The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

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

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

Double Listening

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

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

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

 

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

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

Resistance

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

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

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

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

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

Collective Narrative Timelines

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

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

References:

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

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

aboriginal-art-1540115_960_720

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can do better than this.

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

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

This presentation covers:

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

 

 

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

‘Healing Our Children’ project at Relationships Australia NT

‘Healing Our Children’ Facebook page

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

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

In episode 21 of Talk the Walk, we explore:

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

The painting was created by Yolŋu communities for FAST NT

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Viktor Frankl

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological development of children

FAST Northern Territory website

FAST Australia website

FAST International website

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

‘Opening Doors and Letting Stories Unfold’ with Anne Carrick

Anne Carrick working on Kunibidji country

In episode 20 of ‘Talk the Walk’, my guest today captures the essence of what it takes to move from a big city to a remote community in the heart of Arnhemland.   Social Worker, Anne Carrick spent three years immersed in community life and working in a social and emotional well-being program alongside 13 language groups and clans, each with their similar but different traditions living on Kunibidji land.  Anne says “This is one of the most multi-lingual communities in the world.”

If you’ve ever considered working remote or wondered what it is like, Anne’s stories, memories and lessons learned are pure gold.

In this episode we explore:

  • Anne’s early learnings working with Aboriginal people as a young social worker in Adelaide and Ceduna
  • The thinking and motivation behind Anne’s move to the Northern Territory
  • One article every Balanda (whitefella) needs to read before working in Aboriginal communities
  • A typical day working in the social and emotional wellbeing program in a remote Aboriginal community
  • The effects of daily life being exposed to frequent domestic violence and suicide attempts
  • The role Elders and leaders took in responding to domestic and family violence
  • The outcomes Anne was able to achieve assisting women, children and families
  • How a social work assessment process differs in a remote community compared to a more urban settling, and the role of Aboriginal workers
  • How the community shaped new understandings of mental health using the positive concept of living a life ‘worried well’
  • Anne’s experience of supervising social work students; what students can do to prepare themselves for a remote placement; and good advice for anyone thinking of working remote
  • Anne’s challenges and struggles; and what sustained her
  • The vision, principles and values inherent in Anne’s social work practice framework and how she advocated for this in a system which had different ideas about tackling social issues
  • Tracing Anne’s ethics and values back to early childhood
  • The wake up call that may help you prevent burnout
  • Accessing good supervision and support

Just some of the beautiful trees that spoke to Anne around the community and on homelands.

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

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

Things to follow up after the episode

‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’ by Kim Mahood

“National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s Mental Health and Social and Emotional Well-Being 2017-2023, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (October 2017)

Social and Emotional Wellbeing Portal, Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet

Contact Anne Carrick on anne475esp(at)hotmail(dot)com

‘Taking the time to build relationships’ with Louise O’Connor

There’s something about the blue sky, the sparse landscape and the weaving of cultural stories that drew Louise O’Connor to Australia’s red centre.  Far from her homeland of Ireland and not satisfied with the big city lights of Melbourne, Louise O’Connor packed up her meagre belongings and head to Alice Springs.  She found herself working with the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council as a Domestic and Family Violence Case Worker and hasn’t looked back.  Since arriving, Louise has been drawn to narrative therapy as an approach for working respectfully with Aboriginal women.  She now supports a team of case workers implementing the Council’s new domestic and family violence prevention framework developed in consultation with the Australian Childhood Foundation and the large group of women they support in the NPY lands.  Louise brought with her a long history of case work with refugees and asylum seekers, youth and people at risk of homelessness or in crisis, both in Australia and Ireland.  Louise’s passion for sharing stories and helping others tell theirs shines through in my conversation this week on ‘Talk the Walk’.

