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!
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.
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.
“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.
Miriam 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.
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.
Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony
The past month has been a very exciting one as the Healing Our Children (HOC) program starts to finally spread its message across the Tiwi Islands. For me, the program represents best culturally-safe, social work practice by combining scientific knowledge from the Western World with Aboriginal worldviews, cultural traditions and healing knowledge. Neither is prefaced as being superior to the other, with both adding value to the theme of prevention and healing from trauma. The resources we have developed represent four years of consultation with Elders about the best ways of engaging Aboriginal women in the communities we work.
The smoking ceremony is one traditional practice that is very important in Tiwi culture to promote healing. That is why a healing activity or ceremony has been built into the groupwork program. The smoking ceremony offers a space for mums and their children (if present) a place to heal and Elders to be empowered in leadership of this traditional practice.
On our first HOC bush camp, I had the opportunity to interview Molly Munkara, an Elder from Wurrumiyanga, to share insight into the spiritual significance of the smoking ceremony.
“Long time ago, Tiwi people used smoking ceremony as part of their ritual. Healing is part of our traditional culture. The smoking ceremony….it cleanses our mind…and heart.”
Molly says she was only 4 or 5 when she was taught about the smoking ceremony.
“We learnt that from our grandparents…our ancestors. They handed down that smoking ceremony to our parents. I was joining in, looking, participating in what they do.”
Molly shared the significance of the ceremony at sorry time.
“When a person passes away, it’s in-laws of the deceased person that prepares the smoking ceremony and the Elders too. We have a meeting, discussion first. And they talk to the families about it, when it is going to happen…
They send a message around the smoking ceremony is happening on that particular day. And they gather round. Families or anybody who have connected to that person’s life [can participate].”
On this night, I witnessed a smoking ceremony with a different purpose – healing of the self in mind, body and spirit. The Elders began by calling out to the spirit ancestors for keeping us safe, instructions for the children on what to do, a song and prayer from the Catholic tradition. After the leaves of the bloodwood tree were set alight, crackling under the heat, Elders used small bunches bathed in smoke to swipe the shoulders and head of those being blessed.
Bloodwood leaves for smoking
“We’re going to gather around the smoking ceremony to heal our spirit… purify our minds and cleanse our bad spirit away. Bring the good spirit inside us.”
“A couple of ladies will do the smoking, they build up the fire and put their leaves in the drum, and then when they are ready, they will call. We will walk through the smoke.”
I wondered allowed whether Molly had any particular thoughts in her mind during the ceremony.
“We think about things that are not right in our lives. And we’ll throw that away with the smoke. And then we think about new life after that, new beginnings. What are we going to do that’s really good for us and our lives. We do get some [messages] from elders, what they want us to do. Like get a better life. Try not to fall into that same bad cycle, that goes around. Try to get out of it. And then start to form a new life, good life. So we can be happy and in good health. Feeling great about myself. We really need to love ourselves too. And treat ourselves with respect.”
Preparing the fire
Molly reflected on how the smoking ceremony has been healing for her own life.
“The smoking ceremony has helped me a lot in my mind and heart, physically and emotionally. [Physically], it helps you, in what you do [not with illness or disease]. Like going out with family, spending time with them, going out hunting with the Elders, gathering, singing and joining in any other activities.”
It’s an honour and privilege to be invited onto traditional country to not only allow us to run our program but also be invited to participate in traditional healing practices such as the smoking ceremony.
For anyone practising social work in Indigenous communities, I encourage you to think about the sort of traditional knowledge and practices that can be respectfully acknowledged and built into your program. Too often I hear about cultural practices that are dying out or lost forever. Many of these offer opportunities for Aboriginal people to help themselves.
Our work should be about healing too, not just therapy.
In 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 email@example.com). 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.
The Rings of Growth is an art activity included in the first session of the Healing Our Children group-work program with women on the Tiwi Islands. In this session, the women are introduced to the metaphor of a tree as a way of reflecting on and talking about their own lives.
