‘Just Start with the Little Things’ with Tony Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 5 of ‘Talk the Walk’ explores:

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

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

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

Things to follow up after this episode

‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ by Paul Kelly

‘With Head, Heart and Hand’ by Anthony Kelly

Trevour Satour

Sugata Dasgupta 

Lilla Watson

Bruce Alcorn

Ernie Stringer

Rosalie Dwyer

Darryl Kickett

Carol Martin

Matt Foley

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Franz Vernon

Contact Anthony Kelly via LinkedIn

‘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’

More about Patricia’s life and work on our blog

‘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 I decided to start this podcast
  • 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.

A Shout Out from the Treetops for Australia’s generosity

Lucy shouting from the treetops in Tassie – April 2017.

I want to shout from the treetops.  Yippee!   I am overwhelmed by the level of interest and demand for our therapeutic children’s picture book, ‘The Life of Tree’.  We’ve even had media requests from the most unexpected places.

I’m also here to shout out to those generous people who gave to our crowdfunding campaign.  We raised almost $2500 which is allowing us to send a whopping 99 free books out to remote women’s refuges across Australia.  So far I’ve posted 47 books to every remote emergency accommodation shelter in the Northern Territory and Western Australia , directly targeting Aboriginal children escaping domestic and family violence in their communities.

As promised, here is our Shout Out to the donors on Chuffed who wanted to know where their book ended up.  But thank you to all 63 individuals and organisations who kindly donated.

Wadeye – Toni Woods

Photo: Glenn Campbell, Crinkling News, March 2017.

Yuendemu – Jennifer Treyfrey-Bath

Angurugu – Christine Sellman

Raminginging – Annette Bex

Maningrida – Jean John

Peppimenarti – Judy Byrne

Wurrumiyanga – Anne Davis

Kalkarindji – Shaun Pearce

Lajamanu – Bridget Verrier

Ti Tree – Verity Kowal

Wugularr – Erin McKeegar

Ngukurr – Barry Sullivan

Ntaria – Jana Norman

Yarralin – Simon Faulkner

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ will be read to children by support workers in these refuges, to help them talk about and make sense of the trauma they have experienced.   We also have hopes that refuge staff will engage in strength-building conversations that acknowledge the skills, abilities and knowledge that children have in surviving and coping with storms in their lives.  We can’t wait to hear how these books are received in the refuges.
In the meantime, we are starting to hear some great stories about how other people are using the book in their communities.  After buying 10 copies for their school, Gunbalanya community is incorporating the use of ‘The Life of Tree’ into their school curriculum.  Cops For Kids, a charity in South Australia are funding 20 books in schools in the APY Lands.  Our book is being snapped up by a diverse range of services from rehabilitation, community health, mental health and Aboriginal health, to legal, counselling, foster care, disability and child care services.  We are posting from Tasmania to Darwin, Perth to Alice Springs.

We continue to get messages of thanks for the free books and appreciation for our work.  This means so much to Christine and I.

Perhaps we’ll write and paint some more one day if it helps those who have experienced trauma…. but for now, we’ll keep shouting!  Yippee!

Just one day left to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Cassie and other Aboriginal Support Workers use various ‘talking tools’ in their work to assist clients accessing the community Safe House.

A month ago I set out with a goal of getting my new book out to as many remote communities as I could, so that Aboriginal children might be better placed to speak up about their experience of domestic and family violence.

This week, as I revisited my hopes and intentions to achieve this goal, I wondered whether Aboriginal Support Workers in Safe Houses across the Northern Territory would also be able to see the benefits of using this simple resource with their clients.

This week I tracked down one such worker in Cassie Daniels who works at Milikapiti Safe House on the Tiwi Islands. Sharing a digital copy of ‘The Life of Tree’ with her, I was delighted to hear of her excitement that this resource would be heading her way very soon.

