Suhaila Rizqallah

“Exploring the World of Social Policy in Australia’s Most Remote Communities” with Suhaila Rizqallah

What does it take to be a mover and shaker in the development of social policy in the Northern Territory?  Who better to ask than the 2016 NT Social Worker of the Year, Suhaila Rizqallah.  My guest today has traipsed back and forth on country for over two decades and has a really good handle on the issues that affect Aboriginal people in Northern Australia.  This interview provides a glimpse into the wide range of experiences, observations and actions, Suhaila has undertaken during her varied and deeply satisfying career.

On Episode 30 on Talk the Walk, we explore:

  • A day in the life of a Senior Contract Administrator for the Northern Region of Australia
  • Reflections on a 24-year journey from social work student at Anglicare to now overseeing contractual arrangements with NGO’s
  • The one big challenge for remote communities implementing services
  • Why Homelands policy has been the hardest to grapple with yet the most rewarding to see implemented by the Northern Territory government
  • What it was like to be called across to work in a multidisciplinary team on the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children
  • Thoughts on how legislation should be shaped in the future to address the over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in out of home care and the juvenile justice system
  • Access to good news stories from across the Northern Region
  • Helping remote Aboriginal communities recover after natural disaster and the implementation of welfare recovery policy
  • The unusual turning point that set Suhaila on the road to social work and be one of the first to graduate in the NT
  • The principles and values that has driven Suhaila’s career from her early days as a child protection worker
  • The influence of Suhaila’s Palestinian culture and family dynamics on her life and work
  • A beautiful sparkling moment that signifies all the hard work is worth it
  • Hopes for the future including the Bush Odyssey project

To listen, simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.

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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:

West Arnhem Regional Council

East Arnhem Regional Council

Suhaila receiving the Mary Moylan NT Social Worker of the Year Award 2016

Contact Suhaila Rizqallah at ieelmag(at)bigpond(dot)com(dot)au

Storms

Weathering the Storms of Life: An Exploration of Group Work with Tiwi Women

In March, I was invited back to the Tiwi Islands to co-facilitate a Tree of Life Workshop with Tiwi women, as part of a ‘Telling Story’ project funded by a small Suicide Prevention grant from the NT Government.

The Tree of Life is a popular methodology that has taken off globally amongst many different kinds of practitioners working in the therapeutic space.  It has very much shaped my social work practice framework and the way I incorporate use of metaphor from counselling and group work to strategic planning and evaluation.

Our workshop began with a discussion about what trees mean to the women.  We heard stories about the mango trees that were planted by the old people and that sitting under the mango trees brings feelings of connection to ancestors, which keeps women strong.  This connection is felt as a voice when the wind blows and the leaves start moving.  “We can sense the presence, their spirit is following us wherever we go.  We sense the presence of our mothers and fathers, there with us.”  The mangoes are like gifts from the old people that continue to feed the children and the future generations.

The narrative approach is about asking questions which explore the history of the knowledge, skills and values which people describe, to thicken the story and give a richer description.  As one woman described her connection to mangrove trees, we discovered she learnt to find mangrove worms to eat by going out with her grandmother and mother.  She learnt how to chop that tree by observing with her eyes and listening with her ears.  She discovered that the old logs were the better ones to  find mangrove worms and the importance of looking for tracks first.  She came to know the difference between mangrove worms and cheeky worms at an early age, by eating the wrong one.  Later on in our workshop, the same woman described how the chopping action had became a way of dealing with stress in adulthood.

The next step of the process is inviting the participants to draw a tree, perhaps one that has meaning for them.  We provided a variety of art materials such as textas, oil pastels and pencils, giving participants approximately 30 minutes to draw on an A2 size piece of good quality paper.  The drawing should include roots, a truck, branches, leaves and fruit (or nuts).  We then discuss the role and significance of each part of the tree and introduce the Tree of Life metaphor.

In exploring our roots which represents cultural heritage, we discovered stories of connection to country and culture, the significance of belonging to their skin groups and special places the women were connected to.  These roots shaped their identities as Tiwi women.  We unearthed a rich tradition of hearing “from our mothers and grandmothers, who we belong to.”  For two women, there was a reclaiming of identity with the red flower skin group, which existed before the great Tiwi wars.  We also heard a strong theme emerging about life-long learning, as if the roots of the trees were still growing and spreading.  “Sometimes learning doesn’t stop, from little ones to big ones.”  One of the women had been away from the community for a long time and had brought her children back to teach Tiwi culture.  Another spoke about learning to weave much later in life.  “It’s never too late to learn your culture”.  The women were invited to write some words on their roots about what history stories are most important to them.

