The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

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.
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 can 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 can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved 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 problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  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.

 

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

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

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was 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 it challenges their values and who they are.  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 strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

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” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  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.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

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.

aboriginal-art-1540115_960_720

‘The Magic of Metaphors:  Engaging women at risk to prevent trauma in young children’

This was the topic of a presentation I gave at the SNAICC Conference in Canberra in September, 2017.  Thanks to some spontaneous video recording and retrieval work from another social worker sitting in the audience that day, I’ve finally been able to edit this together.

This presentation occurred as I came to the end of my contract with Relationships Australia NT, as Co-Ordinator of the Healing Our Children project.  It was the culmination of about six years work; most of which was in the development phase working on an idea raised by concerned Elders on the Tiwi Islands, plus a further two and a half years to roll out a pilot program in remote communities on the Tiwi Islands, Katherine and Palmerston.

As a Co-founder of the project, I am proud of this work and what we have been able to create.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent learning together with the women of the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland about ways we can respond to domestic and family violence to protect children and prevent trauma.

This was a fantastic project because it was developed in community with community using the knowledge, wisdom and stories of Aboriginal people’s lived experience.  It did not come from outside or abroad.  Programs like this are not cheap to develop and involve a lot of sweat and tears, time and patience.  We did it all on a shoestring!

I decided not to continue on in the role as Co-Ordinator because as much as I had invested in this project and believed wholeheartedly in what we set out to achieve, it was underfunded.  I was employed for two days per week to support and mentor a team of local people in several communities.  Unfortunately, the extension of funding beyond 2018 then reduced, rather than capitalised on the investment and success we had already made during this trial.  This was disappointing, as the women and communities had invested so much of their energy and time voluntarily, on an issue they were passionate about addressing.  It means that the local people employed in the project (which is one of the biggest aims of the funding) receive only casual wages and service delivery is sporadic at best.

We can do better than this.

My point is that I want to see projects like this properly funded, especially ones that are developed by communities for their own people.  So they are sustainable and have every chance of enacting real change and closing the gap!

Everything that I brought to this project through my social work practice framework is represented in some form in this presentation.  This includes strong values and a commitment to social justice, self determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people.  This video may appeal to social workers interested in anti-oppressive practice, narrative community work or using metaphors in therapeutic work.

This presentation covers:

  • Background to the ‘Healing Our Children’ project
  • The culturally safe project model
  • Shared values that underpinned the project
  • Metaphors and how we came to use them in our training, therapeutic groupwork, resource development and evaluation
  • The healing potential and therapeutic benefit of using metaphors in trauma work
  • How the resource kit “It Takes a Forest to Raise a Tree” was developed
  • How metaphors assisted us in safe dialogue with women who had children living at home with violence
Please note:  Due to our video camera running out of batteries half way through, we have edited together the two parts of this presentation.

 

 

My hope is that ‘Healing Our Children’ moves beyond surviving, to thriving!
Support, follow and learn more here.

‘Healing Our Children’ project at Relationships Australia NT

‘Healing Our Children’ Facebook page

‘Striving for Fairness and Equity in a Colonised World’ with Sammi Lillie

It is a fitting tribute for NAIDOC week, that I should be interviewing Sammi Lillie on ‘Talk The Walk’ this week.  In this conversation, Sammi honours the many Aboriginal women that have supported and vouched for her on her journey into social work with First Nations peoples.  Having just graduated from her Masters of Social Work, Sammi reflects on her placement experience of co-ordinating the Child Removal campaign at ANTAR Qld (Australians for Native Title and Reconcilitation).  Driven by personal family interests as well as deeply held values and a commitment to self determination, Sami shares the ingredients that have made practising Indigenous policy and advocacy work successful as a non-Indigenous woman.   Social work students considering their future placements will find this episode invaluable and current non-indigenous practitioners will discover pearls of wisdom for standing alongside our Indigenous brothers and sisters for recognition and justice.

In episode 24 of Talk the Walk we explore:

  • Why social work students should consider a placement experience in policy and advocacy work
  • The current state of affairs in relation to the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families
  • The state of child protection legislation in Queensland after adopting the principle of self determination in 2017
  • The need for a national inquiry into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care
  • How you can support the Family Matters initiative to make a difference
  • Sammi’s greatest learnings working on Indigenous advocacy campaigns and policy development
  • The social work theories that influenced Sammi’s developing practice framework
  • Sammi’s concept of a ‘pro-Indigenous theory’ arising out of her interest in the work of Bob Pease on pro-feminism
  • Sammi’s personal connection to the Stolen Generations and the other motivating factors that make her so passionate about addressing discrimination
  • How Sammi has avoided major struggles in the work by acting with integrity, honesty and ‘cultural courage’
  • Knowledge that social workers should have but are just not getting
  • Unpacking the values underpinning Sammi’s work and life
  • The mentors and rolemodels that continue to inspire Sammi in her work
  • Reflections on proud moments, avoiding mistakes easily made, and Sammi’s plans for the future
  • Final advice for other social work students considering their placements

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

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

Things to follow up after the episode

ANTaR Queensland website and Sign Up here for their Newsletter

ANTaR National website and Sign Up here for their Newsletter

Social Work Focus, Autumn Edition, featuring Sammi’s article ‘Support for Self Determination imperative to address the over-representation of Indigenous Children in the Child Protection system’.  You will need to be a member of the AASW to access this resource.