In our training with Tiwi workers we used the Life of a Tree video to show how each ring of the tree represents one year of growth. These rings can reveal years of hardship (such as lack of water), years of rapid growth (usually during our wet season) and other unforeseen events like insect damage, fire or even crowding out by other sun-loving trees. Although these rings may be invisible to us, the scars from these tough times are always there. The Rings of growth is a metaphor that can be used to think about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on children. We cannot see inside a child, therefore we cannot assume they haven’t been affected. It can also be used to explore the influence that positive early childhood experiences have on children’s long term growth and development. This is the purpose through which we invite Tiwi women to document their own Rings of Growth and share hopes they have for their own children’s future.
This activity invites the women to draw the inside of a tree as if it was cut across the middle and each of the rings of life were exposed. The women are asked to think about what they were doing when they were a child and the memories they have about what other people did that made them feel good inside, safe and loved. These things, however small, are the things that helped them grow up and be strong. For each ring of the tree they have drawn, the women write or draw a memory of something that made them feel loved, safe and comfortable for each year of their childhood. This can include special events, favourite activities, special people in their lives, significant words said to them, important lessons they learned or stories they were told by Elders and family members. The women need at least 30 minutes on this activity to draw, colour, chat and share stories with each other. After there has been sufficient time to document significant memories and knowledge, the women are invited to explore what their drawing might tell them about hopes they have for the future of their children.
Women whose childhood experiences were largely pleasant, memorable and positive, usually have similar hopes and intentions for their children’s lives. For those that are struggling in their parenting, it can be a positive way of getting back in touch with hopes that have been lost along the way. Those women with an unpleasant memory may use the opportunity to explore what positive message or learning they have taken from their experience. They may reflect on how they want things to be different or better for their children than what they had experienced. Remembering and recommitting to these intentions within the support of a group, can move women to action in positive ways with their children.
In my experience, women have enjoyed making connections between their early childhood experiences with their own development into adulthood. Recently, one woman traced back her strong interest in natural remedies to her memory of being thrown in a big copper pot by her grandmother and being treated with bush medicine for chicken pox. Another first learnt to sew in school and is now actively involved in a women’s cooperative doing screen printing on fabric and making a variety of articles as her work for the dole activity. Yet another remembers her dad teaching her the rituals of the Kulama ceremony and is now instrumental in keeping this tradition alive with her grandchildren.
Metaphors have the power to be transforming and insightful. The learnings that women have taken away from this very simple exercise have been delightfully surprising. The potential is unlimited for adaptation for different client groups and contexts of work.
About five years ago, I was attending a conference in Alice Springs. Richard Frankland, an Aboriginal man, was presenting his research on Lateral Violence. After hearing this term for the first time a light bulb lit up. I now had a new lens to view the disturbing level of violence I was noticing in the communities I was working in. Not the fighting in the streets – the family feuding and the kids brawling – that is very visual. I’m also referring to the more sinister violence you don’t always see, but you feel and hear.
Later that year, I started getting emails about Lateral Violence from William Brian Butler. Butler was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory, following his Mother’s forced removal from his Grandmother where they lived at the detention centre known as The Bungalow in Alice Springs. Brian lived at the Bagot Reserve in Darwin with his Mother, up until the beginning of the II World War, which forced them to evacuate back to Alice Springs and be reunited with Family. Butler had been doing research using Facebook. His suspicions were confirmed. Not a lot of people had heard of Lateral Violence, let alone what to do about it.
So what exactly are we talking about? The legal definition says lateral violence “happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both”. Paul Memmott defines it as “unresolved grief that is associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations”.
I’d had a good understanding of Australia’s colonialising history and not surprised by the level of physical violence I was seeing. But lateral violence is even more subtle.
Internalised feelings such as anger and rage are manifested through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming. It can include nonverbal innuendo like raising eyebrows and making faces, bullying, snide remarks, abrupt responses and lack of openness, shaming, undermining, social exclusion and turning away, withholding information, sabotage, infighting, scapegoating, backstabbing, not respecting privacy, broken confidences and organisational conflict.
During my time out bush, I saw lateral violence lead to more explicit conflict which broke up relationships, families and communities.
