On location at healing bush camps on Bathurst Island
Yippee, you made it. Welcome to my first ever episode of ‘Talk the Walk’ – the podcast putting legs on social work in Indigenous communities through story.
This podcast will appeal to social workers that find themselves in many different contexts in Australia, who come across Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander people in their work, as well as new graduates contemplating this area of practice. The podcast may also appeal to social workers internationally, interested in learning more about what its like to walk alongside Australia’s First Nations peoples.
And now to my first guest.
Working out bush comes with rewarding challenges
Rather than sink, Lissy Suthers chose to swim when she moved from Ipswich in Queensland to the Northern Territory in 2012. Fresh out of university, her first placement was co-ordinating and facilitating healing bush camps for families on the Tiwi Islands. Having supervised Lissy during this time, it was my absolute privilege to interview her for my first episode of ‘Talk the Walk’.
Although she might look like she’s drowning at times, Lissy has moved her way up through Relationships Australia NT to the role of Manager of the Children’s Therapeutic Team, operating on the Tiwi Islands, Darwin and Katherine.
This is a beautiful and honest conversation with a social worker who survives on humour and laughter. There is no sugar coating in this episode. Enjoy!
This episode explores:
Why social workers move up through the profession in remote areas of Australia very quickly
The importance of Aboriginal history and world view in social work study
The values, life experience and family influences which have shaped Lissy’s social work journey
White privilege and class privilege and it’s impact on social work practice
Reflections on student placement in a remote community
Differences in communication
The unique skills and knowledge Lissy has developed from her experience in remote work
Considerations for entering a community for the first time
The values and ethics which shape Lissy’s culturally fit practice framework
Equality and the myth of ‘all the free stuff that Aboriginal people get’
The difference between social work in Indigenous communities and social work in other contexts
The development of inner and external resources
Encouragement for new graduates to dive into social work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
We hope you enjoy this episode. If you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page. I am currently working on listing ‘Talk The Walk’ with podcasters including iTunes to make subscribing easy. Stay tuned.
A HOC Learning Workshop for strong Aboriginal Women in community
Since the Healing Our Children (HOC) project began, I have been responsible for developing Learning Workshops (aka a training program) for Aboriginal women in remote communities. I was particularly interested in finding ways of engaging workshop participants that fits with a two way learning approach. The methodology of Collective Narrative Timelines sat very comfortably with me because it powerfully honours the knowledge of everyone in the room. Cheryl White has said “this was a method that enabled participants to share powerful personal memory and history but in a way that linked to a collective theme. It brought people together while also acknowledging a great diversity of experience.” (Denborough 2008, p. 144)
The process generally goes like this.
Draw a timeline on a long piece of paper that stretches across a large wall.
Draw a map of the world.
Ask the group to reflect on a wish, a commitment, a hope, a learning or a value that is important to them. Ask each person to think about:
the history of this wish/commitment/hope/learning or value and when it began. What year/date?
Where did you learn this or develop this (what place)?
Who did you learn it from?
Who did you learn it with? (Denborough 2008, p. 147)
Each person is given a small piece of paper to document this story in a few sentences. They are then invited to stick their piece of paper on the timeline at the appropriate date/year and briefly share their story with the group. If the person has a link to a particular place, this can also be marked by a dot on the map with a few words depicting their story.
The focus of my Learning Workshops is on the theoretical and cultural knowledge underpinning understandings of how trauma occurs in early childhood. I wanted my Narrative Timeline activity to orient the women participants to this topic by moving them into a place of looking through children’s eyes, by reflecting on their own childhood experience. This was a bit of a twist on the original Narrative Timeline approach in that it is also quite therapeutic. The following was indicative of the instructions I gave to set this up.
“We’re going to take a moment to think about what it was like for us to be a child and to document some of these memories on a timeline. For some of you it might be uncomfortable to think about a childhood memory, so if this becomes too hard for you, it’s OK to have some time out. See if you can think of a particular time when your parents said something to you or did something, that really had an impact on you. This can be a good or not so good memory but you might find it more pleasant to think about a positive memory you have. It needs to be a memory you are comfortable sharing with the group. Try to remember:
Where you were?
Who was there?
How old you were?
What was said or done?
A collective narrative timeline of Aboriginal women’s childhood experiences
The timeline that I had drawn up was a Child Age Timeline from 0 – 18 years. Each participant was invited to stick their paper on the timeline on the age that related to their story and briefly share their reflection. I also followed up with the question ‘How has this memory shaped the person that you are today in a positive way (emphasizing that both good memories and bad memories can shape us in positive ways)? This question got the women thinking about how their own childhood experience influenced their current parenting with their own children or grandchildren. To illustrate this point, I would also share my own childhood memory on the timeline – receiving painful physical discipline with a strap – and how this shaped my own parenting beliefs and a commitment to never use harsh physical discipline on my own children.
