Exploring stories of hope
Emerging Minds, Australia, 2020
- Stories and yarning shape knowledge translation for First Nations families.
- Providing a space for yarning and storytelling is vital in addressing the mistrust and fear that is so often experienced by First Nations families in mainstream services.
- Self-reflection provides a nuanced understanding of social and emotional wellbeing from a holistic perspective.
- Community-based concepts, programs and activities could utilise Indigenous philosophies in group work to benefit First Nations families and communities.
- Including Community practices and the voices of First Nations peoples in program development and delivery will increase ownership and participation.
- Valuing the ancient knowledge, wisdom and skills that First Nations families and communities possess supports their healing journey.
- Exploring stories of Country assists in developing ways of integrating concepts of Country into practice.
- Using cultural values and the co-construction of stories in people’s lives (‘promising practice’) can support children and families in the Community.
- By listening and reflecting on the lived experience of First Nations peoples, non-Aboriginal practitioners can acquire valuable knowledge to apply to their practice.
- Exploring stories and yarning
- Exploring self-reflection
- Exploring community work: Community-based concepts
- Exploring Community practices
- Exploring hope through the valuing of ancient knowledge, wisdom and skills
- Exploring stories of Country
- Exploring narrative practice to support children, families and communities
- ‘Finding our way home’: Stories and storytelling
- Summary and references
Exploring stories and yarning
Sharing stories is an ancient and multi-functional tradition that First Nations communities have shared for over 60,000 years.
In the past, the practice of storytelling has supported the social and emotional wellbeing of First Nations communities. Storytelling is a way of passing vital knowledge down through generations; stories which contain careful and important messages about how to care for, protect and nurture each other, with roles and responsibilities clearly defined. They include how to care for Country, waters, land and the animals that sustain and support existence.
Through the telling and retelling of these interconnected stories, children learn valuable lessons about their responsibilities to their family, community and the land. These stories were and continue to be vital in the sustainability and prosperity of the world’s oldest continuous culture.
Annie Rankine (1969): My father used to tell us children of a special group of stars which is called the Seven Sisters, and before they were moving we weren’t allowed to swim because the dandelions were in bloom then, and it was said that when the dandelions are out the water is still chill, and this is why our people are very strict and don’t allow us to swim.
When the flowers all died off and the stars moved over a bit further, this is when we were allowed to swim because in that time the dandelion flower which would cause a fever to anyone would not be out to make us sick. So, this is how we were taught the old people’s way of living.
Many a time I tried to sneak past, go down to the lake and get away from my dad, but he would be waiting right on the dot for me, and then one whistle from him; we’d know that straightway we had to run, we knew we were wrong. All this will be in my memories and I’ll never forget, because it remains so dear to me; taking notice of my father, being brought up that way; this will ever be in my memories.
And that’s all I have got to say on the stars.
This is not a mythological account that is locked in a past era. It is a story that speaks to the living. Whenever I have heard other women tell this story about the dandelions, they chorus, and we don’t swim while they’re in bloom. (Bell, 1998)
- What does this story tell you about the environment?
- How does this story illustrate care for the wellbeing of children?
- Why is the passing down of stories like this important to identity?
The impact of colonisation has interrupted knowledge sharing practices in First Nations families and remains a significant barrier to interconnectedness and healing. The history of mainstream service provision in Australia has resulted in the silencing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and their stories, in favour of the dominant Western world view (Geia, Hayes, & Usher, 2013). The result has been a history of negative and destructive mainstream service provision for First Nations people, which contributes to distrust and fear, and makes storytelling even more difficult. The ability of non-Aboriginal practitioners to provide a space for yarning and storytelling is vital in addressing the mistrust and fear that is so often experienced by First Nations families in mainstream services.
