If you know how to ‘Walk the Talk’ then let’s ‘Talk the Walk’

Walking the Talk on a Bathurst Island beach

In Wiktionary, to ‘walk the talk’ means ‘to perform actions consistent with one’s claims’.  I first came across this term in Reconciliation circles.  It implied that if you really wanted to make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal people, then don’t just talk the rhetoric; you have to get off your backside and walk with them in the fight for justice and recognition.  To me, it is also important to walk alongside, not in front and not behind.

So how do we walk alongside in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, when practising social work, a profession which has a history of baggage like removing children from families?  This was a question I was trying to answer when I graduated with my Social Work degree.

At that time, working with Indigenous people seemed like a daunting task.  I remember feeling so inspired and passionate about living out my social work values of human rights and social justice, that I upped and moved my young family from big city life to the remote North.  To be honest, it was scarey, I didn’t know where to start and I had no real mentors to show me the way.   Like many others, I was thrown in the deep end, flying out to remote communities, with nothing but a listening ear to offer.  For two years, I felt like I was in a big bucket of water, with just my mouth sticking out, gasping for air, just surviving.  I continually questioned ‘am I doing this right’?  Am I making a difference?  Or am I contributing to the problem?

Most of us come with good intentions, bringing all of our head, heart and hand to the work, but how do we do it in a way that is decolonising and authentic.  What does best practice social work in Australia’s indigenous communities actually look like on the ground?

‘Talk the Walk’ will feature interviews with those who have trod a well-known path.

This is the question I hope to explore in a new podcast, I’ll be developing and launching in the coming months.  Don’t throw out your textbooks, but I believe there is real value in hearing stories of experience, straight from the mouths of those covered in dirt, sweat and dust.  “Talk the Walk” will feature interviews with those working in the field as well as traditional voices with words of wisdom for the whitefellas in white Toyotas.

My hope is that “Talk the Walk” will be a valuable resource for graduating social work students preparing for the journey ahead, and a watering hole for the rest of us who continue to learn every day!

If you or someone you know would make a great interview, please drop me a line through our Contact Us page.  They could be a social worker, community development worker, counsellor or other allied health professional, or an Elder or Indigenous community member.

Yes, I can see the irony here.  A podcast is all about talking.  So my thinking is that, the podcast is a learning tool to help all of us get off our butts and do the walking.

So if you know how to walk the talk, tell me your story.   Let’s ‘Talk the Walk’ together.

Why I do Learning Workshops, not training in Aboriginal communities!

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A Learning Workshop on the Tiwi Islands

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.

tiwi-nurturing-and-care-wheel

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!

References

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP)

‘About Both Ways Education’ at The Living Knowledge project

The Practice of Dadirri and my Work as a ‘Ranger’

germination-after-bushfire“Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.  We call on it and it calls to us.  This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for.  It is something like what you call contemplation.  Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for Nature.  The identity we have with the land is sacred and unique.”

These are the words of Miriam-Rose Ungurmurr first uttered in 1998 during the Pope’s visit to Australia and echoing in my mind on recent occasions.   Last weekend I had an opportunity to experience first hand, how it is we can tune into our true selves through the process of Dadirri. With other like-minded people, we gathered under the big shady tree overlooking the community oval at Daly River.  Miriam-Rose was there, as this is her home.  Also holding us in this space, was Judy Atkinson, another wise Indigenous soul, known for her trauma-informed work with communities.   My interest in attending this gathering is mostly about how I, as a non-Indigenous woman can walk alongside my Indigenous brothers and sisters on their healing journeys.  I have a strong sense of ‘we’re in this together’.

