Using Elders’ wisdom to guide your practice
Narrator [00:02]: Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Dana Shen [00:11]: This podcast is part of a series called ‘Listening to the stories of healing’. Within the series, you will hear stories from community and the very diverse experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and how these narratives have shaped the amazing work that is happening in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. Here at Emerging Minds, we like to call it the secret garden, the stories and experiences that non-Aboriginal people don’t always get to see or hear. Whilst these stories include sadness and hurts and sometimes can feel uncomfortable to listen to, it is through listening to these narratives that you will get a glimpse of the deep wisdom, knowledge and healing practices of families and communities, and understand why our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are part of the oldest continuing culture in the world.
Dana Shen [01:02]: Welcome everyone. This is Dana Shen, an Aboriginal cultural consultant working with Emerging Minds. Today, we are speaking with Aboriginal Elder Millie Penny and Carol Michie from Telethon Kids. The Ngulluk Koolunga Ngulluk Koort Project aims to bring Aboriginal Elders and communities of Perth together with service providers and policy makers to develop culturally appropriate strategies, to improve outcomes for young Aboriginal children, zero to six years, and their families. The project focuses on identifying the foundations for raising strong and solid children. The values, priorities, and beliefs around child rearing, and the factors considered critical to building healthy, confident, and resilient children. Welcome Carol and Aunty Millie. Thank you for joining us. It is so lovely to speak with you both today. Aunty Millie, could you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself and what drives you? What are you really passionate about?
Millie Penny [02:01]: Life in general, basically, I love life. My name’s Millie Penny. I’m a senior Whadjuk Yorga, that’s a senior woman over here. I’m an elder within my immediate family, but in the community I’m still regarded as a senior woman, but I’m also respected as an Elder if I say I’m an Elder, and I have that endorsement from my Elders, my Aunties in particular. I work for 30 years with women and children’s issues. I started out in a child placement respite agency, and then I went on to a mainstream placement agency, went back to studies for a few years, worked in a women’s refuge a couple of times. Then I worked for family violence programs, managed family violence programs. And for the last 12 years of my working, I worked in Aboriginal counselling agency and I worked in a child sexual abuse program, and I stayed there for 12 years. Left 6 years, 7 years ago to take on full-time care for a granddaughter. Now I have two. They’re six and nine. Don’t regret that at all, love the job and still respect the previous clients that I worked with. And they still come up to me today and say that I helped them through a difficult time.
Dana Shen [03:27]: I bet you’ve really got your hands full with those little ones.
Millie Penny [03:30]: Yeah. Yes and no because six and nine you can manage. I also paint. So I’m starting to get the girls into painting, very good actually, and re-connecting to my language. I spoke fluently as a child, so it’s not hard to reconnect because we have the speakers of our language fluently in our family, and I did and I’m very selective. I still dance, traditional dance, Noongar dance, women’s dance, storytelling. That’s me in a nutshell.
Dana Shen [04:05]: Carol, did you want to tell me a bit about yourself now and what you’re really passionate about?
Carol Michie [04:10]: Yes, so I would like to pay my respects being on Noongar Whadjuk boodja. I’m not Noongar, I’m an east Arrernte woman from Alice Springs, but I have been here for over 30 years. I’ve lived all over Australia within different Aboriginal missions. I am connected to… My mum was a Butler from Alice Springs so I’m connected to all the Butler mob, many of us that are [inaudible 00:04:39] from Alice Springs. So my background is in early years education. I’ve worked 27 years within the education department and with some of our Aboriginal early years programs. The Best Start Program in Australia and the Indigenous Parent Factor and now I’m with Telethon working with Elders and community here in Perth. But my passion is I’m very passionate about our families, kids, children, communities, having a voice in how we live our life, which often times we haven’t had. So whether that be in education or research or wherever, and for our kids to have the strength and to know who they are, where they come from, who they’re connected to, and to be able to have a voice in this country that is ours, but oftentimes we haven’t been able to have that voice.
