Lucy has over a decade of experience working with Aboriginal children, youth and their families

Reconnecting with the Hopes and Intentions we have for our Children

20160421_140355The Rings of Growth is an art activity included in the first session of the Healing Our Children group-work program with women on the Tiwi Islands.  In this session, the women are introduced to the metaphor of a tree as a way of reflecting on and talking about their own lives.

In our training with Tiwi workers we used the Life of a Tree video to show how each ring of the tree represents one year of growth.  These rings can reveal years of hardship (such as lack of water), years of rapid growth (usually during our wet season) and other unforeseen events like insect damage, fire or even crowding out by other sun-loving trees.   Although these rings may be invisible to us, the scars from these tough times are always there.   The Rings of growth is a metaphor that can be used to think about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on children.  We cannot see inside a child, therefore we cannot assume they haven’t been affected.  It can also be used to explore the influence that positive early childhood experiences have on children’s long term growth and development.  This is the purpose through which we invite Tiwi women to document their own Rings of Growth and share hopes they have for their own children’s future.

This activity invites the women to draw the inside of a tree as if it was cut across the middle and each of the rings of life were exposed.  The women are asked to think about what they were doing when they were a child and the memories they have about what other people did that made them feel good inside, safe and loved.  These things, however small, are the things that helped them grow up and be strong.  For each ring of the tree they have drawn, the women write or draw a memory of something that made them feel loved, safe and comfortable for each year of their childhood.  This can include special events, favourite activities, special people in their lives, significant words said to them, important lessons they learned  or stories they were told by Elders and family members.  The women need at least 30 minutes on this activity to draw, colour, chat and share stories with each other.  After there has been sufficient time to document significant memories and knowledge, the women are invited to explore what their drawing might tell them about hopes they have for the future of their children.

Women whose childhood experiences were largely pleasant, memorable and positive, usually have similar hopes and intentions for their children’s lives.   For those that are struggling in their parenting, it can be a positive way of getting back in touch with hopes that have been lost along the way.   Those women with an unpleasant memory may use the opportunity to explore what positive message or learning they have taken from their experience.  They may reflect on how they want things to be different or better for their children than what they had experienced.  Remembering and recommitting to these intentions within the support of a group, can move women to action in positive ways with their children.

In my experience, women have enjoyed making connections between their early childhood experiences with their own development into adulthood.  Recently, one woman traced back her strong interest in natural remedies to her memory of being thrown in a big copper pot by her grandmother and being treated with bush medicine for chicken pox.   Another first learnt to sew in school and is now actively involved in a women’s cooperative doing screen printing on fabric and making a variety of articles as her work for the dole activity.  Yet another remembers her dad teaching her the rituals of the Kulama ceremony and is now instrumental in keeping this tradition alive with her grandchildren.

Metaphors have the power to be transforming and insightful.  The learnings that women have taken away from this very simple exercise have been delightfully surprising.  The potential is unlimited for adaptation for different client groups and contexts of work.

 

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Lateral Violence: Exposed as an insidious killer in Australian Indigenous Communities

Lateral Violence is finally exposed

Lateral Violence is finally exposed

About five years ago, I was attending a conference in Alice Springs. Richard Frankland, an Aboriginal man, was presenting his research on Lateral Violence.  After hearing this term for the first time a light bulb lit up.  I now had a new lens to view the disturbing level of violence I was noticing in the communities I was working in.  Not the fighting in the streets – the family feuding and the kids brawling – that is very visual.  I’m also referring to the more sinister violence you don’t always see, but you feel and hear.

Later that year, I started getting emails about Lateral Violence from William Brian Butler.  Butler was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory, following his Mother’s forced removal from his Grandmother where they lived at the detention centre known as The Bungalow in Alice Springs.  Brian lived at the Bagot Reserve in Darwin with his Mother, up until the beginning of the II World War, which forced them to evacuate back to Alice Springs and be reunited with Family.  Butler had been doing research using Facebook.  His suspicions were confirmed.  Not a lot of people had heard of Lateral Violence, let alone what to do about it.

So what exactly are we talking about?  The legal definition says lateral violence “happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both”.  Paul Memmott defines it as “unresolved grief that is associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations”.