In response to the phenomenon that is Lateral Violence which is shared by colonised peoples across the world, Butler has taken upon himself to respond by leading the Lateral Love and Spirit of Care for all Mankind campaign. Butler urges his own people to put down their arms and stand their ground using unconditional love in the quest for healing and justice.
Barbara Wingard, an Aboriginal practitioner and teacher with the Dulwich Centre has drawn on the traditional of storytelling to educate Aboriginal people about the nature of Lateral Violence. Following the narrative concept of collective externalising conversations, one person interviews another who is role-playing the persona of Lateral Violence. Learn in such an engaging and interactive way makes it safe to explore what can otherwise be tricky territory. Here’s an exerpt….
What makes you powerful, Lateral Violence?
“I reckon I’m doing my best work when I get families to fight against one another … It’s fantastic when everybody wants to take sides. This creates a bigger divide. I can also stop Aboriginal people from working with white people. I do that pretty well and I confuse white people about Aboriginal culture too. I try to convince white people to think bad things about Aboriginal culture… In some Aboriginal communities I try to get people of Aboriginal heritage to be suspicious and judge each other by asking ‘who is Aboriginal and who is not really Aboriginal?… I start to manipulate who is and who is not (Wingard 2010).”
I have witnessed some great acts of Lateral Love now being taken by Aboriginal communities to counteract the devastation of Lateral violence. While working on the Tiwi Islands, a few years ago cyberbullying and sexting got out of control. The old people were becoming increasingly concerned about how young people were using mobile phones to send anonymous messages via social media that were mostly degrading, harassing or untrue. The result was conflict between young people, family infighting and even in some cases self harm and attempted suicide.
The community responded by organising several community meetings and the issue was taken very seriously. In what was a rather quick response, popular band B2M with the assistance of Skinnyfish came on board with a media campaign that would appeal to young people to raise awareness of the dangers of misuse of social media. Here is what they came up with:
Here we have a community recognising the problem, and rallying together to arm themselves with the skills and knowledge needed to take appropriate action. A Lateral Love Action!
For those of you who have never met Lateral Violence, I dare you to sit down and have a chat. You might be surprised to hear about the sneaky tricks of this insidious killer, friend of the coloniser who arrived by boat in 1788 and has been quietly working away in the shadows ever since.
Wingard, B. 2010, ‘A conversation with Lateral Violence’ in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 1
Memmott, P. 2001, ‘Community Based Strategies for Combating Indigenous Violence’
Healing Our Children will engage with women and their children at risk of trauma
Show me the money! Yes, you may have heard that my last ditch attempt to secure funding for the Healing Our Children program was successful. This has been a program in the making with community Elders and strong Aboriginal women since 2010. After submitting nine grant applications last year, I’d resigned myself to the fact that in the current political and economic climate, no government was interested in investing in an early intervention and trauma prevention program. Especially one that does not have a tested and trialled evidence base yet. I assumed that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the least likely to fund this initiative. And wouldn’t you know it – boom! For me the announcement was bittersweet – what followed in the media was outrage expressed by Aboriginal organisations including essential domestic violence and legal services, about the amount of funding lost causing closures and job losses across Australia. Fair enough. Initially, this was also hard for me to come to terms with. But I have since justified the decision to fund my program for the following reasons:
I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that bottom-up, community led programs DO work (rather than the usual top down government programs)
It IS possible for non-government organisations to work together with Aboriginal communities in a mutually respectful way to meet the expressed needs of communities and still achieve outcomes
There are no Aboriginal organisations that I am aware of that are proposing to do the same work. But this is something we can aspire to in the future.
I am in the UNIQUE position of working together within established relationships of trust with Elders and Strong women to share the latest findings from brain science about the impact of trauma on children. Many vulnerable women in the Western world don’t have this knowledge, let alone Aboriginal women and children who are most vulnerable to harm. Research has started to show that this information is a powerful motivator for women leaving a domestic violence relationship.
I REALLY believe this program is the first step in stopping the cycle of intergenerational trauma beginning with the Aboriginal children being conceived and born right now.