Like Sammi’s Facebook Page ‘Ally Through Advocacy’

Sammi’s Reading List
Clare Tilbery, ‘The over-representation of indigenous children in the Australian child welfare system’, International Journal of Social Welfare.
Bob Pease,  ‘Men as Allies in Preventing Violence against Women: Principles and Practices for Promoting Accountability’.
Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert, Dawn Bessarab (eds), Our voices : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social work.
Bindi Bennett, Joanna Zubrzycki, J & Violent Bacon, ‘What Do We Know? The Experiences of Social Workers Working Alongside Aboriginal People’.
Christine Fejo-King & Linda Briskman,Reversing colonial practices with Indigenous peoples’
Christine Fejo-KingLet’s Talk Kinship.
English, Peter.  ‘Land rights and birthrights, (the great Australian hoax) : an examination of the rights of ownership of former Aboriginal land in Australia’.
Aileen Moreton- Robinson, Whitening Race, Aboriginal Studies Press, Australia.
Robyn Lynn, Rosamund Thorpe, Debra Miles, Christine Cutts, Anne Butcher, Linda Ford   Murri Way! Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders reconstruct social welfare practice.
Tom Calma & Emily Priday, Putting Indigenous Human Rights into Social Work Practice’Australian Social Work.
Elizabeth Fernandez, ‘Child Protection and Vulnerable Families: Trends and Issues in the Australian Context’Social Sciences.

Contact Sammi at sammililli(at)gmail(dot)com

‘Opening Doors and Letting Stories Unfold’ with Anne Carrick

Anne Carrick working on Kunibidji country

In episode 20 of ‘Talk the Walk’, my guest today captures the essence of what it takes to move from a big city to a remote community in the heart of Arnhemland.   Social Worker, Anne Carrick spent three years immersed in community life and working in a social and emotional well-being program alongside 13 language groups and clans, each with their similar but different traditions living on Kunibidji land.  Anne says “This is one of the most multi-lingual communities in the world.”

If you’ve ever considered working remote or wondered what it is like, Anne’s stories, memories and lessons learned are pure gold.

In this episode we explore:

  • Anne’s early learnings working with Aboriginal people as a young social worker in Adelaide and Ceduna
  • The thinking and motivation behind Anne’s move to the Northern Territory
  • One article every Balanda (whitefella) needs to read before working in Aboriginal communities
  • A typical day working in the social and emotional wellbeing program in a remote Aboriginal community
  • The effects of daily life being exposed to frequent domestic violence and suicide attempts
  • The role Elders and leaders took in responding to domestic and family violence
  • The outcomes Anne was able to achieve assisting women, children and families
  • How a social work assessment process differs in a remote community compared to a more urban settling, and the role of Aboriginal workers
  • How the community shaped new understandings of mental health using the positive concept of living a life ‘worried well’
  • Anne’s experience of supervising social work students; what students can do to prepare themselves for a remote placement; and good advice for anyone thinking of working remote
  • Anne’s challenges and struggles; and what sustained her
  • The vision, principles and values inherent in Anne’s social work practice framework and how she advocated for this in a system which had different ideas about tackling social issues
  • Tracing Anne’s ethics and values back to early childhood
  • The wake up call that may help you prevent burnout
  • Accessing good supervision and support

Just some of the beautiful trees that spoke to Anne around the community and on homelands.

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

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

Things to follow up after the episode

‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’ by Kim Mahood

“National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s Mental Health and Social and Emotional Well-Being 2017-2023, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (October 2017)

Social and Emotional Wellbeing Portal, Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet

Contact Anne Carrick on anne475esp(at)hotmail(dot)com

‘The Reconciliation Dance’ with Pamela Trotman

Get your dancing shoes on as we head into Episode 7 of Talk the Walk with Pamela Trotman.
Pamela has been dancing around Reconciliation circles since the 1976 Referendum, granting Aboriginal people the vote and removing the White Australia policy.   Pamela’s whole life has been about appreciating the diversity around her, since the days of growing up in Gunnedah and hanging out with the kids in the ‘blacks camp’.  Starting out as a young, twenty-something social worker in Redfern, Pamela’s career spans 50 years in child protection, mental health and policy working in a variety of non-government organisations in NSW and the Northern Territory.  She has authored and presented on the areas of Aboriginal affairs and trauma, both nationally and internationally.
Come join us on the dance floor as Pamela reflects on five decades of the most memorable steps, lessons from mentors and learnings for life.

