“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

…metaphorically speaking: Looking back, moving forward and just being present!

A new year is a good opportunity to reflect on the time that has come to pass, as well as set intentions for the future.  But there is something to be said about just appreciating the present moment too.

I find myself in a new garden of Eden, set in the Nambucca Valley on the upper mid north coast of New South Wales.   The sound of laughing kookaburras echo and the scent of a flowering lemon myrtle wafts over the gentle trickle of Nambucca Creek, winding its way through my backyard.  Sweaty tropical wet season days have been replaced with warm, summer days and gentle cooling breezes.  I feel my body slowly relaxing into this fresh environment, as culture shock gently subsides and the known but unfamiliar becomes engrained in daily life.
Yes, I have physically relocated.   And things are moving for ….metaphorically speaking.

To reflect on the years that have come to pass, I’m reminded of the immense privilege of working in the Northern Territory, the relationships I’ve built that will stand the test of time, a mind-full re-connection to the earth and respect for the oldest culture in the world.   My suitcase is full of rich stories, heart-filled memories, learnings and gratitude.  2017 was the year of completion and a sense of accomplishment; seeing out the initial trial of the Healing Our Children project on the Tiwi Islands, Palmerston and Katherine; launching my ‘Talk the Walk’ podcast; and of course, self-publishing my first children’s therapeutic picture book was a thrilling highlight.

As for new intentions (as I don’t do resolutions) well, there is some exciting opportunities on the horizon.  In March I will graduate with a Certificate in Nature and Forest Therapy.  I am not sure how the practice of forest bathing will look in the Nambucca Valley yet, but I am buoyed by the hope of working alongside First Nations people in exploring possibilities for nature-connected eco-tourism.  Nature therapy will also offer an alternative path to health and wellbeing, recovery from painful loss and hope for those who struggle in daily life to find meaning in this stressful world.

As I write, our family is seeking to find a permanent place to set up home in the hills, nestled amongst protected state forest and freshwater springs.  We long to grow our own food, foster regenerative land-care practices, learn to live more simply, and deepen our own spiritual connection with this place.  We yearn to share our vision with others, in the short term offering a two-way, shared learning space for co-creating and workshopping, and in the longer term a healing sanctuary and affordable retreat accommodation in a bush location.  I have no idea what this actually looks like; we trust that our vision for the regeneration of self and planet will grow organically, working with rather than against nature’s patterns and rhythms.

And so it is with a renewed sense of hope for humanity and the planet, that I embark on 2018.  While that might seem like a lot of change in the wind, for my subscribers to the blog and podcast most things will stay the same.  You will still be able to access my learnings on the journey in Indigenous social work practice as well as weekly podcast episodes of others’ experiences in social work with First Nation Australians.  As we move forward, you may find I do more blogging about the integration of ecopsychology, ecotherapies and Indigenous ways of knowing and healing ourselves and the planet.

My hope for this space in 2018 is to ramp up the conversation, amplify the connections between us, and share the great work that is happening around Australia.  If you’re engaging in Indigenous social work practice (or even just attempting to ‘walk the talk’), you have a story that others need to hear.   Please join in.  Send me an email and introduce yourself, comment on the Facebook Page,  follow us on Instagram, volunteer to be a guest blogger or nominate someone for a podcast interview.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up and moving, my podcast recording equipment is now sitting in a storage warehouse in Brisbane.  A small oversight on my part which I hope won’t affect broadcasting too much in the coming months.  I have three episodes waiting in the wings and will bring these to you each Wednesday starting next week.

In signing off, I’d like to acknowledge the hurt and sadness that exists on this day around Australia amongst our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  While many see January 26 as a day to celebrate, the rest of us mourn.  I support #changethedate to recognise this painful history and to choose a more suitable date to celebrate what it means to be Australian.

May you be calm and keep on walking.

Lucy

Burnout and Vicarous Trauma:  An employee defect or a yearning for collective action for social justice?

If you work in the area of trauma counselling, chances are you have an organisation or colleagues keeping a watchful eye out for the first signs and symptoms of burnout or vicarious trauma.

