Tree-of-life-booklet-photo

Group Work During COVID Times: Capturing the Hardwon Knowledge of Parents, Aunties and Grandmothers on raising strong kids in Borroloola

I received an invitation from a colleague this year to travel back to the Northern Territory to co-facilitate some narrative therapy group work with the Aboriginal women of Borroloola.  We had it all planned out.  It would have been a two day drive from Darwin to reach the remote township, then a trek over to Barrnayi, an island off the coast of the Gulf of Carpenteria for our two day camp.  I love it when collaborations like this come together – Telling Story, Artback NT and the Moriarty Foundation – bringing together good will and established therapeutic practice for positive community outcomes.  What we didn’t account for was the arrival of COVID 19 and the immediate closure of state and territory borders as well and lockdown in remote communities. 

Airfares were cancelled.  However, I wasn’t about to shelve this one without some serious thought into whether delivering the Tree of Life on-line was a possibility.  I learned later that this is called pivoting!

I had some doubts about whether we were going to be able to gather rich story from participants over a technology platform.  However, Sudha Coutinho had done a lot of work in Borroloola and already had established relationships with some of the women, so that was a positive starting point.  With some thoughtful deliberations and program modifications to the Tree of Life methodology, Sudha and I decided to ‘set sail’ and see where the adventure might take us on these unchartered waters. 

Facilitating the Tree of Life with ‘Zoom’ technology

We were very influenced by the beautiful work done by Anne Mead and Jasmine Mack in their application of the Tree of Life with parents of Roebourne.  Ideas such as home yarning, the tree visualisation meditation and crafting a community tree appealed to us.  Given the extra difficulties we would face interacting over a screen with our participants, we needed to pay attention to ways people could join in that did not require so much hands-on guidance.  

The program was delivered over five weekly morning sessions consisting of three hours with a break in the middle.  We posted out a big box of materials required including art supplies and resources prior to starting.  We hoped that our local Yanyawa Project Officer could work alongside us in navigating the use of these materials.  Each session generally consisted of an introductory activity such as using Tree Card images we created to check in with how people were feeling, followed by a yarning section with corresponding drawing or art making, and a collective conversation on what these stories meant to the community as a whole, then finishing with an invitation to undertake an exercise at home between sessions. We invited people to connect on the Workplace Chat App on their mobiles to continue the conversation and share images of what they discovered in their environment between sessions.  This is also where we, as facilitators, shared therapeutic documents based on the ‘rescued words’ from each session.  These five therapeutic documents were later incorporated into a booklet the women wanted to publish capturing their skills, knowledges and hopes for raising strong and healthy children. 

The women in Borroloola were on a learning journey with us

Over the project the following themes were explored using the tree as a metaphor for growing up strong children in the community.

  • The Sun – principles of caring.  Just like the sun shining down on little trees guides their growth, the principles that are important to us guide our caring.
  • Roots – History of place and story.  The roots follow the history of culture, linking us to stories, traditions and places of significance.
  • Trunk – Strengths of skills and knowledge. This includes the practical things we do to keep our families strong and to hold up our kids.
  • Bark – The Protective Layer.  Acknowledging the need to protect our children because the types of experiences our children have in life influence their development.
  • Leaves and Fruit – The important people and their gifts to us and our children.
  • Storms of Life – The things that try to get in the way of us bringing up strong and healthy kids and how we stand strong against them.
  • Branches – Our hopes and dreams for our children and family.
  • Planting Seeds – The actions we want to take to make our hopes and dreams grow.
    and;
  • Flowers – Ways we want to work together to make our community dreams blossom.

The women brought together their completed individual tree pictures and shared together their hopes for the future of their community as a ‘Collective Forest’ to stand strong against the storms of life.  We finished on physical actions of planting seeds into flowerpots as a reminder of their hopes and dreams coming to life, slowly but surely.

