‘Black and White Working Together for Strong Community’ with Patricia Munkara

Patricia Munkara – an advocate for children in her community

My guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week is Patricia Munkara.  Patricia is a traditional woman from Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory whose first language is Tiwi.  In our conversation, Patricia takes us into her world – giving us some insight into what it is like for an Aboriginal worker living in their community to work alongside non-Indigenous social workers/counsellors, some of whom have been on fly-in fly-out arrangements. Bringing her passion for children’s safety and protection, Patricia has developed a reputation of being a trusted community member in her role of Aboriginal Support Worker with a mainstream non-government organisation.

This episode explores:

  • how Patricia has been a role model for others in her community
  • how Patricia has worked alongside the counsellor in the delivery of a culturally sensitive model of therapy
  • what a typical ‘two-way’ approach to counselling looks like; and the skills, knowledge and tools used
  • advantages of having an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mix of counselling and support in the room with children
  • some of the challenges of the work
  • collaboration between the counsellor and Aboriginal Support Worker
  • the importance of valuing and including cultural practices, knowledge and values in the work
  • how employment and maintaining a status in the community as a carer for children has contributed to Patricia’s own health and wellbeing
  • a success story of reunification with a young Tiwi girl
  • the importance of flexibility in a challenging work environment
  • advice for new social workers in a remote community and what you can expect

As with any remote work, there were challenges with recording this episode.  We apologise for the varying quality of audio.  It’s something we are working on!
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.

Things to check out after today’s episode:

Healing Our Children project

Healing Our Children on Facebook

Patricia’s 3 part series of child safety messages launched today!
‘Keeping Babies Safe from Harm’
‘Babies and Neglect’
‘Babies and Stress’

‘Just Do It’ with Lissy Suthers

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.

Things to check out after today’s episode

Lissy’s reflection on student placement on the blog – ‘Culturally Fit Social Workers: We need more of you!’

Connect with Lissy on LinkedIn

Collective Narrative Timelines: Uniting Aboriginal Women Through their Commitments to Children

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.

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!

learning-workshop

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.