As a follow up to this activity, we also reflected as a group on:
For those of you that had a good memory….What was it that you really appreciated about your parents?
For those that had a bad memory…Is there something you would have liked your parents to do or say instead? What would you have liked more of?
Then everyone was invited to reflect on…
What does this say about any hopes you have or had for your children?
These key messages were written under the timeline, as future commitments or as a way of reconnecting with closely held past commitments.
The light bulb moments are usually the connections people make when they reflect on a significant childhood memory and the particular skills, knowledge and values they have taken on from their parents/grandparents and how this has shaped them today. Simple realisations like:
a commitment to ‘taking responsibility’ from the experience of being blamed by a mother for everything as a child
the importance of ‘having a joke and seeing the lighter side of life in times of crisis’ related to the carefree attitude of a grandfather who laughed off a near miss car accident
‘being open to different religious points of view’ because grandma went to lots of different churches and cultural events
‘the importance of family above all else’ being raised by a mother who showed so much love.
These realisations although personal for each individual also have resonance with the whole group. Although diverse, the combined wisdom of Elders, strong women and struggling grand/parents is honoured. It is through our collective experience of early childhood experience and its influence on us as parents or carers, we are connected and united. This visual representation of collective history we created together stayed on the wall during the remainder of our workshop. It is from this shared standing point that we progressed into the meatier, heavier topics of trauma and its impact on children in our LearningWorkshop.
References: Denborough, D. 2008, Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to Individuals, Groups and Communities who have experienced Trauma, Dulwich Centre Publications.
For more ideas on working with Aboriginal women around parenting using reflections from their own childhood experience, see Rings of Growth.
The easy access of my local ‘bottlo’ contributes to the greatest tragedy of all unfolding in my neighbourhood.
Over the past few weeks as the wet season has taken hold in the Top End, an increasing number of homeless Aboriginal people (called long grassers) are on the move. The bus shelter across the road from our house has become a shelter, a mere stumble from our local handy-store which freely sells alcohol. This is the site where arguments break out just after 10am daily about who is paying for the grog or the taxi, women yell profanities at their men at the tops of their voices and beer bottles are smashed on the road. Since the Country Liberal party decided to scrap the ‘Banned Drinking Register’ 3 years ago these scenes have become all too common again. On the weekend, my husband had to stand at the end of our driveway to motion for cars to slow down, as a man lay on the middle of the road after going biffo with another intoxicated family member.
The greatest tragedy is not that the police showed up half an hour after I called, enough time for someone to lose their life. Nor is it that there are people passed out on the footpath day after day and how sad it all seems to be living a life like that. The greatest tragedy is that there is most often a small child in a pusher or clutching on to their mother watching all this.
Don’t get me wrong. All of it is extremely disturbing and very upsetting to hear and see on a daily basis. But I can’t help imagining that this child’s future is being laid down right this very minute in front of my very eyes.
Unfortunately I don’t see an end to the drinking and antisocial behaviour in the near future. Despite the introduction of mandatory treatment of people who break the law while drinking, the trauma, the hurt, the pain remains and the drinking continues. I despair thinking it is too late for this generation who have most likely grown up in violence or abuse themselves.
We can change the future for the children.
But the children. That is a different matter. Here we have an opportunity to make a real difference. To change things for them. To put a stop to the cycle.
This is where I have great faith in the work of the Healing Our Children project. The power of the project lies in working with Aboriginal women who are caring for young children to understand the impact that witnessing violence has on the developing brain in pregnancy and infancy. It is my hope that women will be in a more empowered position to make good choices on behalf of their children. A conscious and fully-informed decision between staying and putting up with the abuse or leaving to find a safe place, could make all the difference to the life of an accompanying child.
As I sit and stare outside my window to that babe in arms, I feel paralysed knowing there’s nothing I can do at this very moment. I am also full of determination and hope that we can prevent this tragedy affecting the next generation.
One of the aims of the Healing Our Children project in which I work involves “building up the capacity of the community to respond to domestic and family violence”. One of the issues I have with this statement is that it assumes that people don’t already have capacity. Having worked on the Tiwi Islands for almost 10 years now, I know that there are many people in community actively responding in protective ways and resisting the effects of violence in their families.
So how do we honour what it is that people already know and do, when our aim might be to contribute to the conversation with new knowledge and skills? My preference is to facilitate ‘Learning Workshops’, however to satisfy the needs of funders and other service providers I find myself using the language of ‘training’ with them.
