Our stories, our way: Cultural identities and health and wellbeing of Indigenous young people in diverse school settings

The aim of this project was to explore the views, experiences and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples in relation to their cultural identity and implications to health and well-being. Underpinned by Indigenous Standpoint Theory, this study drew upon a participatory action approach to encourage young people to participate as co-researchers with the researchers and support staff. This methodology was utilized to build the capacity of participants and position researchers to decisively engage with young people in order to foreground experiences as young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Research Questions:

RQ1: How are cultural identities represented by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples in diverse school settings?

RQ2: How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples describe the implications of this representation for their physical/social/emotional/spiritual well-being?

RQ3: What perspectives do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples express about successful ways to support the development of resilience and strong cultural identities within their communities?

Brief description of the methodology

The study aimed to consider what benefits resulted from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples and their communities when they identify and design programs to support and strengthen their cultural identity. Drawing upon a participatory action approach, the study encouraged young people to participate as co-researchers with the researchers and support staff. This methodology was utilised to build the capacity of participants and position researchers to decisively engage with young people in order to foreground their ‘cultural assets, knowledges and lived experiences’ (Watson and Marciano, 2015, p. 38).

The project was driven and directed by young people. Young people (and school staff) were provided with a range of activities supported by the research team to consider the key topics of this research. Young people (supported by school staff) were then provided with resources (eg. access to iPads) to support the development of the program or project that the Indigenous young peoples designed, produced and created in their artefacts.

The cultural identity project had not been pre-determined for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was a limited understanding about how each school site was currently supporting cultural identity for Indigenous students. Therefore, the research team selected a methodology that would allow them to build on current activities that may be present within the schools. Secondly, the diversity of the communities meant that cultural identity and its meaning varied significantly between the communities. Because of this, a pre-determined project or one-size fits all approach would not be sufficient and work for this project. The methodology was flexible and, therefore, allowed the researchers to employ their professional knowledge and cultural reading of the context to work with participants in deciding on the best way to gather data. Some of these data gathering methods included: focus groups, diaries, storyboarding and documentary data from the project (photographs, short films, artworks) and observations (Stuart, Maynard and Rouncefield, 2015). The breadth of the data collection options allowed for an extensive range of data to emerge.

Project findings

The findings in this research work have the potential to influence a broad range of aspects of policy and practice in both the health and education fields as reflected below:

  • An alternative framework to develop programs that meet the unique needs of the Indigenous students in their schooling communities that are personalised and contextualised for their cohort of students.
  • An evidence-base for the need to incorporate identity development and affirming work within their curriculum and pastoral programs, particularly for Indigenous young peoples who continue to be the subject to racism and negative imagery. This includes key messages about what it means to be an Indigenous person.
  • The project outcome by young people who participated, provided schools with an insight about the impact of how identity work, can influence Indigenous student attendance, engagement and wellbeing.
Health and wellbeing:
  • An example of a method to effectively explore the complex and sensitive concept of health with a diverse group of Indigenous young peoples to gain their perspectives and understanding on health matters.
  • An evidence-base of the views and experiences of a diverse cohort of Indigenous young people to assist in providing better health service provision through understanding how Indigenous young people engage with different materials in relation to health matters.
  • An evidence-base for the clear connections as articulated by Indigenous young peoples between identity and wellbeing and the possibilities that presents to health program development in incorporating identity development into the provision of health services for Indigenous young peoples.
  • Assist policy-makers with an evidenced based understanding of how Indigenous young peoples perceive cultural identity and implications to health and well-being, to inform development of more efficient policy in both Indigenous health and schooling.
  • Demonstrate the importance of including the voices of Indigenous young peoples on policy that directly affects them.
  • Examples of models for effectively and systematically incorporating Indigenous youth voices in policy development.


Project outcomes

The outcomes for Indigenous peoples on this project are significant. As an Indigenous led study, it was the intention for this study to be of beneficence to Indigenous peoples, first and foremost. The direct and indirect outcomes for Indigenous peoples include:

  • Working with approximately 110 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples from regional, remote and urban communities to hear their voices on identity, health and wellbeing and schooling
  • The resources and support for young people to create a project that was showcased to their schools, families and communities provided a platform for their voices to be heard.
  • Facilitation of school and community partnerships during the project that have the potential to continue after the project ceases.
  • Employment of seven Indigenous research staff in various roles across the project with specific capacity building activities including research training, attendance of a conference, analysis and authorship of data generated from the project, a specially developed symposium for Indigenous local researchers to come together and share their experiences from their communities.
  • Appointment of seven external Indigenous business services and artists for the projects developed by young people.
  • Two rap songs with film clips that are owned by young people, schools and their communities.
  • A range of clothing was designed by Indigenous young peoples for their peers. This facilitated a broader construction of identity and defied the deficit way in which Indigenous identities continue to be constructed.
  • A poster series was designed in one site, where posters designed by young people were displayed in a range of spaces across the community including the school, health centre, library, hospital and other community services.
  • The development of an Indigenous research capacity forum for local Indigenous researchers who worked with the research team across the project. Completion date: March 2019

Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land across Australia and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.