PSI scholar and doctoral student Maya Lefkowich is interested in how to tell stories in a good way. Her doctoral work focuses on how to do research at the intersection between community and arts-based research, and anti-oppressive work.

The idea for her project, titled Turning Points, came from a colleague at the School of Journalism, who said that journalists don't do a good job of telling stories with Indigenous communities, especially on the topic of alcohol. So, they asked, “Is there a way to do it better or tell the story differently?”

Inspired by the concept of empowerment journalism, which is based on the principles of local ownership, reciprocity and collaboration, Maya designed a methodology and piloted a study in Yellowknife looking at what doing better might actually look like in practice. She also co-organized and co-hosted a panel event about journalism and where we are at with decolonizing the media, which was live broadcasted by CBC North.

One thing she noticed was that a lot of journalists and researchers from the South of Canada go North to tell Northern stories, but not for the benefit of storytellers and their communities. “This practice of mining knowledge from communities and working without reciprocity needs to stop. Graduate students who work on short-term projects have to be part of changing this institutional culture.”

According to Maya, she’s learned a lot in this project, about positionality and responsibility, about ways to create more sustainable relationships. “I am doing a little bit more work of translating my dissertation and keeping it in the community, building longer and lasting relationships with our storytellers so that they own all of their content and we're just helping to promote it. That way we are not taking anything away, and hopefully we are going to have some other legs of this project that keep going.”

Research Description

In collaboration with a community advisory board in Yellowknife, NWT and the Global Reporting Centre at UBC, I am piloting and evaluating a new methodology called, "empowerment journalism.” Using this method, we created a series of eight short documentary films addressing stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples in the media. Drawing on perspectives from Indigenous, arts-based, and community-based research and participatory journalism, I am positioning my research project to act on key recommendations: 1) meaningful involvement of Indigenous peoples, knowledges, and ways of knowing, 2) critical reflections on power, privilege, and responsibilities in collaborative film production, and 3) methodologies that amplify Indigenous voices and teach non-Indigenous researchers to "listen differently". In reflecting on the whole film production process, I am hoping to better understand opportunities, barriers, and strategies for aligning research and journalism practices with decolonizing and anti-oppressive principles.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Being a Public Scholar is an exciting opportunity to move my work beyond traditional academic boundaries. I am thrilled to use my dissertation as a platform to explore more creative and innovative ways to build accountability with diverse communities and audiences.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

Working within, rather than distinct from, communities enriches research initiatives and amplifies more diverse voices. The lens of Public Scholarship invites unique opportunities for collaborative and creative doctoral research.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I hope to continue building a career in public scholarship by working between community and academic settings and incorporating arts and storytelling into more innovative research and teaching. I’m particularly excited about using film and visual storytelling techniques to bring an integrated knowledge translation approach into classrooms and community research initiatives.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My project centres on partnerships with community co-investigator, William Greenland, a community advisory board in Yellowknife, and storytellers. Storytellers or participants in this project maintain ownership of their data, make decisions about the direction and content of their stories, and direct the team on how to realize their vision. Their reflections on engaging in the “empowerment journalism” methodology and their finished stories will contribute significantly to my dissertation writing. Once the stories are complete, we will organize a community-screening event in Yellowknife to showcase and celebrate the films, share reflections on the process of telling collaborative stories, and influence local journalists to work in a better way. I am also co-organizing a public panel event in Yellowknife to explore decolonizing strategies in Northern journalism.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Researchers and journalists alike who report on Indigenous peoples commonly favour narratives of community/cultural deficits while ignoring the impacts of colonialism and systemic racism. Parachuting in and out of communities rather than building partnerships is also common, and contributes to the colonial practices of extracting resources and stories from communities for the benefit and consumption of “audiences back home.” In working on a project that centres on and elevates the goals and knowledge of Indigenous storytellers, I hope to illustrate strategies for researchers and journalists to work in a good way with the communities they study.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Towards the end of my Master’s degree, I moved to Ireland for a 3-month research practicum placement to work on my thesis. I worked for a fabulous supervisor. He encouraged me to be creative and helped me to develop the confidence to take on leadership roles in research. He pushed me to do my PhD, and I am now in my final year with a deep appreciation for having a mentor who believed in me from the beginning.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

When I was applying for PhD programs, I struggled to figure out where I fit. I wanted to have the freedom and flexibility to build a program for myself. I wanted to be truly innovative in bringing arts and visual approaches into research, and to try things that had not been done before. I was immediately drawn to the Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program and the opportunity to do just that.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

I wanted the freedom and flexibility in a program to set my own milestones and develop a program of research and university service initiatives that aligned with my (shifting) interests, values, and goals. ISGP was the only program that gave me the space and support to pursue a PhD that was the kind of PhD I wanted. In the end, I got to do a truly one-of-a-kind project and build a portfolio that fit with my academic ambitions.

For you, what was the best surprise about graduate life, about UBC or life in Vancouver?

During my degree, I fell in love with another UBC PhD student. So, that was without a doubt the best surprise.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

Before starting my degree, I understood the importance of having solid support networks in my personal and professional life. Friends, mentors, family members: I had and continued to find people to check-in with, to keep me grounded in my core values, and to remind me of my whole self (not just the student or researcher version of myself). I think it would be impossible to do a degree in isolation and I'm very grateful to have a whole team of people beside me every step of the way.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

Be brave and generous.


Being a Public Scholar is an exciting opportunity to move my work beyond traditional academic boundaries. I am thrilled to use my dissertation as a platform to explore more creative and innovative ways to build accountability with diverse communities and audiences.