In my workplace we have to complete two tests every year – the Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Practioners and the Trauma and Attachment Beliefs Scale.  We also have regular training so that employees can identify the symptoms in each other.

While it might be considered admirable for our organisations to have a Vicarious Trauma Policy and working proactively to promote the health and wellbeing of its employees, what is it that is really happening here?  And what effect is this having?

If someone returns high results to vicarious trauma testing, the onus is on the individual to address it.  They are encouraged to revisit their self care plan or self refer to the Employee Assistance Program.  This kind of response pathologises the problem and locates it within the individual, that the counsellor is somehow defective or not strong enough.   It follows then that the client is to blame for somehow causing an injury by sharing their story with us.   Vikki Reynolds says using self care as an antidote for burnout “does nothing about the social determinants of health for people….  The problem is not in our heads or our hearts, but in the social world where clients and workers struggle with structures of injustice.”  Vikki argues that assuming a position where clients are seen to be hurting us is not an act of accountability at all.

In Darwin where I practice, we are surrounded by some of the worst cases of injustice in Australia such as the mistreatment of youth in detention, the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families and concerning numbers of child abuse within the foster care system.  Not far from us, refugees on Manus Island continue to suffer.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to hear the sad and heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and the impact this has had on our clients.  And yes, I see and hear the impacts of intergenerational trauma outside my house; it’s difficult to escape it sometimes.  However, I return a normal vicarious trauma result.  I also hear inspiring stories of skills, knowledge and strengths of survival; stories of people speaking out to the Royal Commission so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other people; stories of people taking action to reduce the isolation caused by their poverty and homelessness.  I admire the steps of resistance my clients make against systems of injustice.  Indeed, clients do not hurt us, but instead inspire us, teach us and critique us says Reynolds.

The biggest critique our clients could legitimately make is why we, as workers, are not ‘fostering collective sustainability’*, coming together in solidarity to challenge the institutions and systems which marginalise and victimise our clients.

Indeed the collective silence of social workers in Australia is more likely to lead to my potential burnout, due to my frustration with the profession.  Why are social workers not out on the streets marching together to get Manus Island refugees to Australia?  Why are we silent in our support of our Indigenous comrades in the fight for Recognition?  Why are we standing back and allowing removal of Aboriginal children from families to go up and up?  Isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place, to make a real difference to the social structures of injustice?  I was once accused of getting too close to a community because I cared too much, and was threatened to be removed by my employer.  However I was proud of my role as an advocate for social justice for the community and its people.

Social justice activism is a protective factor against vicarious trauma.  It’s not our clients that are hurting us.  It is our silence and inaction.

Perhaps the care we can show our colleagues is not to watch out for signs or symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace, but to gather in solidarity around shared ethics of social justice and collective accountability.  Let’s get out on the streets and do what we signed up for.

*‘Fostering collective sustainability’ is one of the guiding intentions advocated by Vikki Reynold in Justice Doing in Community Work and Therapy.

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’

7 Reasons why Social Workers should Blog

It’s scary out there but you can show new social workers the way!

Curiously, I recently searched the web to see how many Australian social workers have a personal blog about their journey.  Disappointingly, there are not a lot of us out there!

My main motivation for starting a blog was linked to my own experience upon leaving university.  During my degree, there was not a great deal written about social work in Indigenous communities and the task seemed daunting. I would have really appreciated being able to hear real-life stories about ‘how to do it’.  (Ah-hem – from real people, not academics!)

Thankfully, there are loads more academic texts and journal articles around these days on Indigenous social work.  But my vision was to offer a space for graduating students to connect and prepare for their journey through stories.  As well as a go to resource for the rest of us who continue to learn every day!

So here are my 7 reasons why you should start a blog.

1.  You can make a difference

Remember when you first started studying social work because you wanted to make a real difference to people’s lives?  Well, having your own blog is one way of teaching others about what works and how to avoid making the mistakes you made.  You will be shaping and mentoring the next generation of social workers.

2. Experienced professionals want to hear your voice

You will be surprised at the wide range of people that will benefit from reading your stuff.  Not just senior social workers, but nurses, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, youth workers and even entrepreneurs.  Some of these people don’t ‘get’ what it is we do.  Now you can show them.