Perhaps I fell into the concept of ‘two way learning’ because it fit with my values and ethical ways of practising, but there is also a lot written about this from the field of education. The two way or both way learning approach grew out of the work of Mandawuy Yunupiŋu and Nalwarri Ngurruwutthun in Yolŋu schools in the 1980’s. Indigenous culture and language was taught alongside the Western curriculum, acknowledging the value and worth of both world views.
One of the strongest beliefs for me is that I have just as much to learn from Indigenous folk as they may learn from me. By introducing a concept from the Western knowledge system and inviting dialogue about it amongst the workshop participants, so much more can be gained from the experience. In fact, the results can be quite surprising.
What would this look like exactly? Well, here’s one example of a simple activity I conducted in a recent learning workshop on the Tiwi Islands.
You may be familiar with the widely used Abuse of Children wheel and the corresponding Nurturing Children wheel developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP). As you would understand, a learning workshop on abuse of children can get quite heavy, so I am always interested in lightening the conversation and focusing on the strengths, skills and abilities of communities. I decided to cut up the different parts of the Nurturing Children wheel, a bit like slicing up a pie. Each participant took a piece and talked with a person next to them about how they see this aspect of nurturing children happen in their own community. Coming back to the bigger group, after clarifying what some of the Western ideas and words meant (some of them were unfamiliar), we came up with a list of ways Tiwi people are nurturing children.
This represented ‘Caring for Children – Tiwi Way’ and it looked something like this.
Out of this grew a conversation about the importance of Tiwi culture in growing up strong kids. There was a strong sense of needing to do something for the children and families who had been affected by violence.
The Elders of the group then started sharing stories about the ceremonies and traditional practices they had used for healing and had been taught about by their ancestors. These included smoking ceremonies for healing the good spriit and releasing the bad, and the use of white clay for strength and vitality, applied to the body in the bush and left there until it wore off. They reflected that occasionally the traditional practice of applying white clay to the grieving widow was still happening, but there was a sense that these practices were slowly disappearing. The women began talking about how they might bring traditional healing practices back, to take the children and families affected by violence out bush and to pass on this knowledge.
From learning to dialogue to action. This is the power of the ‘two way learning’ approach.
I employ the same approach for everything, whether it be sharing new ideas from the field of neuroscience or introducing people to modalities of narrative therapy. Oh, and another very important thing. I develop the content and process of the workshops alongside a cultural adviser, and where possible they are employed and co-facilitating the workshops with me. This ensures the whole things is culturally-safe! It means a lot of work has already happened behind the scenes sharing the knowledge with the cultural adviser first!
The process is a piece of pie really! Take a piece of Western knowledge and serve it up in a digestible way, break it up into bite-size pieces, allow people to chew it over and add their own flavour, and see what is spat out. You are likely to uncover some precious tried and true recipes of community knowledge, skills and values!
Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony
The past month has been a very exciting one as the Healing Our Children (HOC) program starts to finally spread its message across the Tiwi Islands. For me, the program represents best culturally-safe, social work practice by combining scientific knowledge from the Western World with Aboriginal worldviews, cultural traditions and healing knowledge. Neither is prefaced as being superior to the other, with both adding value to the theme of prevention and healing from trauma. The resources we have developed represent four years of consultation with Elders about the best ways of engaging Aboriginal women in the communities we work.
The smoking ceremony is one traditional practice that is very important in Tiwi culture to promote healing. That is why a healing activity or ceremony has been built into the groupwork program. The smoking ceremony offers a space for mums and their children (if present) a place to heal and Elders to be empowered in leadership of this traditional practice.
On our first HOC bush camp, I had the opportunity to interview Molly Munkara, an Elder from Wurrumiyanga, to share insight into the spiritual significance of the smoking ceremony.
“Long time ago, Tiwi people used smoking ceremony as part of their ritual. Healing is part of our traditional culture. The smoking ceremony….it cleanses our mind…and heart.”
Molly says she was only 4 or 5 when she was taught about the smoking ceremony.
“We learnt that from our grandparents…our ancestors. They handed down that smoking ceremony to our parents. I was joining in, looking, participating in what they do.”
Molly shared the significance of the ceremony at sorry time.
“When a person passes away, it’s in-laws of the deceased person that prepares the smoking ceremony and the Elders too. We have a meeting, discussion first. And they talk to the families about it, when it is going to happen…
They send a message around the smoking ceremony is happening on that particular day. And they gather round. Families or anybody who have connected to that person’s life [can participate].”
On this night, I witnessed a smoking ceremony with a different purpose – healing of the self in mind, body and spirit. The Elders began by calling out to the spirit ancestors for keeping us safe, instructions for the children on what to do, a song and prayer from the Catholic tradition. After the leaves of the bloodwood tree were set alight, crackling under the heat, Elders used small bunches bathed in smoke to swipe the shoulders and head of those being blessed.