Miriam was quick to point out that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing.  It’s just that White fellas have not been given an opportunity to practice it.  There is certainly a lot being written in the Western world at the moment on mindfulness meditation and this is probably the closest thing there is to understanding the practice of dadirri.  Judy says mindful practice is “being put up as the mantra as the response to trauma”.  Dadirri goes deeper.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be connected spiritually to the country, being in nature and listening to the rhythm of the land.  While I won’t ever fully understand Aboriginal people’s unique sense of belonging, Miriam gave us some clues as to how this comes to be.  She asks us to sit in quiet still awareness and contemplate ‘Who are you’ and ‘how do you know who you are?’  This requires further and deeper reflection.  Who are you with?  Who are you connected to?  Who are your ancestors?  Where did your ancestors journey from to allow you to be in this place at this time?  This is something every human being can come to know if you find the stories and listen intentionally.  It is like finding and listening with purpose to the spring that is bubbling within each of us, a source of energy, of answers to life’s questions.  I couldn’t help but imagine that for someone who has experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma, this could be quite confronting.  Consider adult children who were removed from their families and don’t know who their family is, their language or their country.  This spring may be full of tears –  a well too deep to access.  For me in my white skin, going within, is much less threatening.  For I have had a privileged, safe and nurturing upbringing.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the level of despair, self destruction and pain amongst Aboriginal families and communities.  The science of epigenetics tells us that trauma is now altering the genetic material of children being born today.  And so even if the trauma did stop now (which it isn’t – families are still having their children removed from them at greater rates) how does one begin to even start the process of healing?  I saw this despair on the face of an Aboriginal woman in our gathering whose heart was crying out for help for the fifth generation of children being sexually abused in her community.  Can healing begin when the trauma is still happening?

Judy’s reflection advocated that becoming mindful and knowing who we truly are, allows us to have a clearer vision on how we can change the systems of injustice.  Judy’s notion of ‘community of care’ is like the tree we sit under that is connected underground through root systems to other trees.  These roots, although unseen are continuously connected through strong kinship systems and culture.  Not even a bushfire can destroy 40,000 years of these connections.

growth-after-bushfireMiriam went on to offer a reflection on the Pope’s words.

 “We are like the tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber.  The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burnt, but inside the tree the sap is still flowing and under the ground the roots are still strong.  Like that tree we have endured the flames and we still have the power to be re-born.”

There was a sense of hope restored in the group.  Even though bushfire after devastating bushfire sweeps through the land, scorching the trees, this is always followed by refreshing wet season rains, new leaves, new growth.  Miriam says it’s a natural thing for trees to drop their leaves and the growth always comes back.  Her people always cry in excitement when the first rains arrive.  They cry for the people that have passed away in the previous year and their tears wash the bad things away.  The plants, the trees, the land is cleansed.  A new season is starting.  Hope returns.

So here were Miriam’s final words to us.  ‘The person you are now, is it really who you are?  Is this your true spirit doing what you’re doing now?  Is there something in you, that is really you?  If so, use this gift to help others.  Believe in yourself.  There is only one of you.  You are special.  ‘There are always dreams dreaming us’ says Judy.

The practice of dadirri helps me to tune in to my purpose in being here.  I am not the firefighter.  I am the ranger burning off and establishing fire breaks.  With more rangers in the world working from a harm prevention framework, we can minimise the number of devastating bushfires, knowing that nature will always be there to heal, regenerate and restore.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice

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Using bear cards to give children a voice in the ‘third person’

One of the things I have been most passionate about in my work with children and their families is being able to give children a voice.  Sometimes this can be very challenging.  Children can be left silenced by their experience, especially in situations of domestic and family violence.  Feelings like shame, sadness, anger, guilt, despair and fear prevent children from being able to find words.

As a counsellor in remote communities, it would be very easy to become complacent and dismiss the effects of violence as normalised behaviours in children; because violence is something many children may witness and learn to live with.  But it is certainly not normal and violence shouldn’t be tolerated.  It is my experience on the Tiwi Islands working alongside local people that children, especially boys, are too scared to talk about the violence occurring in their families.  It could cause further shame for them or expose them to further punishment or abuse if they speak out.

So the challenge is….how do you allow children to have a voice without exposing them to further shame or trauma?  Of course, one does not necessarily have to speak about the details of a bad memory in order to begin the process of healing.  In fact, neuroscience suggests that sometimes it is physically impossible to recall all the details of a traumatic event anyway, due to the brains response to toxic stress and its effect on memory.  Some children may not be consciously aware of what has happened to them even though the body remembers.
The goal then is to help children integrate and transform their trauma experience without having to recall any facts.  The child will be able to relate to feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body and compulsions to behave in particular ways, even if they do not link this to any past hurts.

