Meet the Dean of Social Work: Michael Yellow Bird
Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, a celebrated scholar, author, inspirational teacher and passionate advocate for decolonization, Indigenous social innovation and creativity, and institutional and environmental systems change, has recently been appointed as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba.
Prior to his most recent academic appointment, Dr. Yellow Bird was a Professor of Sociology and Director of Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University. He is a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota and identifies as Arikara (meaning “The People”) and Hidatsa (meaning “Willows”).
What unique perspective do you bring to the faculty/university?
Without knowing all the other perspectives of others at our university, it’s difficult to say, with assurance that my perspectives are unique. Now, I can tell you that I’m interested in decolonization as an event and process and how the term is conceptualized, operationalized, and often misused as a metaphor rather than a set of discernible actions that address colonialism and serve the needs and goals of Indigenous Peoples. I’m especially interested in a neurodecolonization paradigm (which I’ve created) that examines how a number of ancestral Indigenous approaches can be integrated with Western evidence-based science and used to heal the body and the mind from the traumas of colonization. In my current work, I have identified ten critical areas often overlooked by social work scholars, educators, researchers, and practitioners when working with Indigenous Peoples: movement, microbiome, genetic, and mindfulness science; sleep and circadian science, collectivism and laughter science; and neuroscience.
I see the world we live in as one of the opportunities that are created when one engages in a truly holistic approach to life. For me, it means that every day I make sure that I spend quality time with my family, get abundant levels of exercise and engage in mindfulness meditation practices. I play my saxophone every day, learning new songs and complex patterns. I focus on eating a healthy ancestral diet, getting enough sleep, and learning something new, which often means I am watching science and educational TED talks and YouTubes with my four young daughters and then discussing their relevance to the well-being of society. For me, being resilient, productive, creative, and happy does not appear out of thin air; thus, it’s important for me to connect with new and old acquaintances and to make time to celebrate, dance, sing, smile, and laugh. I strive to keep people healthy and connected and encourage well-being and positivity. I make sure there are healthy links and a strong sense of community building within the University and beyond. I believe that in order for me to be happy and resilient, I have to make sure that my workplace, where I spend a good part of my time, is a strong, connected, resilient, and healthy organizational community.
What is your vision for the Faculty?
I want our faculty to be recognized as, and have the attributes of, a world-class social work faculty that draws the best of the best scholars and students having the most unique and effective curriculum that generates new post-social work theories. In my vision, our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community have the capacity, creativity, and “rage to master” the most difficult challenges that lay before society. We have the skills and knowledge to create positive, dynamic changes in society that are appropriate, timely, and measurable. For instance, I believe that within one generation, using exciting, novel approaches that we create, we can be part of an effort to reduce the number of Indigenous suicides and children in care by 95 percent. I envision our faculty producing the best of the best students and having the ability to dramatically and measurably decolonize the way we think, behave, and the way we respond to the world around us.
My goal is to elevate our faculty to be known for our exceptional research, teaching, and service excellence. We will be able to both qualitatively and quantitively measure the direct impact that our teaching and research have on the health and well-being of the community. We will be using dynamic interdisciplinary approaches, principles, and technologies that incorporate a post-social work hybrid paradigm that integrates Indigenous sciences and ways of knowing with Western sciences. I want to draw on technologies from other disciplines to begin to change the thinking and intellectual and philosophical environment of social work and create a culture of creativity and innovation. For example, one vision may be for our faculty to have the capacity to use artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics to develop new approaches that will enable us to further identify the diseases and risks of poverty, racism, colonization, violence against women, homelessness, and suicide, among other critical factors that need resolution. Another may be using people analytics to improve relationships and connections between colleagues for the purpose of creating a greater intellectual synergy. I’m an optimist and believe that transformation is one breath away, one extra mile, or just more one more attempt. Since I arrived, I have already begun working with one of our faculty members to complete a linear equation to operationalize decolonization that I’ve been sitting on for the past ten years. I think it holds great promise, and, as far as I know, no one else has used such an approach to conceptualize and operationalize decolonization.
I also committed to the creation of an Institute for Mindful Decolonization (IMD) that will bring together interdisciplinary scholars who are interested in using novel mindfulness and contemplative approaches to decolonize and address trauma, suicide, heart disease, and other conditions that have been exacerbated by the past and continuing effects of colonization.
What pursuits do you enjoy beyond academia?
It seems that almost everything in life is academic for me. It’s difficult for me to distinguish between work and play since I equally apply my intellect and critical thinking skills in both domains. I enjoy being active adding or subtracting from my daily routines. For instance, I call myself an intermitted fasting activist and I’m big on ancestral lifestyle approaches and every day I engage in different forms of fasting. I also spend a lot of time reading in areas outside of social work and work on applying relevant principles and processes to my own work, which I find thrilling and satisfying when I am to connect the dots between two seemingly different disciplines. I run every day, do a lot of weightlifting, and swim off and on. I also play tenor saxophone and enjoy listening to all types of music, especially jazz, which I grew up with. My father was a jazz and big band musician. As a father, as I said earlier, I love spending time with my daughters hearing their thoughts and analyses of the worlds they live in. I also do a lot of meditation; I meditate several times for about five minutes per session. I love to take slow, deliberate walks in-between meetings and tasks to lower my cortisol and create the conditions for the “aha” moments.
What would you consider your guiding principle in life?
Cooperation between humans can solve the most complex and troubling diseases, social conditions, wars, and planetary challenges. Humans have tremendous capacities for love, compassion, and healing, but it is cooperation that makes these possible and lasting. We have untapped abilities to do good that bring about societal transformation. But, we also have dark tendencies like hate, mistrust, and fear. My guiding principle has pressed me towards understand the balance between the positive and negative and finding the good and negative in both. I gravitate more towards the idea that despite the fact that human nature can have its drawbacks or its shadow side, we have evolved to the stage where we can be very enlightened, resourceful, and compassionate beings. We have tremendous plasticity in our brains, cells, genes, language, and culture, along with the ability to adapt to challenging conditions. Our ancient ancestors passed this ability on to us. We have the power to create and sustain positive change, especially if we cooperate.