Surviving the Child Protection system

From Victim to Survivor to Teacher

Alicia is one of those people that knew from the beginning of our work together, she wanted to share her story with a wider audience.  Having re-authored her narrative from a problem mother as defined by the Child Protection system to one that never gave up loving her children, Alicia then decided to publish her story with a view to helping others.  Alicia believed her skills and knowledge for surviving the Child Protection system would be useful for other parents who are trying to get their children back. 

In narrative therapy, finding another audience beyond the therapist for people’s preferred stories makes a big difference in how people experience themselves (Denborough 2014).  The story teller not only has this new version of their story validated, but feels a sense of contribution to the life of another; that in some way their life will be changed too by reading about the author’s experience.  

Being heard by outsider witnesses can also feel like a small step towards justice for someone who feels like the system let them down.  Putting one’s story out for others to read turns a personal experience into a political issue, highlighting where systems are failing people instead of continuing to blame mothers for failing their children.

This therapeutic process moves people not only from a position of victim to survivor, but through to an influential teacher who has hard-won knowledge and skills that are of benefit to others.  What an empowering position to be in for someone who has felt completely powerless over their life!

For anyone out there who is currently in a situation where their children have been removed, feeling devastated by the separation, and have lost hope, what more powerful way of reaching out to them than reading a real-life story from someone who has already ridden that roller-coaster.

On that note, I am privileged to be able to share in Alicia’s own words, her tips for parents who are currently riding the roller-coaster that is ‘surviving the child protection system’. 

And if you haven’t already, you can read Alicia’s full story here.

I hope Alicia’s words bring comfort, support and hope to those who are possibly on the worst ride of their life right now.

References: 

Denborough, D., 2014, ‘Retelling the Stories of Our Lives:  Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience’, W. W. Norton & Company, N.Y.

nature-therapy

7 Reasons for Choosing Me as Your Therapist

So it is just about to clock over into a new year and a new decade.  Are you filled with excitement or dread?

Perhaps it’s time to finally do something about that Anxiety that has stopped you from getting a job or going outside.  Or maybe you want to shine the spotlight on the plans Depression has had for your life, because it doesn’t fit for you anymore.  Or perhaps your life experiences or the state of planet have you believing that life will never be safe again?

If the idea of therapy, freaks you out (yeah, Anxiety can stop you from getting help too!), then here are 7 reasons why you might like to consider reaching out to me.  Unlike other counsellors, I do have a few unique features that you won’t find elsewhere, as an alternative from traditional talk therapies.

  1. I come to you. 
    If transport is an issue or the idea of meeting a stranger in an office doesn’t float your boat, no problem.  I can meet you at your home, your workplace (if there is a suitable private space), or school (so you don’t have to run around delivering kids to their appointment)
  2. You are not the problem here.  Your problem is the problem.   
    Your problem is not inside of you, but perhaps it has been coming and going for so long now, it has you convinced there must be something wrong with you.  Maybe other people also think that you need fixing.  Together we will expose the problem for what it really is – something external to you.  Something you can have control over.  Something you can change.
  3. I will meet you outside (if you like). 
    From a Western viewpoint, it’s called eco-therapy.  If you’re from an Indigenous cultural background, yarning on country is what you have always done.  And it’s a much better option for people who don’t feel comfortable eyeballing their therapist between four enclosed walls.  I meet people on beaches, riverbanks and in parks, while taking the utmost care to maintain your privacy as much as possible.  Being in nature provides a whole host of health and well-being benefits. I learned all about the healing aspects of being connected to the land from my time working in remote communities of the Northern Territory.
  4. You may not have to pay. 
    I am committed to offering therapeutic experiences to people who can least afford it.  If you have a mild to moderate mental health issue and are experiencing financial hardship, you may be eligible for 12 free sessions over 12 months through the Connect To Well-being program.  A further 10 sessions per year are available through Medicare’s Better Access, with a Mental Health Care Plan and referral from your GP.  Check your eligibility here.
  5. I am here to stay.  
    There is nothing worse than building a relationship with a therapist, then learning that they are leaving their job or moving away.  The Nambucca Valley is my home and my work space.  I am really passionate about my community and making it a great place for everyone to live, work and play.  I would be crazy to leave what is the best micro-climate in the country that makes me thrive.
  6. I will ‘Walk and Talk’.   
    Sitting still doesn’t suit everyone especially if you feel fidgety or restless.  Sometimes moving your body is part of what’s needed to help you relax or express yourself.  We can do this in private or you can join a group.  Why not try a whole day of bush walking along the coast, while working on a problem in our Narrative Walks program!
  7. I am the only Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in the region. 
    If the stress of daily life has taken its toll, let me guide you into the forest to help you slow down and reconnect mindfully with yourself and nature.  You can book a private walk with a group of friends, colleagues or just yourself.

So what are your plans for your life in the decade to come?  Let’s work together to make it happen. Get in touch.

therapeutic letter writing

“Unearthing Unspoken Words” with Annette Dudley

Annette Dudley stumbled her way into the therapy world after being supported by her foster carers to pursue her passion for education and having a number of mentors, supervisors and children cheering her on from the sidelines.  A significant milestone was the completion of her Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work in 2015.   In this interview, Annette reflects on her project ‘Unspoken Words’: Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present’ utilising the narrative practice of therapeutic letter writing.

Annette Dudley

Annette is a descendent of the Bailai Nation from the Gladstone area in Central Queensland, Tanna Island in Vanuatu and Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands.  Annette has held a variety of therapeutic and support roles within mental health, Aboriginal health, family violence legal services, criminal justice, sexual assault and youth services.  She currently supports youth and families as a Project Officer for Indigenous Wellbeing at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. 

This is what we explore in episode 32 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • How Annette came to study narrative therapy and community work, and why she thinks it is a culturally sensitive approach to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people
  • What led to Annette undertaking her ‘Unspoken Word’ letter writing project with Elders of her community, and the impact it had on her work and life
  • Reflections on her work on Healing Camps with the Woorabinda community and the Taroom to Woorabinda Trek
  • The impact narrative letter writing honouring people’s legacies can have on recipients and their families
  • The significance of writing a letter from an oral culture perspective
  • How the ‘Unspoken Words’ project shaped Annette’s therapeutic practice with clients
  • Exploring the fit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Indigenous clients
  • What Annette loves about using the Tree of Life methodology with clients
  • Reflections on Annette’s journey from foster child to therapist
  • Rolemodels, motivators and admirers
  • Annette’s career highlight – a sparkling moment!

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

Listen to Stitcher

You can subscribe to future podcast episodes from our Subscription 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:

‘Unspoken Words’: Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present”

David Denborough
Cheryl White
David Epston
Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo and The Tree of Life

Contact Annette at dlzmmettswplsg(at)gmail(dot)com

Mindfulness made simple

Coping with Uncomfortable Feelings: Embodied Mindfulness Made Simple

I invite you to imagine putting on a pair of sunglasses, metaphorically of course.  These glasses have blue lenses that reflect judgement and criticism.  While wearing these glasses you only notice how bad you feel, think how hopeless you are, and leave you wanting to push away uncomfortable feelings.  It is really hard to notice anything good at all.  These are the glasses our human brain wants to reach for first without too much thought about it.

Now I invite you to put on a different pair of sunglasses that help you look through yellow lenses of compassion and kindness.  While wearing these glasses you still notice the ‘bad’ feelings, but they help you see its okay and it’s normal, and allow you sit in uncomfortable feelings with acceptance until they pass.  You also notice feelings like joy and pleasure, and relish them.  These are the glasses we can wire our human brain to reach for first, through the practice of mindfulness.

There are some problems in life that are hard to shift and might be out of our control.  Mindfulness won’t make these problems go away, but it will change the way you look at things.  From time to time, we are also going to have uncomfortable feelings arise like anger, sadness, jealousy, shame, guilt, pain and hurt.   I don’t necessarily consider these negative or bad feelings.  They are part of the human condition and serve a purpose.  When they arise, we can choose to allow our brains to put on the glasses of judgement and criticism, or the glasses of compassion and kindness.

Mindfulness does not have to become a burdensome new thing you have to schedule into your already busy day.  You can still keep doing those things but just wear a different pair of sunglasses doing them!   But it does take practice because our human brain wants to default to the negative.  You will have to consciously keep swapping glasses until your brain gets the message that you want to wear the yellow glasses right now not the blue ones.  

So you notice an uncomfortable feeling arise.  You start making judgements or criticise yourself for feeling this way.  You realise you have the blue glasses on.   Now what?  How do we do this mindfulness stuff?  Okay, time to put the yellow glasses on.

  1. Tune Out.  At the first sign of an uncomfortable feeling or sensation in the body, it helps to become grounded.  Notice what is happening externally in the environment around you.  Using all your senses, explore what you can see, touch, hear, smell and even taste. 
  2. Tune In.  Now take your mindful presence inside by noticing your breath.  Observe how the breathe moves in and out of your body.  Notice what you feel in your body.  What feelings or sensations are arising?  Where in your body are they sitting? 
  3. Stay With.  Bring you awareness one at a time to each of these body sensations.  How strong and how big is it?  Does it have a colour, shape, texture?  What temperature is it?  Does it move?  What else are you noticing?  This is all about observation without judgement.  Get to know this feeling or sensation as if you are a detective having to write a factual report on what you find.
  4. Breathe.  Take a deep breath and send this air into this part of the body you are focusing on.  Allow the air to create some space around this sensation.  Keep breathing just observing what this does to your body. 
  5. Notice.  Keep focusing your awareness on this sensation as you mindfully breathe and simply observe what changes.  Stay with the experience and see where it takes you.  Do you notice a shift of some kind?  How does it feel now?  How is the whole of your body responding? 
  6. Reflect. When you are ready, bring yourself back slowly from your internal focus of attention to the external environment.  Use your sense of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste to bring yourself back.  What are you noticing about this experience?  What is different now or new?  What have you learnt?

Warning:  Please don’t despair, if you notice unhelpful or uncomfortable thoughts arising during this exercise.  The brain will try many times to distract you.  That’s perfectly OK.  Just don’t get caught up in the thoughts or let judgement or criticism take over.  Simply acknowledge the thought, allow it to float away and bring your awareness back to whatever is the current focus of your attention – be it your sensory experience, the breath moving in and out, or the sensation in your body.  The more we do this, the more we develop our mind muscle so it eventually learns your preference for wearing yellow sunglasses.

In short…

My favourite place to practice mindfulness is in nature.  The sound of birds, the smell of the salty sea or the touch of the grass on your feet can be beautiful focus points to ground us before stepping into the journey inside. 

So next time you feel emotion rising inside, step outside.

Connect to Well-being

There are some new changes on the horizon.
The Healthy Minds program is currently in transition to Connect To Well-being.
The way I deliver my counselling service won’t change, but the way of accessing it will.

From Monday 23 September 2019, the Healthy Minds patient intake currently with the North Coast Primary Health Network is transitioning to become part of the Connect to Well-being service being delivered by Neami National. This initial transition is part of a broader intake, assessment and referral service for mental health and drug and alcohol supports across the North Coast that will be rolled out over the coming months.

For everything you need to know check out

If you are a GP or service provider, who has referred clients to me previously under Healthy Minds, then you will need to download the new referral form.

Please note there is no space to allocate your preferred counselling provider on the new referral form. If your client would prefer me as their provider, feel free to write this in your email when sending off your referral.

I look forward to continuing to provide flexible, responsive counselling services to help you or your clients Connect To Well-being.

R2R

‘Drumming Up Connection in Community’ with Simon Faulkner

My guest on the podcast this week is the brains and the hands behind the therapeutic program, Drumbeat at the Holyoake Institute.  Simon Faulkner went on to set up his own business, further developing his Rhythm2Recovery model (R2R) which has now made its way into the UK, USA and Germany.

R2R combines experiential rhythmic music with cognitive reflection, as a therapeutic intervention suitable for one-to-one counselling, groupwork and community development.  Thousands of practitioners across Australia have been trained to use drumming to connect with their clients experiencing a range of life challenges.  Simon brings many years’ experience working cross culturally, delivering training programs and therapeutic interventions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as well as First Nations communities in the USA and Canada.

In this conversation, we discover how Simon, who does not identify as a musician, came to appreciate the drum as a therapeutic tool for connection.

In episode 31, we explore:

  • Why drumming has been such an effective therapeutic tool for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Simon’s discoveries working with First Nations peoples in Canada and the USA, and how this has influenced the development of the Rhythm2Recovery model
  • How the drum if used correctly can promote a safe therapeutic relationship
  • An overview of the research behind rhythmic therapeutic interventions
  • The ways drumming is being used therapeutically in Indigenous communities around Australia and how it is being received
  • What inspired Simon to develop this methodology, and the beliefs and values behind his intentions for the work
  • The biggest struggles Simon faces in working cross culturally and the skills and knowledge he has used to overcome them
  • What really makes Simon’s heart sing in his community and your chance to get involved

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

Listen to Stitcher

You can subscribe to future podcast episodes from our Subscription 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:

Rhythm2Recovery – access to training, resources, evidence and fact sheets.
Drum Circle Facilitator Training.
Performing Arts in Prisons, Intellect Books.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by John Haight.
Contact Simon Faulkner.

mum-and-child

Re-writing Stories of Identity: Alicia’s Story

The first day I met Alicia, not that long ago, she said ‘I want to share my story with other people.  I want to help others who are going through similar struggles.’

In the few months that followed, I sat down to interview Alicia on her experience of having her children removed and the many years that followed, fighting to get them back.  This alone appeared to be a very powerful and healing experience for Alicia.  Our narrative conversations allowed Alicia to reclaiming her identity from one which was defined by the Child Protection system as ‘a worthless mother who was not going to get better’ to her preferred identity as a ‘strong-willed, stubborn but patient fighter who never stopped loving her kids’.

In narrative therapy, Denborough says “while we can’t always change the stories that others have about us, we can influence the stories we tell about ourselves and those we care about”.  In telling our stories in ways that focus on our strengths for getting through difficult times, we have the power to re-author our lives.  No longer are we trapped by the problem story that we have come to believe is true; we now have a new and different story of what we stand for and value in life.

Our therapy together has allowed Alicia to reclaim her ‘storytelling rights’ (Denborough 2017) and tell her story in a way that fits for her, not defined by others.  The Charter of Storytelling Rights includes:

  • the right to define their experiences and problem in their own words and terms.
  • the right not to have problems caused by trauma and injustice, located inside them, internally, as if there were some deficit in them.  The person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.
  • The right to have their responses to hard times acknowledged.
  • The right to know and experience that what they have learned through hard times can make a contribution to the lives of others in similar situations.

It is this last right, that Alicia now wishes to exercise.  Today, is the first time that Alicia is going public with her story.  This is an opportunity for you, the audience, to be witness to the alternative story Alicia is taking on about her life.

We invite you to read Alicia’s Story of ‘never, ever giving up’ and then send a message back to Alicia about how this story has changed you.  

If you know what it is like to experience child removal, we invite you to continue the conversation with us on our Facebook Group.

References:
Deborough, D. 2014, ‘Retelling the Stories of Our Lives Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience’, Norton.

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.

Listen to Stitcher

You can subscribe to future podcast episodes from our Subscription 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:

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.