Our conversation then moved to exploring the trunk of the tree representing people’s skills, abilities and values.  We noticed that some women found it difficult voicing these qualities, so we asked what important people in their lives might notice or appreciate about them in order to uncover hidden stories.  We heard stories about making art, collecting dyes for basket weaving, keeping children safe and looking after them, getting children to school every day, being a bridge between Tiwi and non-Indigenous people coming to the islands, and being the best damper maker in the family.  Many women inherited the skills of teaching and were committed to sharing their knowledge with the next generation.   Shared values of women supporting each other and keeping culture alive through dance, song and story were named, and how this contributes to their ‘trees’ staying strong.  Once again, the women documented which stories were significant to them on their tree drawing.

In exploring wishes and dreams for the future (or the strong branches reaching out), we heard shared dreams about changes for their community.  We heard hopes for Wurrumiyanga to be a better place to live, a safe place to live with no violence.  One woman dreamed about people in the community changing their attitudes, so that there is more respect, love and kindness.  She modelled this in her family through soft, gentle talk, not growling.  Others said they wanted young people to sit and learn from the Strong Elders, for kids to grow up and have a better life, to see them learn the skills of singing and dancing.  One woman wanted to talk stronger with kids when they are fighting, because she didn’t like seeing kids hurt each other, and then adults getting involved in the fighting.  There were grand hopes for a cultural centre to be built to preserve Tiwi culture, and smaller hopes for teaching basket weaving and armband making.  These wishes were linked to deeply held values of passing on strong culture to their children, so they can grow up to be the next generation of strong leaders.

Each of the women then shared personal hopes and dreams for their lives.  This included being a model, a teacher, a teachers assistant, hunters and fishers, supporters and helpers and being a better person.  Women’s hopes and dreams were recorded with photos, a moment captured in time to bring to life.

“I want to be a singer.  Nana has been teaching me singing since I was about 15 years old.  I want to teach kids how to sing when they grow up.  They will teach their kids in the future.”

“I’d like to play footy for a women’s AFL team, hopefully the Adelaide Crows.  I’ve had this dream since I was a teenager.  My grandfather saw my talent.  He’s passed away now.  But he would say “Play footy and be a good sportswoman, and be a part of it”.  I carry his voice with me.”\

Over 30 women attended the two day workshop.  This was a greater number of participants than expected, and posed a challenge for us, as facilitators, ensuring all voices are given an opportunity to be heard.  It also meant that time didn’t allow us to investigate the leaves (special people) and fruits (their gifts) as fully as we would have liked.  However, as you can see from the above quotes, this tended to occur naturally in our investigation of people’s stories.  The importance of knowing their roots, the history of their skills and abilities, and their hopes and dreams for the future, often uncovered people who were important to them and the legacies they had left.

In Day two of our workshop, we explored what it is like to be part of a Forest of Life.  The women voiced “We are all one family – we are all Tiwi” as well as recognised the unique stories and skingroups, values and beliefs, skills and abilities, hopes and dreams of each tree.  Standing back to visualise the forest of trees revealed the beauty that came from standing tall and proud, healthy and strong.  This was seen as a place where the women support each other, look out for each other, offer care, kindness, and protection.

Our final discussion around the Storms of Life unveiled the kinds of storms that women come up against.  This included domestic violence, fighting, arguing, jealousing, hate, family violence, gossip, swearing, hurt feelings, speaking bad way- especially on facebook, ignoring people, lateral violence, discriminating, putdowns, tantrums and losing family.  We explored the skills, strategies and knowledge women draw upon to stand strong in the face of these difficulties.  This knowledge was recorded in a document called ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.   It is hoped that this document would help the women ride out future storms that might blow their way.

In the concluding moments of our workshop, the women spontaneously expressed a wish to send a message to their children about their hard won knowledge and skills regarding managing storms.   This is their message – Words for Our Children.

The women of Wurrimyanga, Tiwi Islands

Sometimes, the most powerful process to occur happens after the group work is finished, by inviting other communities or individuals to witness and respond to the stories that have been gathered.  Contributions from these ‘Outsider Witnesses’ can help the storytellers feel connected to others, reduce isolation, and assist them to take action in line with their intentions and commitments.  Having a group of outsiders listening and acknowledging people’s wisdom and knowledge, validates their story and identity claim (Carey & Russell).  The Telling Story Project team will be taking Tiwi messages back to other communities they work in, to exchange messages.

If you would like to be an Outsider Witness to the stories of the Tiwi women, I invite you to download and read ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.  Use the four questions below to formulate your message and send it to us.  We will make sure your message gets sent back to the Tiwi women.

  1. Which words in this document capture your attention?
  2. What do you think these words suggest about what this person values, values, believes in, dreams about or is committed to?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with these words?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why their words meant something to you.
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this document?  What might be different in your life?

We look forward to hearing your story.
This video presentation offers a visual snapshot of our 2 day workshop.

If you would like to know more about using the Tree of Life methodology in your community, please contact us or Sudha Coutinho at the Telling Story project on sudhacoutinho@gmail.com.  We would be happy to work with you in capturing the wisdom and knowledge of your community or group, in riding out the Storms of Life.

This Telling Story project was funded through a NT Government Department of Health Alcohol Reform NGO Grant and auspiced by Relationships Australia, NT.

References and further reading:

Denborough, D. (2008), ‘The Tree of Life: Responding to vulnerable Children’ in ‘Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma’, Dulwich Centre Publications.

Carey, M. & Russell, S., (2003) ‘Outsider-witness practices: some answers to commonly asked questions’.

Kids in the sunset

Collective Narrative Documentation: My experience capturing the Hard Won Skills and Wisdom of the Tiwi People

Drug and alcohol misuse, neglect and abuse, violence and early death, overcrowding and ill health.  It is a story that is all too well told and re-told about remote Aboriginal communities.

But it is just one story.                                    

The methodology known as collective narrative documentation offers an opportunity for communities to voice an alternative story.  One of strengths and skills, customs and traditional knowledge, values and beliefs, future hopes and intentions.

During my time on the Tiwi Islands, I had the privilege of hearing rich stories like this and authoring two collective documents.  These documents reflect the words of Tiwi people who have been actively resisting the effects of colonisation, and using special skills and knowledge to stay strong in hard times.

In the narrative documentation process, I witnessed for myself the healing power of storytelling on many levels.  The first happened as individuals shared their story around the campfire with members of their family as witnesses to their experience.  The second was recognising that they were not alone in their experience as stories were gathered and documented into common themes.  And the third happened as their exact words were read back to them.  In some instances, I witnessed a fourth step when individuals felt the sense of contributing to the lives of others, by sharing their story with others outside of their community who were also going through hard times.

So how does the process of narrative collective documentation actually work?  For a full description of the practice, I recommend reading Denborough’s article in Collective Narrative Practice.  But I will briefly summarise the process here as it happened for me.

Lighting the fire, the central point for a storytelling circle.

Firstly, you need a gathering of people.  For me, the opportunity to collect stories of strength occurred at a women’s healing camp in 2009 and two family bush camps in 2010 and 2011.  Next, Denborough recommends a series of questions designed to generate rich content exploring the history of people’s skills and knowledge, and linking this to people and traditions.  These are generally as follows:

  • What is the name of a special skill, knowledge or value that sustains you through difficult times?
  • Tell me a story about this skill, knowledge or value, when this made a difference to you or to others.
  • What is the history of this skill, knowledge or value?  How did you learn this?  Who did you learn it from?
  • Is this skill or value linked in some way to collective or cultural traditions? 

Sometimes I would ask scaffolding questions, or translate these questions into simpler english, as I was working with people whose primary language was Tiwi.  I also gained permission to record people’s stories as an audio file, so that I could go back and translate people’s exact words.  When working on your own, I find it challenging to facilitate a conversation and record written notes at the same time.  Listening back to audio files obviously takes a lot longer, but I felt it was important to capture people’s exact words in the document, so they would easily recognise them as their own.

Once I transcribed the audio files, I used a highlighter pen to identify common themes amongst the stories.  Each theme became a different section of the document.  I chose to head up each section with a short phrase I had heard which reflected the essence of that theme. 

Writing up the document becomes a narrative process in its self by the author.  It is good to begin the document with an acknowledgement in the collective voice of the unique knowledge and skills of the storytellers and hopes for sharing the document with an audience that might resonate with its content. 

In the main body of the document, I like to use paragraphs incorporating people’s exact words in quotation marks, beginning and ending with a more general reflection in each section which highlights the collective experience.  Other writers cleverly weave together third person and first person talk in each section, in a flowing sequence which captures both collective and individual experience.  Every storyteller would recognise some of their own words reflected in each paragraph, even though quotation marks are not used.  A good example of this is shown in Denborough’s article.  One of my documents incorporates photographs taken on the bush camps that express another aspect of the theme.

The first draft was taken back to the participants to check its content for accuracy.  At this stage, there was no agreement to share it outside of their community.  After making any necessary changes, copies were made and distributed to the folks that participated.  Ideally, permission would be gained to share the documents with other communities or individuals who are also going through difficult times.  For different reasons, this never happened and time passed. 

Until now.

It is now 10 years since my first collective narrative document was written with the Tiwi people.  On my recent visit back to the islands, I finally gained permission from the Tiwi women to share them.  It means a lot to them that their hard won skills and wisdom may help someone else, particularly as some of the storytellers have since passed away.  It brings them comfort to know that their voice lives on.