Cassie revealed that it had really got her thinking about how this book might be used to assist children and families that stay at the Safe House.  As well as with individual clients, Cassie sees the potential for using the story with weekly women’s groups and at community events that focus on family and domestic violence.  She says

I love the pictures.  It’s easy to see the pictures and talk about them relating to their self experience”.

In considering how Safe House workers might put extra supports in place for children who have been exposed to domestic or family violence, Cassie goes on to say that this book will be a source of reassurance.

Older women in the community who have the wisdom and knowledge of history that’s in line with this book [will] give hope to children who are experiencing storms at home; [knowing] that they do have roots that are strong in their identity [and] through other family to help.”

If you would like to empower other Aboriginal women in their communities to help children talk about their experience of domestic and family violence and get the help they need to stay safe, then head over to our crowdfunding page.

There’s just 24 hours to go to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’.

Thanks for your support.

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.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice – Part II

Bloopers captured in time on our crowdfunding campaign video

This blog goes out on the cusp of the release of my first children’s therapeutic picture book.  Nerves aside, it’s been an exciting but hectic week as Christine and I prepare for media interviews.  We’ve also been busy creating a crowdfunding campaign to get the community on board with our hopes for the book.  We are new to all this stuff, so of course there have been many laughs along the way (hence the blooper snapshot captured here while filming our campaign video).  If you really want to know what all the fuss is about, then maybe this Q&A might provide some answers.

What is the book about?

There are two characters in the book, a little boy called Jack and his friend Tree, who lives with his family (or other trees) in the bush.   I think the blurb on the back cover is a good summary of what happens in this story.

“Tree is living a peaceful life in the bush until a wild storm comes along and damages his environment.  His friend, Jack is worried that Tree won’t recover and be able to play with him again.  When Jack also lives through a wild storm in his home, he comes to realise just how strong they both really are.  Jack has strong cultural roots, just like Tree that brings hope and healing to his whole family.”

This story is really exploring the ‘storms of life’ that children go through and how this impacts on them.  It’s also a story of healing which comes through connection, culture and the support of family and community.

How did this story come to me?

The story was just slowing coming together in the back of my mind, mulling away there for a long time.  Then one day, I think I was in a day dream state and the idea just popped into my head.  I then went away and wrote it fairly quickly.  Often ideas come to me in my dreams day or night.

Book Cover

What are the aims of the book?  What are my intentions in writing it?

I think the book reflects what I am trying to do in my counselling work with children.  First, it’s about helping them find their voice and give words to the ‘problem story’ of their lives.  It’s also about making visible the ‘strong story’ of their lives – what is it that is keeping them going, stay safe and be happy.

I am hoping that the adults in children’s lives will use this book to give voice to the strong story of children’s lives and perhaps even document this.   This could include the skills, abilities, beliefs, values and knowledge the child has in coping and keeping themselves safe.

‘The Life of Tree’ is another resource that people can add to their tool box in their conversations with children.

Who is the book for?  Who would be interested in reading it?

This book is intended to be read by an adult to Aboriginal children who have been affected by trauma.

This book will appeal to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people care for, live or work with children who’ve experienced trauma such as domestic and family violence.  So this can include family members and foster carers as well as professionals such as counsellors, social workers, support workers or case workers.

 What inspired me to write the book?

 My biggest motivation is to help children tell their stories.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my work with Aboriginal children, apart from the obvious cultural and gender barriers is gaining enough trust, for children to feel that it is OK to talk about the really tough stuff.  And that what they are feeling is normal.  Kids do feel sad and angry about violence in their families.  And it’s shame and fear that really hold them back from speaking up and healing from their experience.  So in order to gain trust we need to create a safe space for the conversation.

Another motivation is to provide a culturally safe tool for professionals.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses images and themes that children can connect to because it reflects their own cultural traditions and beliefs.  Christine has done an amazing job bringing her artistic talents to this story.  I haven’t really found any other resources like this out there.

