Family Bush Camp team 2012

A Social Work Practice Framework: The Right Mix for me


Like the bush damper, my social work practice framework is a recipe I’ve learnt from wiser people around me.

I was recently asked by the Australian Childhood Foundation to answer some questions which would be used to contribute to the development of a team practice framework.  I have no doubt my answers will be very different to other members of the team.  It represents what is the best mix for me at this point in time.  It is an emerging and ever-evolving recipe for working with Indigenous communities.  Like any recipe, there is always room for improvement.  Here are just some of the ingredients.

How would you describe the 5 most important principles that underpin your approach to working with children and families?

  1. Awareness of Aboriginal history, colonisation, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. This is a big topic to get your head around but it is necessary.  One cannot be working with Indigenous folk without appreciating and accepting how ‘white privilege’ impacts on our work.  It is an ongoing learning project for me.  This is closely linked with the social work values of human rights and social justice which are the core values that drive my passion for this work.
  2. Mutual respect.  This cannot be achieved without a relationship.  If you give respect, you can expect respect in return.  Establishing a relationship of trust is the most important part of the work, given Indigenous people can be suspicious of whitefellas (with very good reason – there is a history of people coming into their communities, doing their work and leaving without engaging in authentic consultation or setting up any sustainable change processes).  It was important to me to stick around, to show that I wasn’t going to be another ‘white toyota’.  In my first 6 months working remote, all I did was had cups of tea with people and listened.  This was so important in being able to establish a relationship of mutual respect.
  3. Doing ‘with’ not ‘for’. It is walking alongside our clients, not in front and not behind.  This is probably the hardest principle to stay connected with.  It is very tempting to take over and do things for people when they have become so disempowered.  I have to constantly remind myself ‘how can I be?” rather than ‘what can I do?’  There is also a risk of overdoing it, thinking you can save the world and then dropping behind from burnout.   I am reminded of the words from Lila Watson

    “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

  4. Genuine collaboration and accountability to the community. This is not something that should happen as an aside in the work.  This should be first, foremost and ongoing.  It follows on from my previous point about ‘doing with not for’, and my next point about not being the expert.  I have written a bit about collaboration from a cultural perspective elsewhere.
  5. Coming from a stance of curiosity and non-expert.  I don’t have the answers.  I will never know what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aboriginal person.  But I do have skills in being able to listen to the problems of people’s lives and reconnect them with their skills, knowledge, values, hopes and visions that may have temporarily become lost.  I believe everyone has the capacity to find their own solutions if they are prepared to explore the ‘real me’.  Discovering the person that has got lost, sometimes means working through some really hard issues that have got in the way of their preferred self.  My approach is therefore one of curiosity.

What theories or knowledge do you draw on to inform your approach?

  1. Community development theories. Of all my formal social work education, the theoretical understandings of community development have had the most impression on me.  Community is also an important part of my personal life too.  I take an active role in volunteering, participating in community life and being a change agent in the community development process.
  2. Systems theory.  One cannot work with children alone.  For real change to occur we must engage at the family, community and society level.  After all, it takes a village to raise a child.
  3. Two way learning

    Two way learning

    Two way learning model.  This implies I have just as much to learn from the people I work with as they do from me.  We are exploring the questions and finding the answers together.  When I started working in NE Arnhemland I took the time to document the emerging practice framework between myself and our Yolngu worker to demonstrate how Yolngu and Western worldviews were working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.  I hoped it might give some insight into how other workers might marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.  This reflection speaks extensively about the knowledge, values, beliefs and skills underpinning this cultural practice framework.  I also enjoy documenting and sharing the skills, knowledge and abilities of Indigenous folk who are staying strong in the face of hardship.  Many of these stories can be found here.

  4. In recent years I have been drawn to the trauma-informed approach in children’s counselling to address concerns around behaviour, learning, health and various aspects of wellbeing.  But how does this scientific knowledge inform our work with groups and communities who have experienced intergenerational trauma, where the effects of violence are normalised?  What affects has the impact of trauma from colonisation, dispossession and assimilation had and continue to have on Aboriginal people, families and communities from a neuroscience perspective?  These are big questions I wonder about.

There are many, many other theories and pieces of knowledge somewhere deep inside my brain.  But these are the ones that come to mind at this present moment.

How do you describe the goals or aims of your work?

I am really passionate about early intervention and prevention.  These terms get thrown around a lot so they have lots of different meanings for different people.  My passion is about the prevention of trauma through culturally safe therapeutic support.  My current work is all about the prevention of trauma in young children under 3.  I believe this is where we can make the most difference in breaking the cycle of violence and trauma.  If we can get a child through the first 1000 days of their life with a secure attachment and no ongoing exposure to harmful trauma then they have a much better chance of growing up strong and healthy.  Unfortunately, many Aboriginal children have an early childhood developmental history of exposure to domestic or family violence, child abuse or drug and alcohol abuse.  In 5-10 years time, my hope is that this number is reduced significantly because there is more investment being made in the early years to ensure children’s safety, security and emotional needs are being met.  It seems wrong to me that we spend all the money on children when they reach school.  The damage has already been done by them and it is harder to heal.