Carol Michie [05:41]: I’m very privileged to be working alongside my Elders here. I’ve always had Elders all out through my life, wherever I am in Australia that have guided me, because my own personal history has had sadness as well as many of our mob. So I’ve been very fortunate to have people who have been there for me and Elders who’ve guided me. Little bit about me.
Dana Shen [06:07]: Just reflecting a little bit on what you said, Aunt. Many non-Aboriginal people may not understand how you became an Elder and how you become an Elder. Do you want to talk to me a little bit about what that means and what that looks like?
Millie Penny [06:21]: I think different areas have different protocols. I’ll speak on my area because that’s where I’m an expertise in my area. Just because you turn 60, you’re not an Elder. An Elder is endorsed by your community, by your Elders and by a selection process. So I fit three of those criteria. Number one, I am the eldest granddaughter within my immediate family, and my mother was the eldest and my grandmother was the eldest. So in those generation of women, I’m there. And also I’m endorsed by my Elders within the community related and not related. And then endorsed by my biological Aunties. So that’s that process and it’s earned and believe me, I was quite happy looking at going down the country and raising some chooks, but that hasn’t happened, and painting. But I was challenged as a senior woman to start stepping up. You have something to offer the community. You have information. The challenge to challenge systems, to challenge government, and why not do it? The chooks are still on the agenda but not just yet.
Dana Shen [07:36]: So if you’re a non-Aboriginal person and you don’t know those processes around becoming an elder, what advice would you give to them within their local communities?
Millie Penny [07:47]: I think it’s very important to know that there are processes and there are protocols and it also comes down to respect. You need to earn respect from your other Elders. I mean, I’m not ashamed to say I’m in my mid-sixties, but I have Elders still alive in their seventies, well into their eighties and nineties. And those ladies are treasures and we need to sit at their feet and absorb the information because they are the trailblazers that walked before us and fought for us and allowed us to sit here and actually talk to you, face-to-face on modern technology.
Dana Shen [08:26]: Yes, definitely without them things might be very different.
Millie Penny [08:31]: Absolutely. Because remember my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation didn’t have the opportunity to sit at the table and to say, this is what we need, this is what we would like, and how about us coming to some sort of agreement for the future of our children? And I mean, we did have people sitting at that table, but not to the extent that we need to now. As you know, as a First Nations people, we’ve got major problems with child protection, incarceration, you name it, health. So we need to start being a voice and continue and continue and continue to be a voice until we are heard on what is the rights of our people and what are the needs of our people.
Carol Michie [09:16]: It’s really powerful sitting at the table with the eight elders that we have working with us within the Ngulluk Koolunga Ngulluk Koort Project. Some of them are in the eighties, 84. It doesn’t really matter what age, but for them to be able to sit at the table with that life history of being there, right through the stolen generation. For them sitting there telling that story from a… Nobody sitting across can deny the effect that it’s had. But then to be sitting at the table as an Elder with whether it be government heads or departments or CEOs from organisations to say, well, we’re coming here to you with solutions that we know that can work.
Carol Michie [10:00]: So it’s really powerful to have that with the Elders sitting there, right there at the table, which they’ve been sitting at the table for most of their lives.
Millie Penny [10:10]: I think it’s really, really important to listen to, and take on board lived experience versus theory in a classroom because lived experience is real and you can see, you can hear and you can feel the impact of that lived experience, which outweighs numerous times the theory of classroom teaching.
Dana Shen [10:35]: So maybe it’s time to just step back and go, well, you tell me what works for your community.
Millie Penny [10:40]: I think that can work, but it has to be Aboriginal driven. Come to the community, not go to a boardroom and bring it to the community. Come to the community, take it to the boardroom.
Carol Michie [10:55]: And then let’s do this together.
Millie Penny [10:56]: Yes.
Carol Michie [10:57]: In ways that are much more grounded within… And that’s the other great value of having the elders is because they live in the community. They still live, older generations of whatever the community is experiencing at that time.
