COUNSELLING AS A BRIDGE TO A CHANGING WORLD:
A TRAINING JOURNEY WITH ABORIGINAL WOMEN

Presented at the 51st ASGPP annual meeting, April 15 - 18, 1993, Rosslyn Westpark hotel, Washington, DC

Abstract: Susanne Howlett has been contracted by a group of urban Aboriginal women of Western Australia to develop a culturally appropriate two year training course in counselling. Susanne shares her journey of learning as together she and the women build a bridge across the cultural chasm. Susanne's task is to design a training container in which 20 women can learn about counselling and find pride in expressing their Aboriginality as Aboriginal Counsellors. The training process is built upon acknowledgement of Aboriginal spirituality, their network of relationships with one another, kinship, their connection to the land and the impact of Western colonisation on their culture.

Participants can expect to learn about a unique counselling training programme from the perspective of a cross cultural, in situ, sociodrama. The application of psychodramatic methods becomes the bridge between Aboriginality and counselling.

Yorgum. A Creation Story of women together a meeting of two maps of Australia, two maps of the world

Yorgum, the name in the Noongar language of the Aboriginal people in the South West of Western Australia for a large red flowering gum tree. The gum of this particular eucalypt has healing properties used for thousands of years in treating diseases of the eyes. Its wood is favoured as firewood as it holds the heat and gives warmth for a long time in the camp fire. This is the name the Aboriginal women chose for the Counselling Course and later as the name for their corporation. It is also an expression of their purpose through the sacred image of The Living Tree from the Kimberley region of western Australia.

The Yorgum Counselling Course is a comprehensive and systematic course of training in counselling for Aboriginal Women. Its purpose is to enable Aboriginal women to become competent counsellors in their field of work or in the Aboriginal community. It is a part time two year training course involving 35 weeks of 4 hour training sessions and 4 weekend workshops.

The women undertaking training work in a variety of settings: in womens refuges, Aboriginal child placement agencies, corrective institutions for juveniles, Aboriginal Alcohol and Substance Abuse agencies, and education facilities as well as in the Aboriginal community. The course is the first of its kind in Western Australia and probably in the whole of Australia. In 1991 many forces from different directions connected and ignited a fire that has become the camp fire for 18 urban women of Aboriginal descent and myself, a wadjella, with a troup of 5 counselling supervisors, all trained in the psychodramatic method.

Yorgum Course Objectives are that Aboriginal women :

  1. develop counselling skills
  2. develop culturally appropriate approaches to counselling
  3. become confident about their competencies as counsellors and able to contribute as counsellors in their work place or in the community

For many years Aboriginal people have been calling for opportunities to become skilled in working with their own people in trouble. To bridge the welfare chasm and reclaim their strength, their pride and their great capacity for survival. In the last 8 years Aboriginal women in their conferences have been calling for counselling services and training. Many people have been reverberating to this need and the time was right in 1991 for the birth of an aboriginal training course. The Yorgum Counselling Course is the result of many people, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, saying ‘yes’ and adding their weight to finding a way through the funding morass. Money has been found from four different government sources to fund the first two years (an exhausting miracle of manoeuvring in highly political bureaucracies). This past week the women have become incorporated as the Yorgum Aboriginal Corporation for Women and have been assured of funding for this course for a further three years. The next dream is for an Aboriginal Counselling Service and plans are underway for a pilot service using trainees from the course beginning in July.

My own connecting with this momentum began in 1990. Gabrielle Whiteley, a trainee in the Groupwork Leadership Course which I was the director of, told me she had a new dream moving within her and at the end of her course she would know what its form was to be. I had been following Gabrielles work with great interest as she was co-ordinator of the only Aboriginal womens refuge in Perth. Ever since I came to Australia in 1976 I have had a secret ear out to know more of Aboriginal people. I have always felt attracted by their vitality , their realness.and some quality I could not name.

Contacts and connections have been gradually gathering me closer to this Other Australia. Three contacts stand out:

  1. Two old friends, trained in sociodrama, working with the Central Desert Aboriginal people- assisting them to take initiative as a community with their youngsters sniffing glue. Ross Colliver presented this project at the 1986 Psychodrama Conference in Perth. During his presentation Ross paused as he told us of the excitement of the Desert Elders as Ross and Bill listened and mapped their experience as the Desert people talked in the meeting. They drew a role diagram, a picture of the community in action on butchers paper. "You think like a blackfella" they said amazed, and claimed them into their community. Ross paused as he told the story. Quite unexpectedly he burst into deep sobbing. From a deep well this huge feeling: a compassion, a shared humanity, a coming home, a being seen by a whole community, a belonging on the planet Earth. I know that Sobbing Place in myself now. Where the heart is bursting to hold and release so large a feeling of connection and acceptance - unknowable in our Western culture, our fragmented industrial communities.
  2. This same year I was invited to act as facilitator with the Police/ Aboriginal Relations Committee in a session reviewing their functioning as a committee. I myself come from a background of an extended New Zealand police family. The subculture is familiar. The Aboriginal people I feel immediately at home with. Their openness to feeling and easy engagement in group process, their flexibility and talking through story and experience. The depth of pain and terror I am not prepared for. It is tangible in the room. Individual Aboriginal people leave the room as they react to the exposure and directness of being face to face with police. The policemen are awkward, well meaning, doing their best. Some wounds of their own seep through in their history of being the community interface with Aboriginal people. They feel themselves to be the meat in the cultural sandwich. There was willingness and concern in both groups to bridge the divide. I have disturbing dreams for three weeks after this meeting. A month later there is an outbreak of ugly clashes between police and out of control, enraged probably drunk Aboriginals in country pubs. An unending series of deaths in custody. Young Aboriginal men without a way through the void.
  3. In 1990, after a Sunday at home of autumn gardening we enjoy burning the leaves and debris as the sun goes down. Later my husband goes out to check the fire. He finds an old Aboriginal man lying down near the fire tired out and preparing to sleep. He says he is from Mullewa (200km North) and he has lost his way in the dark, it is a long time since he came here. He'll find it when the sun comes up and be off. He impresses me as a man of presence, of power, going about his own business. The Yorgum women tell me now he would be a Featherfoot man on Walkabout. They are scared of featherfoots. These are men of power, not to be trifled with. Their mothers used to leave half the evening meal on the door steps and jam forks in the door as locks to keep those featherfoot men from bothering them. In this encounter I realise that the Bridle Path we live next to is not just an old disused railway track which it once was and we now enjoy as a stretch of bush in the suburbs. It is the Bibbulmun Dreaming track. A network of walking tracks of the Bibbulman people on their walkabout cycles. It runs for hundreds of kilometers down to Albany in the far South. There is another Perth parallel to the constructed, orderly city I know. I feel the ancientness - at least 60,000 years and some think more like 120,000. Alive and breathing still. It breathes me.

Two maps

Australia, a road map, a map of the states.
Australia, a map of tribal boundaries.

When Gabrielle asks me if I would train a group of Aboriginal women as counsellors there is an immediate Yes. There is no doubt . I know I can begin this process with them and I know they will be able to find a way to be Aboriginal counsellors if that is what they want to be. I decide to make available everything I am and know including a network of quality professionals.

And I am nervous. I know I am out of my depth. This is totally Unknown.

Counselling

A Western way of healing only formalised in the last 50 years, previously residing with priests, medical people, teachers, judges and magistrates... A way that calls for reflectiveness, intuitive attunement, a scientific objectivity combined with life wisdom and training in managing the counsellors own disturbance in the face of human dilemmas. Most of us doing this work learn to unlearn many family and cultural assumptions, judgements and ways of acting. I wonder what will it mean for these women. I tell them early I can bring the white frameworks, they will have to work out what is useful and discard what doesn't fit as Aboriginal people. Only 150 years ago Aboriginal people had their own ways of healing, were healthy, with a vigorous, complex community life. Steeped in a spirituality incorporating social relationships, relationships to the land, to plants and to animal life. A people who could survive without building cities, sewage plants, rubbish dumps, freeways. I, from an agricultural, urban hoarding culture of cupboards, things, bibles and quarter acre blocks meeting a hunter-gatherer culture of the Dream time with relatedness as its basis and the earth as its home.

Aboriginal people in Western Australia are struggling with the devastation of their economy, language, culture and kinship systems as the result of 150 years of European migration and occupation. The injury through loss of access to the land, active attempts to exterminate some groups, loss of rich and varied bush food sources through pasturalisation and fencing, assimilation policies of governments, and racist individuals has left a legacy of multiple trauma and a cultural grief of archetypal proportions.

The current situation is that 50% of Aboriginal people are unemployed and many cannot break the cycle of poverty. Recent research in Victoria indicates that 53% of Aboriginal people visiting their medical doctor for physical problems have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder - mainly depression and anxiety related disorders. A very small proportion access mental health facilities, none of which are oriented to Aboriginal cultural ways. Aboriginal people feel their problems are more likely to be compounded through contact with mental health clinics and hospitals. Our prison system is overpopulated with Aboriginal people who have a much higher rate of arrest (increasing at the present time) and are 29 times more likely to be in police custody than other Australians. 40% of our prison population is Aboriginal. They make up about 10% of the population.