I’d had a good understanding of Australia’s colonialising history and not surprised by the level of physical violence I was seeing.  But lateral violence is even more subtle.

Internalised feelings such as anger and rage are manifested through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming.  It can include nonverbal innuendo like raising eyebrows and making faces, bullying, snide remarks, abrupt responses and lack of openness, shaming, undermining, social exclusion and turning away, withholding information, sabotage, infighting, scapegoating, backstabbing, not respecting privacy, broken confidences and organisational conflict.

During my time out bush, I saw lateral violence lead to more explicit conflict which broke up relationships, families and communities.

In response to the phenomenon that is Lateral Violence which is shared by colonised peoples across the world, Butler has taken upon himself to respond by leading the Lateral Love and Spirit of Care for all Mankind campaign. Butler urges his own people to put down their arms and stand their ground using unconditional love in the quest for healing and justice.

Barbara Wingard, an Aboriginal practitioner and teacher with the Dulwich Centre has drawn on the traditional of storytelling to educate Aboriginal people about the nature of Lateral Violence. Following the narrative concept of collective externalising conversations, one person interviews another who is role-playing the persona of Lateral Violence.  Learn in such an engaging and interactive way makes it safe to explore what can otherwise be tricky territory.  Here’s an exerpt….

What makes you powerful, Lateral Violence?

“I reckon I’m doing my best work when I get families to fight against one another … It’s fantastic when everybody wants to take sides. This creates a bigger divide. I can also stop Aboriginal people from working with white people. I do that pretty well and I confuse white people about Aboriginal culture too. I try to convince white people to think bad things about Aboriginal culture… In some Aboriginal communities I try to get people of Aboriginal heritage to be suspicious and judge each other by asking ‘who is Aboriginal and who is not really Aboriginal?… I start to manipulate who is and who is not (Wingard 2010).”

I have witnessed some great acts of Lateral Love now being taken by Aboriginal communities to counteract the devastation of Lateral violence. While working on the Tiwi Islands, a few years ago cyberbullying and sexting got out of control. The old people were becoming increasingly concerned about how young people were using mobile phones to send anonymous messages via social media that were mostly degrading, harassing or untrue. The result was conflict between young people, family infighting and even in some cases self harm and attempted suicide.

The community responded by organising several community meetings and the issue was taken very seriously. In what was a rather quick response, popular band B2M with the assistance of Skinnyfish came on board with a media campaign that would appeal to young people to raise awareness of the dangers of misuse of social media. Here is what they came up with:


Here we have a community recognising the problem, and rallying together to arm themselves with the skills and knowledge needed to take appropriate action.  A Lateral Love Action!

For those of you who have never met Lateral Violence, I dare you to sit down and have a chat. You might be surprised to hear about the sneaky tricks of this insidious killer, friend of the coloniser who arrived by boat in 1788 and has been quietly working away in the shadows ever since.

References

Wingard, B. 2010, ‘A conversation with Lateral Violence’ in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 1

Memmott, P. 2001, ‘Community Based Strategies for Combating Indigenous Violence’

Butler, B. 2012, ‘Zero Tolerance to lateral violence to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Islander Peoples in Australia’ available at http://lateralloveaustralia.com/social-determinants-of-indigenous-health-lateral-violence-paper-2012/

 

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If you Believe Hard Enough, Dreams Really Do Come True

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Healing Our Children will engage with women and their children at risk of trauma

Show me the money!   Yes, you may have heard that my last ditch attempt to secure funding for the Healing Our Children program was successful.  This has been a program in the making with community Elders and strong Aboriginal women since 2010.  After submitting nine grant applications last year, I’d resigned myself to the fact that in the current political and economic climate, no government was interested in investing in an early intervention and trauma prevention program.  Especially one that does not have a tested and trialled evidence base yet.  I assumed that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the least likely to fund this initiative.  And wouldn’t you know it – boom!   For me the announcement was bittersweet – what followed in the media was outrage expressed by Aboriginal organisations including essential domestic violence and legal services, about the amount of funding lost causing closures and job losses across Australia.  Fair enough.  Initially, this was also hard for me to come to terms with.  But I have since justified the decision to fund my program for the following reasons:

  • I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that bottom-up, community led programs DO work (rather than the usual top down government programs)
  • It IS possible for non-government organisations to work together with Aboriginal communities in a mutually respectful way to meet the expressed needs of communities and still achieve outcomes
  • There are no Aboriginal organisations that I am aware of that are proposing to do the same work. But this is something we can aspire to in the future.
  • I am in the UNIQUE position of working together within established relationships of trust with Elders and Strong women to share the latest findings from brain science about the impact of trauma on children.  Many vulnerable women in the Western world don’t have this knowledge, let alone Aboriginal women and children who are most vulnerable to harm. Research has started to show that this information is a powerful motivator for women leaving a domestic violence relationship.
  • I REALLY believe this program is the first step in stopping the cycle of intergenerational trauma beginning with the Aboriginal children being conceived and born right now.
Nami with children in Yirrkala (playgroup)

Engaging young children and their caregivers in the Early Years is so important

I have just returned from the Child Inclusive Practice Forum in Brisbane where Nathan Mikaere Wallis, a Maori ‘pracademic’ and educator presented the latest findings from neuroscience.  The results are well and truly in.  Whilst we have known over the last two decades of the importance of ‘the first three years of life’ in determining your life chances, the literature has refined this to ‘the first 1000 days’.  This takes into account the beginning of life when the brain is starting to form within two weeks of conception.  And while we have had many arguments over those years about whether nature or nurture is more important in determining one’s health and wellbeing in adulthood, brain science is now showing, it is “how nature interacts with nurture” that is paramount.  Unlike animals who do not have a frontal cortex – the thinking and decision-making part of our brain – humans are designed to be moulded by the environment they encounter in the first 1000 days. It is in this stage of life when the brain is gathering all the data it needs to determine whether you go to university, earn a high income and have a successful marriage OR misuse drugs and alcohol, go to jail or abuse your children. The key determining factor of life experience is attunement, determined by the quality of the dyadic relationship between the baby and the primary caregiver.   So if the Early Years are so important, why is it that we invest the least amount of money in this age group and the most at the high school and university end of the spectrum?

I am very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given.  This really is a unique opportunity to break the mould of traditional government investment to achieve a ‘better bang for our buck’ and ensure Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life.  This seems like a much better economic proposition than finding more foster carers for the next stolen generation, sending adolescents to boot camp and building more jails, don’t you think?

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‘Recipes of Life’: Sharing Delicious Food and Messages of Hope with Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

Did you know that if you look at salt while cutting onion, you won’t cry?  Or if you drink a raw bantam egg mixed with honey you will grow strong?  No neither did I.  I’ve learnt a lot over these past few months.  Not just about food, but also the incredible strengths and resilience that shines through the stories of refugees and asylum seekers.  Such is the beauty of ‘Recipes of Life’*.  This collective narrative methodology, which I’ve talked about in a previous post, offers a safe way of bringing people together who may have experienced difficulties in their lives to build on their collective strengths, skills and knowledge.

In recent years, Darwin has seen a rapid rise in the number of people being locked up in detention centres having arrived on our shores by boat from Indonesia.  It has been difficult to stand by, relatively powerless and witness the desperate pleas of asylum seekers and how they are treated. Fortunately, we have DASSAN, a great bunch of volunteers who provide visitation and advocacy services to those in detention.  I happened to meet one such volunteer last year and we decided to trial a small group using the ‘Recipes of Life’program at the Mulch Pit Community Garden.  By the time, we found funding, government policy had changed and not many asylum seekers were being released into the Darwin community so our group was mostly made up of settled refugees. Although this made our task of communicating with group participants a little easier as many refugees have basic beginners English, we still had a group representing four different language groups.

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Creating food recipes using art materials

Without funding for translators, we plowed ahead and many parts of the program were adapted to accommodate more non-verbal methods of communication through doing, showing, acting, using hands, drawing, painting and using images.  This contributed to many laugh-out-loud moments, and inspired the women to help each other share their stories.  Using persistence and patience with us as facilitators and each other, somehow the group bonded!