What are the 5 most important techniques that you use in your work?

  1. Narrative therapy. I have shared some of the ways of I incorporate narrative practice into my work with Indigenous folk here.
  2. Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    Expressive therapies. Communicating using drawing, painting, craft, clay, storytelling in the sandtray or with puppets.  These are the mediums where many great things can happen from externalising problems to integrating trauma.  I have had fun writing about and developing my own art therapy techniques, testing, reflecting on and reshaping them to ensure they are culturally safe.

  3. Indirect questioning. It is better to invite an Aboriginal person to tell their story than to ask a whole lot of direct questions.  Sometimes it takes a lot longer to get a picture of what is going on, maybe many months.  This requires patience.  But at least you won’t be causing more shame or bad feelings for that person through interrogation.
  4. Attentive listening. Double listening.  Listening for what is said as well as what is not said.  Watching out for the signs of resistence.  Listening for the ways people are standing up to the effects of problems and systems on their lives.  Looking for the sunlight peering through a small crack that opens the door to people’s preferred ways of living their lives.
  5. Self care. I cannot approach my work with care and empathy if I am not giving this to myself.  I have learnt the hard way.  In 2013, I developed early stage thyroid disease which can be exacerbated by stress and shortly after, herniated a disc in my lower back.  Both of these physical impediments are closely linked to psychological health.  Remote work can be taxing even when you are healthy and have a strong mind like I do.  I had to give up my work for a while to begin a process of healing and recovery.  This has been a long hard process.  I have learnt how to listen to my body and meditation has now become a daily practice (something I struggled with for many years).

Helping people to help themselves and employing local people.

What are the 3 outcomes that you believe you achieve in your work?

  1. Trust.  And with that comes engagement.  Once you have engagement, then you can work together on the practical issues.  This goes for counselling – resulting in the client feeling listened to, finding the conversation helpful, wanting to come back and moving forward in their lives.  It goes for community work too, with Elders and leaders of the community wanting to stay connected to what you are doing.
  2. Awareness raising. While I would like to say that I have been able to stop violence in a family or community, it’s probably not the case most of the time.  The best I can hope for is to make women and children aware of the impact of trauma on themselves, their children and their community.  It is up to them in the end, whether they stand up to it or take action to protect themselves and those around them.  My latest project is getting ‘the brain story’ out to women in communities, so that they can make a more trauma-informed choice about their protective behaviours towards children.
  3. Helping communities to help themselves. I am committed to employing and mentoring local people to work alongside me.

What kind of supports do you believe are important for you to experience that will enable you to improve the effectiveness and quality of your work?

Supervision from an Aboriginal social work practitioner.  This is difficult to access when working under funding arrangements which don’t necessarily value this.

What books or journal articles have inspired you?

Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma In Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson

Collective narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma by David Denborough.  His latest book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives is such an accessible, easy read.   It is designed for anyone to be able to do their own healing using the gentle principles of the narrative approach.

Telling Our Stories in Ways that Make us Stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester

Our Voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work eds. B Bennett, S. Green, S. Gilbert, D. Besserab

The Art Therapy Sourcebook or anything by Cathy Malchiodi

Anything by Dan Seigal including his many U-tube clips and TED talks.


Social Work in Aboriginal communities: Get real and collaborate!


Alberta Puruntatameri, Lucy and Elaine Tiparui at Pirlangimpi Family Healing Bush Camp

I’ve been lucky enough since moving to the Northern Territory to find myself doing therapeutic work in collaboration with Aboriginal people. I mean real collaboration not consultation. To me, collaboration is a genuine partnership where both parties have an active role in achieving a shared outcome with mutual respect for the skills and knowledge of the other. In practical terms, this has meant being able to employ Aboriginal women to be in the counselling room with me.  My Aboriginal colleagues haven’t necessarily had formal education or training, but to me the most important thing is a passion for helping women and children.
The advantages of providing therapy together are too numerous to mention.  You can communicate with your client in their own traditional language; you can find out what the client’s body language means because they will always pick up things you don’t; you have immediate access to first hand information about community issues that could be impacting on a client; and you can explore traditional methods of healing that can be incorporated into the work.  The other part of the ’two way’ learning equation, is the opportunity to impart knowledge and skills about mainstream counselling and group work methodologies, practices and even theories.  In my experience, Aboriginal women are keen to learn and take an active role in the health and wellbeing of their own families and communities.  Often they will be there working, way after you have packed up and gone, into the night seven days a week. So why shouldn’t they take up position alongside me in the counselling room?  Unfortunately for the majority of Counsellors working in Aboriginal communities, this situation is the exception rather than the rule!  But to me this is what anti oppressive social work practice looks like; I am being held accountable at every step on the journey.  It’s definitely not easy work by any means, but any perceived obstacles to this practice can always be worked through. Yes things go at a lot slower pace. And what appears to be risky or outside the box, may actually result in some amazing transformative outcomes for everyone involved.