May's Story

I have taken the view that training in counselling is in many ways not unlike the Aboriginal initiation process. Initiation involves passing through several levels of learning, ability and responsibility. I don't know if this is an accurate metaphor, not being initiated in Aboriginality. However it allows me to go forward with what I know and listen alertly to what comes back to me.

Levels of Learning

The Wasley Counselling Traing Courses have benefited from the training framework for the development of a professional identity from Drefus and Drefus,(Mind Over Machine). Based on this framework the Yorgum Counselling Course offers a pathway through three levels of learning: From the Naive level of Counselling, to Novice Counsellor through Advanced Learner level to Competent Counsellor. Becoming a Proficient counsellor and for some a Master counsellor is beyond the level of a basic training course. This framework of levels gives the course some workable boundaries and objectives for each year of training as a starting place.

The counselling process itself may in some ways be not unlike an Aboriginal sacred site and ceremony: It is secret, sacred and has special purpose for the individual and the community life. It is protected by some degree of ritual in opening and closing a session, it happens in a special place, and offers safety from the normal social corrective forces in order that growth and learning can occur. It is based on respect.

Yorgum women have needed to wrestle with issues of confidentiality in respect of the oral transmission of information through a highly effective 'gossip' network. This holds the social group cohesiveness. They also wrestle with the notion of objectivity as a counsellor when family, kinship and skin group relationships carry social obligations and consequences. All Aboriginals are related through these systems. Differentiating counsellor from friend, family or boss is problematic. Relationships with stranger Aboriginal people are established in respect of family, kinship and known connections. This the basis for proceeding and carries with it defined privileges and responsibilities and ways of seeking permisson and negotiating boundaries.

In coming together to collaborate with these Noongar, Yamatji and Kimberley women the first question is where am I as trainer coming from? This is what Aboriginal people want to know. They suss the stranger out. There must be respect, acknowledgement that there is openness to learning and listening and without falseness.

I bring my being, my knowing from my own life, my own training, my professional experience, my unknowing and my curiosity. When I work with Aboriginal people I stand before them very visible, open. They take me as I am. And this is their way. The acceptance of the group touches me at a deep level, and the constancy and abiding nature of the acceptance continues to surprise me. This takes me to the Sobbing Place. Their pain begins to be felt within me, their humour to embrace me. Close by the Sobbing Place is a Laughing Place.

As I listen to the womens stories I enter another world. A world of full bellied laughter and fun; an easiness about mistakes and errors. These aren't life or death. This is a world of superstition/intuition and unspoken communion, of sexual abuse and family violence, of harsh racism, of early death, of tenderness at the lostness in their men, of spirit experiences, of being sung and medicine men, of feuding and payback, and irrepressible life - of a group life so sophisicated I am back in kindergarten. They are training me.

Each Friday morning as we gather we begin with silence, followed by a Reflection and Speaking to the circle, before moving into the structured learning. This song I bring you was the first Reflection brought by one of the women. Archie Roach, a West Australian Aboriginal singer wrote this song for the mother of an Aboriginal boy adopted by white parents and raised in America. It is the song for many Aboriginal people and the song for the women. 8 of these women were taken from their mothers and more who's mothers were taken from their mothers.

This course is a co-creation story.

One story of Creation for YORGUM women is this one from the Western desert. The old way.

Another, the old/new way emerged on a weekend workshop. It tells the Aboriginal Counsellors Creation story:

(Mary’s poem ‘ In the Beginning was the Wind’)

Organisation and Structure of Yorgum Counselling Course

We meet weekly for four hours, we have four residential weekends in the bush each year. Each week we begin with a time of silence , a reflection brought by a member of the group, a time to speak into the circle. We light a candle as our camp fire for the circle time. The men's group who use our room the previous night leave flowers and leaves in the centre of the circle for us.

Then there is some teaching, some practice of counselling using the one-way mirror and reflection on the learning. Supervision is in small groups fortnightly. Guest speakers come fortnightly. They share their maps of life and counselling skills. We bring the old ones in to talk their stories. We bring the young ones in, the university graduates to hear their learnings. We have those special wadjellas come who have been at the interface of cultures and have something to say. We bring in a few bosses like the Director of post graduate training for psychiatrists to listen and learn and make links. The women and myself draw together the best people from our networks to add to the richness.

We are creating the curriculum as we go, nestling in the structure of the Wasley Centre Counselling Course developed by Robert van Koesveld. Which nestled in the structure developed in the Groupwork Leadership course. Which grew out of the psychodrama training course and the training courses for health professionals. This Yorgum course has a lineage.

Roles of a Counsellor

Skill training in the First Year is focussed as Ways of Listening, Ways of Seeing, Ways of Guiding. In the Second Year: Ways of Naming, Making Maps of Experience, Ways of Staying Present when a person is in Pain, Indigenous Ways of Healing, Mainstream forms of Counselling (last).