It brings me great pleasure to bring share with you the following documents:

After reading these documents I invite you send a response back to the Tiwi community.  You may like to use the following questions as a guide to formulate your response. 

  • As you read this story about, I’m wondering what caught your attention?  Which piece resonated with you? 
  • What image came to your mind as your read this piece?  What do you think the storyteller is hoping for, values, believes in, dreams about or is committed to?
  • Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you.
  • So what does it mean for you now, having heard this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Contact us if you would like your message sent back to the Tiwi community. 

Collective narrative documentation is a way of responding to trauma that acknowledges the strengths of communities and has potential to build relationships between communities going through similar difficulties.  If you are interested in using this approach with your group or community, please get in touch, to see if we can help.

* Please note: this document may contain the names and images of Aboriginal people now deceased.

References:  Denborough, D. 2008, ‘Collective Narrative Practice:  Responding to Individuals, Groups and Communities who have experienced trauma’, Dulwich Centre Publications.

meditation in nature

Mindfulness in Nature: Meditation for those who can’t meditate

I am writing this on the banks of the Macleay River in Kempsey.  I feel a few gentle raindrops hitting the back of my neck.  I smell the manure of the resident ducks wafting in the air.  I hear the sound of the breeze whistling through pine needles.  I see ripples of sunlight and reflection dancing over the water.  I pick up a lonesome goose feather, run it across my cheek, and wince with the tickle.  The cut grass feels prickly on the backs of my legs.  This is mindfulness; what it feels like to be in the present moment, just noticing what is around me and the effect it has on my body. 

I notice that which brings the most pleasure and choose to linger in those sensations a bit longer.  Some would say we have lost the art of how to feel pleasure deeply, that somehow it is indulgent and we should move onto the next thing quickly for instant gratification.   

A sensory experience on the banks of the Macleay River, Kempsey

In my mental health counselling practice, I come across a lot of people who struggle with meditation.  They have been told to do it by well- meaning health professionals to cope with the stresses of daily life, anxiety or depression.  But they often feel they can’t do it or at least sustain it.  Some of us are just not born to sit still with our legs crossed on the floor humming a mantra.  And the simple fact is, you don’t need to.  The same kinds of relaxation and mind stilling effects can be gained by spending time in nature, mindfully and with intention.  Nature helps us to turn our brains off and just be. 

Often what brings people unstuck is the constant invasion of thoughts or feelings that arise during meditation.  The voice of anxiety or depression definitely doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself.  I know I struggled with this for many years, wondering if I was somehow doing it wrong or failing.  I gave up and came back to it later in life when stress was impacting seriously on my health.  Know that it is OK to have invading thoughts and feelings.  Rather than push them away, welcome them.  Then gently bring yourself back to the focus of your attention.

The focus of our attention does not have to be breathing, counting to ten, or repeating a mantra.  It can simply be bringing your awareness to the natural environment using all your senses.  Give yourself permission to enjoy that bird song, watch that butterfly, breathe that ocean air.

Let’s try it now.  (You may like to record the following script on your phone, with gentle pauses or have someone guide you.)

I invite you to find a spot in nature where you can sit, stand or lie down without being interrupted.  Allow yourself to just take in your surroundings and notice what is around you.
If you feel comfortable doing so, close your eyes.  If not, you can lower your eyes to the ground and gently soften your gaze.
Take a moment to tune into your body.  Notice if there is a part of you that is a bit tight or tense.  Without making judgement, just give your body what it needs to feel relaxed.  This could be a stretch, a deep breath, a wriggle or shake.
When you’re ready, bring your attention to the part of your body that is connected to the ground.  Notice how it feels just to be supported by the earth.  Notice the feeling of gravity and what it is like to be pulled gently towards the earth.
You may find that you are distracted by thoughts or feelings.  This is okay.  When you notice them, acknowledge them and let them float gently away again, like a leaf in the wind. 
Now bring your attention to your sense of touch.  Hold your hands out in front of you and notice the sensation of the air on your skin.  You may like to explore the variety of textures on the ground around you.  If there is a particular sensation of touch that feels pleasurable to you, invite it in for a minute.
Turning your attention to your hearing, notice what sounds are around you.  Notice the variety of sounds, what is furtherest away, what is closest to you and what is filling the gap in between.  You may notice the sounds are interacting with each other, like a chorus or symphony.  Exaggerate the sound of your own breathing to see if you can blend it in with this rhythm.  Perhaps there is a sound which is giving you the most pleasure.  Allow it to penetrate your being.
Breathing in through your mouth, see if there is a taste to air.  Notice the texture or quality of the air.  If you’re feeling a bit cheeky, poke out your tongue and turn your head in different directions to see what changes.  Breathing in through your nose, notice what smells are being offered.  Move your head in different directions to notice what changes.  Give yourself permission to linger longer in the smell that is giving you pleasure.
Before opening your eyes, imagine your eyes are like the sun popping over the horizon on a brand new day.  When you are ready, open your eyes slowly, low at first and gently moving skyward.  Notice what comes into your awareness.