Research has found that yarning is central to the design and implementation of any social and emotional wellbeing service, creating an opportunity to mutually connect and develop agreed-upon solutions to challenging issues (Murrup‐Stewart, Searle, Jobson, & Adams, 2019). This section will explore different methods of creating space and trust for yarning, which helps to reconnect First Nations families with the stories that matter most to them. Yarning and storytelling can therefore become a valuable resource for practitioners, offering collaborative and strength-based ways for exploring stories and developing relationships that remove the barrier of distrust and fear.
Watch the following video, then consider the reflection questions below.
- Think about how you have conversations in your family. Who are the family storytellers? How important are these oral stories to your family’s history and identity?
- Did you notice any differences between the yarning style in the video and the conversations you have with families in your work?
- What did the video have to say about respect in yarning and cultural protocols?
- How is your workplace set up for an equal relationship in yarning? What needs to be done to create or improve this relationship?
- Do you have an informal space at your workplace where you can have conversations and connect with families?
- What could you and your organisation do to learn the local protocols and the rules about yarning in your community?
For further information and resources on yarning, visit: https://www.clinicalyarning.org.au/.
This reflection exercise has been drawn from a tool developed by the Aboriginal Youth and Family Network (AYFN). The tool was created to provide practitioners with a deeper understanding of social and emotional wellbeing.
This exercise can help practitioners to gain a deeper understanding of identity, by connecting their personal experiences with the wellbeing philosophies, connections and dimensions of First Nations peoples.
Consider the image below. For each element, reflect and write down:
- the skills, practices or knowledge that have protected and supported your own wellbeing.
- the cultural practices within your own family/community. Consider the beliefs, customs and values that support your wellbeing
- the practices that help to keep your mind, body and spirit strong
- the things that imbalance your wellbeing or have an impact on your mind, body and spirit.
- What did you notice as you were reflecting on these elements of wellbeing?
- Were there connections between the elements that are interrelated?
- Might your responses change from day-to-day or week-to-week?
- What are the practices that have supported your own wellbeing?
- What are some of the challenges that could interrupt the connections between these different elements of wellbeing?
- What factors do you think might be different for First Nations peoples?
- How might being excluded or disconnected from your community impact on your social and emotional wellbeing?
- How would you assess your cultural, social or spiritual wellness if they had been taken from you, as was the case for the Stolen Generations? How might this impact on your parenting and your children’s connections to cultural, social and spiritual wellbeing?
- How can you use this tool with families to support the social and emotional wellbeing needs of their children?
Exploring community work: Community-based concepts
Community-based programs are another way for practitioners to connect with First Nations communities. Ife (Ife, 2010) describes community work in a set of dimensions, which he frames as social, economic, political, cultural, environmental, spiritual, and survival-based development. These dimensions align with First Nations peoples’ views of Community as holistic, multifaceted and locally-based (AIHW, 2018).
Indigenous world views are not based on individuals’ wellbeing, but rather the ecological concept of wellbeing for the members of a whole Community. First Nations peoples’ holistic knowledge is the cornerstone of a unified Aboriginal worldview and the start and end point for improving health and wellbeing. All knowledge in this worldview is inseparable from land, place, spirit, language, kin, lore, governance and story (Taylor et al., 2011).
Aboriginal culture is very integrated and, although harmed by dispossession, removal and cultural genocide, the role of extended family networks remains important for parenting children. Aunties, uncles, grandparents, older brothers and sisters are all valued members of the parenting and caring system in which the childcare and parenting responsibilities are shared (Milroy, Dudgeon, & Walker, 2014, p. 423).
Community programs and activities support this philosophy and can provide a framework of healing through a system of community and social participation. This collective support network can provide a culturally safe healing space that intensive therapeutic individual practices such as counselling cannot. Through the sharing of these stories, experiences and connections, a collective response can be identified to develop a comprehensive approach that focuses on individual, family and community strengths, whilst at the same time addressing the needs of the community (Milroy et al., 2014).
Community programs for enhancing cultural connections include (Milroy et al., 2014):
- family support programs
- community grief programs and ceremonies
- community cultural celebrations
- strong men’s groups
- strong women’s groups
- elders’ groups
- dance groups
- art therapy
- mothers and babies programs.
