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’

The Power of Story in Standing up to Violence: A Child’s Perspective

Patricia readingIn Aboriginal culture, storytelling is a way of connecting with the relationship system, an ancient tradition that has been practiced throughout the generations.  Often it is Elders telling their grandchildren stories about their ancestors, that have great significance for their future lives.

In Western cultures it could be adults reading fairy tales or adventure stories to children at bedtime.

Children are great story tellers too.

If we take the time to stop and listen carefully, they have great adventures to tell.  Children are active little people, learning new skills and taking on knowledge from role models around them.  These things help them grow and develop, and come in handy when times get tough.

When children are living with violence in their families, they are drawing on the skills, knowledge and strengths they have learnt, to help them cope, keep themselves safe and stay strong.  They are standing up to violence!
Children who live with violence in their families and communities, come from all parts of Australia and many different cultural backgrounds.

When I was working as a children’s counsellor in remote Aboriginal communities between 2009 and 2013, I heard many stories of violence and trauma and helped the children document their strengths and abilities in surviving these hard times.  I recently reconnected with one of these boys whom I supported for several years and is now in high school.  He and his Aunty gave me permission to share publicly one of the stories he wrote, in the hope that it might help other children who are also experiencing violence or abuse.

Feel free to download and share this story with any children you may be working with.
A story about Anger

You or your client may also like to send a story back to us (email lucy@metaphoricallyspeaking.com.au).  I am happy to send on messages to the author of this story.  Here are some questions that might guide your message.

  • As you listened to the story, were there any words that caught your attention? Which ones?
  • When you heard these words, what pictures came to your mind about the person and what is important to them (eg. their hopes, dreams, values and beliefs)?   Can you describe that picture?
  • What is it about your own life that helped you connect with these words and pictures?
  • How might you think and act differently, after having heard this story?

We hope by sharing this story, that other voices of children living with violence are heard loud and strong.

I have a dream that we might be able to gather a whole collection of children’s stories of experiences of trauma and resilience.  And that this might be shared with the adults who have used violence or abuse in their relationships.

This may be just the tool needed to help those languishing in our prisons to think about the impact of their behavior on their loved ones and the possibility of a different way of living.

‘Recipes of Life’: Sharing Delicious Food and Messages of Hope with Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

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.

DSC_0077

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

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.

group

Final Week Celebration with ‘Recipes of Living’ families

A Narrative Approach to Working with Women who have Experienced Violent Relationships and others on the Journey of Life.

Narrative therapy is all about re-authoring lives or giving voice to the alternative stories rather than the problem-dominated one.  One of the tools for doing this is seeing life as a journey.  David Denborough (2014) so eloquently revisits Michael White’s (1995) original idea of viewing life as a ‘migration of identity’ in his new book “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives’.   I love this book because it sets out really simple ways we can help ourselves and others to rewrite and reclaim the stories of our lives from trauma or abuse to one of survival and strength.  These documents can then be used to help others who are still on the journey and hitting hard times!

Denborough explores how the journey for a woman leaving a violent relationship can be a difficult one particularly at the point of separation when expectations of finding a sense of wellbeing again can soon plummet into feelings of confusion, insecurity and personal failure.  However, mapping the journey of experiences of despair and wellbeing over time can help women see that a ‘trough’ is just one step on the ‘migration of identity’.  Women can come to appreciate that these feelings are actually an indication of progress and a sign of their commitment to wanting a better life for themselves, rather than slipping backward. It also opens the way for conversations about how to equip oneself to avoid a ‘backlash’, when a women feels vulnerable to plunging back into the despair that tries to take over her life once again. (For more information on creating Migration of Identity Maps see Denborough, 2014, p. 126-7).

One of the other ways of using the Journey of Life metaphor is by drawing the journey as a path or road (Denborough p.132-7).  I think this is a great model when working with Aboriginal people who usually like to draw and appreciate visual storytelling methods. To test this out, I recently sat down with Christine and we created a journey map of her life together using a piece of A4 paper, some textas and pastels.

At the end of the process, this is what it looked like.
IMG_2433

The process is quite lengthy but very important for drawing out thick rich descriptions of the positive events, skills, knowledge and future aspirations of the storyteller.  It begins by taking a large sheet of paper and drawing a winding road from one side to the other.  In the middle, a circle is drawn.  On the left is the ‘Road already travelled’ and the right is ‘the path yet to come’. Beginning on the starting point, stories are recorded in pictures and/or words about ‘Where you have come from’, ‘Favourite places travelled’, ‘Milestones achieved’ and ‘Obstacles overcome’. Here Christine drew a tree to represent her and her children that were hit by lightning.  She recalled her strong mum, Aunty and Grandmother telling her “If you’re gonna stay here, you and the kids will lose your life”.  They all supported her to go the women’s shelter and move away.  This was a major Obstacle Overcome, which after a 4 year wait, resulted in the Milestone of getting her own home.  The middle circle is for recording the ‘Circle of Support’ and above this, a compass of ‘Values, beliefs and principles’ that have guided them on the journey.  Important to Christine is to “not lose my traditional footstep. I want to hold onto my culture and teach it to my kids”.  On the top of the page, a ‘Survival kit’ can be drawn documenting what things they have turned to for strength in hard times. Christine shared “I think about the kids and what’s the next step for them and me.  I paint to make myself busy and keep my mind off things.  The pictures I paint tell stories reminding me about the good things”.

Part 2 is about looking forward.  In a similar way, visual stories are recorded about ‘Where you are heading’, ‘Places you wish to see’, ‘things you wish to make happen’, ‘gifts you wish to give others’, ‘obstacles to overcome’ and even a favourite ‘travelling song’ that will help you on the journey. Christine was clear about the goals she had for her children to finish school, find a job and make a life for themselves.   She has had these hopes ever since they were hit by the lightning obstacle and experienced worry for the children.  “I realised what was happening and took action”.

Part 3 encourages the storyteller to look down at their journey like an eagle would if flying over. This externalising viewpoint allows them to think about ‘Good memories’, ‘Name your journey’ and think about ‘a message to others’.  Christine’s Journey of Life map is now a useful tool for her to talk with other women about lessons learned to get through hard times.  During our Journey conversation Christine stated she wants to “tell stories of what has happened to me (the hard times) so that it helps others…. including young people who are suffering” and to “help others identify the strengths they have to get through hard times.  I try to help my daughter and other family who are stuck in these situations. I tell them you have to help yourself.”

References:

Denborough, D. 2014 “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

White, M. (1995)  Re-authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays, Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Recipes Of Life: How cooking is transforming my relationships, community and work

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Cooking in the Mulch Pit Community Garden.

Many years ago I started an initiative which I called the Community Chef. The idea was to share recipes using local food and a dozen of us would gather in someone’s house to prepare and cook these together. I remember the smell of garlic and ginger being pushed around the wok, the laughter of men gathered round the stove, the chatter of women munching on carrots and homemade spinach dips, and handwritten recipes handed down in families or along cultural storylines. There was something about this experience that was pretty darn special. Even though our community cooking nights have moved to an outdoor kitchen at my local community garden, this method of sharing knowledge and skills in such an earthy, organic way has huge therapeutic potential for each one of us. It does not assume that only one person is the expert but that we can all be teachers and learners.

It was pretty ironic that I would meet Natalie Rudland-Wood at around the same time as starting the Community Chef.  Natalie had developed the Recipes of Life program, adapted from similar narrative folk cultural methodologies like the Tree of Life.  Natalie was using Recipes to engage children and young people affected by homelessness in conversations about their lives using the metaphor of food.  Cooking and counselling was proving to be an effective mix.  In documenting and sharing their Recipes for overcoming hard times, the kids were experts in their own lives and becoming supportive mentors for their peers!

Having recently won a small grant, I’m currently preparing a program to trial Recipes of Life with refugees and asylum seekers living in Darwin.  It is not my intention to describe how the program works, but instead give you “a taster” by sharing my own recently crafted Recipe of Life.   Hopefully, you will see the two-fold potential therapeutic benefits, for the person writing their recipe and contributing it to the life of another, and the person receiving it (who might also be experiencing hard times).

LUCY’S RECIPE FOR LIVING WITH CHRONIC BACK PAIN

Ingredients

Mental strength         one bucket

Support                        a cup overflowing

Mindfulness                1 shovel full

Stamina                        a heap

Willpower                    as much as you can muster

Good diet                     1 teaspoon per day

Exercise                        between 1 teaspoon and 1 cup per week

Acceptance                   ideally 1 pinch per day

Patience                        1 handful per day

Understanding             doesn’t need to be added, just happens

Sourcing

The origins of Mental Strength are home grown after watching my mum who has had to put up with a lot over the years.  I remember having it after leaving home and it grows stronger every year.