Forest of Life – Borroloola

We had to make lots of changes on the go and this required some quick thinking and flexibility on our part.  We needed to feel not so precious about sticking to our script, even more so, given the lack of ability to just jump in physically and rescue a situation.  The struggles as well as the delightful outcomes of this work are explored extensively on the video below, so I won’t repeat those here.  Let me just say that our doubts about gathering rich story were well and truly blown out of the water.  We gathered so much beautiful knowledge and wisdom from the mothers, aunties and grandmothers that participated, we couldn’t fit it all in the booklet.  If you do not have access to a hard copy, I will share the link here to the downloadable version when it becomes available soon.

The following video is a 17 minute snapshot of this work presented at the AASW 2020 Symposium.  Meanwhile, If you’d like to know more about using the Tree of Life over ‘Zoom’ technology, please contact us.  We are really open to sharing our work with you.


Invitation to be an Outsider Witness to the women’s stories from Borroloola

Reading the Tree of Life booklet about raising strong and healthy kids in Borroloola may spark thoughts about your own skills and knowledge, your hopes and dreams for your children, and help you stand against any storms you may face. If you would like to share these thoughts with the women you can email Telling Story at sudhacoutinho@gmail.com

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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.

Elaine plays a key part in the family healing ceremony.

“The gifts of learning and healing – your way and my way” with Elaine Tiparui

When elders speak, we sit up and take notice.  My guest today on Talk the Walk is someone I have listened to throughout my working career on the Tiwi Islands.  In fact, I’m proud to call her my mentor.   Elaine Tiparui is an Elder of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island.  Elaine has a long history of helping her people, beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1980’s, training and working as an Aboriginal health worker and many years volunteering her time for non-government organisations delivering alcohol and drug programs, child and family counselling and support services.

I set out to explore two things in this conversation; firstly Elaine’s experience of working alongside non-indigenous social workers and counsellors and what advice she might have for new people entering remote communities, and secondly, Elaine’s knowledge in relation to the healing power of the bush.  I am a real advocate for social workers incorporating Indigenous knowledge and skills into social work interventions and therapeutic plans.  While I have been able to incorporate some of this knowledge into healing bush camps and individual client sessions, there is so much more potential with proper funding and support.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, reflecting on a ten year working relationship and the things we’ve learned from each other along the way.   It has been my biggest highlight and great privilege to co-create the Healing Our Children project with Elaine.  Communication with Aboriginal people whose first language is not English is never easy, so I’m grateful to Elaine for sticking with me during this conversation in my native tongue.  Apologies also for the cacophony of community sounds in the background!

In this episode, we explore:

  • Why Elaine chose to work alongside mainstream non-government organisations in her community
  • The history of the Wurrumiyanga community on the Tiwi Islands and Elaine’s experience of growing up in the Catholic Mission
  • What social workers and counsellors need to be mindful of when entering a remote community for the first time
  • the reciprocal benefits of co-working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge
  • Elaine’s gift of introducing new workers to the culture, healing traditions and a spiritual way of understanding the Tiwi people
  • Elaine’s view of the skills and knowledge of non-Indigenous workers as a gift of healing for the Tiwi people
  • Self determination and what this means for non-Indigenous workers coming into a remote community
  • How non-Indigenous workers can build trust and respect in a new community
  • Why ‘going out bush’ is the best form of intervention for many of the health and wellbeing issues affecting children, adults or families
  • Elaine teaching her grandson to find yams

    Elaine’s stories of healing children and families out bush through teaching, hunting and bush medicine

  • The gift of listening and feeling trees that Elaine inherited from her ancestors, and the messages trees are communicating to us
  • The healing power of the bush in healing, mourning and celebration ceremonies, and recovery from emotional hurt and mental health issues
  • Elaine’s story as a witness to a healing ceremony for a Tiwi girl who had been removed as a baby and reunited with Tiwi family; a collaboration between Child Protection, an NGO and the strong women

To listen to this episode 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.