Bloodwood leaves for smoking
“We’re going to gather around the smoking ceremony to heal our spirit… purify our minds and cleanse our bad spirit away. Bring the good spirit inside us.”
“A couple of ladies will do the smoking, they build up the fire and put their leaves in the drum, and then when they are ready, they will call. We will walk through the smoke.”
I wondered allowed whether Molly had any particular thoughts in her mind during the ceremony.
“We think about things that are not right in our lives. And we’ll throw that away with the smoke. And then we think about new life after that, new beginnings. What are we going to do that’s really good for us and our lives. We do get some [messages] from elders, what they want us to do. Like get a better life. Try not to fall into that same bad cycle, that goes around. Try to get out of it. And then start to form a new life, good life. So we can be happy and in good health. Feeling great about myself. We really need to love ourselves too. And treat ourselves with respect.”
Preparing the fire
Molly reflected on how the smoking ceremony has been healing for her own life.
“The smoking ceremony has helped me a lot in my mind and heart, physically and emotionally. [Physically], it helps you, in what you do [not with illness or disease]. Like going out with family, spending time with them, going out hunting with the Elders, gathering, singing and joining in any other activities.”
It’s an honour and privilege to be invited onto traditional country to not only allow us to run our program but also be invited to participate in traditional healing practices such as the smoking ceremony.
For anyone practising social work in Indigenous communities, I encourage you to think about the sort of traditional knowledge and practices that can be respectfully acknowledged and built into your program. Too often I hear about cultural practices that are dying out or lost forever. Many of these offer opportunities for Aboriginal people to help themselves.
Our work should be about healing too, not just therapy.
The strong pull towards evidence-based practice demanded by funding bodies creates dilemmas for social workers who also have a commitment to community development, empowerment and anti-oppressive practices. So how does one undertake a project evaluation in a remote Indigenous community if trying to marry Western evaluation processes with cultural safety? My current project working with a Review Team consisting of local Aboriginal community members may offer some food for thought.
In our first meeting together, we spent quite a lot of time exploring what evaluation is, so that everyone had a grasp of what it was we were trying to achieve. During this process, I found myself observing our independent external evaluator using language that was just too difficult to understand. A lot of big words. Too many words. Inputs, outputs, outcomes and impacts. Quality criteria, KPI’s and program logic. It was making my mind boggle, let alone those whose minds are converting English to Tiwi language and back again.
The ‘Pinyama’ Evaluation framework is mapped out using the tree metaphor
I needed to intervene. So we went back to the drawing board. Literally. My drawing was a massive tree on large pieces of butchers paper taped together. All the parts of the tree were there – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit.
Then as a group we started mapping out what our evaluation looked like. But we didn’t talk about Inputs. We talked about the food and nourishment that a tree needs to grow and the sorts of things that would get our program growing and sustain its life. The nourishment ended up being a long list of good, strong values that would underpin the work.
Words were shared about the project history, much like how it started out like a seed. “The seed represents starting new life and new babies. It is about looking forward to a strong future with our strong families in strong culture.”
When it came to exploring the trunk of the tree, there was strong agreement that this represented culture. Culture wasn’t just in the middle holding up this project strong, straight and proud; it is all around, everywhere. The many practices and traditions which have been around for thousands of years were written on the trunk. There was agreement if the tree was not growing strong, culture has the answers.
As our project had two broad outcomes, these became the two main branches of the tree. It was easy for our group then to consider what it was we would be doing to achieve these outcomes. This became the smaller branches (or the activities of the project) running off the big branches. Attached to this were the leaves, each one representing a stakeholder in the project, helping us collectively to achieve our outcomes. The fruit represented the changes the Review Team wished to bring about for their people and their community. The fruit (aka project impacts) were divided into two sections for each of the big branches.
Although it was not documented on our tree, the metaphor of a storm harming the tree could be used to explore the potential risks to the project. Storms were used in our context to explore the risks to individuals who might be participants in the project, namely the effects of drugs, alcohol and violence. A hope was expressed that “We, the Tiwi people can help ourselves to heal and recover from these storms, just like a tree that regenerates over time.”
Now that our tree drawing was full of delightful fruits bursting with hopes and dreams for their community growing on two strong branches, the evaluator’s attention turned to developing a quality criteria. “How will we know if we are doing a good job in the program?” Of course, there would be a big tunga (a Tiwi woven basket) under the tree overflowing with good quality fruit wouldn’t there? This would tell us the tree (and program) was healthy.
When we started out using the metaphor of the tree to map out what an evaluation would look like for our project, we had no idea how it would go. At one point in our discussion, someone came up with the idea of ‘having a strong sense of direction’ because every seed needs to be planted in the right place, facing the right way. The group agreed “We believe that change is everything, we can all make changes and we can make a difference. Having these beliefs gives us a sense of direction.” The tree was also growing with a purpose; there were particular people we are reaching out for, and this represented our target group.