Millie Penny [11:12]: Can I just say the beauty of being part of the telethon institute Ngulluk Koolunga Ngulluk Koort program is that it actually gives us a platform to voice our opinions. Our opinions and our recommendations are respected here. So the research and the findings for me, what attracted me is that it’s an international platform and therefore we can get our concerns, our recommendations implemented and taken to a wider audience, globally basically.
Dana Shen [11:44]: That’s amazing, which brings me on to the next question. Carol, I’m not even going to try to pronounce this, but could you tell me a little bit more about the project?
Carol Michie [11:55]: It began in 2016 as a five-year research project, working together with the Aboriginal community within Perth, which is Noongar Whadjuk boodja, but obviously they’re not only just Noongar Aboriginal people who live in Perth. We have them all over and Torres Strait Islander families as well. Right from the start, it has been elder and community driven and led. So it was taken originally to a large meeting with the elders and 54 elders turned up for it. And out of that, elders nominated to work within the project and were endorsed by who was there as well. So we had nine elders who were appointed. Unfortunately, one of our elders has passed on. So there are eight Elders still working on the project. It was split up into four… The north, southeast, west regions of the Whadjuk boodja area and each of the Elders represented those areas.
Carol Michie [13:00]: So they were basically in groups of two, one group was a group of three, that was mine. Then the Elders went to the community and basically said, “Where do you want us to advocate on your behalf for your family, for your children?” It was originally from zero to five. But as you know, anything with our mob, it’s all encompassing, family, community. So yes, while it is an early childhood research project. So out of that, three priority areas were established that the community wanted the Elders to engage with and to advocate on their behalf. So child protection, early years education and housing and homelessness.
Millie Penny [13:45]: I think the beauty of the research is that the Elders have stayed focused, haven’t been distracted. The importance of achieving or highlighting the needs of our community. We came in as nine strangers and we’re a very tight Elder group with that same focus.
Millie Penny [14:07]: We’re starting to get to know state and federal politicians by their personal names, getting to know them personally. That’s a massive impact to have. You can work your whole life and not meet a politician, but we sit at the table with politicians and they are keen to learn and they are keen to listen. Everyone needs strategies and especially cultural strategies and cultural protocols. What is very, very important is that we are answerable to the Elders in the wider community. So we have one or two meetings.
Carol Michie [14:47]: Yeah. We report back to the larger group of Elders, which we have over 130 that are on that. So yes, it’s very, very, very community driven and accountable to. While it’s a research project, it is quite different than a lot of research… We wanted changes. We just didn’t want to be written up as papers and that’s came from the community as well. These are the areas that we want you to work with, so we want to be able to see changes. We want to be able to see that that has been the driving force behind anything that we do and the Elders do.
Dana Shen [15:24]: I know it’s a little bit early to say, but I wondered if you could share some of the key outcomes that you’ve seen as a result of this process.
Carol Michie [15:32]: So one of the things that has also been is that we work and support our Aboriginal organisations that are working within these fields as well. We work with Noongar Mia Mia, which is Aboriginal housing. The elders have advocated also on behalf of the four Aboriginal organisations, housing organisations within WA, at a federal level and a state level to have changes there. We are also starting up an offshoot from this, an Aboriginal early years education program for the next three years. That is going to be totally run by Aboriginal teacher, Aboriginal EA, Aboriginal project officer within the community that it’s in. It will be an Aboriginal led, run, organised early years education. So we’re pretty excited about that one. We’re also working with a number of different organisations within child protection and we really speak to that as well. We’ve sat with ministers wanting change and giving recommendations and challenging.
Millie Penny [16:45]: Why is there a high proportion of Aboriginal children in care? Why not put money into the families to support them, to stop children from going into care? We recognise there is a need for care, but there also has to be reunification within the family. Otherwise it’s submissions all over again, losing your language, losing your identity, losing cultural practices, the protocols, and losing the kinship and your identity. So it’s very important.
Dana Shen [17:22]: Aunt, what’s it meant for you to actually see the last 30, 40 years and to now actually sit at the table and have that voice?