3.  New social workers need to hear your voice

Social work in Indigenous communities is bloody hard sometimes.  Newcomers need to hear that!   We need people who are prepared to walk the talk, take the knocks and pick themselves back up, accept they are not going to change the world and be content to take the small wins.  So we have to tell it like it is.  I have seen too many people come to remote Australia expecting to change the world, only to leave feeling helpless because they had no idea what to expect.  Whatever field you practice in, there is a lot of work to be done and you can help prepare newbies.

“Oh, the places you’ll go and the people you’ll meet!”

4.  You can inspire people with the rewards

OK, so entrenched social problems arising from a history of colonising practices in Australia make this one of the most challenging fields of work.  But it also comes with a-m-a-z-i-n-g rewards and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, if workers have the patience and perseverance to stick around long enough to see it.  With stories about the people you meet, the places you go and the successes you have, you can inspire them.

5.  You can tell stories about the real world

Some people just want to know what ‘A Day in the Life of a Remote Social Worker’ actually looks like.  You can’t get that from reading a journal article or text book.  Stories of lived experience can teach others about the pitfalls, the challenges, the rewards, the tips and the strategies for surviving and thriving.  Blogs are authentic and practical – real world stuff!

 6.  Blogs are immediately accessible

Writing a journal article takes a lot of time and is a highly scrutinised process.  I just wanted to get my ideas, my opinions and my experiences out there.  You can write about a current issue and hit publish today.  You can start a conversation, mobilise a mob and get immediate feedback.  How powerful is that!

7.  You can earn PD points.

Having a blog is another alternative for reflecting on your practice with yourself initially (like when you’re staying out bush and you’ve got nothing else to do)  and then with all your followers who hopefully send comments.  Even the AASW recognises the value of social workers sharing their perspective and contributing to the growth of the profession.  Go to Category 3 ‘Professional Identity’ to claim PD points for ‘Presenting or Promoting the Social Work Perspective’ and claim the hours you have taken to write your piece.  Bonus!

So if this has convinced you that blogging is a good thing, go for it.  There is lots of information out there about how to get started.  Please drop us a line if you do.  I, for one, would love to be the first to read it (and comment).

2016 – It will be a Shining Year (if i have anything to do with it)

IMG_20160116_165221And so it is with trepidation and determination that I sat down in January and planned out my year ahead.   But I didn’t want to do it just any old way.  It had to be what Sark would call a wild succulent process – one that would make me want to follow through on the goals I set.  So I ordered myself a gorgeous diary and journal to create myself a shining year.  During the mapping process, I came to appreciate what a unique position I am in.  I currently hold down two jobs – the first as a Project Worker has been in the making for many years through my experience working on the Tiwi Islands – the other, a new environment counselling children and families in a mainly mainstream setting.   If you have ever held down two intensive part time jobs that demand your energy and your passion in completely different ways, then you’ll know what a challenging task it is to change hats mid week.

Of course all these responsibilities has meant that the work of Metaphorically Speaking as a private practice has been put on hold for now.  Well sort of.  You see I’ve set myself another goal this year too.  To finally self publish a children’s book that’s been in the making for the last few years.   This dream grew out of my work as a children’s counsellor on the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland.   I have noticed that primary school aged Aboriginal boys had real difficulty talking about domestic violence in their families and community.  Often shame was so great that they were silenced or too traumatised to speak about their experience.   Gender and cultural barriers also provided extra challenges.  Much of my work focused on using non verbal methods of communication such as drawing, clay or drumming to help boys express themselves.   I also came to appreciate the power of metaphors to help children talk about their lives in safe ways through groupwork on family healing bush camps using the Tree of Life methodology.   The Elders enthusiastically took up narrative practice ideas that drew on storytelling traditions focusing on strengths, hope and resilience.  Seeing how well these ideas worked in community has inspired me to use similar metaphors to reach out to children, who are silenced by their experience of violence.  My goal in writing this book is for counsellors, therapists and even mums and dads to have a way of giving children a voice to their experience by lifting the veil of shame and self blame.   I also believe the book values the strengths of culture in keeping children safe and strong.  I feel privileged to be working with Christine Burrawunga in making this book a reality, with Christine turning her amazing artistic talents into the role of illustrator.  As is so much a part of my practice, this project will be a two way learning experience and genuine partnership.   I look forward to working together with Christine over the next few weeks to begin dreaming and scheming the images to accompany the text.  This is a journey neither of us have been on before.

