Ruth Koleszar-Green’s conversation crackles with energy, reflecting her passion for Indigenous education and Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
“It’s imperative that we disrupt the dominant discourses around Western ways of knowing and being,” said Koleszar-Green, an assistant professor in York University’s School of Social Work and special adviser to the Office of the President on Indigenous initiatives. She is an expert in Indigenous education and social issues that impact Indigenous communities, as well as anti-racist education and income security reform. Koleszar-Green is also one of the authors of the Indigenous Framework for York University: A Guide to Action, a document that calls for an inclusive, pan-University Indigenous strategy.
Koleszar-Green’s application of Indigenous pedagogy to her teaching has earned her a 2018 President’s University-wide Teaching Award. She was one of five people selected by the Senate Committee on Awards for their imaginative and significant contributions to enhancing the quality of learning for students enrolled at York University.
“In its most basic form, Indigenous pedagogy includes experiential learning, learning by repetition, learning through storytelling and learning by reciprocal relationships,” said Koleszar-Green, a member of the Mohawk Nation. “The teacher and the learner both offer knowledge and the educator is actually a facilitator.”
Indigenous pedagogy also employs stories that connect the learners to ideas and issues, and weave humour into the presentation of challenging topics such as the impacts of colonial structures and the ways non-Indigenous people absolve themselves, or the educational opportunities available to Indigenous children compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.
“When we talk about Indigenous issues, we’re talking about heavy, hard topics,” Koleszar-Green said. “It is important to find ways to lighten the discussion without making light of it. It is my intent never to shut people down. I do that by being myself, by being 100 per cent present in the room.
“I tell my students that they had better hang on until I’m done when I start to talk. Answers in Indigenous thought may meander or rephrase the question, telling you a story that takes you on a journey to help you figure out the answer.”
She often gives her students a history test that she expects them to fail, a test populated with questions that ask them to list all the treaty rights of non-Indigenous people and the name for the Indian Act or Bill C-31 and the goals of the legislation.
“I want to show them what they don’t know in a way that won’t shame them,” she said.
Koleszar-Green also uses her own family story to help students understand Indigenous issues.
“When people read Bill C-31 (the 1985 amendment to the Indian Act), they come back confused, so I draw my complicated family tree and they can see why the legislation is so messed up,” she said. “Two of my grandparents were Indigenous, and my grandmother was in an Indigenous hospital as a child where they experimented on her. She had psoriasis and eczema and was tied to a hospital bed and given electro-shock therapy at age six as a cure. My grandfather might have been in the Mohawk Institute, a residential school near Six Nations (a reserve near Brantford, Ont.).”
Koleszar-Green earned her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She joined the York community as a contractually limited appointment in 2014 and was hired the following year for a tenure-track position. She teaches the mandatory undergraduate course that she co-designed with her colleague Nicole Penak, titled Indigenous Understandings in Social Work Theory and Practice, as well as the mandatory graduate MSW course Indigenous Worldviews and Implications to Social Work. She has also overseen independent study, directed reading courses for a dozen students on topics as varied as Indigenous people and sport, and vegetarianism and veganism in social work.
Koleszar-Green enjoys the connections she forms with students and supports them in whatever ways she can. She focuses particular energy on Indigenous youth attending university.
“One of my students has labelled me with a hashtag: #scholarmom,” said Koleszar-Green proudly. “I build relationships with them and make them realize they’re important while still teaching them hard topics. For me, the biggest honour and responsibilities I have are to the brilliant Indigenous scholars behind me. If they feel I have earned the title of #scholarmom, my community has spoken.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus