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’

Bearing Fruit in Indigenous communities: The use of Metaphor in Evaluation

The strong pull towards evidence-based practice demanded by funding bodies creates dilemmas for social workers who also have a commitment to community development, empowerment and anti-oppressive practices.  So how does one undertake a project evaluation in a remote Indigenous community if trying to marry Western evaluation processes with cultural safety?    My current project working with a Review Team consisting of local Aboriginal community members may offer some food for thought.

In our first meeting together, we spent quite a lot of time exploring what evaluation is, so that everyone had a grasp of what it was we were trying to achieve.   During this process, I found myself observing our independent external evaluator using language that was just too difficult to understand.   A lot of big words.   Too many words.   Inputs, outputs, outcomes and impacts.   Quality criteria, KPI’s and program logic.   It was making my mind boggle, let alone those whose minds are converting English to Tiwi language and back again.

20150904_133512

The ‘Pinyama’ Evaluation framework is mapped out using the tree metaphor

I needed to intervene.   So we went back to the drawing board.   Literally.   My drawing was a massive tree on large pieces of butchers paper taped together.   All the parts of the tree were there – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit.

Then as a group we started mapping out what our evaluation looked like.   But we didn’t talk about Inputs.   We talked about the food and nourishment that a tree needs to grow and the sorts of things that would get our program growing and sustain its life.   The nourishment ended up being a long list of good, strong values that would underpin the work.

Words were shared about the project history, much like how it started out like a seed.   “The seed represents starting new life and new babies.   It is about looking forward to a strong future with our strong families in strong culture.”

When it came to exploring the trunk of the tree, there was strong agreement that this represented culture.   Culture wasn’t just in the middle holding up this project strong, straight and proud; it is all around, everywhere.   The many practices and traditions which have been around for thousands of years were written on the trunk.   There was agreement if the tree was not growing strong, culture has the answers.

As our project had two broad outcomes, these became the two main branches of the tree.  It was easy for our group then to consider what it was we would be doing to achieve these outcomes.   This became the smaller branches (or the activities of the project) running off the big branches.   Attached to this were the leaves, each one representing a stakeholder in the project, helping us collectively to achieve our outcomes.   The fruit represented the changes the Review Team wished to bring about for their people and their community.   The fruit (aka project impacts) were divided into two sections for each of the big branches.

Although it was not documented on our tree, the metaphor of a storm harming the tree could be used to explore the potential risks to the project.   Storms were used in our context to explore the risks to individuals who might be participants in the project, namely the effects of drugs, alcohol and violence.   A hope was expressed that “We, the Tiwi people can help ourselves to heal and recover from these storms, just like a tree that regenerates over time.”

Now that our tree drawing was full of delightful fruits bursting with hopes and dreams for their community growing on two strong branches, the evaluator’s attention turned to developing a quality criteria.   “How will we know if we are doing a good job in the program?”  Of course, there would be a big tunga (a Tiwi woven basket) under the tree overflowing with good quality fruit wouldn’t there?   This would tell us the tree (and program) was healthy.

When we started out using the metaphor of the tree to map out what an evaluation would look like for our project, we had no idea how it would go.   At one point in our discussion, someone came up with the idea of ‘having a strong sense of direction’ because every seed needs to be planted in the right place, facing the right way.   The group agreed “We believe that change is everything, we can all make changes and we can make a difference.   Having these beliefs gives us a sense of direction.”    The tree was also growing with a purpose; there were particular people we are reaching out for, and this represented our target group.

A Tiwi artists representation of the Pinyama Evaluation Framework

A Tiwi artists representation of the Pinyama Evaluation Framework.   Artist: C. Tipiloura.

The Review Team decided that the Evaluation Tree looked like a pinyama (wild bush apple).   Ideally, the pinyama tree likes to grow near the beach in swampy conditions but on the Tiwi’s it has adapted to grow in good, sandy soils.   It seemed like a fitting tree for this project.   It just so happened there was one growing right outside the window where we were meeting.   And it was fruiting.

The Review Team became so engaged in this process, they were inspired to harness the skills of an emerging artist to depict their ‘Pinyama Evaluation Framework’ as an artwork (but that is another story).  The Review Team has continued in subsequent gatherings to determine how they will test the fruit to see if it is of good quality and good for their people.   In other words, how the project impacts will be measured.

Using the tree metaphor to explore and understand the process of Evaluation has allowed this community to see, feel and bring to life their own vision for this project.    Of course, it is just a starting point.  Like any tree, this vision may change over time as the project grows, changes and eventually bears the first fruit.

In what ways have you used metaphors in Project Evaluation?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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.

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.