2016 is also an exciting time, as I near closer to starting our very first support group on the Tiwi Islands for pregnant women or women with young children who are living with or at risk of trauma from violence.   This project is a long time in the making, and has come about through funding made available through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to Relationships Australia.   Last year, my focus rested on training local women in Wurrumiyanga to be group facilitators and peer mentors to participants using the talking tool called It Takes A Forest to Raise a Tree.  This resource is something I have developed alongside Elders in the community beginning in 2010, after they expressed worries about their grandchildren and the difficulty of connecting with their parents, they described as the lost generation.  Finally, the tool will be out there hitting the ground where it is most needed.

Meanwhile in 2016 I will also be starting some new work in Child Inclusive Practice in my counselling role at Anglicare Resolve.  This requires new learning and new approaches for working with children whose parents are separated, as well as getting my head around the family law system, how it operates and how it impacts on families and children.

So there’s lots of work ahead.  It’s daunting.  It’s exciting.  It’s gonna be a shining year.

For more information about my work on the Tiwi Islands, you can contact me at Relationships Australia NT.  To access my culturally safe counselling services for children and families in Darwin, contact Anglicare NT Resolve.  To get a copy of my children’s picture book, stay tuned.

Mindfulness: A new fad OR a practice used for thousands of years in Australia?

IMG_2563

Nature has a way of bringing us back to the moment.

Has anyone noticed how busy, how violent, how damaged, how lost the world is lately?  Sometimes it feels like I spend more time defending some right, advocating for some justice or worrying about some worthy cause, than I spend with my own children just living and being.  My Inbox is flooded with agencies wanting my signature on their petition or money to fight their case.  As a peoples, we seem to have lost our sense of self – our humanity – distracted by the temptation of technologies and drawn into the seduction of social media.  We have been sucked into believing that our leaders and politicians have our collective human interest at heart.  We have been disconnected from what our intuition, our bodies and our earth is telling us.  We are detached from relationship to each other.

It seems like there are quite a few of us out there who are despairing at the ravaging of the planet and the inhumane treatment of human beings at many levels.  It has been refreshing to witness the emerging movement of people standing up for human and environmental rights around the world.  There is change on the wind.  Some have called it the time of the Great Turning.  There is also a movement of people simplifying their lives, ridding themselves of the possessions of consumerism, growing and sharing free food, moving into a tiny house, cutting back their work hours and looking for a tree change.  These are not what might be called hippies or tree huggers but average people. Yes it is the average person that is waking up and looking within for what is true and just.

Mindfulness is also making a comeback with a wider audience than just the yoga-loving types. Mindfulness teaches us to stop, to breathe, to reconnect, to listen.  Seigel (2015) calls it taking ‘time in’ (as opposed to time out) inviting us to become aware of our bodies, feelings and thoughts at this moment in time.  Not the past.  Not the future.  Now.

Professionals in the field of neuroscience now have the evidence that mindfulness really is good for our human brains.  So evidently the human services sector is jumping on board with mindfulness being the answer to all manner of human problems like addictions and mental illness, manifestations of the crazy, stressed-out world we have created.

I would argue that Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years. It appears to be very close to what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, from Daly River calls ‘Dadirri’.

Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.”

“The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again.“

“There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.”

Miriam has said that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing, it is deep inside each one of us.  Sitting in nature is one way we can become more connected with the practice of dadirri.  Sit, feel and listen – to the birds, the wind, your breathing, your heartbeat.  Allow yourself to be quiet and be still in this moment.  It won’t fix the worries of the world.  But it will allow you to just be.

It’s pretty ironic that the one culture we have tried to destroy in Australia is the same culture that can teach us how to live in peace with ourselves and the earth?   If only we had just listened.