One of the major achievements was the production of a Recipes Book featuring the participant’s favourite Food Recipes cooked and eaten in the on-site outdoor kitchen, as well as Recipes of Life featuring their strengths and skills, and Special Recipe Tips for surviving difficult times. Collectively, they also wrote a Recipe for Starting Life in a New Country.  Their hope is that this recipe will benefit other refugees who have just settled in Australia.

Sharing recipes and cooking food

Sharing recipes and cooking food

Outcomes included building new relationships amongst participants, connecting refugees to new resources at Nightcliff including the op-shop and community garden, improved English skills and confidence in the community, and increased knowledge about growing and cooking tropical food.  A lovely surprise was the spontaneous participation of partners, children and other family members, who would pop up in at different times during the program, either to lead cooking activities, resume natural food harvesting responsibilities or feast at the table.

I have no doubt this method would work just as well with other cultural groups, including Aboriginal women, men and young people.  I wonder what special tips they would have to teach us about food and about life…

If you’d like to find out more about the program or send a message back to the women who created the Recipes Book, we would love to hear from you through our Contact Page.

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Final Week Celebration with ‘Recipes of Living’ families

* Recipes of Life is a methodology developed by Natalie Rudland-Wood
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A Narrative Approach to Working with Women who have Experienced Violent Relationships and others on the Journey of Life.

Narrative therapy is all about re-authoring lives or giving voice to the alternative stories rather than the problem-dominated one.  One of the tools for doing this is seeing life as a journey.  David Denborough (2014) so eloquently revisits Michael White’s (1995) original idea of viewing life as a ‘migration of identity’ in his new book “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives’.   I love this book because it sets out really simple ways we can help ourselves and others to rewrite and reclaim the stories of our lives from trauma or abuse to one of survival and strength.  These documents can then be used to help others who are still on the journey and hitting hard times!

Denborough explores how the journey for a woman leaving a violent relationship can be a difficult one particularly at the point of separation when expectations of finding a sense of wellbeing again can soon plummet into feelings of confusion, insecurity and personal failure.  However, mapping the journey of experiences of despair and wellbeing over time can help women see that a ‘trough’ is just one step on the ‘migration of identity’.  Women can come to appreciate that these feelings are actually an indication of progress and a sign of their commitment to wanting a better life for themselves, rather than slipping backward. It also opens the way for conversations about how to equip oneself to avoid a ‘backlash’, when a women feels vulnerable to plunging back into the despair that tries to take over her life once again. (For more information on creating Migration of Identity Maps see Denborough, 2014, p. 126-7).

One of the other ways of using the Journey of Life metaphor is by drawing the journey as a path or road (Denborough p.132-7).  I think this is a great model when working with Aboriginal people who usually like to draw and appreciate visual storytelling methods. To test this out, I recently sat down with Christine and we created a journey map of her life together using a piece of A4 paper, some textas and pastels.

At the end of the process, this is what it looked like.
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The process is quite lengthy but very important for drawing out thick rich descriptions of the positive events, skills, knowledge and future aspirations of the storyteller.  It begins by taking a large sheet of paper and drawing a winding road from one side to the other.  In the middle, a circle is drawn.  On the left is the ‘Road already travelled’ and the right is ‘the path yet to come’. Beginning on the starting point, stories are recorded in pictures and/or words about ‘Where you have come from’, ‘Favourite places travelled’, ‘Milestones achieved’ and ‘Obstacles overcome’. Here Christine drew a tree to represent her and her children that were hit by lightning.  She recalled her strong mum, Aunty and Grandmother telling her “If you’re gonna stay here, you and the kids will lose your life”.  They all supported her to go the women’s shelter and move away.  This was a major Obstacle Overcome, which after a 4 year wait, resulted in the Milestone of getting her own home.  The middle circle is for recording the ‘Circle of Support’ and above this, a compass of ‘Values, beliefs and principles’ that have guided them on the journey.  Important to Christine is to “not lose my traditional footstep. I want to hold onto my culture and teach it to my kids”.  On the top of the page, a ‘Survival kit’ can be drawn documenting what things they have turned to for strength in hard times. Christine shared “I think about the kids and what’s the next step for them and me.  I paint to make myself busy and keep my mind off things.  The pictures I paint tell stories reminding me about the good things”.