Of course, my favourite part is the use of metaphors because this has worked in other areas of my practice.  I’ve been practicing narrative therapy in my work with children for 8 years, with groups of children in remote communities as well as in individual counselling.  I have witnessed how the use of metaphors is effective in connecting with people and creating a safe space for conversation about difficulties in their lives.   Asking direct questions isn’t always going to work, but people seem to spontaneously want to share their own story, if they hear a story that is similar to theirs.

What initially got me interested in this topic?

10 years ago I arrived in the Northern Territory virtually green from university. The first 6 months working out bush as a drug and alcohol counsellor, I drank lots of tea and did a lot of listening.  I later moved into children’s counselling and I was hearing lots of stories from women Elders about their concerns for their children and grandchildren.  I guess, I’ve always been listening for ways I might be able to meet an expressed need – that’s what community development is all about.  If there is some way I can walk alongside communities to find solutions to the problems in their communities, then there is a place for me there.  Along the journey I’ve found myself more and more in the healing space, finding ways of bring healing to people’s lives.

When is the book being released?  How can people buy it?

The book was released on Wednesday 1st March 2017.  You can access further information and a Sneak Peak of pages from the book from my online Shop.  There you’ll also find a downloadable Order Form.

 What about people who can’t afford to buy the book?

We are officially launching a crowd-funding campaign on Tuesday to raise money to send free books to communities.  Christine and I would like to put donated books into all the women’s refuges in remote communities of the NT, WA and Queensland.  We are both aware that the support for children coming into remote safe houses is pretty limited.  ‘The Life of Tree’ is one way, that Aboriginal workers in those services could engage children and directly support them.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to sponsor a book, they can look up our campaign ‘Giving Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Christine with ‘The Life Of Tree’

Externalising the ‘Storms of Life’: Creating Movement Towards Healing

Top End storm over Fogg Dam. Image by I. Morris.

Top End storm over Fogg Dam.  Image by I. Morris.

What I love about using art in therapeutic groupwork with Aboriginal women is giving them an opportunity to do some gentle inner reflection during the creation process, without causing retraumatisation.  The idea from narrative therapy of being positioned on the riverbank to look at a problem, rather than feeling tossed around in the river, influenced the development of an activity we’ve called the ‘the storms of life’.  This exercise was developed with an Elder with the intention of allowing women who have experienced violence or other trauma, to observe their problem moving away from them and letting go of whatever may be holding them back.

Any kids of art materials can be used such as paint, pastels, pencils or collage bits and pieces.  The women are instructed to close or lower their eyes and imagine they are sitting on a beach, with water lapping at their feet and the sound of waves and a gentle breeze.  They are safe and comfortable in this place.  They do not have to leave this place of safety.  They are encouraged to picture a storm in the distance over the horizon, slowly moving away from them.  This storm holds memories of those things that have happened in the past, that still cause uncomfortable or painful feelings for them.  After a few minutes when the women have a clear picture in their mind, they are encouraged to draw what they see.  It is important the women stick with the metaphor and do not draw the bad things that have happened.  You may like to encourage the women to think about colour; if it is dark or light, loud or soft, heavy or light; and the presence, intensity and distance of clouds, lightning, rain or wind.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

I usually give women a good 20 to 30 minutes to draw or create.  There is never any pressure for women to share their drawing however some choose to do so.  This has been a powerful affirmation with others in the group as witnesses, of women’s intentions to make one small change for themselves or their children.

The fire is a strong symbol of healing, as a gathering place for sorting out problems, sharing stories and offering support to each other.  Tiwi Elders have also used fire as a way of ridding bad spirits.  When we have run this activity on healing bush camps, the women have been keen to burn their drawings as a way of letting go of bad feelings.

It has been interesting to observe the sense of movement that is created on paper through the externalisation of ‘the storms of life’.  This movement has transferred to women as a collective following their traditional instincts of letting go of bad spirits, creating a profound sense of healing.

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.