At an early age, Emma Elliott-Groves saw her family advocate for the rights of the First Nations and other Indigenous peoples while centering knowledge passed down by her ancestors across generations.
Today, the new University of Washington College of Education assistant professor of learning sciences and human development is dedicated to drawing on Indigenous and placed-based knowledges and practices to addressing complex social and mental health issues in Indigenous communities.
Elliott-Groves previously served as an assistant professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University and earned her PhD in educational psychology and master’s degree in social work from the UW. She recently received a 2019 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship supporting her work to strengthen the research capacity within the Cowichan Tribes to identify local systems of relationality that ensure individual and collective livelihoods.
In the following Q&A, Elliott-Groves discusses her formative experiences as a member of the Cowichan Tribes, her research agenda, a book that has inspired her and more.
What drew you to education?
As a young child, my family lived on a farm in the mountains on Vancouver Island. Our way of living centered on sustenance practices including hunting, fishing and harvesting. We did not have running water or electricity. My dad fought for First Nations’ rights, including the right to hunt and fish for food on tribal land, the right to use traditional methods of fishing, and the right to manage natural resources flowing through tribal land. Our way of life centered on ancestral knowledge that had been transmitted across generations.
For my parents, our cultural upbringing was the most important educational experience they could give their children. In addition, we attended a local Catholic school through 9th grade, which in many ways contradicted our way of living. To help us internalize the differences, my parents would say, “The stories that you learn at school do not belong to you. Our stories are the ones we learn at home, the ones that tell us what it means to be a Cowichan person. Your job at school is to learn what you can and find something that resonates with you.”
Throughout my educational journey, there were very few stories that resonated with me. There were also very few teachers and mentors who looked like me. These experiences are what drew me to education and, as such, I am committed to being present as a First Nations’ faculty and mentor, as well as centering my own (Indigenous) knowledge systems in my work so that Indigenous students have access to stories that resonate with them and people that look like them.
Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?
As an Indigenous researcher my primary scholarly commitment is to develop a program of research that investigates the interplay between Indigenous knowledge and concepts of place, belonging and relationality in order to understand how these factors relate to intellectual, physical and mental health.
A large strand of my research explores the reasons for suicide in Indigenous communities. In addition to individual-level explanations for suicide, Indigenous peoples point to the collective experience of colonialism. For Indigenous communities to thrive, they must be able to challenge the deleterious effects of colonialism and to follow community-based definitions of what it means to build strong, healthy societies. Therefore, proposed solutions, approaches and interventions to address complex social, health and mental health inequalities (e.g., suicide) among Indigenous peoples must center on Indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living.
As land has always been a central component of Indigenous well-being, my main professional goal is to continue to develop as a land-based education and mental health scholar whose principal purpose is to help Indigenous communities strengthen their nations in the face of ongoing colonization.
What attracted you to UW College of Education?
With ancestral relations in both British Columbia and in Washington state, I have always considered both places home. I have lived in Washington for over 20 years, so when I decided to pursue higher education, the UW College of Education seemed like the only natural fit.
Over the years as a student and now as a faculty member, I have become a part of a community of people who care deeply about social and ecological justice in education. In fact, the faculty posting that I was hired for emphasized the importance of community engagement as social transformation. It was (and is) this commitment to families, communities, nations and our collective futures that is evident throughout the College and in the scholarship being produced here that attracted me to the UW.
What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?
I think that in life, nothing matters more than our relationships and our relationships are deeply intertwined with learning what it means to be a person. These ecosystems of relationships are the center of what it means to be a part of a community.
With that said, I am very much looking forward to teaching “Community-based Practice and Research.” The other course that I am excited about developing and teaching is closely related to my own research and interests and will be titled, “Social and Cultural Determinants of Intellectual, Physical, and Mental Health,” which will highlight the social, cultural, political and historical antecedents of community health with an emphasis on Indigenous communities.
Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.
Easy. The book that has inspired me the most is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book, “As We Have Always Done.” To conceptualize Indigenous nationhood, Simpson presents Nishnaabeg Indigenous knowledge as “radical resurgent theory.” She suggests that Indigenous futures are dependent on what we do collectively now to create Indigenous presence and generate Indigenous futures by deeply engaging in our own knowledge systems.
What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?
I am excited about joining the faculty at the College of Education and look forward to getting to know each of you. My door is always open, so please feel free to stop by and say hello.
Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?
My family is the center of my universe. I have two children, Caspian and Story, and a husband who is also my best friend. I have four sisters, six brothers and 30 nieces and nephews. My mom is one of my greatest inspirations and the best compliment that I have ever received is that I am following in my father’s footsteps.
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