Patricia (right) at the Cairns SNAICC conference with the remote Therapeutic Team (Michelle and Elaine) and colleague (Therese)

Patricia (right) at the Cairns SNAICC conference with the remote Therapeutic Team (Michelle and Elaine) and colleague (Therese)

One of my most memorable moments would have to be working with Patricia Munkara, who by complete accident happened to fall into the job (but that’s another story!)  Patricia came with no experience at all but with an enormous amount of respect in the community with Elders and children and everyone in between despite her ‘young’ age.  She also understood the importance of confidentiality for people that would come to us for support and was able to work with these challenges whilst fulfilling her family, community and cultural responsibilities. I saw Patricia develop from a shy, softly spoken woman into an outspoken advocate for children in her community!  She even stood up and presented alongside me at a conference after just nine months into the job.  Awesome!

It was an obvious choice for me to adopt this same model when starting my own business earlier this year.  Many people are saying our service offers something unique in the Northern Territory.  Tonight I launched our first crowd funding campaign, aimed at assisting my colleague Christine Burarrwanga to participate in ASIST (suicide intervention) training.  This is another step towards our goal of offering a real collaborative culturally safe counselling and support service!
So check it out.  Our small video will give you some more insight into what is important to us in our work.



Recipes Of Life: How cooking is transforming my relationships, community and work


Cooking in the Mulch Pit Community Garden.

Many years ago I started an initiative which I called the Community Chef. The idea was to share recipes using local food and a dozen of us would gather in someone’s house to prepare and cook these together. I remember the smell of garlic and ginger being pushed around the wok, the laughter of men gathered round the stove, the chatter of women munching on carrots and homemade spinach dips, and handwritten recipes handed down in families or along cultural storylines. There was something about this experience that was pretty darn special. Even though our community cooking nights have moved to an outdoor kitchen at my local community garden, this method of sharing knowledge and skills in such an earthy, organic way has huge therapeutic potential for each one of us. It does not assume that only one person is the expert but that we can all be teachers and learners.

It was pretty ironic that I would meet Natalie Rudland-Wood at around the same time as starting the Community Chef.  Natalie had developed the Recipes of Life program, adapted from similar narrative folk cultural methodologies like the Tree of Life.  Natalie was using Recipes to engage children and young people affected by homelessness in conversations about their lives using the metaphor of food.  Cooking and counselling was proving to be an effective mix.  In documenting and sharing their Recipes for overcoming hard times, the kids were experts in their own lives and becoming supportive mentors for their peers!

Having recently won a small grant, I’m currently preparing a program to trial Recipes of Life with refugees and asylum seekers living in Darwin.  It is not my intention to describe how the program works, but instead give you “a taster” by sharing my own recently crafted Recipe of Life.   Hopefully, you will see the two-fold potential therapeutic benefits, for the person writing their recipe and contributing it to the life of another, and the person receiving it (who might also be experiencing hard times).



Mental strength         one bucket

Support                        a cup overflowing

Mindfulness                1 shovel full

Stamina                        a heap

Willpower                    as much as you can muster

Good diet                     1 teaspoon per day

Exercise                        between 1 teaspoon and 1 cup per week

Acceptance                   ideally 1 pinch per day

Patience                        1 handful per day

Understanding             doesn’t need to be added, just happens


The origins of Mental Strength are home grown after watching my mum who has had to put up with a lot over the years.  I remember having it after leaving home and it grows stronger every year.

Support is ‘on loan’ from my generous husband and kind friends.  It is always available but not always easy to accept.

The ideas and principles of Mindfulness have been imported over the years from friends, books, people I don’t know on the internet and Buddhist Monk, Gen Kelsang Dornying.

Stamina and Willpower is cultured from home as a result of leaving my birthplace and family in my early twenties and learning to rely on myself.

Good Diet and exercise are a mix of home grown skills of listening to my body mixed with advice from trusted naturopaths and chiropractors.  This sometimes gets confusing as the two sources can be conflictual.  But in the end, I know best, over any expert advice.

Acceptance is reluctantly borrowed from God who makes it easier to understand the need for this Recipe.

Patience is a gift from gentle role-models like my mum and Nelson Mandela.

Understanding is also a gift that presents itself from the mixing of all the other ingredients.


Blend together mental strength and support using a wheelbarrow and shovel.  Pack down tight into the bottom of the wheelbarrow so there are no gaps.  You can’t afford to let any contaminants spoil this mix.