Millie Penny [17:29]: Look, I’m not part of the stolen generation, but I did marry a person who was taken at the age of three. And I can’t tell the story because it’s not my story, but I can say that I grew up in a family where we were poor, but we stayed together. We connected. We’re very, very close. We have our language, we have our traditions. I’m talking about, we have our song lines, we have our dance lines and we have our cultural foods. My husband has lost all that. So he’s regaining or has regained language and cultural practices. It’s just unfortunate that that takes away a person’s identity, really, really takes away, especially a child because at the age of three, one would think you’d be a part of a big family. That’s your formative years, zero to six. So if you’ve lost the grounding of who you are, then who are you?
Dana Shen [18:35]: Have you seen a change in how governments value Aboriginal elders voice now?
Millie Penny [18:39]: I believe so. A step in the door is better than the door still being slammed shut. Yes. So we’re optimistic. Might not take our generation, but our generation has a voice. The next generation will stand up and have a stronger voice. And then the next generation hopefully will have an even stronger voice so that changes are made.
Dana Shen [18:59]: So not only are you showing that for your grannies, but you’re also modelling that for the community as well.
Millie Penny [19:06]: It has to be community focused and share that knowledge, share your language. We don’t own that language, that’s ancient language that was there before we were born, before our parents were born. Share it, hand it on and start reclaiming who you are. Language is part of your identity, and we don’t own it. Leave it all behind. You take it to the grave and it’s useless. Leave it all behind and let the next generation grow with it.
Dana Shen [19:32]: Carol, what’s it meant for you personally to actually be able to honour the voice of Elders in this?
Carol Michie [19:38]: It’s just such a privilege to be able to work with the Elders and sit and listen and hear their expertise and be able to be a small part in opening some of those doors so they can sit at the table. I can’t really put the words to how much that has meant to me. I guess one of the indicators of that also with the elders is when you’re coming to the end of it. It’s very rare that you get five years within any project or any program, so that was a privilege in that. Saying to the elders, we’re coming to the end of our five years, but we have an opportunity to continue this for another year. And we’ve also got three other projects coming out and it will be another three years, and this is how we want it to keep going.
Carol Michie [20:27]: But obviously also realising that the Elders only signed up for five years. I’m sure there’s other things that they would… Well in the wadjela world, you retire and you go and do what you want to do. But our world, we live and breathe it every day of our life. From the day one of five years ago to now asking Elders, do you want to still be a part of this? They are just as passionate, committed five years down the track, which is five years in their life, 84, 85, and still wanting to sit at the table and be a part of this. They want to be engaged with seeing change for our community and families and children. People go, “Oh, I don’t want to be part of this.” But the Elders have said, “No, if you’re willing to come back and sit at the table, we’re willing to sit through and work through this,” which we have for those who have wanted to do that. And that’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?
Millie Penny [21:23]: It is.
Carol Michie [21:23]: And then to see department of people on boards that are there to have a voice for all of us and make a change. At the end of the day, we want to see systems change. Systems have got to change. The other powerful thing for me is just being able to know in some way that we can do this as a community at times, without all of the system that says, “You have the permission to do this. You have the permission for that.” Our kids are growing up, a lot of them are growing up strong. They know who they are. They know who their families are. They know where they’re from, they’re learning their language. They know which country they’re standing on. They’re getting educated in both worlds and they’re coming out with a voice and they’ve got the backing of their Elders. And also being able to work alongside the Elders, which that’s been exciting as well.
Millie Penny [22:18]: It is, it is. And I think times are changing. There’s a lot of politicians, state and federal, that are pro Aboriginal and want to listen and want to do something and want to change. Even if it’s a tiny little pig in the big farm, you can still notice a pig.
Carol Michie [22:37]: And so they’re coming and knocking on the door and going, “Help! We do want help.” So we’re saying and the Elders say, “Yep. If you want help, what kind of help do you want? Because we’ve sat at the table as well when you’ve said that and you kind of come in with your preconceived ideas. And so if you really want help and to walk together and work together, it does mean there’s going to be some hard conversations.”