Part 2 is about looking forward.  In a similar way, visual stories are recorded about ‘Where you are heading’, ‘Places you wish to see’, ‘things you wish to make happen’, ‘gifts you wish to give others’, ‘obstacles to overcome’ and even a favourite ‘travelling song’ that will help you on the journey. Christine was clear about the goals she had for her children to finish school, find a job and make a life for themselves.   She has had these hopes ever since they were hit by the lightning obstacle and experienced worry for the children.  “I realised what was happening and took action”.

Part 3 encourages the storyteller to look down at their journey like an eagle would if flying over. This externalising viewpoint allows them to think about ‘Good memories’, ‘Name your journey’ and think about ‘a message to others’.  Christine’s Journey of Life map is now a useful tool for her to talk with other women about lessons learned to get through hard times.  During our Journey conversation Christine stated she wants to “tell stories of what has happened to me (the hard times) so that it helps others…. including young people who are suffering” and to “help others identify the strengths they have to get through hard times.  I try to help my daughter and other family who are stuck in these situations. I tell them you have to help yourself.”

References:

Denborough, D. 2014 “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

White, M. (1995)  Re-authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays, Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

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Let the Tears and the Stories Flow:  Responding to Suicide in Aboriginal Communities

26052010(015)It is the phone call that every counsellor dreads to get.  Remember that girl you were working with a few years ago?  Well she committed suicide.  This is what happened to me this week.  It was like a punch in the stomach.  I was winded.  How could that possibly happen to such a beautiful soul who had bravely let me into her life, to confront the demons of her past? Unfortunately, this is a common scenario for remote Aboriginal communities.  Having to find a way to pick up the pieces and carry on, with so many unanswered questions and tears for their loved ones.  For Aboriginal people, the decision to end the hurt and pain is often made hastily, perhaps after an argument and in the heat of the moment.  It happens too quickly.  There are no plans made days in advance.  So if there is no one around in that split second, the chances of intervention are slim.

Aboriginal communities in Australia lose their young people to suicide at higher rates than every other country in the world, apart from Greenland.  So what can we do about this terrible statistic which leaves threatens to continue the legacy of intergerational trauma?

Well, I believe we have to start with the mothers who are pregnant right now.  If we can ensure little babies reach their third birthday without experiencing trauma (namely abuse or neglect, which includes witnessing domestic and family violence abuse) then their chances of growing up strong and healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually are very high.  90% of a child’s brain has developed by then.  Every baby has the right to experience a caring, responsive and safe environment or “a social womb”.  Unfortunately, for the girl who left us this week, this wasn’t the case.  I clearly remember the one hope that she had for her future and her family.  To be safe.  For babies growing up in unsafe homes, they may not have any tangible memories as older children, but their brain and their body never forget.  The brain and body continue to work together in a state of constant alertness to danger, making it impossible for the child to relax, let alone conform to the expectations of society.

The latest neuroscience research supports the proposition that early childhood trauma is a risk factor for mental health issues later in life including self harm and suicide.  It is this research that has informed the work we’ve been doing over the last four years, developing trauma prevention tools for use with pregnant women and women with toddlers.  This program still remains unfunded.

In the meantime, a community is left grieving, yet again and I am left with feelings of helplessness.  Then I am reminded of the work of the Dulwich Centre when a spate of suicides in NE Arnhemland led to a project which documented the strengths and skills of Aboriginal communities in surviving hard times.  Some beautiful stories of ways communities support each other and honour their loves ones was documented.  It is in the power of community responses that this dreaded problem might once again be addressed.  For me, this is where the hope lies.  And women play a large role in it.

I decided to send a copy of the document “These Stories Are Like a Healing“ to the community in mourning this week.  I hope that it gives them strength to get through the next weeks, months and years ahead.  I hope that it reminds them of the incredible strengths, skills and knowledge that they have to respond in times like this.  Perhaps they have lost touch with these skills?  And a gentle reminder might empower them to find a way forward to prevent such a thing happening again.

I finish by sharing one of the stories that touched me from “These Stories Are Like A Healing”.  It helps to alleviate some of the helplessness and sadness I feel when I hear about the loss of an Aboriginal child or young person to suicide.

