The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

Double Listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily; for example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels.  This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them.
However, people have many story lines running through their lives.  Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to?  In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people can fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid.  Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that ‘the problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

 

Eunice and Elaine share their 'strong story' of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because it challenges their values and who they are.  What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way?  What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened?  By exploring and thickening the strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience.  In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities.  I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”.
When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times.  In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare.  A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities.  Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers.  These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories.  The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

aboriginal-art-1540115_960_720

‘The Magic of Metaphors:  Engaging women at risk to prevent trauma in young children’

This was the topic of a presentation I gave at the SNAICC Conference in Canberra in September, 2017.  Thanks to some spontaneous video recording and retrieval work from another social worker sitting in the audience that day, I’ve finally been able to edit this together.

This presentation occurred as I came to the end of my contract with Relationships Australia NT, as Co-Ordinator of the Healing Our Children project.  It was the culmination of about six years work; most of which was in the development phase working on an idea raised by concerned Elders on the Tiwi Islands, plus a further two and a half years to roll out a pilot program in remote communities on the Tiwi Islands, Katherine and Palmerston.

As a Co-founder of the project, I am proud of this work and what we have been able to create.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent learning together with the women of the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland about ways we can respond to domestic and family violence to protect children and prevent trauma.

This was a fantastic project because it was developed in community with community using the knowledge, wisdom and stories of Aboriginal people’s lived experience.  It did not come from outside or abroad.  Programs like this are not cheap to develop and involve a lot of sweat and tears, time and patience.  We did it all on a shoestring!

I decided not to continue on in the role as Co-Ordinator because as much as I had invested in this project and believed wholeheartedly in what we set out to achieve, it was underfunded.  I was employed for two days per week to support and mentor a team of local people in several communities.  Unfortunately, the extension of funding beyond 2018 then reduced, rather than capitalised on the investment and success we had already made during this trial.  This was disappointing, as the women and communities had invested so much of their energy and time voluntarily, on an issue they were passionate about addressing.  It means that the local people employed in the project (which is one of the biggest aims of the funding) receive only casual wages and service delivery is sporadic at best.

We can do better than this.

My point is that I want to see projects like this properly funded, especially ones that are developed by communities for their own people.  So they are sustainable and have every chance of enacting real change and closing the gap!

Everything that I brought to this project through my social work practice framework is represented in some form in this presentation.  This includes strong values and a commitment to social justice, self determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people.  This video may appeal to social workers interested in anti-oppressive practice, narrative community work or using metaphors in therapeutic work.

This presentation covers:

  • Background to the ‘Healing Our Children’ project
  • The culturally safe project model
  • Shared values that underpinned the project
  • Metaphors and how we came to use them in our training, therapeutic groupwork, resource development and evaluation
  • The healing potential and therapeutic benefit of using metaphors in trauma work
  • How the resource kit “It Takes a Forest to Raise a Tree” was developed
  • How metaphors assisted us in safe dialogue with women who had children living at home with violence
Please note:  Due to our video camera running out of batteries half way through, we have edited together the two parts of this presentation.

 

 

My hope is that ‘Healing Our Children’ moves beyond surviving, to thriving!
Support, follow and learn more here.

‘Healing Our Children’ project at Relationships Australia NT

‘Healing Our Children’ Facebook page

‘Knowing your Why and Finding your How’ with Malcolm Galbraith

In this episode of Talk the Walk, we delve into the working life of Malcolm Galbraith, Manager of Families and Schools Together (FAST) in the Northern Territory.   We discover not only what makes FAST one of the most successful strengths-based programs in remote Australia, but what drives the man behind the project.   A man of strong Christian faith, Malcolm admits some of his ideas might be controversial, yet the evidence speaks for itself – Yolngu people love it!   Before you scoff at the idea of bringing an American-based program into an Indigenous Australian context, listen to this story.  As intriguing as it is thoughtful, this behind the scenes tour of FAST NT may just turn your worldview on its head.

In episode 21 of Talk the Walk, we explore:

  • The underpinning principles which contributes to the success of the FAST program working across cultures
  • Essentials for engaging vulnerable Aboriginal families successfully
  • The stories and symbols of meaning in the painting (pictured here) symbolising the work of FAST in remote communities, developed with Yolŋu staff of NE Arnhemland
  • Malcolm’s journey from tradie, to youth worker, to heading up a Family Strengthening program in the Northern Territory
  • The good old fashioned family values inherited from early life experiences that Malcolm brings to his Management role
  • What values mean to Malcolm and how these spill over into workplace relationships, negotiating boundaries and understanding cultural differences
  • The challenge of the concept of equity and how this plays out in the lives of people Malcolm works with
  • What sets FAST apart from other NGO and Government service providers which has earned them respect from local communities
  • The importance of self awareness when things don’t go as planned (because they won’t) and strengths-based routines with staff that bring out the best in each other, to promote the best outcomes for clients
  • Indicators of success from FAST parents and teachers
  • Malcolm’s influencers and how his Christian faith has shaped his life’s work and developed his “why’
  • Malcolm’s disclosure around qualifications on paper versus good practice, and traversing the space between academia and field work
  • The sorts of transferable skills, knowledge and values that is essential to this work
  • And much, much more

The painting was created by Yolŋu communities for FAST NT

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Viktor Frankl

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological development of children

FAST Northern Territory website

FAST Australia website

FAST International website

Email Mal at mal.galbraith(at)fastnt(dot)org(dot)au

‘Allowing Voices to be Heard’ with Toni Woods

An advocate for ‘two way’ relationships and “not being a seagull” – Toni Woods

Do you know what it’s like to meet up with an old friend you haven’t seen for years and feel like you picked up exactly where you left off?   That’s what my conversation felt like this week on Episode 9 of ‘Talk the Walk’.  Nine years after crossing paths on our respective journeys, I reconnected with an old friend and colleague, Toni Woods.