A Tiwi artists representation of the Pinyama Evaluation Framework. Artist: C. Tipiloura.
The Review Team decided that the Evaluation Tree looked like a pinyama (wild bush apple). Ideally, the pinyama tree likes to grow near the beach in swampy conditions but on the Tiwi’s it has adapted to grow in good, sandy soils. It seemed like a fitting tree for this project. It just so happened there was one growing right outside the window where we were meeting. And it was fruiting.
The Review Team became so engaged in this process, they were inspired to harness the skills of an emerging artist to depict their ‘Pinyama Evaluation Framework’ as an artwork (but that is another story). The Review Team has continued in subsequent gatherings to determine how they will test the fruit to see if it is of good quality and good for their people. In other words, how the project impacts will be measured.
Using the tree metaphor to explore and understand the process of Evaluation has allowed this community to see, feel and bring to life their own vision for this project. Of course, it is just a starting point. Like any tree, this vision may change over time as the project grows, changes and eventually bears the first fruit.
In what ways have you used metaphors in Project Evaluation? I’d love to hear your stories.
Like the bush damper, my social work practice framework is a recipe I’ve learnt from wiser people around me.
I was recently asked by the Australian Childhood Foundation to answer some questions which would be used to contribute to the development of a team practice framework. I have no doubt my answers will be very different to other members of the team. It represents what is the best mix for me at this point in time. It is an emerging and ever-evolving recipe for working with Indigenous communities. Like any recipe, there is always room for improvement. Here are just some of the ingredients.
How would you describe the 5 most important principles that underpin your approach to working with children and families?
Awareness of Aboriginal history, colonisation, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. This is a big topic to get your head around but it is necessary. One cannot be working with Indigenous folk without appreciating and accepting how ‘white privilege’ impacts on our work. It is an ongoing learning project for me. This is closely linked with the social work values of human rights and social justice which are the core values that drive my passion for this work.
Mutual respect. This cannot be achieved without a relationship. If you give respect, you can expect respect in return. Establishing a relationship of trust is the most important part of the work, given Indigenous people can be suspicious of whitefellas (with very good reason – there is a history of people coming into their communities, doing their work and leaving without engaging in authentic consultation or setting up any sustainable change processes). It was important to me to stick around, to show that I wasn’t going to be another ‘white toyota’. In my first 6 months working remote, all I did was had cups of tea with people and listened. This was so important in being able to establish a relationship of mutual respect.
Doing ‘with’ not ‘for’. It is walking alongside our clients, not in front and not behind. This is probably the hardest principle to stay connected with. It is very tempting to take over and do things for people when they have become so disempowered. I have to constantly remind myself ‘how can I be?” rather than ‘what can I do?’ There is also a risk of overdoing it, thinking you can save the world and then dropping behind from burnout. I am reminded of the words from Lila Watson
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Genuine collaboration and accountability to the community. This is not something that should happen as an aside in the work. This should be first, foremost and ongoing. It follows on from my previous point about ‘doing with not for’, and my next point about not being the expert. I have written a bit about collaboration from a cultural perspective elsewhere.
Coming from a stance of curiosity and non-expert. I don’t have the answers. I will never know what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aboriginal person. But I do have skills in being able to listen to the problems of people’s lives and reconnect them with their skills, knowledge, values, hopes and visions that may have temporarily become lost. I believe everyone has the capacity to find their own solutions if they are prepared to explore the ‘real me’. Discovering the person that has got lost, sometimes means working through some really hard issues that have got in the way of their preferred self. My approach is therefore one of curiosity.
What theories or knowledge do you draw on to inform your approach?
Community development theories. Of all my formal social work education, the theoretical understandings of community development have had the most impression on me. Community is also an important part of my personal life too. I take an active role in volunteering, participating in community life and being a change agent in the community development process.
Systems theory. One cannot work with children alone. For real change to occur we must engage at the family, community and society level. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.
Two way learning
Two way learning model. This implies I have just as much to learn from the people I work with as they do from me. We are exploring the questions and finding the answers together. When I started working in NE Arnhemland I took the time to document the emerging practice framework between myself and our Yolngu worker to demonstrate how Yolngu and Western worldviews were working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence. I hoped it might give some insight into how other workers might marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing. This reflection speaks extensively about the knowledge, values, beliefs and skills underpinning this cultural practice framework. I also enjoy documenting and sharing the skills, knowledge and abilities of Indigenous folk who are staying strong in the face of hardship. Many of these stories can be found here.