In a bowl, whisk together mindfulness, stamina and willpower.  Set it aside to ferment.  This will take a minimum of six months. Every day add good diet to the bowl.  Once a week add in exercise, not too much, just the right balance (depending on how you feel).   If it hurts, back off and just add the minimum required.  Even though you don’t like it, you must add small amounts of Acceptance especially on bad days.  For best results, add a pinch every day along with Patience.  The fermenting process is complete when Understanding has developed.   You are now ready to add this mix to the wheelbarrow.

Spread on top and leave out in the pure natural rays of the sun to cook. It will rise in the heat.

This recipe will take at least six months to ferment and develop its subtle flavour because you have to adjust ingredients as you go, depending on the level of pain on a given day.   Full maturity may take as long as two years.  

Mental Strength is the backbone of the recipe.  Without it, the recipe is doomed.

NB: My special tip is on really bad days to consume double the dose. For example, for my peace of mind, I had to advocate strongly to get an MRI against doctor’s advice which was “not clinically indicated”.  This takes a double dose of Mental Strength.

Serving Suggestion

Sometimes you will have to eat this in bed.

But the ideal way to serve it is at the end of the day, preferably in front of the sunset on the beach, surrounded by loved ones. I would have my immediate family, mum and close friends there, swaying in cosy hammocks with not a care in the world. The spread would be laid out on a huge picnic blanket with simple pure white crockery, the best silverware I could afford and fancy etched glasses with pink champagne.  The picnic basket would never run out of food.  We could eat as much as we wanted. There would be a high tide, lapping at our feet and a gentle breeze with the sweet smell of frangipani’s tickling my nose. The sound of curlews would ring out gently and intercept the laughter and joy of friendship.  I would speak with gratitude in honour of my soul mate and husband for sticking by me “in sickness and in health” for 21 years and the support of all those since that have drifted through my life, sharing their knowledge, encouragement and love.  A fairy would magically come and do all the washing up, leaving everything sparkly clean back in the picnic basket.

Has this got you thinking about how to use these ideas in your work?

Or perhaps how your personal Recipe could actually make a difference to the life of someone else?

Read more about Recipes of Life by downloading Natalie’s article in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work or if you’d like to write your own Recipe, contact us.


“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


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)

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

Healing from Chronic Pain or Injury: My 3 Rules for playing the Mind Game

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

This week I sliced my finger. I was cleaning our ceiling fan blades, something I’d been trying to do for months. In the first instance, I fell into a pit of anger and frustration because I couldn’t finish the job. Ruminating, I stared at the ceiling, clasping a bunch of tissues which filled up with blood over my painful little pinkie. To the distracting but somewhat comforting beat of my throbbing pulse, I eventually pulled myself off the sulky road I was heading down, and contemplated how I might now constructively fill in the rest of my day.   I decided to do something I enjoyed – some drawing or painting or both. Half an hour later, I consulted the first aid book locked away in my brain and decided a dose of Betadine and a couple of strong bandaids was all that was required.

Ironically, this is the same process I went through when I popped a disc sweeping up the floor in January. However this injury was much more serious and I haven’t yet fully recovered. I lead an active lifestyle and see the glass half full most of the time, but this pushed me to my absolute limits. The mental anguish of being bed bound is much worse than physical pain and I could have easily slipped into depression, if anger and frustration had gotten hold.  I began thinking about the things I consciously do to give myself the best chance of healing without letting the world crumble down around me. Here are my 3 tips for healing from chronic pain, keeping your spirit intact!

  1. Listen to what your body is telling you to do.

The voices of ‘experts’ in treatment have valuable things to offer but not the only answer. My doctor, physio and chiropractor all had different opinions about my back injury and how it should be treated. The conflicting advice I received was confusing and my back seemed to get worse. Eventually, I refused to do some of the exercises because it didn’t feel right. I had to force my doctor to refer me for an “unnecessary” MRI which revealed a type of degenerative disc disease that he knew nothing about it. I ended up doing my own research to find a path of recovery for myself. In desperation for pain relief, I found an acupuncturist/physio who confirmed what I suspected all along. Don’t do any exercise that causes pain! He cut me back to one exercise and that was the beginning of my recovery, five months after my initial injury.   I know if I ever do this kind of injury again, I have a first aid plan, based pretty much on “Treat Your Own Back”. I also know I have a really strong gut instinct which steers me in the right direction.

  1. Put your mind on a leash.

This is the hardest thing to do when you are in constant pain. Give it some slack and your mind will take off, leaving you feeling powerless. Worry and self doubt tried to convince me that I might never be healthy and strong again. I was also plagued with guilt for lying around and not contributing to the functioning of our family household. A turning point for me came when I created a Body Drawing. On one of my worst days, I lay down and quietly meditated on how my body felt for a few minutes, noticing the pain, tension, and other sensations. Then I took a piece of paper and drew what I had noticed.  Looking objectively at what I had drawn, I knew I had to take positive action to not let my mind dominate, as it was contributing to avoidable tension in my body and inhibiting recovery. The Body Drawing is a good exercise to repeat several times over the course of recovery, so that you can appreciate the positive steps forward you are taking and that change however slight, is happening.