Support is ‘on loan’ from my generous husband and kind friends.  It is always available but not always easy to accept.

The ideas and principles of Mindfulness have been imported over the years from friends, books, people I don’t know on the internet and Buddhist Monk, Gen Kelsang Dornying.

Stamina and Willpower is cultured from home as a result of leaving my birthplace and family in my early twenties and learning to rely on myself.

Good Diet and exercise are a mix of home grown skills of listening to my body mixed with advice from trusted naturopaths and chiropractors.  This sometimes gets confusing as the two sources can be conflictual.  But in the end, I know best, over any expert advice.

Acceptance is reluctantly borrowed from God who makes it easier to understand the need for this Recipe.

Patience is a gift from gentle role-models like my mum and Nelson Mandela.

Understanding is also a gift that presents itself from the mixing of all the other ingredients.

Method

Blend together mental strength and support using a wheelbarrow and shovel.  Pack down tight into the bottom of the wheelbarrow so there are no gaps.  You can’t afford to let any contaminants spoil this mix.

In a bowl, whisk together mindfulness, stamina and willpower.  Set it aside to ferment.  This will take a minimum of six months. Every day add good diet to the bowl.  Once a week add in exercise, not too much, just the right balance (depending on how you feel).   If it hurts, back off and just add the minimum required.  Even though you don’t like it, you must add small amounts of Acceptance especially on bad days.  For best results, add a pinch every day along with Patience.  The fermenting process is complete when Understanding has developed.   You are now ready to add this mix to the wheelbarrow.

Spread on top and leave out in the pure natural rays of the sun to cook. It will rise in the heat.

This recipe will take at least six months to ferment and develop its subtle flavour because you have to adjust ingredients as you go, depending on the level of pain on a given day.   Full maturity may take as long as two years.  

Mental Strength is the backbone of the recipe.  Without it, the recipe is doomed.

NB: My special tip is on really bad days to consume double the dose. For example, for my peace of mind, I had to advocate strongly to get an MRI against doctor’s advice which was “not clinically indicated”.  This takes a double dose of Mental Strength.

Serving Suggestion

Sometimes you will have to eat this in bed.

But the ideal way to serve it is at the end of the day, preferably in front of the sunset on the beach, surrounded by loved ones. I would have my immediate family, mum and close friends there, swaying in cosy hammocks with not a care in the world. The spread would be laid out on a huge picnic blanket with simple pure white crockery, the best silverware I could afford and fancy etched glasses with pink champagne.  The picnic basket would never run out of food.  We could eat as much as we wanted. There would be a high tide, lapping at our feet and a gentle breeze with the sweet smell of frangipani’s tickling my nose. The sound of curlews would ring out gently and intercept the laughter and joy of friendship.  I would speak with gratitude in honour of my soul mate and husband for sticking by me “in sickness and in health” for 21 years and the support of all those since that have drifted through my life, sharing their knowledge, encouragement and love.  A fairy would magically come and do all the washing up, leaving everything sparkly clean back in the picnic basket.

Has this got you thinking about how to use these ideas in your work?

Or perhaps how your personal Recipe could actually make a difference to the life of someone else?

Read more about Recipes of Life by downloading Natalie’s article in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work or if you’d like to write your own Recipe, contact us.

Trying, testing and tinkering with Narrative practice with First Nations people: 5 skills to add to your culturally-fit therapeutic toolbox

My first exposure to Narrative Therapy was in 2008 at the Dulwich Centre’s ‘Towards Collective and Community Practices: Narrative Ways of Working with Groups and Communities’. Collective and group practices really resonated as a respectful and organic way of engaging with Aboriginal communities. I have gone on to do other intensive workshops and taken my learnings back with me to try, test and tinker with the skills, blending them with my culturally-sensitive empowerment approach to practice alongside Aboriginal support workers.

Here are 5 narrative practices that have been influential in my experience of counselling, group and community work with First Nations people.

Double-listening

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

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others has internalised this view about themselves. The process of externalising helps us “separate the problem from the person”. I have spent a lot of time externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid. Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that the problems they are experiencing do not come from inside their body, but their external situation, usually someone else’s problem behaviour. Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

Resisting

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

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

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

Collective narrative documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

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

Tree of Life

Tree of Life.

Tree of Life.

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

What narrative ideas have you adopted into your counselling or social work practice with Aboriginal people?

References:

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

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