In recent years I have been drawn to the trauma-informed approach in children’s counselling to address concerns around behaviour, learning, health and various aspects of wellbeing. But how does this scientific knowledge inform our work with groups and communities who have experienced intergenerational trauma, where the effects of violence are normalised? What affects has the impact of trauma from colonisation, dispossession and assimilation had and continue to have on Aboriginal people, families and communities from a neuroscience perspective? These are big questions I wonder about.
There are many, many other theories and pieces of knowledge somewhere deep inside my brain. But these are the ones that come to mind at this present moment.
How do you describe the goals or aims of your work?
I am really passionate about early intervention and prevention. These terms get thrown around a lot so they have lots of different meanings for different people. My passion is about the prevention of trauma through culturally safe therapeutic support. My current work is all about the prevention of trauma in young children under 3. I believe this is where we can make the most difference in breaking the cycle of violence and trauma. If we can get a child through the first 1000 days of their life with a secure attachment and no ongoing exposure to harmful trauma then they have a much better chance of growing up strong and healthy. Unfortunately, many Aboriginal children have an early childhood developmental history of exposure to domestic or family violence, child abuse or drug and alcohol abuse. In 5-10 years time, my hope is that this number is reduced significantly because there is more investment being made in the early years to ensure children’s safety, security and emotional needs are being met. It seems wrong to me that we spend all the money on children when they reach school. The damage has already been done by them and it is harder to heal.
What are the 5 most important techniques that you use in your work?
Narrative therapy. I have shared some of the ways of I incorporate narrative practice into my work with Indigenous folk here.
Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.
Expressive therapies. Communicating using drawing, painting, craft, clay, storytelling in the sandtray or with puppets. These are the mediums where many great things can happen from externalising problems to integrating trauma. I have had fun writing about and developing my own art therapy techniques, testing, reflecting on and reshaping them to ensure they are culturally safe.
Indirect questioning. It is better to invite an Aboriginal person to tell their story than to ask a whole lot of direct questions. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to get a picture of what is going on, maybe many months. This requires patience. But at least you won’t be causing more shame or bad feelings for that person through interrogation.
Attentive listening. Double listening. Listening for what is said as well as what is not said. Watching out for the signs of resistence. Listening for the ways people are standing up to the effects of problems and systems on their lives. Looking for the sunlight peering through a small crack that opens the door to people’s preferred ways of living their lives.
Self care. I cannot approach my work with care and empathy if I am not giving this to myself. I have learnt the hard way. In 2013, I developed early stage thyroid disease which can be exacerbated by stress and shortly after, herniated a disc in my lower back. Both of these physical impediments are closely linked to psychological health. Remote work can be taxing even when you are healthy and have a strong mind like I do. I had to give up my work for a while to begin a process of healing and recovery. This has been a long hard process. I have learnt how to listen to my body and meditation has now become a daily practice (something I struggled with for many years).
Helping people to help themselves and employing local people.
What are the 3 outcomes that you believe you achieve in your work?
Trust. And with that comes engagement. Once you have engagement, then you can work together on the practical issues. This goes for counselling – resulting in the client feeling listened to, finding the conversation helpful, wanting to come back and moving forward in their lives. It goes for community work too, with Elders and leaders of the community wanting to stay connected to what you are doing.
Awareness raising. While I would like to say that I have been able to stop violence in a family or community, it’s probably not the case most of the time. The best I can hope for is to make women and children aware of the impact of trauma on themselves, their children and their community. It is up to them in the end, whether they stand up to it or take action to protect themselves and those around them. My latest project is getting ‘the brain story’ out to women in communities, so that they can make a more trauma-informed choice about their protective behaviours towards children.
Helping communities to help themselves. I am committed to employing and mentoring local people to work alongside me.
What kind of supports do you believe are important for you to experience that will enable you to improve the effectiveness and quality of your work?
Supervision from an Aboriginal social work practitioner. This is difficult to access when working under funding arrangements which don’t necessarily value this.
What books or journal articles have inspired you?
Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma In Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson
Collective narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma by David Denborough. His latest book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives is such an accessible, easy read. It is designed for anyone to be able to do their own healing using the gentle principles of the narrative approach.
Telling Our Stories in Ways that Make us Stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester
Our Voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work eds. B Bennett, S. Green, S. Gilbert, D. Besserab
The Art Therapy Sourcebook or anything by Cathy Malchiodi
Anything by Dan Seigal including his many U-tube clips and TED talks.
About five years ago, I was attending a conference in Alice Springs. Richard Frankland, an Aboriginal man, was presenting his research on Lateral Violence. After hearing this term for the first time a light bulb lit up. I now had a new lens to view the disturbing level of violence I was noticing in the communities I was working in. Not the fighting in the streets – the family feuding and the kids brawling – that is very visual. I’m also referring to the more sinister violence you don’t always see, but you feel and hear.