In this episode of ‘Talk the Walk’, we explore:

  • Pamela’s early days working in Redfern at a time of great political activism
  • How our white privilege has us acting and behaving in ways that are racist
  • How Pamela came to view her own culture of English aristocracy through the eyes of Aboriginal people to become an effective social worker
  • Reconciliation being a journey of white recognising their internalised dominance and black recognising their internalised oppression
  • Memories of Pamela’s childhood growing up in a segregated town and being one of few who ventured into the blacks camp
  • The influence of family values and class privilege on Pamela’s life and work
  • How Aboriginal people are treated as second class workers in our organisations
  • The normalisation and legitimisation of internalised dominance and internalised oppression
  • Pamela’s time with the AASW working on the Indigenous Portfolio and setting up the first Indigenous committee
  • The Social work profession as a reflection of society whose heart has hardened in recent times
  • reflections on the NT Emergency Intervention
  • how social workers can reflect on their own internalised dominance
  • the principles of peace and non-violence that have shaped Pamela’s life and work
  • Pamela’s biggest challenge and what it means to be a human
  • Why Pamela loves living and working in Darwin
  • The healing powers of the Reconciliation dances, a metaphor for living one’s life and work
  • The Dance Creation Story and its influence on Pamela’s social work practice
  • An inspiring story of the impact of Pamela’s work discovered 45 years later
  • The role of mirror neurons in empathy and understanding the woundedness of the other
  • Acting with integrity

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below.
Subscribe to episodes of ‘Talk the Walk’ by email via our Home Page.  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.

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

Things to follow up after the episode

‘ The Locals, Identity, Place and Belonging in Australia and Beyond’ by Robert Garbutt

‘Heterosexism:  Addressing internalized dominance’ by Robin DiAngelo

About Paulo Freire  

‘Transcending Internalised Dominance’ by Pamela Trotman in ‘Reconciliation and Australian Social Work’ edited by Dr Christine Fejo-King and Jan Poona

About Mahatma Ghandi

‘The healing powers of the reconciliation dances’ by Pamela Trotman in Reconciliation and Aboriginal Health, edited by Dr Christine Fejo-King, Dr Aleeta Fejo and Jan Poona

‘Mirror Mirror, our brains are hard-wired for empathy’ by Babette Rothschild

‘Trauma and Recovery’ by Judith Herman

‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ with Josephine Lee

The bold and beautiful, Josephine Lee

My guest on Episode 3 of ‘Talk the Walk’ is Josephine Lee. Josephine is a Gudjula woman from North Queensland whose social worker career spands almost 30 years.  Jo is committed to anti-oppressive, anti-racist, therapeutic and relationship-based practices as well as creative and hope-focused practices.
In true traditional style, this ended up feeling like a yarn around the campfire, than an interview.  Josephine takes us on a deep journey into her life growing up and how this has shaped the person she is today.  Her biggest influences on her social work practice is life itself.  This includes in her words

“moments of suffering that you think you cannot get through; moments of joy that you think you cannot believe has happened; good people; lessons learnt from bad; being given opportunities; being brave to take up the opportunities; forgiving yourself when you stuff up, learn and grow; kindness is a strength; beautiful art, music, writing, and so many things that have contributed to hope focussed approach; talk with belief, especially to those who have given up.”

It was truly a privilege to hear Josephine’s raw and honest account of the struggles in life and work.  Josephine is unashamedly and unapologetically frank in her assessment of the state of social work and humanity on the planet.  If you want to hear the brutal truth about what an Aboriginal social worker really thinks about our white middle class profession, but in a gentle kind way, then you’re in the right place.
This episode explores:
• What is hope-focused practice and how it differs from strengths based practice
• The impact of Aboriginal policy and racism on Jo’s family history which ultimately shapes her practice and her life
• Jo’s view of the world as a ‘social justice cake’
• The circumstances that led to Jo taking up social work as a career
• Jo’s reflection on her own personal experience of social workers involved in her childhood
• Lessons on responsibility and what social justice in action really means
• Special photos that have significance to Jo’s life and work (see below)
• Child removal as the impact of colonisation
• Cautions for social workers following the current trends in treatment without bringing a cultural lens and critical reflection
• The traps that white middle class social workers might fall into which leads to hopelessness and helplessness
• A blunt warning for social workers who don’t enter Aboriginal communities with respect
• What it means to walk alongside someone on a painful but healing journey of self discovery for deep nourishment and flourishment to happen
• The power of narrative therapy in working with Indigenous clients
• What is reflective social work practice REALLY
• Black empowerment theory and why it’s greater than feminist theory

“If you walk softly on this Mother Earth, you have tried your best to take care for her, and all life, and you did so with dignity and grace — that is a truly well-lived life.”Josephine Lee, July 2017

Josephine speaks about the following photographs in this interview.

Josephine’s maternal side of the family.

Josephine with her mother and siblings.

An artists interpretation of family surrounded by wild waters.

The picture a client identified as to what being happy with life looks like.

Please note, due to the length of this interview, it has been split into two parts.  Tune in next week to hear the final part of our conversation.
Warning: occasional explicit language.
Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.
Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Various Books by Christine Fejo King

About Wayne McCashen

‘Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities’ by African American social worker, Barbara Bryant Solomon