, thicker descriptions.”

When he began to use Photovoice, Dr. Henry feared that many of the participants, who were predominantly male members of Indigenous street gangs across the Prairie Provinces, would use photographs to take pictures that showed a hyper-masculine, tough lifestyle. The professor worried that this would only serve to further stereotypes in the media about Indigenous men.

However, many of the participants surprised Dr. Henry with their moving, intimate pictures. One in particular stuck in Dr. Henry’s memory. The professor remembers a participant who submitted a photograph displaying his sawed-off shotgun to the camera. At first glance it appeared to be a glamorization of a violent lifestyle, but the photograph allowed for a deeper understanding of the man’s life.

“This participant described himself as ‘Picasso with a gun,” Dr. Henry remembered. “To him, his shotgun was his tapestry. He was an individual who was constantly afraid for his life, and violence was a way of getting out. He slept with the gun next to him every night. But on one night, he woke up suddenly from a dream and nearly shot his son. He knew from then on that what came first and foremost was protecting his family.”

Dr. Henry works alongside an organization called Straight Up, which is a gang intervention program in Saskatoon. The professor worked for about five years with the participants in the program before he began to conduct his research. However, it doesn’t focus solely on men in these gangs. Dr. Henry also explores the effect gangs and settler colonialism have on women in these environments.

“Woman who were involved in this program began to challenge me on why this research was so male-centric,” Dr. Henry explained. “For a lot of women, joining a gang is a way to assert yourself in these environments. Women who were involved in the gangs often went through the same initiations as the men, in order to make themselves come across as one of the guys.”

Professor Nicole Goodman, a professor at in the Political Science department, helped organize Dr. Henry’s talk on campus.

“We are delighted to have Dr. Henry visiting Brock to share his work with Indigenous men and women who were involved in street gangs,” Professor Goodman stated.

“Dr. Henry is a community-based scholar which means he prioritizes the needs of the community in the research ensuring that they have pivotal voices in the research design and outputs. As part of his approach he uses an innovative method called photovoice — a technique that empowers participants to share information through photographs. Political science can learn a lot from this community-focused and participatory approach to research and Dr. Henry’s application of this novel, qualitative research method.”

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