Later that year, I started getting emails about Lateral Violence from William Brian Butler. Butler was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory, following his Mother’s forced removal from his Grandmother where they lived at the detention centre known as The Bungalow in Alice Springs. Brian lived at the Bagot Reserve in Darwin with his Mother, up until the beginning of the II World War, which forced them to evacuate back to Alice Springs and be reunited with Family. Butler had been doing research using Facebook. His suspicions were confirmed. Not a lot of people had heard of Lateral Violence, let alone what to do about it.
So what exactly are we talking about? The legal definition says lateral violence “happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both”. Paul Memmott defines it as “unresolved grief that is associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations”.
I’d had a good understanding of Australia’s colonialising history and not surprised by the level of physical violence I was seeing. But lateral violence is even more subtle.
Internalised feelings such as anger and rage are manifested through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming. It can include nonverbal innuendo like raising eyebrows and making faces, bullying, snide remarks, abrupt responses and lack of openness, shaming, undermining, social exclusion and turning away, withholding information, sabotage, infighting, scapegoating, backstabbing, not respecting privacy, broken confidences and organisational conflict.
During my time out bush, I saw lateral violence lead to more explicit conflict which broke up relationships, families and communities.
In response to the phenomenon that is Lateral Violence which is shared by colonised peoples across the world, Butler has taken upon himself to respond by leading the Lateral Love and Spirit of Care for all Mankind campaign. Butler urges his own people to put down their arms and stand their ground using unconditional love in the quest for healing and justice.
Barbara Wingard, an Aboriginal practitioner and teacher with the Dulwich Centre has drawn on the traditional of storytelling to educate Aboriginal people about the nature of Lateral Violence. Following the narrative concept of collective externalising conversations, one person interviews another who is role-playing the persona of Lateral Violence. Learn in such an engaging and interactive way makes it safe to explore what can otherwise be tricky territory. Here’s an exerpt….
What makes you powerful, Lateral Violence?
“I reckon I’m doing my best work when I get families to fight against one another … It’s fantastic when everybody wants to take sides. This creates a bigger divide. I can also stop Aboriginal people from working with white people. I do that pretty well and I confuse white people about Aboriginal culture too. I try to convince white people to think bad things about Aboriginal culture… In some Aboriginal communities I try to get people of Aboriginal heritage to be suspicious and judge each other by asking ‘who is Aboriginal and who is not really Aboriginal?… I start to manipulate who is and who is not (Wingard 2010).”
I have witnessed some great acts of Lateral Love now being taken by Aboriginal communities to counteract the devastation of Lateral violence. While working on the Tiwi Islands, a few years ago cyberbullying and sexting got out of control. The old people were becoming increasingly concerned about how young people were using mobile phones to send anonymous messages via social media that were mostly degrading, harassing or untrue. The result was conflict between young people, family infighting and even in some cases self harm and attempted suicide.
The community responded by organising several community meetings and the issue was taken very seriously. In what was a rather quick response, popular band B2M with the assistance of Skinnyfish came on board with a media campaign that would appeal to young people to raise awareness of the dangers of misuse of social media. Here is what they came up with:
Here we have a community recognising the problem, and rallying together to arm themselves with the skills and knowledge needed to take appropriate action. A Lateral Love Action!
For those of you who have never met Lateral Violence, I dare you to sit down and have a chat. You might be surprised to hear about the sneaky tricks of this insidious killer, friend of the coloniser who arrived by boat in 1788 and has been quietly working away in the shadows ever since.
Wingard, B. 2010, ‘A conversation with Lateral Violence’ in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 1
Memmott, P. 2001, ‘Community Based Strategies for Combating Indigenous Violence’
When I first met Anne Davis back in 2007, she was sitting on the ground weaving baskets at the Women’s Centre or sleeping out under the stars with young girls and Strong Women. This is not what you’d expect of your average sexual health nurse, but then, working in remote Aboriginal communities is not your average gig. I liked her immediately. There was something about Anne’s approach that really connected with people and earned her huge respect. Now the remote communities in which she works has some of the lowest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the Territory, so she must be doing something right!
We know a lot about the effects of intergenerational trauma such as domestic and family violence, alcohol and drugs and forced removal. But what about the social effects of unsafe sexual practices? In most cases, unsafe sex is closely linked with these other social ills.
So what exactly is the extent of the problem? Well, Aboriginal people across Australia are more likely to be diagnosed with an STI than non-Indigenous Australians. Notification rates for STI’s in the NT are much higher than rates for Australia. In 2011, chlamydia was three times higher and gonorrhoea 16 times higher. Although declining since 2006, syphilis is also higher than other states and territories.
So what does this mean for Anne and her work in remote communities? One of the biggest challenges is getting the message out to young kids as young as ten, who are starting to have sex.