  1. Find creative ways to keep doing things you enjoy.

One of the most difficult things with chronic pain is not being able to do things you love. For three months, I wasn’t able to sit. I either had to lie on my back or stand. And standing for long periods of time wasn’t good either. I became teary and upset at not being able to do the things I normally enjoy like gardening and bike riding (I had just bought a new mountain bike).

Now when I look back, I am grateful for the down time I was forced to take. I taught myself how to set up a business and website and even went to some free business seminars, standing on my feet throughout the whole training.   I wrote my first blog flat out on my back because my thoughtful hubby bought me a bed desk.

It’s important to stay connected to the things you are passionate about, within your limitations. I couldn’t work in the community garden, but I still went along and chatted to the gardeners doing all the hard yakka. I took up new pursuits like Universal Healing Meditation and Playback Theatre which have added value to my healing process. Think creatively and you can find a way, perhaps with a little help from some painkillers now and again!

The Mind Game of healing from chronic pain or injury is a constant challenge. Just keep strong hold of that leash, and breathe.

Darwin Playback Theatre

My Introduction to the Healing Power of Playback Theatre

In February, I was fortunate to hear about some Playback Workshops designed to introduce new and old improvisational actors to the art of PlayBack Theatre. My motivation for attending was personal. I wanted a creative outlet for the rollercoaster of emotions I was carrying from my work.  It was all about me and my needs. If there was some way of expressing the tension that had built up over the past 5 years from listening to other people’s stories of trauma and abuse, in a fun and releasing kind of way, then this was enough. I didn’t really know what I was in for. I didn’t realise I would be the vehicle through which I would hear more potentially traumatic stories and have to literally jump into the storytellers shoes in a physical way. I didn’t realise how much courage I would need to muster to expose the introspective parts of my vulnerable self, while the self critic tried to talk me out of it. That is the journey I am now on.

Jonathan Fox introduced Playback Theatre in 1972 as a vehicle for ordinary people to act out the stories of their community. Although not intentionally a therapy, drama therapists and psychodramatists recognised Playback’s potential as a therapeutic approach. “It is theatre with the power and intention to heal and transform individuals and social groups” (Salas 2009). It has been used with trauma survivors, couples and families, adolescents, people in recovery from addictions or mental illness and other groups.

Darwin Playback Theatre

Darwin Playback Theatre

So how does it work? Well, the stage is set with two chairs to one side for the Conductor and Teller (a volunteer from the audience who is invited to share a story). In the middle of the stage are four boxes (seating and potential props) for four Actors. To the other side, a musician is accompanied by a wide variety of instruments to add musical content to the story. And upstage is a rack of cloth of various colours, for use as costumes or props. The Conductor invites a volunteer from the audience to tell a story. This Teller chooses an Actor to play themselves and for any other key figures in the story. The Actors listen as the Conductor interviews the Teller about the details of the story and most importantly, what emotions were present at the time of the event. The conductor invites the Teller and audience to “Let’s Watch” as the Actors and Musician play back the story as creatively and accurately as they can. The Actors finish their final scene by pausing and looking back at the Teller, anticipating their feedback. If the Teller is troubled by the way their story ends, there is an opportunity for Transformation, as the Conductor invites the Teller to imagine a new outcome and the Actors play back this preferred ending.

The potential healing effects for Tellers may seem obvious but when played out in front of a group of strangers in public, take on a life all of their own. There is the personal sense of affirmation and validation as they tell, hear and watch stories that are significant for them; the feeling of being fully heard and understood by the Actors and through the clapping of the audience; a sense of mastery over an experience that has been hanging around in the background for some time; new insight gained into an issue that has been presented back in a new and creative way; and the cathartic experience of joining in laughter or tears with the audience.

In the short time I have been practising the skills and art of Playback, I have been struck by the potential healing effects for Actors too. In my paid work as a counsellor, my attentive, listening ear was the only tool I could use to acknowledge and validate a story of trauma. With Playback, I can use my whole body, mind and voice in acknowledgement of the courage shown for sharing a personal story amidst strangers. It feels like presenting their story as a gift bound in a bright coloured ribbon, which is unwrapped with gentle curiosity, utter delight or immense relief and profound insight.

To date, I have only witnessed this amongst the cosy and comfortable confines of my PlayBack colleagues, where we share our inner-most personal stories with each other. My inner self critic has successfully sobataged any attempt I might make to step onto the public stage.   But that is a story for another time; perhaps the PlayBack stage? I’ve certainly achieved more than I imaged when I set out on this creative adventure six months ago. Any vicarious trauma or pent up frustrations I carry about the state of the world is unleashed amongst the laughter, silliness and security of my fellow Actors each week during Practice. Playback presents an abundance of other healing opportunities for Actors most of which I’m yet to experience, if I can pluck up the courage to go public.