Watch this video, then consider the reflection questions below.
- How important is connection and lived experience in Colin’s engagement with his clients?
- How do the shared stories and conversations support healing?
- How has Colin integrated connection to Country in his program?
- How important is relationship-building in the delivery of this program?
- Could you partner with a First Nations organisation or practitioner to support this engagement and connection in your own work?
Exploring Community practices
Listening to the needs, strengths and aspirations of local Community when designing and implementing programs is a fundamental principle of Community-based work. This bottom up (Ife, 2010) approach is pivotal when working with First Nations communities, due to the history of policy that has continued to be imposed on First Nations peoples and communities since first contact. Services are generally determined by funding and Government priorities; this may be at odds with what is identified by a community and could be a potential barrier for successful program delivery.
Genuine listening and collaboration enables the local community to identify the issues or gaps that need to be addressed, as well as contributing to strategies for overcoming issues (Burchill, Higgins, Ramsay, & Taylor, 2006). Working with Community to help identify workable solutions to these issues provides non-Aboriginal practitioners and services with opportunities to overcome the barriers to collaborative service experiences.
However, collaboration also means listening to and supporting people within the community to progress these solutions. There are many local First Nations community members who have expertise in various fields that you may be unaware of. A collaborative response values the Community’s wisdom, knowledge, skills and ability to address their own concerns.
It is working with communities to assist communities in finding plausible solutions to the problems they have identified. It is a traditional process that Indigenous people in Australia have participated in for thousands of years. It is a skill-based process that requires patience and perseverance. The process was culturally appropriate as it stems from the intricate framework of our culture. It was passed on through the dreaming and has been practiced effectively for the continuation of our culture. Our present kinship and community bases and family are living examples of this. We were a communal society and as such developed frameworks that benefited all in the community. (Sherwood, 1999, p.7).
Watch this video, then consider the reflection questions below.
- How does Judy Atkinson show the importance of listening in healing?
- What does it look like when you are listening to a community?
- What does it look like when you are not listening to people?
- How do you decentre your own voice?
First Nations peoples are best equipped to understand and define local Community concerns and are also best placed to address them. Having a voice in how programs are developed and delivered will increase ownership and participation in services.
- How do you hear about the strengths of Community?
- How could you support the voice of Community within your work?
- Do you currently include First Nations values, concepts and beliefs in your interactions? If not, how would you find this information to include?
- Do you have colleagues or First Nations advisors you could seek guidance from regarding the local cultural protocols and best people to talk with? Is there a local Elders Group you could contact?
- Could you support First Nations businesses through your work (i.e. catering companies, venues, consultants)?
- Could you partner with a local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation with their programs?
Exploring hope through the valuing of ancient knowledge, wisdom and skills
First Nations peoples and communities have historically been seen by non-Aboriginal service systems as a problem that needs to be solved. This is evidenced by the ongoing policies imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, from assimilation to reconciliation, the removal of children as part of the Stolen Generations, and the NT intervention. These policies send a message of problem and deficit. Without a comprehensive historical understanding, they can lead practitioners to develop unintended assumptions about First Nations children and families.
Consider the media coverage of Firsts Nations communities and the conversations you have had with colleagues, friends and family.
- What messages do you see in the media’s portrayal of First Nations peoples?
- What assumptions do these stories and conversations invite us to make?
- How might you start conversations in your organisation about these assumptions and how to combat them?
- Who could you talk to about this?
This dominant story of hopelessness is not the experience of most First Nations families. These families have stories of resilience, connection and hope, all of which are missed when mainstream service provision takes a deficit-focused path.