“We’d like to be able to engage with the 10-15 year olds and talk to them around sexual health and get them in for testing, but there’s legal barriers. We are not allowed to offer young people tests between the ages of 10 and 15. The legal age is sixteen. It’s often after they’ve had sex or an unpleasant experience or when we find someone who has a sexually transmitted infection, by then it is too late… That’s a devastating outcome.”
Other barriers include lack of access to services, lack of privacy or the stigma associated with going to the clinic.
Although it appears not much headway is being made across the Territory, in some specific communities Anne says “we are getting results”. One of the key strategies is community education. For Anne, this sometimes means packing up the swag and heading out bush.
“For a long time I just sat and made baskets with the women. It took me a long time to actually broach the subjects around sex and women’s health. In fact, I don’t think I ever did. They actually took up the questions with me. We started with putting education into the school, because that’s where [the women] felt the education was needed. Now I’ve got organisations like Youth Justice coming, to let me know they’ve got [Alchohol and other Drug] funding and I go talk to the Strong Women for them….[These issues] are quite linked because of the risk factors of alcohol and other drugs, and young women and young men having sex earlier and unsafe practices. We try to prevent those things from happening by going on bush camps [with young people]. There’s a certain amount of peer education that comes out of that.”
“There’s strong women in the community that have a strong passion for women’s health and teaching women about sex… Strong men turn up to those camps too… It’s a bit of introduction to life in a way because the young women are expected to manage the camp, do the cooking, feed the Elders, Elders tell the young people what they expect of them. The young women cook and the older women might make damper for the younger kids. They open up the sessions with a prayer. I don’t tell anybody what to do… They tell us exactly when we can do the education, the time, the exact subjects that we’re allowed to talk about. And usually it’s about sex, how it works and safer sex practices, [the Elders] really want them to understand that.”
Although Anne has a suitcase of educational resources in tow, she doesn’t always use it. Often it’s about making the most of a moment, allowing people to share their story, in their own time, in their own way. Although not trained in narrative or art therapy, Anne often uses drawing and storytelling in her work, a gentle approach of intuition and creativity.
“The Strong Women would have given us the theme… something simple like “tell us something about you and your family that is really positive and something that you’d like to change”. Out of that came all the alcohol stuff and the cigarettes and the dysfunction and wanting to get a job or have a baby…. We just put out a great big sheet of calico and people just chose their place around it, where they wanted to draw. And art materials were there. They chose whatever colours they wanted, and however they wanted to draw. And we just walked around and talked to the family once they’d done their drawing.… That was when I met these two girls whose families had been absolutely torn apart through drugs and alcohol and domestic violence. And we were able to offer support. There were tears. And with family there, those young girls, they felt supportive in that environment. The drawing allowed them to kind of feel safe.”
What starts as an intention to do community education out bush can turn into a life changing conversation.
“There have been women who’ve said through drawing and talking, that alcohol and domestic violence caused extreme family dysfunction and that they’ve wanted to reshape their lives. We have been able to get people into rehabilitation programs. It’s been a long term sort of thing. Recently, I came across one of the girls who remembered me… she’d changed quite a lot. She said to me she was still with the same partner, she’d given up drinking but she’d been in a lot of trouble after the camp with drinking and she’d been bashed up… She had even been incarcerated… But she’d come through the other side of that and feeling really positive. She said she has a lot to contribute to her community now. She feels a lot more confident… she can be a leader.“
Condom vending machine discreetly located in a remote community petrol station.
And of course, Anne’s other big passion is condom vending machines. Determined to have condoms accessible in the community 24/7 so that young people can always engage in safer sex practices, Anne even had a machine installed at a petrol station.
“All the studies overseas show that where you have condoms, you get a reduction in disease. And we believe that’s the case in the NT as well. But it’s a challenge to keep them there. I’ve been trying to get community people to fill the condom dispensers and take some sort of ownership for it.”
While many criticise the strategy when children pull out condoms and literally rubbish the streets with them, to Anne it’s a positive thing. At least they are out there!
Closely entwined with family violence and alcohol abuse, the sexual health crisis in Australia can be viewed as another effect of historical trauma, beginning with the introduction of sexually transmitted diseases after invasion. A great distrust developed between Aboriginal people and health professions, with hospitals being seen as places to die rather than heal. Hence, we see today the reluctance of people to seek help. Anne’s work is testament to the commitment of NT Health to try to close the gap; to meet people on their terms in their health or healing journey; and to incorporate the wellbeing of the whole person into their practice – physical, social, emotional and cultural.
Anne Davis, Sexual Health Co-ordinator at NT Health. “I’m in primary health care, in a unique position, the only one of it’s kind in the Top End.”
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