Dreams  

“Sometimes our loved ones visit us in our dreams. They tell us that they are all right now and they offer us comfort through their words and their touch. We don’t get frightened by this. We know they are caring for us. In this way, they still offer us comfort even though they are no longer here on earth.

Sometimes, if they regret things that they did, or how they died, they may even come back in a dream to apologise to their mother or father about what took place. These dreams can be very comforting. We also feel their presence during our waking hours. We feel them when we least expect it. Certain smells or sounds evoke them. Our loved ones remain with us. They walk with us in life.”

Beautiful huh?

References:  Dulwich Centre Foundation. (2006). These stories are like a healing, like a medicine. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Foundation.
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“Let’s Do Dadirri” – Using your Inner Wisdom on this rocky Journey called Life

IMG_2122How often do you stop and sit in quiet still awareness, open to listening to what your inner voice is saying to you?  For some, this might be too confronting, perhaps afraid of what they might hear.  However for the majority, it seems our busy world distracts us from this important human task.  Those who practice regular meditation will have some idea of what it is like to sit in quiet still awareness, and be open to receiving new insight into what the body and mind needs at any particular point in time.  For those with no time to do nothing – you could be missing out on so much more that life has to offer!

Before I moved to the Northern Territory, I had been told by two different employers that I should “stop and smell the roses occasionally”.  This is difficult to hear by one who is passionately driven in their work.   Then I came across the words of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal Elder from Nauiyu (Daly River) who talks about Dadirri like it is the essence of human life.

“Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.

When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.”

“In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting.”

These words really struck me.  And I have carried them with me from the moment I stepped onto Aboriginal land to work with the Tiwi people.  For the first four months, I hardly spoke a word. I sat around with women Elders drinking cups of tea and listened as they generously poured out their stories – about them, about their community, about their people, about their hopes and dreams, and about what they didn’t want whitefellas doing to them anymore.  I learnt a lot by keeping my mouth shut.

Since injuring my back in January this year, I have had a lot more hours lying around in quiet still awareness, listening to what my body needs.  This has tended to be more reliable than the advice from doctors, physios, chiros and even well intentioned friends.

Dadirri doesn’t have to take a long time out of your day or be some mindblowing, life course altering transformation.  For instance, today I stopped to contemplate an out-of-the-blue email from an interstate colleague I’ve never met face-to-face, suggesting I read a book called “Leadership Beyond Good Intentions”.  She courageously suggested that “this book might help you look after yourself…as you continue your social leadership journey.”  I didn’t even realise I was on a social leadership journey!  I wondered whether others would have laughed off this observation, made a polite response and hit Delete.  But her insight got me contemplating.  What can she see that I can’t?  Where am I being lead?  Well, there was only one way to find out.  I ordered the book.

Anyway, it was all this contemplation that led me to write this blog…..

What are the signposts in your life that you haven’t noticed because you’ve been too busy?
What do the sights, smells and sounds around you have you feeling and thinking?
What is that piece of music or the bird that pooped on your head, really saying!
Stop and take notice.  Chances are your thoughts will be a reflection of what is important to you, who you really are and what you need.   It’s your inner wisdom talking.

“[Dadirri] is in everyone. It is not just an Aboriginal thing.”—Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

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When All Else Fails, Push Play : The Healing Power of Music

Xavier Rudd

Xavier Rudd follows the sun to the water.

Have you ever been so moved by a song that you look back and think that was a turning point in your life?

I was never really one to be touched by music in a really emotional way, until I reached my thirties. I was a third year university student and sitting in on the first lecture of Working With Indigenous Communities with Tony Kelly, a passionate man who had worked in the NT for 30 years. The only reason I’d taken his elective was out of curiosity – I’d heard that he cried in class. He pushed play on the cassette player (remember those?) and out came Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow. The tears started to form at the corner of my eyes and what followed was five months of no-holds-barred, in-ya-face black history (what I’d never learnt at school) and an invitation to take a long hard look at myself and my whiteness. Yep, it was a turning point. From Little Things… was a tiny seed planted and watered, which led me back to the NT.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a beautiful song, but it wasn’t until I watched the journey of the Choir of Hard Knocks culminating in their performance at the Sydney Opera House, that it gave me goosebumps. What Jonathan Welch and the homeless people of Sydney achieved together was nothing less than inspiring. Did you know that Leonard Cohen’s career had reached a low point when he wrote Hallelujah in 1984 and his record company didn’t bat an eyelid at it? Every time I hear it now, the goosebumps return.