First Nations communities possess a rich and diverse knowledge that has historically been devalued and dismissed (Burchill et al., 2006). It is important for non-Aboriginal service providers to employ deliberate and conscious strategies for collaborative and culturally intelligent practice, and to avoid negative cultural assumptions. These strategies include acknowledging First Nations peoples’ ways of knowing, doing and being; respecting their protocols and communication processes; focusing on relationships and notions of reciprocity; understanding and working within specific historical, social and cultural contexts; and privileging First Nations voices and experiences (Burgess, 2019).
- What is the history of the First Nations Community in your region?
- Have you had the opportunity to speak with First Nations co-workers or cultural advisors about their experiences with services and programs regionally?
- What are your current strategies for asking First Nations families about their diverse knowledge and resources, as well as their stories of hope and connection?
- What more would you like to do to work in culturally collaborative ways?
First Nations communities have been working to shift practitioners towards community-driven opportunities for healing that honour local knowledge and skills.
This video, developed in the Northern Territory, sets the tone for how a sense of yarning in your relationships and interactions can support the wellbeing of children and families.
Exploring stories of Country
The concept of connection to Country is central to First Nations peoples’ healing and wellbeing. Coming together on Country to care and support communities is a practice seen across all First Nations Communities, from the middle of Sydney to the remotest parts of Australia.
(Suchet‐Pearson, Wright, Lloyd, & Burarrwanga, 2013) describe understandings and experiences of a Yolŋu philosophy of ‘co‐becoming’ through the gathering of ‘miyapunu mapu’ (turtle egg) and the concept of ‘wetj’:
Wetj, translated most simply as ‘sharing’, is a foundational concept that underpins the ways that Yolŋu live, act, understand and feel. This is sharing understood in a relational and more‐than‐human way. Wetj links Yolŋu with each other and with the diverse beings of Country in a web of mutuality and responsiveness/responsibility.
Wetj springs from and supports a Yolŋu ontology of co‐becoming which sees all beings, including human beings, as coming into existence through relationships. Wetj underpins our journey collecting miyapunu mapu, our conversations, our digging, cooking and eating together. It informs our journey and guides it. It is a manifestation of it. Our discussion of wetj may seem deep, our description of finding miyapunu tracks on the beach mundane, but to make such a distinction is to misunderstand wetj and its’ place in an ontology of co‐becoming. Every action, every thought, every feeling, every communication, is a full manifestation of wetj and an ontology of co‐becoming more broadly. Nothing is banal. Recognising a Yolŋu ontology of co‐becoming makes it clear that all humans and non‐humans, actors, actants, everything material, affective, all processes and relationships, are not things, are not even isolated beings, but are entangled becoming’s, creative and vital and always in the process of becoming through their connections.
Watch this video, then consider the reflection questions below.
- What does this video show about belonging and identity?
- What impact would loss of land and family have on your sense of belonging?
- How could you integrate this connection to Country into your program or service?
- Are there nature-based safe places in or nearby your service where clients can go to find some peace and calm?
- Where are the places that support healing within your community?
Exploring narrative practice to support children, families and communities
‘As Indigenous people of this country, our stories are precious. They have survived generations… As Aboriginal people, we have always told stories about our lives, and we know how important it is for people to be connected to their own stories, the stories of their family, their people, their history… Our people understand the significance of our stories, and the importance of taking care to tell them in the right places, to the right people and in appropriate ways. Once these stories begin to be told we can then listen for the moments of change, the times when people are moving their lives in positive directions… As Indigenous Australians we’re going to keep telling our stories in ways that make us stronger.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.v-vii)
Founded on practices of cross-cultural partnerships, the influence of Aboriginal Australia on narrative therapy and work with Communities has been highly significant, with a history stretching back to the early 1990s (Denborough, Wingard & White, 2009; Denborough, 2012).
This is not so surprising: narrative practice believes that stories shape life. It is interested in the stories of people’s lives, the broader contexts that surround these stories, and the differences that can be made to the lives of children, families and communities by telling and re-telling these stories in particular ways.
The problem is the problem
In narrative practice, the child, family or community are not the problem, the problem is the problem. In other words, problems are always separate to people – they are seen as impacting on people’s lives, rather than as being internal and inherent to the child, family or community.