References

Siegel, D. 2015 ‘ Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain’.

A Social Work Practice Framework: The Right Mix for me

IMG_8707

Like the bush damper, my social work practice framework is a recipe I’ve learnt from wiser people around me.

I was recently asked by the Australian Childhood Foundation to answer some questions which would be used to contribute to the development of a team practice framework.  I have no doubt my answers will be very different to other members of the team.  It represents what is the best mix for me at this point in time.  It is an emerging and ever-evolving recipe for working with Indigenous communities.  Like any recipe, there is always room for improvement.  Here are just some of the ingredients.

How would you describe the 5 most important principles that underpin your approach to working with children and families?

  1. Awareness of Aboriginal history, colonisation, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. This is a big topic to get your head around but it is necessary.  One cannot be working with Indigenous folk without appreciating and accepting how ‘white privilege’ impacts on our work.  It is an ongoing learning project for me.  This is closely linked with the social work values of human rights and social justice which are the core values that drive my passion for this work.
  2. Mutual respect.  This cannot be achieved without a relationship.  If you give respect, you can expect respect in return.  Establishing a relationship of trust is the most important part of the work, given Indigenous people can be suspicious of whitefellas (with very good reason – there is a history of people coming into their communities, doing their work and leaving without engaging in authentic consultation or setting up any sustainable change processes).  It was important to me to stick around, to show that I wasn’t going to be another ‘white toyota’.  In my first 6 months working remote, all I did was had cups of tea with people and listened.  This was so important in being able to establish a relationship of mutual respect.
  3. Doing ‘with’ not ‘for’. It is walking alongside our clients, not in front and not behind.  This is probably the hardest principle to stay connected with.  It is very tempting to take over and do things for people when they have become so disempowered.  I have to constantly remind myself ‘how can I be?” rather than ‘what can I do?’  There is also a risk of overdoing it, thinking you can save the world and then dropping behind from burnout.   I am reminded of the words from Lila Watson

    “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

  4. Genuine collaboration and accountability to the community. This is not something that should happen as an aside in the work.  This should be first, foremost and ongoing.  It follows on from my previous point about ‘doing with not for’, and my next point about not being the expert.  I have written a bit about collaboration from a cultural perspective elsewhere.
  5. Coming from a stance of curiosity and non-expert.  I don’t have the answers.  I will never know what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aboriginal person.  But I do have skills in being able to listen to the problems of people’s lives and reconnect them with their skills, knowledge, values, hopes and visions that may have temporarily become lost.  I believe everyone has the capacity to find their own solutions if they are prepared to explore the ‘real me’.  Discovering the person that has got lost, sometimes means working through some really hard issues that have got in the way of their preferred self.  My approach is therefore one of curiosity.

What theories or knowledge do you draw on to inform your approach?

  1. Community development theories. Of all my formal social work education, the theoretical understandings of community development have had the most impression on me.  Community is also an important part of my personal life too.  I take an active role in volunteering, participating in community life and being a change agent in the community development process.
  2. Systems theory.  One cannot work with children alone.  For real change to occur we must engage at the family, community and society level.  After all, it takes a village to raise a child.
  3. Two way learning

    Two way learning

    Two way learning model.  This implies I have just as much to learn from the people I work with as they do from me.  We are exploring the questions and finding the answers together.  When I started working in NE Arnhemland I took the time to document the emerging practice framework between myself and our Yolngu worker to demonstrate how Yolngu and Western worldviews were working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.  I hoped it might give some insight into how other workers might marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.  This reflection speaks extensively about the knowledge, values, beliefs and skills underpinning this cultural practice framework.  I also enjoy documenting and sharing the skills, knowledge and abilities of Indigenous folk who are staying strong in the face of hardship.  Many of these stories can be found here.

  4. In recent years I have been drawn to the trauma-informed approach in children’s counselling to address concerns around behaviour, learning, health and various aspects of wellbeing.  But how does this scientific knowledge inform our work with groups and communities who have experienced intergenerational trauma, where the effects of violence are normalised?  What affects has the impact of trauma from colonisation, dispossession and assimilation had and continue to have on Aboriginal people, families and communities from a neuroscience perspective?  These are big questions I wonder about.