In episode 18, we explore:

  • Why Louise uplifted her life in Melbourne to venture into Central Australia and how she got started in community work
  • A brief history of the NPY Women’s Council and its work
  • A typical day in the life of a domestic and family violence caseworker in the NPY lands
  • How the Women’s Council moved away from a justice focus to a violence prevention framework using a trauma-informed, community development, narrative therapeutic approach to practice
  • What Louise loves about her job and her journey into narrative therapy
  • How Aboriginal women are developing their own tools of narrative practice for use in their community
  • The everyday challenges of remote work and what Louise does to look after herself
  • The ‘strong stories board’ project – one of Louise’ sparkling moments
  • Louises biggest learnings and awesome words of advice for community development and social workers thinking of working with remote Aboriginal communities

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

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

Things to follow up after the episode

The NPY Women’s Council domestic and family violence service

Download the Family violence Prevention Framework

Episode 15 – ‘Telling the Stories of Our Lives’ with Sudha Coutinho

Contact Louise on  lou_oconnor33(at)hotmail(dot)com

“Every Child is Worth It” with Doug Dunlop

Today’s conversation on ‘Talk The Walk’ has many gems, but particularly for counsellors and social workers interested in developing an evidence based program that is also culturally safe.  Doug Dunlop is a senior counsellor with the ‘Holding Children Together’ program based in Alice Springs and working with surrounding town camps.  Doug is part of the team leading a rigorous evaluation process, developed and mentored by the Australian Childhood Foundation and a Cultural Advisory Group.  In episode 17 of Talk the Walk, we also get a glimpse into the man behind the work; his historical roots, his life experience, the values and principles he brings to his trauma-informed, culturally-safe practice framework.
There is nothing quite like ‘Holding Children Together’ elsewhere in Australia and other organisations are starting to take notice of the Care Team model adopted by this child and family counselling service.  The road to evidence-based practice is long, requires collective good-will and a large investment, but like Doug says “every child is worth it”.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Considerations for Doug arriving from New Zealand to work in Australia’s Central Desert communities
  • the stark differences working with Maori and Aboriginal children beginning with engagement in therapy
  • understanding trauma informed practice with Aboriginal children and their families
  • the Care Team model integral to ‘Holding Children Together’ (HCT)
  • a typical day in the life of a counsellor
  • how HCT is upholding cultural safety and working towards evidence based status
  • a sparking story that makes the work all the more worthwhile and why great outcomes cannot be tied down to one intervention
  • the challenges of working within a Care Team model
  • insights into the complexities of reunification with family when a lot of intervention has focused on establishing relationships with carers
  • what makes Doug so passionate about his work and the values he holds most precious
  • important considerations of cultural world views in cases of Aboriginal children in foster care which has implications for reunification
  • awareness of white privilege and seeing the world through the eyes of others
  • Moments from Doug’s early life that have influenced the values underpinning his practice
  • How Holding Children Together manage the exposure to trauma in counsellors
  • Hopes for the future of evidence-based counselling services and why it’s a good process to undertake

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

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

Things to follow up after this episode

Contact Doug Dunlop at doug(at)ra-nt.org.au

Holding Children Together web page

“Telling the Stories of our Lives” with Sudha Coutinho

You don’t have to search too far to listen to the stories of despair, destruction or trauma in Aboriginal communities.  These are widely played out in our media.  However if we listen with intention much deeper, we will find something richer and more telling.  The absent but implicit in these stories, are signs of strength, hope and resilience.

Listening in this way is a practice that goes to the heart of Sudha Coutinho’s clinical and community development work.   Sudha trained as an occupational therapist and was drawn to narrative therapy as a way of engaging her clients in the fields of mental health, suicide prevention and training.

I came across one of Sudha’s more recent projects when I was invited to respond to some stories collected as part of the Telling Stories project in Kulumbaru.  Sudha says she has “always been interested in stories- those we tell about ourselves and those others tell about us – and the power in these stories to influence both the storyteller and the listener.”

Sudha also tells a really good story herself.  With over 20 years working in the Northern Territory, alongside and with Indigenous Australians, this episode is one bloody good yarn.