If this article has inspired you to share a story of Tragic Love or other unresolved Earthly Delights, you might like to come along to our company’s next Fringe Festival performance tomorrow night. I won’t be on stage, but you can experience the healing power of Playback for yourself…..because it’s not all about me.

playback flyer _nReferences:  Salas, J. (2009) ‘Playback Theatre: A Frame for Healing’ in Current Approaches in Drama Therapy, 2nd edn., edited by Johnson D. R. & Emunah R., Charles Thomas, Illinois.


Using Art to Heal from the ‘Bystander’ Trauma of Witnessing Worldwide Disasters

2014 is starting to feel like a tragic year. Two heartbreaking airline disasters are making the world an unsafe place to explore. The actions of uncaring, uncompassionate politicians are shining the international human rights spotlight on Australia. And even our neighbourhood is mourning the loss of unexplained suicide.

Even though none of these events have affected me or my family directly, it feels like my safe and secure ‘cone of comfort’ is slowly being smothered as layer by layer another blanket is added on top. I am heavy and weary. I am trying to breathe. Earlier this year, I was particularly sensitive to what was happening around me. I was even told by my doctor to stop watching the news and using Facebook, as it would depress me too much. I did for a few weeks until my sadness about the world subsided. Momentarily.   You cannot avoid it. You cannot tune out entirely. So what do you do with these feelings that you carry?

It feels like some sort of “bystander trauma”. But this term has been used to describe those who have witnessed their loves ones die or seriously injured at the scene of an accident or the like. So it is probably not the right term to use for those of us watching on as the bystanders suffer.  Then again, some of the images we see on media are pretty graphic.  It practically feels like you’re there.

How can the majority of us who may not be directly affected by tragedy or injustice express our sadness for the grief and suffering of others? How can we express our own feelings of losses…like safety and security in the world….or nationwide compassion towards those being oppressed?

Art is used in a therapeutic context to assist those directly affected by grief, loss and trauma to “confront emotions, overcome depression, integrate traumatic experiences and find relief and resolution of grief and loss” (Malchiodi 2007).  But I believe it is also useful to those of us on the sidelines, watching the tragedy unfold before us and watching the bystanders grieve. The process of making art is a sensory experience, not a cognitive one. It gives us a safe place to express feelings we don’t have the words for or an audience available to listen.

So after the tragedy of MH17 this is what I did.

If like me, you’re feeling the weight of the blankets smothering you…watching the violence, the despair and the tears of the world, as you try to draw breath, why not give it a go?

  1. Find a piece of paper. It could be a A4 sheet, scrapbook or journal.
  2. Gather something to draw with e.g. textas, pencils, pastels, paint – whatever you prefer or feels right for you.
  3. Gather some collage materials if you have more time. I used the newspaper with the feature story of the tragedy.
  4. Use the materials in front of you to express your thoughts and feelings in whatever form you choose, concrete or abstract. You do not have to use words.
  5. When you are finished, take some deep breaths and acknowledge what it feels like in your body right now.

By the way, don’t think that you haven’t got time for this. Even if you’re sitting at your desk, grab a sticky note and a pen and doodle to your hearts content. Making art is good for you. It might even make you feel like you can come out from underneath the blanket and carry on.

References:  Malchiodi, C. (2007) The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 2nd edn. McGraw Hill Publishing.

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right.  It might be the harder road but its much more fulfilling.

When everyone usually ‘Keeps Left’, Go Right: My top 3 tips to achieving the fulfilling social work career you want

I read recently that the key to having a fulfilling job is to choose a job with meaning!   I would go further to say that a truly fulfilling job is one that has meaning for a cause you are really passionate about.   I was recently described by a colleague that I was the most passionate person she had ever met – what a compliment!

Up until April, I was working towards creating myself a new dream job at Relationships Australia so that I could travel a bit less and pursue something I became really passionate about – prevention of trauma in young children! In November last year, I resigned from my present position and had two months to find funding for the new project. It was a big risk! If it didn’t find the money I would be unemployed. Prevention work is not something governments are generally interested in funding. April came, I didn’t have any money , and so my work came to an end.

Others would stay on the side of the road they feel comfortable on, but not me. I ‘kept right’ and never gave up on my dream. I really believe that the program I’ve developed can stop the cycle of trauma affecting children exposed to domestic and family violence. I decided to promote the project on my new business website. Then two weeks ago Relationships Australia offered me a second chance. They have re-employed me for three days over the next three months to try again!

I feel so blessed. How many people do you know that are being paid to try to create their ideal fulfilling job?

Here are my top 3 tips to chasing your ideal, fulfilling dream social work job.

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right.  It might be the harder road but its much more fulfilling.