Journalist and author, Christine Jackman practises mindfulness in nature on the Coffs Coast.

You may like to reflect on what you are noticing about this kind of mindfulness meditation?  What are you noticing in your body, in your mind, in your mood?  What are you noticing in your surroundings that you have not observed before?

To me, a mindfulness practice in nature feels like ‘coming home’ to my true nature.  It’s a way of being that has been practiced by our ancestors since time immemorial. 

For more ways of being truly present in nature for good health and wellbeing, check out my Nature Therapy e-book.  It’s free when you sign up to my newsletter.

20190322_170749

Sharing Two World Views of Nature’s Healing Powers

I recently had the pleasure of presenting alongside an Indigenous colleague of mine to a group of health professionals.  We are a bit of an unlikely couple.  Leonie Hunter is a salt water and desert First Nation’s woman with a history of removal in her family.  I am a middle-class Australian with a heap of White privilege.  We view the world through different lenses, but what we share is an interest in the healing power of nature for health and wellbeing. 

Texture Gathering on our Nature and Forest Therapy walk.

In our recent workshop, we had the opportunity to talk about our own worldviews and knowledge systems, with each of us having an understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Leonie presented the case for connection to country being a critical component to improving Indigenous wellbeing.  The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing states that

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing.  Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.”

This is something Leonie knows well through her own embodied connection and the people in her family who are feeling the ongoing health effects of being displaced from their traditional lands and customs.  In our outdoor yarning circle she told many stories; what it is like to just feel the elements, gathering bush medicine to heal physical and emotional ailments, and receiving messages from the animals, birds and other beings.  Leonie was lucky enough to grow up listening to the stories of Senior Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, now passed. 

His words still resonate:

“Tree,
He watching you. 
You look at tree, 
He listen to you. 
He got no finger, 
He can’t speak, 
But that leaf,
He pumping, growing. 
Growing in the night, 
While you sleeping, 
You dream something. 
Tree and grass same thing. 
They grow with your body, 
With your feeling. 
If you feel sore, 
Headache, sore body, 
That means somebody killing tree or grass.  
You feel because your body in that tree or earth. 
Nobody can tell you, 
You got to feel it yourself.”

I, on the other hand, presented the evidence for nature connection for health and wellbeing from a Western scientific worldview.  There is a mountain of research supporting the benefits of green space and being in nature for physical, social, emotional and spiritual health.  My particular focus and interest is on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing).  The Japanese have discovered that phytonicides or the ‘aroma of the forest’ has positive physiological and psychological effects to reduce stress.  They found that a slow, relaxed forest therapy walk, lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and improved heart rate variablilty.   Phytonicides were shown to boost the level of Natural Killer cells in our body, which boost our immune system and fight disease including cancer.  Doctors now offer ‘green prescriptions’ for their patients to go walking on a Certified Forest Therapy trail. 

Science is only really just proving what Indigenous people have intuitively known since time began.  The reciprocal relationship with nature is in their DNA.  In my worldview, they call this the biophilia hypothesis.  We evolved from nature, so we are nature.

In our afternoon session at Holmes Jungle Nature Park, I had the pleasure of co-guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk with Leonie.   Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) is inspired by the practice of Shinrin Yoku and developed in California by the ANFT.  Despite its Western roots, NFT allows those living in the fast-paced world of modern society an embodied experience of the healing power of ‘being’ on country. 

With the words of Bill Neidjie ringing in their ears, Leonie invited our participants to find a tree that is watching them and sit with the tree for a while to share stories.  As is so often the case, the trees always reach out to the right person.  There were two fallen trees for the person who had recently experienced a separation, a tree with two large branches growing upward showing the two possible directions in life for another, and a tree that was begging to be leant against with a message to slow down.  When given the opportunity to just ‘be’ without ‘doing’, to contemplate with our hearts not our minds, the medicine of the forest reveals itself.  Miriam Rose-Ungunmerr’s talks about this presence of sitting on country as the practice of ‘dadirri’.

I feel blessed and privileged to be working alongside people like Leonie, sharing and learning from each other, having healing conversations, developing new levels of understanding and respect.  Ecopsychology allows both worldviews to exist alongside each other at the same time, for all of it is truth.

This is my idea of Reconciliation in action.

‘Nature, Health & Wellbeing’ learning workshop, Darwin March 2019.
Anna McCracken

‘Roaming Around Australia and Listening Deeply’ with Anna McCracken

How do you combine a love of travel with social work and human rights advocacy?   Just ask Anna McCracken.  Anna has been roaming around remote Australia in her 4 wheel drive since 2013, listening to the stories of First Nations Australians and shaping the roll-out of the NDIS.