In episode 15 of Talk the Walk, we explore:

  • How Sudha came to be working in the Kimberley, discovering herself and her way in occupational therapy from a narrative perspective
  • Why moving away from the ‘expert model’ to share our own story is essential for relationship building
  • What a genuine cultural immersion looks and feels like
  • Moving from a medicalised mental health/psychiatry model of clinical practice to a focus on social and emotional wellbeing
  • Indigenous concepts of wellbeing which incorporate spiritual and cultural aspects of self
  • Practice as an art, not just a science
  • Sudha and the team filming on location in Kalumburu

    How ‘Telling Stories’ came to be; the intent and thinking behind the project and the narrative methodology behind the approach

  • The digital archives of strength, hope and resilience featuring stories of Kalumburu community; and how these stories were gathered
  • The role and power of outsider witness practices; and the effect this had re-authoring the Kalumburu community story
  • How you can watch the stories from Kalumburu and what to include in a response back to the community
  • Sudha’s biggest challenges commonly shared amongst community development projects and how to think creatively to overcome them
  • Evaluating a narrative project
  • A story about the effect the Kalumburu stories project has had on Sudha’s personal life; and what Sudah loves about narrative practice
  • How listening to difficult stories can actually be transforming in positive ways for practitioners and not always a cause for vicarious trauma or burnout
  • An invitation for you to join the conversation about how you listen to story within your own practice.  Please write a comment below or join the conversation on Facebook.

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

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

Things to follow up after the episode

Telling Our Stories in Ways that Make us Stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester

Watch a video and send a message back to the Kalumburu community and the storyteller at the Telling Story project on vimeo

Sudha’s blog about the Telling Story project on ABC Open

Contact Sudha Coutinho at sudhacoutinho(at)gmail(dot)com

Contact the Telling Story project at tellingstoryproject(at)gmail(dot)com

“The gifts of learning and healing – your way and my way” with Elaine Tiparui

When elders speak, we sit up and take notice.  My guest today on Talk the Walk is someone I have listened to throughout my working career on the Tiwi Islands.  In fact, I’m proud to call her my mentor.   Elaine Tiparui is an Elder of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island.  Elaine has a long history of helping her people, beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1980’s, training and working as an Aboriginal health worker and many years volunteering her time for non-government organisations delivering alcohol and drug programs, child and family counselling and support services.

I set out to explore two things in this conversation; firstly Elaine’s experience of working alongside non-indigenous social workers and counsellors and what advice she might have for new people entering remote communities, and secondly, Elaine’s knowledge in relation to the healing power of the bush.  I am a real advocate for social workers incorporating Indigenous knowledge and skills into social work interventions and therapeutic plans.  While I have been able to incorporate some of this knowledge into healing bush camps and individual client sessions, there is so much more potential with proper funding and support.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, reflecting on a ten year working relationship and the things we’ve learned from each other along the way.   It has been my biggest highlight and great privilege to co-create the Healing Our Children project with Elaine.  Communication with Aboriginal people whose first language is not English is never easy, so I’m grateful to Elaine for sticking with me during this conversation in my native tongue.  Apologies also for the cacophony of community sounds in the background!

In this episode, we explore:

  • Why Elaine chose to work alongside mainstream non-government organisations in her community
  • The history of the Wurrumiyanga community on the Tiwi Islands and Elaine’s experience of growing up in the Catholic Mission
  • What social workers and counsellors need to be mindful of when entering a remote community for the first time
  • the reciprocal benefits of co-working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge
  • Elaine’s gift of introducing new workers to the culture, healing traditions and a spiritual way of understanding the Tiwi people
  • Elaine’s view of the skills and knowledge of non-Indigenous workers as a gift of healing for the Tiwi people
  • Self determination and what this means for non-Indigenous workers coming into a remote community
  • How non-Indigenous workers can build trust and respect in a new community
  • Why ‘going out bush’ is the best form of intervention for many of the health and wellbeing issues affecting children, adults or families
  • Elaine teaching her grandson to find yams

    Elaine’s stories of healing children and families out bush through teaching, hunting and bush medicine

  • The gift of listening and feeling trees that Elaine inherited from her ancestors, and the messages trees are communicating to us
  • The healing power of the bush in healing, mourning and celebration ceremonies, and recovery from emotional hurt and mental health issues
  • Elaine’s story as a witness to a healing ceremony for a Tiwi girl who had been removed as a baby and reunited with Tiwi family; a collaboration between Child Protection, an NGO and the strong women

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

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