Discoveries as a Trainer:

I don't have to carry it all myself. The women shape the course substantially and guide me to the next step in the curriculum. This training group takes care of its own process. We can go straight to the learning. I find this an absolute delight having for many years taught in tertiary institutions in a dependency rewarding system of education. These people are independent learners. They know and understand the principle of the 'group protagonist', that the individual represents the Group and is also themselves. They understand that stories and dreams told are for the progression of the Group. They know already that individual life is interactional. They are at home with conflict and do not confront the individual with a spotlight on full beam. It took a while to dawn on me that my map of the psyche seperating the intrapsychic fields from the interpersonal and from the sociocultural was unworkable here. All individual action here is viewed through the eyes of the group. Role reversal is with the Group, not with the individual. The interpersonal, the sociocultural IS the intrapsychic. And whats more, the uniqueness of the individual is highly respected and valued in group life.

These women are not afraid of the Dark, of the chaos. Their personal histories of multiple trauma shock me through my own protection layers. Yet they laugh more loudly and more gayly than anyone I know. Their humour is warm and embraces human error. As a person overdosed on perfectionism and self judgement this is an unexpected breath of fresh air. As counsellors the women do struggle as we do with going to the positive too soon and not staying long with the pain. And the pain for Aboriginal people is monumental. They struggle with the slide towards Blame as a way. The two areas most troubling as counsellorsare the pain they share in when an Aboriginal is in pain. And the revenge.

There is a capacity to attune emotionally at a deep level with people, they know the Feeling Self and do not have to go through an opening process to access their own individual and collective inner life. This is available to them. They already See the inner Baby. The women tell me that an Aboriginal person Knows what another is feeling, and that the other knows they Know. I believe they are speaking of a deeper thing than empathy or sympathy as we know it. This is a kind of collective shared feeling experience that can be tapped. They tell me this is Sacred knowledge and the Old Women say not to share this with White people, it will be exploited. And they have been roobed of so much already.

We are finding that some of the western counselling maps for Shame and Shyness are wrong maps for Aboriginal people. In Aboriginal culture Shame is mostly positive, it balances the individual and brings them into line in the Community. They use the word 'Shame!' commonly and freely. It is more of the order of "you aught to be embarrassed" and is often used lightly with humour and warmth. The colder, shrivelling version that we know is usually associated with white judgement upon Aboriginal people. Shyness also is not experienced as a painful feeling. It is a natural thing, how you should be when you are young or don't know anything. Not the excruciating sense of self-consciousness that I remember of my adolescence - more its opposite, a proper protection of innocence.

(I suspect our maps for Codependency are also wrong. The function and process of alcoholism is very probably different to our current maps.)

Aboriginal people have a knowing about Respect and crossing boundaries and keeping boundaries that we have barely begun to conceive of. There is a vast and precise sense of the Sacred in human affairs in this culture. We in our culture are caught in cynicism and undifferentiated values and a news system that on the whole does not build relationships. (How many of you have a better capacity to reverse roles and relate to people after reading the paper?) We have much to learn. I have much to learn.

Entry to another family or community or tribal group is carefully negotiated and only proceeds through permission or invitation. The new person always assumes a respectful learner position and is respectful of differences. This has enabled the many hundreds of Aboriginal groups and languages to maintain their diversity and yet be hospitable to newcomers. These people have great respect for diversity. They were very hospitable and welcoming to the first Europeans who came.

Techniques in counselling are less required than further development of awareness and strengthening of confidence in the women’s own capacities already developed.

What a counselling course can offer Aboriginal people: (my current conclusions)

  1. A legitimate social role in mainstream culture that gives authority to enter institutions to talk and be with their own people who are distressed or in trouble.
  2. A language for some of the unspoken knowing. Naming the feeling life. A language with which to hold their own with other professionals.
  3. Development of thinking and maps to think with that are directly related to experience.This will enable sufficient seperation from the other person's experience so as not be overwhelmed with the pain, which is also their pain.
  4. Mapping Aboriginal wisdom in forms that strengthen thinking and Aboriginal identity. Role training, sociometry and systems thinking is fundamental in tracking this evolving knowledge system and protecting spontaneity.

The Yorgum Counselling Course is an invitation for Aboriginal women to be what they already are and a way to claim what they already do.

(Mary’s poem: ‘Who is training Who?’)

I am privileged to be a player in the coming together of two maps of Australia, of
Two maps of the world. I wanted to share this extraordinary thing with the whole world.
And so here I am.

Now I am interested in hearing from you and what you have created with this story for yourself, in your world of diversity and bridgemaking.

Susanna Howlett