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right. It might be the harder road but it’s much more fulfilling.

1.  Establish a Trusting Relationship with the Big Boss

From day one, I developed an honest, open relationship with the CEO sharing my hopes, dreams and stories about my past practice that gave her insight into what made my heart tick. I just opened up to what I was passionate about and she developed a job to fit. Along the way, my CEO would pop her head into my office regularly and was always interested in what I was doing. By laying my cards on the table in the first instance, it felt like we had a relationship based on trust that has stood the test of time, even when things got hectic. Believe me, if you don’t have trust in the Big Boss, the passion will soon die! Do everything you can to keep the lines of communication open, no matter how busy everyone gets.

2.  Educate others in the office about what you are doing – the good, the bad and the ugly!

Don’t be scared to share with colleagues, supervisors and Managers what gets you really excited. I believe you should celebrate your successes. It is not bragging. I know that sometimes colleagues might feel threatened by me sharing stories of success and good practice.   However this is an inadequacy they need to deal with.   As a social worker, I feel it is my responsibility to the profession to encourage others to share their good practice stories too, like in group supervision, student supervision, debriefing, mentoring, writing about their practice or more informally. It also takes a lot of guts to admit your faults, where you went wrong and what didn’t work. I think my colleagues appreciate people who approach their work with honesty and integrity. We learn just as much from our mistakes as we do the success stories.

3.  Don’t be scared to take risks; never give up and have faith that it will all work out in the end

Sometimes I have some pretty weird and ‘out there’ ideas. They don’t always get taken up but I still feel free enough to share them and push the boundaries. You never know, one of those crazy ideas might just work! Some people respect me for “thinking outside the box” and not just accepting the status quo. Other people might view me as a feather ruffler. But I know what it’s like to have creativity stifled and it does not lead to a fulfilling job at all.

I’ve had a hundred people tell me my project is needed in remote Aboriginal communities and the resources created are fantastic. All the signs are leading me down this road but I still have one big barrier – money to get it started! I really believe this program will make a difference to the lives of Aboriginal kids not even born yet so I won’t give up.

If you are passionate about what you believe in, you will take risks! Because in the end this isn’t about you. It is about the most marginalised people in our community we are trying to help. And there’s nothing more fulfilling than that!  So my advice is ‘Keep Right’.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

A reflection on Western and Aboriginal World Views in Counselling and Social Work Practice

Nami and Lucy

Caught in a wet season storm at Yirrkala Women’s Centre.

I have the most beautiful memories of my work out at NE Arnhemland. I was amazed by how much I achieved in such a short time, given that I did not have relationships in the communities of Nhulunbuy or Yirrkala. The most special part was finding Nami White who I ended up employing to work with me in the Children’s Counselling program. In 2010 she invited me to go to her outstation at Buymarr for three days. I used the time out bush to document how Nami and I were operating in the space where two worldviews meet and I recently stumbled upon my writings. At the time I really appreciated being able to reflect on my social work practice in this way.   I hope it inspires you to do the same.


This document brings together ideas from Nami White and Lucy Van Sambeek who work under the SAAP Children’s Project for Relationships Australia. It aims to show how Yolngu and Western worldviews are working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.

This document was created from a conversation which occurred while camping at Buymarr, an outstation where Nami often visits and stays with family when she needs some time away from her community of Yirrkala. On this trip, Nami brought her grandson to provide him with an opportunity for counselling and traditional healing to address some of the difficulties he is experiencing in his life.

This process has given us new insight into each other’s world view and an appreciation for what we each bring to the work, what we are doing and how we are doing it. Perhaps these ideas might be of use one day to other workers who are trying to marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.


Together we bring a wide variety of knowledge to the work, derived from formal education, life experience, observation and history. We have a shared understanding about the nature of domestic and family violence. Lucy says that:

  • Men are more likely to be perpetrators of violence than women
  • Children are the silent sufferers
  • Drugs and alcohol affect people’s behaviour but is not a cause of violence. We know this because not all drunks are violent
  • Children are affected by being a witnesses to violence
  • Sometimes it is difficult to see the effects of violence in children. The quiet child is not necessarily seen as a child of concern.
  • Parents may not recognise the effects violence has on their children
  • Trauma from domestic violence can have life long effects
Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami brings knowledge about domestic violence and family violence watching children and parents in her own community and family. She worked for many years in the voluntary-based women’s night patrol, walking on foot around the community looking out for children. Nami can recognise those children that are quiet and frightened, “don’t want to mix with other children”, and “can’t be who they want to be”. Some children want to be with others but are prevented from doing so by adults who act protectively to keep them away from other children, for fear of getting into a fight. Children take a long time to talk up about their situation with someone they trust – this could be out of fear or shame. They may not want to get into trouble.

Children can take sides with their mother or father depending on what they have been led to believe by the perpetrator. When violence is happening children react different ways, some may try to protect their mother, try to stop the fight and disarm weapons while others may run or hide.