Engaging young children and their caregivers in the Early Years is so important
I have just returned from the Child Inclusive Practice Forum in Brisbane where Nathan Mikaere Wallis, a Maori ‘pracademic’ and educator presented the latest findings from neuroscience. The results are well and truly in. Whilst we have known over the last two decades of the importance of ‘the first three years of life’ in determining your life chances, the literature has refined this to ‘the first 1000 days’. This takes into account the beginning of life when the brain is starting to form within two weeks of conception. And while we have had many arguments over those years about whether nature or nurture is more important in determining one’s health and wellbeing in adulthood, brain science is now showing, it is “how nature interacts with nurture” that is paramount. Unlike animals who do not have a frontal cortex – the thinking and decision-making part of our brain – humans are designed to be moulded by the environment they encounter in the first 1000 days. It is in this stage of life when the brain is gathering all the data it needs to determine whether you go to university, earn a high income and have a successful marriage OR misuse drugs and alcohol, go to jail or abuse your children. The key determining factor of life experience is attunement, determined by the quality of the dyadic relationship between the baby and the primary caregiver. So if the Early Years are so important, why is it that we invest the least amount of money in this age group and the most at the high school and university end of the spectrum?
I am very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given. This really is a unique opportunity to break the mould of traditional government investment to achieve a ‘better bang for our buck’ and ensure Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life. This seems like a much better economic proposition than finding more foster carers for the next stolen generation, sending adolescents to boot camp and building more jails, don’t you think?
Did you know that if you look at salt while cutting onion, you won’t cry? Or if you drink a raw bantam egg mixed with honey you will grow strong? No neither did I. I’ve learnt a lot over these past few months. Not just about food, but also the incredible strengths and resilience that shines through the stories of refugees and asylum seekers. Such is the beauty of ‘Recipes of Life’. This collective narrative methodology, which I’ve talked about in a previous post, offers a safe way of bringing people together who may have experienced difficulties in their lives to build on their collective strengths, skills and knowledge.
In recent years, Darwin has seen a rapid rise in the number of people being locked up in detention centres having arrived on our shores by boat from Indonesia. It has been difficult to stand by, relatively powerless and witness the desperate pleas of asylum seekers and how they are treated. Fortunately, we have DASSAN, a great bunch of volunteers who provide visitation and advocacy services to those in detention. I happened to meet one such volunteer last year and we decided to trial a small group using the ‘Recipes of ‘program at the Mulch Pit Community Garden. By the time, we found funding, government policy had changed and not many asylum seekers were being released into the Darwin community so our group was mostly made up of settled refugees. Although this made our task of communicating with group participants a little easier as many refugees have basic beginners English, we still had a group representing four different language groups.
Creating food recipes using art materials
Without funding for translators, we plowed ahead and many parts of the program were adapted to accommodate more non-verbal methods of communication through doing, showing, acting, using hands, drawing, painting and using images. This contributed to many laugh-out-loud moments, and inspired the women to help each other share their stories. Using persistence and patience with us as facilitators and each other, somehow the group bonded!
One of the major achievements was the production of a Recipes Book featuring the participant’s favourite Food Recipes cooked and eaten in the on-site outdoor kitchen, as well as Recipes of Life featuring their strengths and skills, and Special Recipe Tips for surviving difficult times. Collectively, they also wrote a Recipe for Starting Life in a New Country. Their hope is that this recipe will benefit other refugees who have just settled in Australia.
Sharing recipes and cooking food
Outcomes included building new relationships amongst participants, connecting refugees to new resources at Nightcliff including the op-shop and community garden, improved English skills and confidence in the community, and increased knowledge about growing and cooking tropical food. A lovely surprise was the spontaneous participation of partners, children and other family members, who would pop up in at different times during the program, either to lead cooking activities, resume natural food harvesting responsibilities or feast at the table.
I have no doubt this method would work just as well with other cultural groups, including Aboriginal women, men and young people. I wonder what special tips they would have to teach us about food and about life…
If you’d like to find out more about the program or send a message back to the women who created the Recipes Book, we would love to hear from you through our Contact Page.
Final Week Celebration with ‘Recipes of Living’ families
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