Millie Penny [22:59]: Yes. The beauty of this is that we’re not tokenistic. We are genuinely concerned with our community and we need to be because you don’t stand up, the next generation could fall. And so we need to continue with that, pushing for changes.
Dana Shen [23:16]: Do you want to tell me a little bit about what it looks like for children to grow and be strong and healthy and thriving in culture?
Millie Penny [23:23]: Look, children need a safe home, an education, and they need to know who they are. So we need to… I mean, I do it. I do it with my grandchildren. I take them bush. Us women paint up with ochre and we dance on land and the little ones are watching and they know who they are. We don’t want to get caught up with being ashamed of being Aboriginal, which could happen, which has happened. So we need to bring in the re-emergence of identity and be proud of who you are. Be proud that you’re Aboriginal and know that you’re Aboriginal and speak your language. And our children have a right to early education. I can use my own as example. She just turned six and she accessed daycare, kindy, she’s in preschool and she can read and write, and that is massive for our people.
Millie Penny [24:20]: And this is a story to say why it is important to get your children off to daycare, get your children off to kindy. Because if you just wait until grade 1, they’re already behind the eight ball. And it’s so hard to catch up. And do teachers have the patience for our kids to catch up? There’s another question. So it’s important for us as a community also to start taking ownership and to start thinking about our children’s future, not the here and the now, but the children’s future.
Carol Michie [24:52]: That was one of the initial questions that we asked community within the research and the community was really big on that, on the good things, the strong things that they saw as wanting and acknowledging as growing our kids strong. Oftentimes, any services or government agencies go into work for community, they always pick out the things that aren’t working. So let’s focus on that. The community here was very strong on going, “We want these good, strong things to be acknowledged.” Aunty Millie’s already spoken and acknowledged a lot of them. Elders are important within the community, having our community is important, education, having a strong identity, language, connection to country, culture, strong mothers and female role models and the same with our men, fathers and male role models. Sharing and caring for our mob, trust, feeling safe and secure and loved. Our kids growing up and living in two worlds, knowing that they have to do that and where they fit with that. Respecting acknowledgement of our Aboriginal ways and culture and health and wellbeing. So the community was really strong on focusing on recognising those strong things and working on that. And how do we have programs that come out of those strong things to build up? So that’s for our early years education program that we’re going to start for families is built, basically around all of that as our model.
Dana Shen [26:27]: Could you please tell us your concerns or views regarding the increase of Aboriginal children in the child protection system?
Millie Penny [26:34]: Overall, we’re looking at the state’s statistics on Aboriginal children that have been removed. I think what I would like to see is that let’s have a look at the areas of proportion that children have been removed for. We have 14 nations of Noongar people in our region. How many children are taken from each of those regions? Because remember that we’re a minority in our own country, in our own community. So our numbers will always be higher because of that. So break it down and then we’ll know exactly how many children are in care, where these children come from, what are these issues? And then work individually with the departments or the powers to be. For example, I came into… Now, this is the state hospital for children. I came in here last week and I deliberately went up to a couple of ladies with three little children.
Millie Penny [27:33]: I knew that wasn’t their children. I just said, “Oh, excuse me, are they…” You’ve got to be bold sometimes and the grey hair gives you that licence. So I just said, “Excuse me, are they family or are they fostered?” And she said, “They’re fostered.” And these children were from Warburton, right out in the desert, Kalgoorlie region, and they’re here based in Perth. So they were open to conversation and there’s a connection, national connection with Aboriginal people. And the little one, the little three-month-old baby who’d never saw me before in their tiny little life, grabbed onto my hand and wouldn’t let go, just held tightly. And the two in the prams could see the connection, the Aboriginal connection, that spiritual connection. They’re away from their lands and I just sat, we just talked. Just sat and talked, myself and another elder.