Shame can prevent women from speaking up about domestic violence. Shame can stop men from admitting fault or taking responsibility for their behaviour.   Women are likely to stay in a relationship which is violent as leaving the relationship could bring shame to her and the family. However, if the fear is strong enough women have been known to leave their partners, children and community as they feel they have no choice. They are often seen as the ones to blame.

The Western world would say that formal theories shape our understanding of observations such as these. This includes knowledge about family systems, social learning, behaviour, a holistic view of health, the cycle of violence and trauma responses. Nami also brings knowledge gained from her experiencing of living with a violent and jealous husband. She also knows what it is like to live in a gentle and loving relationship. Living with violence has given her insight into what causes violence, what it feels like to live with violence and what signs to look out for in other women. Nami has seen men become physically sick from perpetrating violence, as a result of the bottling up of guilt and shame. Serious sickness can become a precursor for a change of behaviour in the perpetrator.

Nami has also had two fathers as positive role models who have taught her to be on the look-out for warning signs. Her fathers used to tell Nami stories about times they intervened in family disputes often putting themselves in the face of danger. Their message to her was to practice the same ways, stand up strong to help Yolngu people and live by the lore. With the support of her father, Nami once confronted a hostile man saying “I’m not afraid if you hit me or hurt me”. He taught Nami how to love the enemy. This old man was a respected Elder who knew how to operate in the world of Balanda and Yolngu.

As a girl, Nami also learned about how to live a good life and how to treat other people through women’s ceremonies. We also bring knowledge about recent histories events in Nhulunbuy and surrounding Aboriginal communities, and how these have impacted on the spirit and behaviour of Yolngu people. Nami says the introduction of alcohol has had devastating effects, creating divisions within families, and between the generations, through the perpetration of violence. Elders are sick and tired of the violence caused by alcohol in their communities.

With the introduction of mining in the area, came a system of royalties paid to traditional owners of the land and their families. However, Nami sees that the system is not equal and fair, with the most powerful and greedy landowners, handing out the money as they see fit. The impact of this, filters down to families where disputes over royalty handouts not paid, erupt into bouts of drinking and violence. Traditional values about caring for the land have been replaced with concerns about power and money.

Values and Beliefs

Social justice and human rights are foundational social work values that underpin our work with children and families. Lucy says this is pertinent when working with Aboriginal communities, who continue to suffer from the effects of discriminatory policies and practices from governments. Finding ways of working which reclaim the dignity, respect and self-determination of individuals, families and communities is of utmost importance.

Together we believe:

  • All people including children have a right to feel safe
  • All people have a right to be treated fairly and with respect
  • All people should have an opportunity to make decisions that affect their own lives
  • Violence against any person, particularly woman and children is unacceptable
  • That there is always hope and therefore change is possible.

Nami believes that role modelling her values and beliefs through her behaviour can show people alternative ways of living and being to violence. For Nami this means being gentle, kind and caring, sharing with others; treating others how she wants to be treated; showing respect, and following lore and cultural beliefs. These values have developed over a lifetime but were significantly shaped at the death of her son during alcohol-fuelled violence.   Rather than take revenge against the other family, Nami chose to act with forgiveness and found a non-violent path through prayer. Her commitment to Christian values, gives Nami the strength to “love the enemy”. Nami’s father was also a significant role model who had “love for everyone”. Although her heart has been broken many times, Nami knows that she is a stronger woman today for surviving difficult times in her life. Her drive to help her own people by living out her values is significantly shaped by her life experience.


Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

It may seem like a basic counselling skill, but attentive listening is so important in this work. Aboriginal people have been ignored for so long, that it would be unjust and disrespectful to continue to impose Western solutions to Aboriginal problems without listening to their own expressed needs, hopes and dreams for change. Lucy’s strengths are also in asking the right questions in ways which are appropriate for Aboriginal communication styles, developing trust and rapport by focusing on building relationships, finding creative and safe ways for people to tell their stories, identifying people’s strengths and supports, linking people in to other services or workers, and having genuine positive regard for people with an open mind and non-judgemental attitude.

Nami feels that she is often at the forefront of family and community disputes as a mediator. Her skills are in using her “voice” in “strong hard ways” so that people get the message that violence won’t be tolerated. She reminds people fighting of their kinship ties and the responsibility this brings. She also knows when it’s the right time to walk away, in order to prevent getting caught up in violence acts herself.

In our counselling work, Nami is instrumental in gaining the trust of children and putting adults at ease, by communicating in her first language about our roles and the work we do. She is a translator and cultural guide for Lucy. Nami knows when it is the right time to talk about difficult issues with children and when it would be inappropriate, by reading intuit body language that looks quite unremarkable to Lucy. Nami’s intuition tells her when a child could become upset, angry or re-traumatised.  Such information is vital for the counsellor.