With an undergraduate degree in Social Work and a Masters in Human Rights Law, Anna’s nomadic lifestyle allows her to travel the country working in partnership with communities and as a link to business and Government around resourcing community led solutions to social challenges.   Anna’s current passion project is exploring the role immersive technology can play in storytelling and language preservation in remote communities.

As a facilitator of conversation and an excavator of the ‘real story’, this interview with Anna lives up to expectations.  We get to know the person behind the passion, and what it takes to roll up the swag and hit the road with no agenda but to do what social workers do best – listen deeply.

In episode 29 of ‘Talk the Walk’, we explore:

  • Anna’s first observations as a social work graduate about social policy and its impact in regional and remote Australia
  • What motivated Anna to undertake undertake further study in Human Rights Law and the learnings both professional and personal which led to becoming an Advocate for disability rights
  • the unique skills social workers offer as a conduit between clients and service providers to give them a voice
  • Reflections on Aboriginal people’s experience of the NDIS and its influence in shaping the scheme
  • Why Western Australian communities have embraced immersive technologies
  • The potential for virtual reality to be used with children who have development, social and behavioural challenges
  • Pondering the ethical implications of VR
  • the value of having difficult conversations about White Privilege
  • Anna’s motivations and influences inspired by a great Aboriginal activist and a grandfather who had all the time in the world
  • The questions around who she is as a social worker practitioner that keeps Anna awake at night

To listen, simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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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:

Lila Watson

Follow Anna McCracken on Instagram

Connect with Anna McCracken on LinkedIn

Phoria

Cambodian Children’s Trust

Anna McCracken’s favourite podcast to listen to while roaming around is On Being with Krista Trippett.   Anna’s favourite episodes are interviews with David Whyte, America Ferrera and John Paul Lederach.

tree hug

Kids and Nature: Nurturing strong and healthy minds!

Many of you will be familiar with my passion for keeping children safe in their first three years of life through the Healing Our Children project, to improve their chances of growing into strong and healthy adults!  It is one thing to protect babies from violence to prevent trauma to the brain, but it is quite another to add in nurturing and nourishing activities to promote brain growth!

Author of ‘Your Brain on Nature”, Dr Alan Logan says “Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence your life course’s wellbeing”.  He argues that young children who are disconnected from nature experience a variety of health impacts from poor gut health and low immunity to compromised mental health.

Louv and Charles have been looking at a growing body of evidence across the world that suggests children are now spending much less time in nature-based outdoor activity and this is having a detrimental effect on their development.  Louv has gone so far as to use the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe this problem.

While some research findings have limitations, here are some of the trends worth noting.

  • Between the decades, 1980’s to 2000’s, children’s lives have become increasingly structured and media oriented, leaving less time for independent play of any kind, including unstructured play in nature. Free play is going down, screen time is going up.
  • Visits to parks, national forests and other public land is in decline and are a possible indicator of the frequency of children’s exposure to the natural world.
  • There are fewer opportunities for children to engage in the natural world, with parents containing their children to more restrictive spaces, the move towards play indoors with supervision rather than unsupervised in parks, playgrounds or streets, a dramatic decline in children’s independent mobility, parents exerting greater control over children’s play and limitations put on children’s adventurous play.
  • Nature may encourage and support children’s physical activity and help them maintain a healthy weight. The number of obese children is rising, moving into their teens they are much less physically active. Some studies have linked children’s health to green spaces in the neighbourhood.
  • Children have less knowledge about plants, animals and their environment today than their parents. One possibility is that biodiversity has decreased where children live; or children have little or no meaningful direct experience with local biodiversity.

Evidence of decreased mobility, reduced availability to natural areas, and restrictions placed by parents on children’s activities in natural areas, suggests fewer opportunities to engage in the natural world.

So what does the research say about the benefits of contact with nature for children and young people?

There are a number of studies that demonstrate children’s play outdoors reduces the impact of stressful life events and has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  Children who experienced high levels of contact with nature report higher global self-worth and higher cognitive function increasing their ability to learn and concentrate, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

In Australia, adolescents have talked about their desire for safe places to break away from everyday life, to restore energy levels and to make meaning from the ups and downs of life.  Between 25 and 31% of young people in Years 9 to 12 said that nature was their favourite place to find peace, quiet and freedom, feel calm, where they can think about things or where they can be themselves.  The study found nature plays an important role in maintaining stable mental health for adolescents, who live in a modern world where societal changes and pressures are rising at a rapid rate.

Primary school children’s access to nature in Melbourne primary schools has shown a number of social and mental health benefits including building resilience, improved attitudes towards school and relationships with peers and adults, greater calmness and less disruptive behaviour, growing sense of freedom and creativity, and enhanced self-confidence.