I have a colleague, who I worked with just long enough a few years ago to make a spiritual connection through shared values and views about the world. We go months without seeing or talking to each other as we both lead busy and very different lives. However, earlier this year, when I was having a particularly tough time and felt like I had come to a crossroad, I got a call from her out of the blue. All she said to me was, listen to Rudd’s song – Follow Your Heart. When I opened the you-tube clip and and was invited to check “which way is the wind blowing”, tears welled up. Not so much because it became obvious to me what I should do. But because this distant friend, like a guardian angel or something, had delivered this message to me. Another turning point.

And this brings me to my last favourite song – another off Xavier Rudd’s album – Spirit Bird. See if you can get through this one without shedding a tear! Like a fighting warrior, these words provide the inspiration for me to keep going and never give up. I know I’m heading in the right direction.

I can count the number of songs that move me to tears or lift me up out of a low point, on one hand. But that’s what makes them all the more special.

What about you? In hard times, what are the songs that bring you healing? Share them. It could make all the difference to the life of another.

“Music is the art of the prophets, the only art that can calm the agitations of the soul.”   Martin Luther (1483-1546)

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Metaphorical Drawing as a Tool to Build Relationships of Attachment between Foster and Kinship Carers and Children in their Care.

10626585_759069220821973_6528970359671927082_nThe Northern Territory is over-represented when it comes to Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.  And despite the Aboriginal Placement Principle being adopted, many Aboriginal children still find themselves placed with non-Aboriginal foster carers because they continue to be removed from their families and there are not enough Aboriginal carers.  Not surprisingly, after all the trauma these little tikes have been through, it can be a battle for the Department and the Carers to make the placement work.  Often these children haven’t been able to build a trusted relationship of attachment to their primary carer because of traumatic events in the family, let alone the strange adult they now live with.

Last week I was invited to participate in the Foster & Kinship Care Expo hosted by Foster Carers Association of the NT.  I decided to engage the children in a fun drawing activity which foster and kinship carers could later take home and use to explore their relationship together.  It goes something like this.

10511123_759069540821941_8587260440108007074_nChildren are asked to think about if they were an animal, what kind would they be? If they get stuck, I discuss with them the different characteristics of animals. Some are shy and quiet, others are happy and excited, while some are wild and angry. You get the picture! They are invited to then draw the animal that most closely resembles them, using their choice of drawing materials. I had crayons, pastels and textas available. I encourage them to fill in the whole page, drawing the habitat that the animal finds itself in on a daily basis. At the expo, some children chose to do several animals describing the different parts of themselves. Others, chose to include family members or friends represented by different animals in their picture.

The kids had lots of fun, but the real work happens later. Foster carers were invited to use my Take Home Sheet which offered ways of interviewing the child about their picture. You can learn a lot about what is going on for your child by talking to them through the animal eyes, so to speak.   It is much easier for Aboriginal children to speak in third person through telling a story, than talking directly about their own experience and feelings.

At home, foster carers are also invited to draw an animal picture. This can be used to explore the relationships between the two animals, how well they get on, and what needs to happen for the animals to trust each other. Having this one-on-one time with the child, is a purposeful and meaningful way for the child to build a connection, using the safety and playfulness of their imagination. These kids deserve our full attention so avoid any chance of distractions like turning off your mobile.

If you’d like to read more about the questions to use when talking to children, download my Take Home Sheet here Build Relationships and Connection for Foster Carers and their children.

In my counselling work, I’ve written fictional stories with children about different animals and other characters, that is based on their own experiences. It’s a beautiful way to be able to help them communicate what they haven’t been able to express before. And help them make sense of what happened along the journey!

Never underestimate the power of play as a tool to share difficult experiences, communicate feelings and strengthen relationships!10599157_759069590821936_5640702642905705167_n

 

An Aboriginal Perspective of Grieving and Healing from Loss

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Pukumani ceremony burial poles of the Tiwi people.