Toni now lives in Canberra and works as an Implementation Specialist with the Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS) which sees her travelling back to the Northern Territory to provide practice coaching with her team.  Prior to that Toni worked in remote Aboriginal communities supporting women and children living with domestic and family violence, project co-ordination of child-friendly safe houses and community development with urban Aboriginal school communities around Darwin.  Toni has worked alongside Aboriginal people in supervision and management, developing creative-culturally safe educational resources, training and mentoring, project management, counselling and family support.   She is gearing up to head off to the SNAICC Conference in Canberra next week, to support her colleague Faye Parriman in presenting her amazing resource and share their current work with the IFSS project.   Be sure to say hello, if you happen to be there!

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Toni as we look back on almost a decade of her incredible development work.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Toni’s yearning to respond to social injustices and human rights violations she observed after arriving in Darwin and the NT Emergency Intervention was introduced
  • What Midnight oil, nursing strikes and Jon Lennon has to do with Toni’s commitment to these ethics and values
  • How challenging moments are actually opportunities for good work to happen (especially when you have the courage to talk to the Federal Opposition Leader!)
  • Hearing stories from people, ownership of story and the dilemmas around sharing story when there are issues of collective injustice
  • The joy of work that advocates for and engages local community members in making decisions about their own families and communities
  • The skills and knowledge needed to co-ordinate an urban Aboriginal community project to improve school attendance; and the learnings and outcomes achieved
  • Lessons learnt about the importance of the implementation phase in running a successful project
  • The role of the Parenting Research Centre and the development of culturally safe resources available through the Raising Children network
  • Toni’s long established collaborative relationship with Senior Aboriginal woman Faye Parriman and the cross-cultural work they have achieved together
  • How the Yarning Mat tool came about through Faye’s visionary dream, a tool to engage Aboriginal parents in the Intensive Family Support Service; an introduction to the elements and how it is used from engagement and assessment to review and closure.
  • Reflections on Toni’s ‘two-way working’ relationship with Faye and the elements that built respect and trust

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

The Parenting Research Centre

The Raising Children Network

Faye Parriman on the history of the Yarning Mat

National Implementation Research Network

The 2017 SNAICC Conference

Contact Toni Woods on LinkedIn or via email at twoods(at)parentingrc.org.au

‘Just Start with the Little Things’ with Tony Kelly

Do you remember the first time when you heard your favourite song?

Anthony Kelly, co-author of ‘With Head, Heart and Hand: Dimensions of Community Building’

I remember very clearly the first time I was introduced to Paul Kelly’s ‘From little things big things grow’.  I was sitting in a lecture on ‘Working with Indigenous communities’ with Tony Kelly.  I was moved, confronted and teary.  It was the moment that a small flame was sparked in me.  I remember it so clearly.  Unexpectedly, the voice in my head piped up and said ‘this is the work you will do’.  So I latched onto Tony as an idol and from there a little spark grew.

It was an absolute privilege (and entirely nerve-wracking) for me to reconnect with Tony Kelly recently and bring you this conversation.  That same gentle and invitational demeanour of Tony’s took me back to where my heart for this work began.  To revisit, the ‘head, heart and hand’ dialogical community development approach which Tony espoused, reconnected me with the principles that I fell in love with, all those years ago and which has shaped more than any other modality, the practitioner I have become today.

Tony brings over 40 years of experience in community development work both in Australia’s indigenous communities and globally.  I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Episode 5 of ‘Talk the Walk’ explores:

  • How Tony came to be working in the Northern Territory after the acknowledgement of Indigenous Land Rights
  • Learnings from entering Aboriginal communities for the first time
  • The foundation, principles and technicalities behind the dialogical approach to community development
  • The skill of really listening
  • The delight of big things that grow from little things
  • How participatory development programs differ from service delivery; and why governments rarely get it right
  • Small first steps for social workers in getting started in a dialogical approach to your work
  • How Tony’s ‘head, heart and hand’ approach differs from other community development approaches
  • Tony’s struggles of witnessing ‘white on black’ racism, ‘black on white’ racism and ‘black on black’ racism, and how these experiences shaped his international work
  • Tony’s biggest learnings from the Northern Territory and its influence in global community development
  • A funny story about a pet kangaroo!
  • Essential tools for your communication toolbox
  • The mentors that helped Tony develop an international perspective to his work
  • Making sense of the text of people’s complicated lives

Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after this episode

‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ by Paul Kelly

‘With Head, Heart and Hand’ by Anthony Kelly

Trevour Satour

Sugata Dasgupta 

Lilla Watson

Bruce Alcorn

Ernie Stringer

Rosalie Dwyer

Darryl Kickett

Carol Martin

Matt Foley

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Franz Vernon

Contact Anthony Kelly via LinkedIn