We know how good it is.  So how can we get our kids off their devices and plugging into nature?  Here are three nature connection invitations, I recently tried with some children aged 10-14 on a Guided Nature and Forest Therapy walk.  They absolutely loved them!

  1. Wish Upon a Rock

Find a rocky creek or waterway.  Invite the children to create a cairn.  For each rock they are able to stack and balance, they can make a wish, a hope or dream.  How many wishes can they balance?  Give the child time to reflect on their experience.

  1. Befriend a Tree.

Invite your child to find a tree they connect with.   Invite them to get up close and use their sense of touch to explore.  “What do you notice when you hold a leaf or two?  What do you hear when you move the leaves or run a stick against the bark?  What part of the tree has a smell?  Do you see different things when you get up close or sit further away?”  After a while, invite them to sit by themselves next to the tree and just spend some quiet time there.  “Perhaps a name for your tree might come to you.  I wonder what stories this tree might tell you while sitting there in quiet still awareness?”

  1. Paint a Rock

Using paint pens and a flat rock, write a message for the forest or for other beings in the forest to discover.  Hide your rocks in the forest.  Take a photo of them and post its location on the #NSWRocks Facebook or Instagram community page (or search your state for your local rock group).  You can join in the hunt for other kids rocks too.

Of course, it is much easier for children to feel comfortable in nature, if they have been exposed at an early age.  Taking your baby for a daily walk outside is giving them a great start to life.  You will be laying down the foundations of a strong and healthy brain.  Oh, and bringing down some of your own stress levels too, no doubt.  Here’s to happy child’s play in nature!

References:

ABC News (2016) ‘Gut health, mental wellbeing and immunity linked to outdoor play’

Charles C and Louv, R. (2009) Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know.

Selhub E and Logan A. (2012) Your Brain on Nature

Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Beyond Blue Limited: Melbourne, Australia.

nature therapy; don't be afraid

3 Reasons Why Nature Therapy shouldn’t scare you!

There has been a long running discussion amongst Nature and Forest Therapy Guides in Australia about what to call our practice.  We have been trained in nature and forest therapy, yet many are preferring to use words like nature connection, forest bathing or shinrin yoku, because they think that people are put off by the word ‘therapy’.  Perhaps it conjures up images of sitting on a couch, while someone delves into your psyche.  Therapy is something you do when you have a mountain of problems you can’t solve on your own, right?

Instead of running away from using the word ‘therapy’ to describe our practice, I believe we have an opportunity to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes.  I argue that nature therapy is for everybody, whatever stage of life, however well functioning (or not) they may appear.

1.  There are lots of therapies that aren’t scary

Therapy is nothing to be afraid of.  If that were so, then we would also run the other direction if offered massage therapy, aromatherapy, yoga therapy and beauty therapy.  But no.  We can’t seem to get enough of these.  You can safely add nature therapy to your list of nourishing and empowering practices for your body, mind and spirit.

2.  We are not going to ‘do’ anything to you.

Nature and Forest Therapy Guides are not going to ‘do’ any therapy on you.  In fact, it is a practice which requires less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’.  If anyone is going to ‘do’ anything to you, it is the forest.  The Guide just opens the door for whatever medicine the forest has for you to discover for yourself.  The potential is there for nature to change the way you think or feel about things, if you are open to slowing down and listening.  To help you on your reflective journey, you will have the opportunity to share what you are noticing in nature, with the other participants on a Guided walk.  You can even enjoy nature therapy on your own, at your preferred pace, in your own backyard.  We believe you are the expert in your own life.  Nature is a powerful friend in discovering your true nature.  We don’t need to ‘do’ anything to you.

3.  Nature Therapy is for everyone

Therapy is an activity that is designed to have ‘therapeutic’ benefits.  ‘Therapeutic’ is defined as “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being.”  Nature therapy is an experience that brings a huge range of scientifically proven benefits to your health and wellbeing.  That’s good for everyone, not just for people who are unwell.  I’m a big believer in disease prevention and in that vain, nature therapy should be part of everyone’s daily lifestyle, along with sensible eating and exercise.

 

Let’s normalise therapy, so everyone wants to do it.  Tell your friends ‘you’re getting your daily dose of nature therapy’.  It’s the most natural thing in the world you can do.  I mean ‘be’.

Lucy is a Certified Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  She offers Guided Nature Therapy Walks in the Nambucca Valley and Coffs Harbour region.

Australian indigenous social work

‘Decolonising Our Selves and Our Work’ with Dr. Antonia Hendrick

Whatever context you work in, this conversation will get you thinking about how you really engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in your community.