Millie Penny [28:31]: This morning I came in… And little things like this do make a difference. When Carol came down to collect me from the reception, I was talking to an Aboriginal woman who was telling me her story, who her family story is. So there’s always that connection. So we need to break down those high number and I think we’ll get little bits of little bits of little bits of little bits, and it doesn’t look so daunting. Might be 20 from Noongar Whadjuk, might be 20 from Yamatji, and then it’s not so big.
Carol Michie [29:07]: That’s why every time it’s taken out of community. If you actually leave it with… Community is a part of making that restoration and healing and making it work in ways that work within family and culturally. That’s not to say that sometimes yes, sad children do need to be removed from situations, but there always has to be connection over how do we heal it as a community? How do we make this better? And yes, when you do break it down within communities and families, it is much more doable. It’s not this big, scary number. It doesn’t have to be that big. And that’s where our Aboriginal organisations need to be able to be supported and resourced to be able to do that wherever in Australia that is. That is where more has to be put into being able to do that. Our Elders and our young people who are coming up and our workers who’ve worked within these fields under different systems and have got the knowledge and the expertise, and also seen how it doesn’t work. Because they do live in the two worlds of being able to be resourced to make it happen within community. It’s got to be a [inaudible 00:30:25] advantage. It doesn’t have to be always put into this big, scary number of we can’t do this because we can.
Dana Shen [30:33]: I really appreciate your wisdom. I could sit here all day listening to you. So we’re about to finish off soon, but I wondered, Aunt, did you want to tell me what your hopes are for the children within your community?
Millie Penny [30:46]: I think that we really, really, really need to reinforce identity and pride. Say, “I’m a proud little Noongar boy” or “I’m a proud little Noongar girl.” Language is free. Give it out. Sit down and teach. I was talking to [inaudible 00:31:10], she’ll be two next month. I was talking Noongar to her yesterday. That’s all we can do, and keep challenging the system, keep just challenging. Younger ones coming up are looking, listening, and watching and learning and they can pick it up. This next generation is going to be more educated to challenge the system. That’ll continue to grow. I’m very proud that we have Aboriginal representation in state and federal parliament because my philosophy is, I don’t care who they are, vote for them because they’re Aboriginal. They’ll always be outnumbered but you’ve got a representative there.
Carol Michie [31:50]: My hope is that they grow up and their next generation within Australia in a country that acknowledges who they are, the country they’re on, what they have to offer.
Carol Michie [32:03]: In all of it, language, knowledge of country, of spirituality, of the arts, story and community, and just all the strengths that that offers and that they grow up in a country that acknowledges that, that holds that and seeks them out for wanting to be a part of that. To know that that whole history of the 50,000 years of being here, has got something to offer and they have something to offer within that, and for that to be recognised and just celebrated and enjoyed, and being able to live together with that being a part of who they are. They have the strength to live that and to be able to speak that, and be able to bring their families and children up within a country that is good for them.
Carol Michie [33:01]: And we do, we have lots to offer. Our kids have lots to offer. They are bright. They are full of life. I want them to be able to feel that they fit in with that. They don’t have to hide. They don’t have to be a part of systems that don’t build on those strengths.
Millie Penny [33:21]: Can I just conclude by saying that my philosophy and sayings in the community lately that has been for the last couple of years is, they can’t deport us, cannot deport us anywhere in the world. This is our land. This is our, this is our home.
Carol Michie [33:35]: It always was, always will be. I’m excited because just at our school, which we’ve been involved in the public school down the end of our street. For the last 23 years, we’ve always been the minority there, but our 20 Aboriginal kids out of the 300 are running the NAIDOC assembly and standing up there saying to everybody, this is my family, they’re going to point out in language where they’re from and who they are and stand there tall and proud. This is it. That’s good.
Millie Penny [34:10]: And that’s empowering for our next generation.
Dana Shen [34:14]: Yeah, definitely. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. It could have been a lot different for many of us. Thank you for joining us in our podcast series, listening to stories of healing.
Narrator [34:29]: Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.