There are many, many other theories and pieces of knowledge somewhere deep inside my brain.  But these are the ones that come to mind at this present moment.

How do you describe the goals or aims of your work?

I am really passionate about early intervention and prevention.  These terms get thrown around a lot so they have lots of different meanings for different people.  My passion is about the prevention of trauma through culturally safe therapeutic support.  My current work is all about the prevention of trauma in young children under 3.  I believe this is where we can make the most difference in breaking the cycle of violence and trauma.  If we can get a child through the first 1000 days of their life with a secure attachment and no ongoing exposure to harmful trauma then they have a much better chance of growing up strong and healthy.  Unfortunately, many Aboriginal children have an early childhood developmental history of exposure to domestic or family violence, child abuse or drug and alcohol abuse.  In 5-10 years time, my hope is that this number is reduced significantly because there is more investment being made in the early years to ensure children’s safety, security and emotional needs are being met.  It seems wrong to me that we spend all the money on children when they reach school.  The damage has already been done by them and it is harder to heal.

What are the 5 most important techniques that you use in your work?

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

    Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    Expressive therapies. Communicating using drawing, painting, craft, clay, storytelling in the sandtray or with puppets.  These are the mediums where many great things can happen from externalising problems to integrating trauma.  I have had fun writing about and developing my own art therapy techniques, testing, reflecting on and reshaping them to ensure they are culturally safe.

  3. Indirect questioning. It is better to invite an Aboriginal person to tell their story than to ask a whole lot of direct questions.  Sometimes it takes a lot longer to get a picture of what is going on, maybe many months.  This requires patience.  But at least you won’t be causing more shame or bad feelings for that person through interrogation.
  4. Attentive listening. Double listening.  Listening for what is said as well as what is not said.  Watching out for the signs of resistence.  Listening for the ways people are standing up to the effects of problems and systems on their lives.  Looking for the sunlight peering through a small crack that opens the door to people’s preferred ways of living their lives.
  5. Self care. I cannot approach my work with care and empathy if I am not giving this to myself.  I have learnt the hard way.  In 2013, I developed early stage thyroid disease which can be exacerbated by stress and shortly after, herniated a disc in my lower back.  Both of these physical impediments are closely linked to psychological health.  Remote work can be taxing even when you are healthy and have a strong mind like I do.  I had to give up my work for a while to begin a process of healing and recovery.  This has been a long hard process.  I have learnt how to listen to my body and meditation has now become a daily practice (something I struggled with for many years).
IMG_8675

Helping people to help themselves and employing local people.

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

  1. Trust.  And with that comes engagement.  Once you have engagement, then you can work together on the practical issues.  This goes for counselling – resulting in the client feeling listened to, finding the conversation helpful, wanting to come back and moving forward in their lives.  It goes for community work too, with Elders and leaders of the community wanting to stay connected to what you are doing.
  2. Awareness raising. While I would like to say that I have been able to stop violence in a family or community, it’s probably not the case most of the time.  The best I can hope for is to make women and children aware of the impact of trauma on themselves, their children and their community.  It is up to them in the end, whether they stand up to it or take action to protect themselves and those around them.  My latest project is getting ‘the brain story’ out to women in communities, so that they can make a more trauma-informed choice about their protective behaviours towards children.
  3. Helping communities to help themselves. I am committed to employing and mentoring local people to work alongside me.

What kind of supports do you believe are important for you to experience that will enable you to improve the effectiveness and quality of your work?

Supervision from an Aboriginal social work practitioner.  This is difficult to access when working under funding arrangements which don’t necessarily value this.

What books or journal articles have inspired you?

Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma In Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson

Collective narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma by David Denborough.  His latest book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives is such an accessible, easy read.   It is designed for anyone to be able to do their own healing using the gentle principles of the narrative approach.

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

Our Voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work eds. B Bennett, S. Green, S. Gilbert, D. Besserab

The Art Therapy Sourcebook or anything by Cathy Malchiodi

Anything by Dan Seigal including his many U-tube clips and TED talks.