Dr Antonia Hendrick is a full time Lecturer in the School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology at Curtin University.  She is not your average academic.  Behind the qualifications, the accolades and the numerous published articles, lies an authentic human being, who is prepared to share her vulnerabilities in front of her students.  Antonia’s current passion is ‘Reaching Across the Divide: Aboriginal Elders and Academics Working Together’, a project that is changing the way the social work curriculum is developed and implemented across the school.  For Antonia, it is a professional as well as very personal journey, working with Aboriginal Elders to develop staff and student cultural responsiveness.

There are lessons for us all about de-colonising our selves and our work, as Antonia takes us on a reflective journey into her White Privilege.

In episode 28 of Talk the Walk, we explore:

  • the precursors to Curtin University taking real action to decolonise the social work curriculum in 2014 using the ‘Getting It Right’ teaching and learning framework
  • The two key imperatives for working together with Elders as a political action of social work
  • What is meant by ‘becoming an Ally?’ in decolonising social work practice
  • The outcomes that are starting to emerge for social work students and staff engaging in yarning processes at the university
  • The impact of the project on Antonia’s relational self
  • The challenges of being an academic in the work of institutional decolonisation and the personal impact on Antonia as a practitioner and human being
  • A personal family story of white privilege and it’s impact on Antonia’s values and belief system
  • The inspiring others behind Antonia’s passion for this work
  • The movement of decolonisation that is occurring across social work and other professions in Australia
  • What the future holds for Curtain University in their partnership with the Elders Group
  • The outcomes for students’ social work practice frameworks after completing a decolonised version of the social work curriculum
  • A final reflection for all social workers on the transferable skills across population groups in ‘becoming an ally’

To listen, simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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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

Looking Forward Aboriginal Mental Health Project’, Final Report (2011-2015)

Published works by Associate Profession Michael Wright

Hendrick, A. (2015). ‘Working with Nyoongar Elders to decolonise the social work curriculum’, New Community Quarterly.

Hendrick, A. & Young, S. (2017).  ‘Decolonising the Curriculum, Decolonising Ourselves: Experiences of Teaching in and from the ‘Third Space

Hendrick, A., & Young, S. (2018). Teaching about Decoloniality: The Experience of Non-Indigenous Social Work Educators. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(3-4), 306-318.

Bishop, A. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression (2nd ed.).  Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Land, C. (2015). Decolonizing solidarity. Dilemmas and directions for supporters of Indigenous struggles. London, UK: Zed Books.

Singleton, G., & Hays, C. (2008). Beginning courageous conversations about race. In M. Pollack (Ed.), Everyday antiracism: Getting real about race in school (pp. 18–23). New York, NYW. W. Norton & Co.

Contact Dr Antonia Hendrick at Curtin University

stone-pile-1307644_960_720

Nature and the Imagination: Partners in Relaxation and Mindfulness

I am wondering about the power of nature imagery as a tool for relaxation.  Not everyone has access to beautiful landscapes or nature at their back door.  Access to the outdoors may be limited by mobility or circumstances.  Some of us live in cities where green space is lacking.  Recent studies show that prisoners watching nature documentaries are less aggressive and violent, so we know that one doesn’t need to actually be outside to receive the healing benefits of nature.

I am thinking about a refugee whom I support on Nauru in indefinite detention, who is unable to get outside due to chronic pain and continuing trauma.  He recalls fond memories of being a lifeguard on a beach before the detention centre was closed and all services were withdrawn from the island.  I have been trying to work with him to visualise that special beach in his mind.  This is challenging given the circumstances he finds himself, in chronic pain and confined to his room.

I think there is real value in present moment situations of chronic stress, depression or anxiety, to call upon nature as our friend to induce a state of relaxation.   To bring a sense of calm to the amygdala, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.  To reduce the negative effects of rumination on mood and wellbeing.  To open up a space to breathe while the unpleasant feelings pass.

We know that the brain cannot tell the difference between sitting in real nature or imagining a landscape in our mind.  The same physiological and psychological benefits of stress reduction are experienced in both of these situations.  So just by thinking about your favourite safe place in nature is enough to produce the required relaxation response.

Here are some simple instructions for a Tree Visualisation meditation, I gave recently at a Nature Therapy talk I did with cancer patients.  Another option is to have a basket of nature objects such as shells, stones, pine cones, leaves, feathers, gum nuts and other interesting objects.  Just holding one of these treasures in your hands with eyes closed, eliciting all the senses to engage with it, can bring forth a range of mindful responses.  Both of these activities elicit strong memories for people, of places they have been before, of experiences they have had and of traditions or rituals held precious.  I watch their faces as anxiety or fear is replaced by instant comfort and joy.

As quickly as the stress response is triggered, the brain has the power to bring a state of relaxation and calm to us.  Nature and the imagination are perfect partners to try this out for yourself!