One way I have tried to assist integration and help children to make sense of their experience is encouraging the use of ‘third person’ voice.  Play using miniature animals or puppets, drawing or play-doh creates all sorts of opportunities for imagined creatures to tell a story.  For me, the bear cards have been a great resource in shifting children into this safe space; to explore what might have happened for bear to have an angry, scared or sad face, what is happening in his body and what he is driven to do.  The process also fits really well with the idea of ‘externalisation’ in narrative therapy, allowing the child to see that a problem sits outside of themselves, rather than taking up permanent residence inside them.  I have written elsewhere about the use of masks in therapy to assist with externalisation of feelings which are impacting in negative ways on children.

Another indirect way of assisting communication in therapy is through the use of metaphor.  In my experience running group-work programs on Aboriginal family bush camps, I’ve discovered the power of using the tree metaphor to assist people to share their strengths, abilities and skills for getting through hard times.

It is through my discovery of the power of metaphor for communication and the challenge of working with Aboriginal boys, that inspired me to write a children’s therapeutic picture book.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses the tree metaphor to explore the issues of domestic and family violence.  My hope was that by reading this story, Aboriginal boys in particular, might be invited into a safe conversation about their feelings, thoughts and actions in their own lives.

Over the past six months I have been mentoring Yolngu artist and friend, Christine Burrawanga, to create the images for the story.  This is a story that is very close to Christine’s heart and so her strong culture, passion and enthusiasm to make a difference for her people has really shaped the book.

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ is a key to opening the door to the voices of children which have been locked away by the experience of violence.  Healing from the trauma of violence can be a long journey.  But if that door is opened ever so slightly as a child, perhaps the emotional burden they are carrying, will be lightened just a little bit.

Read Part II – Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice.

It’s about healing too, not just therapy

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

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.

Molly Munkara

Molly Munkara

“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

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

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 Power of Story in Standing up to Violence: A Child’s Perspective

Patricia readingIn Aboriginal culture, storytelling is a way of connecting with the relationship system, an ancient tradition that has been practiced throughout the generations.  Often it is Elders telling their grandchildren stories about their ancestors, that have great significance for their future lives.

In Western cultures it could be adults reading fairy tales or adventure stories to children at bedtime.

Children are great story tellers too.

If we take the time to stop and listen carefully, they have great adventures to tell.  Children are active little people, learning new skills and taking on knowledge from role models around them.  These things help them grow and develop, and come in handy when times get tough.

When children are living with violence in their families, they are drawing on the skills, knowledge and strengths they have learnt, to help them cope, keep themselves safe and stay strong.  They are standing up to violence!
Children who live with violence in their families and communities, come from all parts of Australia and many different cultural backgrounds.

When I was working as a children’s counsellor in remote Aboriginal communities between 2009 and 2013, I heard many stories of violence and trauma and helped the children document their strengths and abilities in surviving these hard times.  I recently reconnected with one of these boys whom I supported for several years and is now in high school.  He and his Aunty gave me permission to share publicly one of the stories he wrote, in the hope that it might help other children who are also experiencing violence or abuse.

Feel free to download and share this story with any children you may be working with.
A story about Anger

You or your client may also like to send a story back to us (email lucy@metaphoricallyspeaking.com.au).  I am happy to send on messages to the author of this story.  Here are some questions that might guide your message.

  • As you listened to the story, were there any words that caught your attention? Which ones?
  • When you heard these words, what pictures came to your mind about the person and what is important to them (eg. their hopes, dreams, values and beliefs)?   Can you describe that picture?
  • What is it about your own life that helped you connect with these words and pictures?
  • How might you think and act differently, after having heard this story?

We hope by sharing this story, that other voices of children living with violence are heard loud and strong.

