Government funding supports creativity with purpose

28 July 2016
Image courtesy of the ICON Tonga Facebook page.

Every researcher wants their work to make a difference; to make an impact in their chosen field and have the capacity to change lives. For Dance Studies doctoral student Nicole Pereira, her youth-focused research was deemed significant enough to receive a government-funded scholarship. The New Zealand Aid scholarship, offered through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, assists research aligning with learning or teaching within the Pacific, however there was no specific allocation for the arts. For her PhD, Nicole intended to work with ICON Tonga, a group using the arts to engage youth, enabling them to make positive contributions to society, to explore how teaching and learning can be enhanced in non-formal learning contexts. “ICON deal in media, spoken word, dance and acting, with social development at the heart of their work,” Nicole notes of the company. “Their mission statement is creativity with a purpose, and I identified with that immediately.”

When applying for the scholarship, ticking the ‘other’ box provided Nicole with the perfect rationale on why she should receive the award. “Not even having the arts as an option on the form is evidence of how neglected it is in Tonga, in a formal context at least,” she says. “It’s not simply about getting people to dance more, it’s about developing youth to be positive contributors to society using dance and the arts as a platform.” Historically, Tongan youth have used negative outlets for their physicality, evidenced by increasing school fights and crime rates. However, through groups such ICON, a shift is emerging. “The transformation I’ve seen in the people ICON worked with has been incredible,” Nicole says. “They just wanted a place to belong, to express themselves. They might not have the words to say something which they can easily articulate through physical creative expression.”

Nicole’s research focused on enhancing ICON’s pre-existing programme, particularly in dance. “Through contemporary dance, hip hop or dance fusion, ICON allows an extension of who these young people are,” Nicole explains. “From there they explore conceptual ideas, such as identity, empowerment or purpose, and teach life skills and values. Their mentoring sessions cover everything from leadership, collaboration and communication, all using arts as a vehicle.” As her research focused on the teaching and learning aspects of ICON, Nicole was able to use skills acquired during her undergraduate studies to provide frameworks for ICON leaders to develop their course objectives and delivery. “Initially, the group wanted me to show them how to teach and structure the lessons, but that’s not what I was there for,” she recalls. “I might have experience and training in this area, but what’s relevant in the context of Tonga? I needed to work collaboratively with them, otherwise they’d end up teaching like I do, and that wouldn’t be most effective with the youth.” Nicole produced a booklet with headings to guide the ICON leaders through their lesson plan; the processes and outcomes they wanted to achieve. “It was about encouraging and enabling them, not doing it for them. I want them to be their own dancers, their own teachers.”

A big part of Nicole’s research is honouring traditional Pacific methods of gathering information. The talanoa methodology featured heavily during her six weeks with ICON. “The best insight I received came out in conversation, rather than a formal, sit-down interview, due to the cultural traditions in Tonga,” she reveals. “There’s a very formal societal structure in Tonga, with the King, nobles, and commoners, and this is even reflected in their education system. Students are used to being told something and not saying anything, so trying to get their own ideas out of them was difficult, even more so in a formal setting.” Through talanoa, Nicole was able to gather authentic richness to her research, as it is a culturally familiar way of delivering information. “My research is ethnographic research; it needs to go beyond just sitting down and interviewing. It’s everything which surrounds that. It was the people and the stories which drew me to Tonga, so I need to represent that in my work.” Historically there has been strong critique around foreign researchers in a Pacific context, so Nicole worked to acknowledge those sensitives. Her research also threaded in the specific Tongan methodology of kakala, resembling a garland of flowers, where information is weaved together and presented back to the community. “This isn’t my research,” Nicole acknowledges, “it’s our research. It is very important to me to take this back to the group and refine it with them, to ensure it is an accurate reflection of their processes.”

Inspiration for her ethnographic research didn’t lie far away. Her supervisors, Associate Professor Nicholas Rowe and Senior Lecturer Rose Martin are leaders in ethnographic research within the arts. “They each have such rich experience,” Nicole says, “so they have excellent advice for me. They’re supportive and encouraging of my research area, understanding that their work can’t be transposed to Tonga. They share their experiences and together we find out what is relevant in a Pacific context.” In response to the specific requirements for Tongan research, Nicholas and Rose facilitated a Tongan adviser for Nicole, who reviews her work for cultural appropriateness. Nicholas has high praise for Nicole’s process. “There are three things I want to know when supervising a student in an ethnographic study,” says Nicholas. “Does she care about the people and place where the research is occuring? Is she sensitive to other ways of knowing and being in the world? Can she work with people to identify what knowledge might be valuable and worth investigating further? For Nicole, the answer to these three questions is a resounding yes. She cares without condescending, adapts without losing focus, and has a great nose for treasured knowledge. It is such a pleasure to hear her notes from the field, and to feel safe that the research she is doing is for people, not simply about people.” 

As part of her scholarship, Nicole was required to produce a policy brief on how to further arts education in Tonga. “I now have six weeks’ worth of insight, but further baseline research needs to be conducted if a formal policy is to be developed. However, it did strengthen my belief that gaps in formal education can be addressed through groups such as ICON, developing youth in these non-formal learning contexts.” Now back in Auckland, Nicole is working on developing her discussion chapter, reflecting on the findings of her research. “I could write five PhDs with the amount of information from my field research!” she laughs. “I’ll be working closely with my supervisors to bring the research together and recognise the emerging themes. I’ll then take it back to ICON and the youth of Tonga to finalise the findings.”

Nicole never dreamed of undertaking a PhD, but through the support of Dance Studies lecturers, and the opportunities which arose through her studies, she has become curious as well as ambitious. “I continue to see beyond just dancing – it’s not about pointed toes and splits. I’m passionate about changing the world, and through the expertise I’ve developed here, and with a vehicle like ICON, I’m able to really make a difference.” Ideally, she would like to see organisations like ICON around the world; offering accredited arts education programmes. “I believe ICON can have a formalised, accredited programme within the next 2-3 years, and I would love to be a part of that.”