One of the saddest things about working in remote communities of Northern Australia is the constant and ongoing presence of grief as families mourn the loss of loved ones. To have four funerals a month seems the norm. If this occurred in a small white community of 1,500 people, this would be considered outrageous! But in Aboriginal communities, it is the reality of their lives.
If you are Aboriginal, you can expect to die 10 to 12 years earlier than non-Aboriginal people. But the gap widens to 14 years if you are Aboriginal, male and live in the Northern Territory. This is worse than many third world countries!
Topping the biggest killers list are heart disease, cancers and injuries. The NT can also lay claim to the highest suicide rate in Australia – 20 deaths per 100,000 – because one third of its population is comprised of Aboriginal people.   The majority of these suicides involve Aboriginal children and young men.
So you’re starting to get the picture. Aboriginal people are grieving the loss of loved ones every day! Healing is an ongoing process where no end point is ever reached.

As I interviewed Shane Kerinauia this week, his home community of Pirlangimpi were awaiting the outcome of a young man missing for six days. It now appears he was taken by a crocodile. I can’t imagine how a small community of 400 deals with this!  But they will. They will cry together. They will seek comfort in each other. And they will continue on, because that is just what they do.  For Shane, our guest blogger, he often thinks about the 3 really close school mates he lost at a young age and more recently, a cousin in a car accident. One thing that helps ease the pain is thinking about good memories.
“I keep thinking about the old school days. We used to share stories and talk about playing sports. I used to go around to his place, to his brothers and he used to come over to my place.   We used to share things. We used to talk about his AFL footy star. We used to bag each other out or make a bet. If your team wins, I buy you a drink. I feel like he’s still alive again. I will still have the good memories for the rest of my life.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle the cultural obligations that come with attending ceremonies, with personal responsibilities such as holding down a job.
“I missed his funeral because I had to work. It’s hard. I haven’t seen his family yet. It’s the feelings that will come. I feel shame, not confronting them. I want to leave that shame to rest. Not to think about it too much. I am comfortable with taking the time I need. You can go and visit the family later and it’s okay.”

Shane talks about the good ways of coping with difficult feelings.
“Last month or too, I’ve been down a lot. I’ve got other mates I can go and yarn to. My mate is feeling down as well. We have a conversation, reminiscing together about the school days. [We’re] mates sharing the tears together. Hugs and crying help too. I talk to my partner about the feelings in my head and she gives me a hug. I’ve been talking to my mum too. I share my feelings with lots of different people. It’s not Tiwi way, to drink, get drunk and then cry. I don’t believe in that.”

Shane says an important part of the healing process for Tiwi people is about giving the person a proper ceremony.
“I believe in getting together and grieve proper way. Before they bury the person, family get together and do a healing. Singing, sharing things to each other, just having a laugh, sharing food together, BBQ, good memories.   We listen to the Elders. They tell us you gotta be strong. Don’t let that memory affect you….. When a person dies, other people that have died come along, just to let us know they’re here with us, to take the person away with them. It’s a comforting thing. We sit down quiet.   Next day we have smoking ceremony. It’s very important for us to have this ceremony, to smoke the spirit away. If we don’t smoke the house, the spirit is still living there.“

Tiwi people have a special spiritual connection to those that have gone before them.
“Sometimes when we feel the energy of a person, it’s a comforting thing. Once when I was at the pool, I could feel [my partners dad] there, telling me to go back to work. It was nice to hear. Everytime I am there, I can hear him. Sometimes I get goosebumps. It puts a smile on [my partners] face. It’s like he’s watching over me. I feel comfortable with it. Safe. He gives me a message. “

And Shane’s final words about healing from loss?
“Be strong. Be yourself. I am strong for my family. My relatives are the most important thing in my life. I just want to do things I want to do. Fishing and hunting and camping. Go and visit families and friends. If my daughter even has to go through what I’ve been through, I’ll be able to support her.”

The strong spirit and resilience of Aboriginal people’s lives in coping with loss shines through in Shane’s story and so many people like him. I thank him for his willingness to share his story.

ShaneShane Kerinaiua is currently employed at CatholicCare NT with The Strong Men’s Program. He won the Aust-Swim Water Safety National Award in 2011. He holds the record for the most goals kicked in a year in the Tiwi Football League.