This practice of ‘externalising’ is reflected in the language used to talk about problems, as well as through ensuring the context of problems is visible – the local context surrounding the child and family, as well as the broader context of historical trauma and ongoing colonisation (Drahm-Butler, 2015).
‘It is about taking the shame away from the person. Whatever the problem is, we try to find ways to make it separate from the person so that they can actually talk about it and resolve their own thoughts and feelings about it.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.29)
‘When people present for counselling, a problem story has often convinced them of negative ideas about their identity. This problem story might be influenced by ideas of Western normality that lead our people to feel bad about themselves. Behind this problem story though, is an alternative story, a strong story. This strong story tells of the ways that a person has stood up to the problem.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.26)
Useful stories are ‘double stories’. They are stories not only about the problems and difficulties faced by First Nations children, families and communities, but also of how people are responding to these hardships.
‘We are listening for our people’s abilities and knowledges and skills. We’re trying to find ways to acknowledge one another and to see the abilities that people have but may not know they have. Without putting people on pedestals, we are finding ways of acknowledging each other’s stories of survival.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.64)
‘Wherever there are stories of hardship, there are also stories of resistance to this hardship that continue to sustain us and link us to the stories of our ancestors.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.27)
Skills, knowledge and what’s important
As First Nations children, families and communities respond to difficulties, they are drawing on skills and knowledges that are linked to their hopes and to what is important to them. These responses may not be enough in themselves to overcome the difficulty, but they remain very significant.
Narrative practice encourages the identification of these skills and knowledges, particularly those that might otherwise be easily overlooked or downgraded. By making these more visible to the families themselves, as well as others, and then exploring their links to local community and cultural traditions, practitioners can find additional solutions (Denborough et al., 2006).
‘It is listening for the ways in which people have got through difficult times. It is listening for their special skills or special relationships that have helped them. If we can get people to talk about these things, often life becomes a little easier to live.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.64)
‘Aboriginal narrative practices encourage us to seek detail within our people’s strong stories through distant history, recent history and the present and even the future. This way of telling stories can enable the storyteller to experience strong stories again, in new ways.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.43)
If you’d like to further explore narrative practices with First Nations families and communities, Dulwich Centre offer a number of key resources:
Video series featuring creative projects drawing on narrative practices in working with Aboriginal families and communities: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/lessons/06-supporting-families-and-communities/?v=6cc98ba2045f
Wingard, B., Johnson, C., & Drahm-Butler, T. (2015). Aboriginal narrative practice: Honouring storylines of pride, strength and creativity. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001) Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
‘Finding our way home’: Stories and storytelling
‘I can’t give back what was taken away, you know. It’s about trying to find a sense of ourselves – what am I giving back? I have nothing to give, I have nothing to give to start with but me.’ (Bingapore, 2019)
‘I think us as Indigenous peoples, you know, the days are gone when people actually believe that we can’t do things, we are very capable.’ (Rigney, 2019)
Storytelling is central to First Nations communities. It is a way to share history and culture; the hurts in the community and also the hopes.
Listening to the stories of First Nations peoples can help practitioners to understand these historical hurts, in order to provide better practice and service responses. Further, it gives depth and meaning to concepts such as self-determination and intergenerational trauma.
The following provides a guided reflection on excerpts and comments from interviews with Ngarrindjeri Elder, Uncle Clyde Rigney Senior (2019) and Ngarrindjeri Community member, Darryl Bingapore (2019). Their stories follow two Aboriginal people, their families and their communities as they seek to understand the experiences of those who were colonised and stolen.
These stories are about finding their way – to home, to community, to culture, to healing, and to self-determination.
A reflection on stories
In response to being asked about the early years on Raukkan Community, Uncle Clyde reflected on the memorable times and the hardships. He also spoke about how the Community moved forward and the time and leadership that was required to make this happen.