I have a dream that we might be able to gather a whole collection of children’s stories of experiences of trauma and resilience.  And that this might be shared with the adults who have used violence or abuse in their relationships.

This may be just the tool needed to help those languishing in our prisons to think about the impact of their behavior on their loved ones and the possibility of a different way of living.

Bearing Fruit in Indigenous communities: The use of Metaphor in Evaluation

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.

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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

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.

A Social Work Practice Framework: The Right Mix for me

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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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

  4. 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.
  5. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Two way learning

    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.

  4. 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?

  1. Narrative therapy. I have shared some of the ways of I incorporate narrative practice into my work with Indigenous folk here.
  2. Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
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Helping people to help themselves and employing local people.

What are the 3 outcomes that you believe you achieve in your work?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

If you Believe Hard Enough, Dreams Really Do Come True

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Healing Our Children will engage with women and their children at risk of trauma

Show me the money!   Yes, you may have heard that my last ditch attempt to secure funding for the Healing Our Children program was successful.  This has been a program in the making with community Elders and strong Aboriginal women since 2010.  After submitting nine grant applications last year, I’d resigned myself to the fact that in the current political and economic climate, no government was interested in investing in an early intervention and trauma prevention program.  Especially one that does not have a tested and trialled evidence base yet.  I assumed that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the least likely to fund this initiative.  And wouldn’t you know it – boom!   For me the announcement was bittersweet – what followed in the media was outrage expressed by Aboriginal organisations including essential domestic violence and legal services, about the amount of funding lost causing closures and job losses across Australia.  Fair enough.  Initially, this was also hard for me to come to terms with.  But I have since justified the decision to fund my program for the following reasons:

  • I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that bottom-up, community led programs DO work (rather than the usual top down government programs)
  • It IS possible for non-government organisations to work together with Aboriginal communities in a mutually respectful way to meet the expressed needs of communities and still achieve outcomes
  • There are no Aboriginal organisations that I am aware of that are proposing to do the same work. But this is something we can aspire to in the future.
  • I am in the UNIQUE position of working together within established relationships of trust with Elders and Strong women to share the latest findings from brain science about the impact of trauma on children.  Many vulnerable women in the Western world don’t have this knowledge, let alone Aboriginal women and children who are most vulnerable to harm. Research has started to show that this information is a powerful motivator for women leaving a domestic violence relationship.
  • I REALLY believe this program is the first step in stopping the cycle of intergenerational trauma beginning with the Aboriginal children being conceived and born right now.
Nami with children in Yirrkala (playgroup)

Engaging young children and their caregivers in the Early Years is so important

I have just returned from the Child Inclusive Practice Forum in Brisbane where Nathan Mikaere Wallis, a Maori ‘pracademic’ and educator presented the latest findings from neuroscience.  The results are well and truly in.  Whilst we have known over the last two decades of the importance of ‘the first three years of life’ in determining your life chances, the literature has refined this to ‘the first 1000 days’.  This takes into account the beginning of life when the brain is starting to form within two weeks of conception.  And while we have had many arguments over those years about whether nature or nurture is more important in determining one’s health and wellbeing in adulthood, brain science is now showing, it is “how nature interacts with nurture” that is paramount.  Unlike animals who do not have a frontal cortex – the thinking and decision-making part of our brain – humans are designed to be moulded by the environment they encounter in the first 1000 days. It is in this stage of life when the brain is gathering all the data it needs to determine whether you go to university, earn a high income and have a successful marriage OR misuse drugs and alcohol, go to jail or abuse your children. The key determining factor of life experience is attunement, determined by the quality of the dyadic relationship between the baby and the primary caregiver.   So if the Early Years are so important, why is it that we invest the least amount of money in this age group and the most at the high school and university end of the spectrum?

I am very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given.  This really is a unique opportunity to break the mould of traditional government investment to achieve a ‘better bang for our buck’ and ensure Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life.  This seems like a much better economic proposition than finding more foster carers for the next stolen generation, sending adolescents to boot camp and building more jails, don’t you think?

For the love of condoms! What’s sexual health got to do with trauma?

condoms_3When 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.

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

 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.”