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Jennifer Wolowic

Jennifer Wolowic completed her PhD at University of British Columbia in December 2016. She received her Masters from the same university and graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Film Production and a BA in Anthropology. Originally from Northern California, her research explores the affective nature of First Nation youths’ social networks and how film can be used to create new representations of those usually only represented through a criminalizing gaze.

Her dissertation explored the appropriation of Facebook by the Nisga’a and Tsimshian in Prince Rupert based on their experience with other forms of technology, cultural values, and ongoing impacts of colonization. As an ethnography of technology use, youth and cultural continuity. Within the thesis she discusses the objects and protocols visible in the Northwest Coast potlatch system as a means to outline the history of media used by First Nations peoples and their ideology.  She argues Facebook use in Prince Rupert is influenced by long standing First Nations’ cultural practices and the more recent repurposing of short wave radio technology. The use of Facebook by First Nations is motivated by the importance of witnessing and the desire for extensive families to remain connected. Today, Facebook use supports and adds to already existing social gatherings that support extensive social and supply networks that keep urban and reserve communities connected.

She’s twice received the American Anthropological Association’s Society For Visual Anthropology Award for Best Student Work. Most recently for her film “For Our Street Family” made with the Prince Rupert Friendship House and the youth who attend its teen drop in center. She returned to Prince Rupert in 2011 to continue her PhD work following a cohort of First Nations teens as they transition into adulthood. A project currently titled Sumaxs Affect. She is currently writing her dissertation.

She is also the Managing Director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre and volunteers on committees for the city of New Westminster. She is also an avid road cyclist and triathlete, having successfully made a swimming escape from Alcatraz.

Background

Background

Located in the traditional lands of the Ts’msyeen Nation in Northern British Columbia, Prince Rupert is a central hub of 13 First Nation villages that are homes for the Ts’msyeen as well as Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Haida, and Heiltsuk peoples.  Prince Rupert is a fishing town that accesses the waters off the Northwest coast and Alaska and the site of Canada’s newest international shipping port.  The town of approximately 12,000 people is also experiencing a steady downturn in employment and opportunity for its young people. Prince Rupert’s School District 52 ranks as the fourth worst in the province according to BC Statistics algorithms counting the number of at-risk youth based on many 18 year olds who do not graduate from high school, the number of youth on income assistance, and crime rates. The Skeena-Queen Charlotte region has 12.3 percent of its population receiving income assistance as of June 2010.  This is the highest rate in the province, but these numbers are inflated since the villages in the area are receiving aid because they have been forcibly disconnected from traditional living practices.

The Prince Rupert Friendship House and the Nisga’a Hall are the physical centers of Prince Rupert’s First Nations’ social networks. The Friendship House has administered a youth drop in and outreach services for several years, revamping the program in the last 18 months to become the Youth Hub. After recognizing a need for an older youth social hub six months ago, the Friendship House also opened Rites of Passage, a similar formatted drop in center for 19-24 year olds

In 2007, I worked with the Youth Hub (then called Planet Youth) and created a black and white photographic visual ethnography of the youth center. I then created a film about the youths’ peer social network they called their “street family.” While I filmed and edited the majority of the video, the sumaxs had influence over the subject matter, veto rights over material, and approved the film’s representation of themselves before it was screened publicly. I attended the center daily for approximately three months and returned several months later to get feedback on the rough cut.  I returned once more, six months later to receive approval for the final film.

The film also left lasting impressions on older members of the youths’ social network. When I returned last July to give them a copy of my MA thesis, I spoke with members of the Friendship House Board of Directors and they expressed having completely different experiences growing up in Prince Rupert and Port Edward than those the youth discussed on camera. The board members expressed remembering feeling more exclusion because of the urban/village divide between their own First Nations communities than as racial minorities of the town. Before viewing the film, many adults were unaware that the teenagers had formed the street family. After hearing the youths’ perspectives, community members understood its importance and have encouraged my continued engagement with the sumaxs. The conversation revealed a generational gap that is often mirrored in larger discussions about challenges faced in First Nations communities.

The Youth Hub embraces the fluid identity of Northwest Coast First Nations youth.  The Youth Hub is a geographical and virtual space that exemplifies Renya Ramirez’s (2007) notion of the Native Hub. Sumaxs participate in cultural activities, learning to weave cedar and cook salmon, but also enjoy the space to listen to popular music, watch movies and simply hang out with other friends. Clan crests mingle with playboy jewelry, hooded sweatshirts, and jeans marked with signatures of friends in permanent pen. Youth workers decorate hands with Hena and provide the opportunity for beading projects. Humor, teasing, and laughter intermingle with tragic stories of racism and abuse experienced by the youth. Sumaxs physically meet in this space, but are also constantly connected through technology. As cell phones and Facebook become major mediators among the young people and with adults, the Youth Hub remains an affective space that unites an age cohort even though they may not physically share the room.

The “street family” was the sumaxs’ self-constructed understandings of their peer social network. Best friends would hold the title of auntie or sister. Friends who advised other friends became parents regardless of age or genetic relationships. Those seeking inclusion would be invited into the family as nephews, nieces, cousins, and children. The street family was important but fluid as people were constantly being disowned or reintegrated in different ways. The street family solidified friendships and the importance of peer support when facing challenges at school and with biological family.

In the two years since the completion of the original project, I have remained in contact with youth through email, SMS texts, and social networking websites as they transition from teenagers into young adults. Texting and Facebook are also how I countinue to participate within the sumaxs’ social networks. Over the course of the projects I have become a part of eight youths’ social networks and remain familiar with over two dozen.

What unites the sumaxs is a common experience of real and perceived exclusion. During research conducted in 2007, only two youth were actively in foster care, but most of the 40 youth attending the center shared the experience of having a representative of Children and Families knock on their door and tell them their parents were unfit to raise them. The apprehension of children and invasions of bureaucracy may have been needed for a child’s safety, but these violent acts continue to have lasting effects. They have created a distrust of authority and institutions for most and a permanent severing of family bonds for a few. The youth also told stories of explicit racism by classmates and ignorant teachers that made them feel unwelcome in the classroom and that their heritage had nothing to offer.

Once all the sumaxs spoke of their responsibilities to their street families.  Now they discuss the importance of their kin and blood relatives. They maintain an extensive network of family both within Prince Rupert, the surrounding villages, and across the province. Increasingly mobile, sumaxs are often staying with friends and family within Prince Rupert, in the surrounding villages and cities, and several have spent extended time in Vancouver. Most of the youth have also become parents, work part time in local canneries or remain unemployed if they have graduated from high school, and vary in their relationships to their heritage.

Members of the street family now say that it is dead. They drifted apart and stopped hanging out with each other when the youth center closed temporally several months after my initial project was completed. The center was restructured and reopened a few months later, but the social group was happy to spend more time at their own homes and the larger street family became smaller social groups. This also coincided with increased internet access and SMS texting services in town.  Technology allows them to be present without physically meeting.

Despite the evaporation of the formal fictive kinship network, the youth continue to refer to individuals in family terms. Meaningful friends remain sisters. As one youth recently said, “There are sisters that you are born to your blood and there are sisters that are born to your soul.”

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