- How does Uncle Clyde make sense of what has happened in the community?
- How does Uncle Clyde describe intergenerational trauma in this community?
- What was required for positive change to occur in the community?
Darryl’s experience was markedly different: a member of the Stolen Generation, he had been removed from the Community. As a child, Darryl struggled to understand why or how this had happened.
- How does Darryl make sense of what happened to him as a child?
- How does Darryl describe his connection to his cultural heritage?
- What thoughts and questions arise for you as a practitioner as you listen to Darryl make sense of what is happening?
Uncle Clyde and Darryl were asked what non-Aboriginal practitioners need to consider to practise well with First Nations peoples and communities. Darryl emphasised the importance of learning ‘on the ground’, while Uncle Clyde highlighted the importance of this approach in learning about the diversity of First Nations communities. He also stressed the need for service providers to gain a full understanding of their client’s issues and to think holistically. This includes an understanding of ‘self-determination’.
- What kinds of approaches are Uncle Clyde and Darryl inviting practitioners to explore?
- What does ‘diversity’ mean in this context?
- How can practitioners support or ‘walk alongside’ First Nations individuals and communities to grow and prosper?
- When Uncle Clyde discusses the concept of ‘good intentions’, what are the key points he is making?
Summary and references
Through listening to the narratives that First Nations peoples have shared, we encourage practitioners to look beyond the ‘problem story’ and explore culturally-based practices, such as storytelling, extended relationships of country, kinship and Community to better support the needs of First Nations children and their families.
AIHW. (2018). Australias Health 2018. Retrieved from Canberra: https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/110ef308-c848-4537-b0e7-6d8c53589194/aihw-aus-221-chapter-6-2.pdf.aspx
Bell, D. (1998). Ngarrindjeri wurruwarrin: a world that is, was, and will be. North Melbourne, Vic: Spinifex.
Bingapore, D. (2019, 7/08/2019) Stories from Raukkan/Interviewer: R. Schellen. Emerging Minds.
Burchill, M., Higgins, D., Ramsay, L., & Taylor, S. (2006). “Workin’ together”: Indigenous perspectives on community development. Family Matters(75), 50.
Burgess, C. (2019). Beyond cultural competence: transforming teacher professional learning through Aboriginal community-controlled cultural immersion. Critical Studies in Education, 60(4), 477-495. doi:10.1080/17508487.2017.1306576
Geia, L. K., Hayes, B., & Usher, K. (2013). Yarning/Aboriginal storytelling: Towards an understanding of an Indigenous perspective and its implications for research practice. Contemporary Nurse, 46(1), 13-17. doi:10.5172/conu.2013.46.1.13
Ife, J. W. (2010). Principles and dimensions of community development. In J. W. Ife (Ed.), Human rights from below: achieving rights through community development (pp. 29-66). Port Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press.
Milroy, H., Dudgeon, P., & Walker, R. (2014). Community life and development programs: Pathways to healing. Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice, 419-435.
Murrup‐Stewart, C., Searle, A. K., Jobson, L., & Adams, K. (2019). Aboriginal perceptions of social and emotional wellbeing programs: A systematic review of literature assessing social and emotional wellbeing programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians perspectives. Australian Psychologist, 54(3), 171-186. doi:10.1111/ap.12367
Rigney, C. (2019, 7/08/2019) Stories from Raukkan/Interviewer: R. Schellen. Emerging Minds.
Sherwood, J. (1999). What Is Community Development? Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, 23(2), 7-8.
Suchet‐Pearson, S., Wright, S., Lloyd, K., & Burarrwanga, L. (2013). Caring as Country: Towards an ontology of co‐becoming in natural resource management. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 54(2), 185-197. doi:10.1111/apv.12018
Taylor, J., Edwards, J., Champion, S., Cheers, S., Chong, A., Cummins, R., & Cheers, B. (2011). Towards a conceptual understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and community functioning. Community Development Journal, 47(1), 94-110. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsq068
Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001) Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.