Sunday, 12 August 2012

Virtuous cycles: (Re)building culture through authentic relationships

Yesterday I went to a panel discussion at the Telethon Insitute for Child Health Research, which featured four researchers, including Canadian researcher Professor Michael Chandler, who work in the area of Aboriginal health and wellbeing. Collectively, they are seeking to change the way our health systems and, more broadly, our society supports and acknowledges Aboriginal culture as vibrant, real and necessary for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people (especially in Australia, as reflected by the panel members). Other panel members were Assoc Professor Cheryl Kickett-Tucker, Assoc Professor Juli Coffin and Dr Michael Wright.
In addition, I recently watched this interview with Professor Taiaiake Alfred (Canada), who also talks about the need to rebuild culture in order for Aboriginal people to thrive. Both Alfred's interview and the panel discussion highlighted the ways in which colonisation has heavily impacted on the wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples.

What has recently emerged for me too across these and other discussions, is the idea of "virtuous cycles", where one good deed is reciprocated by another good deed (as opposed to a "vicious cycle" let's say). This notion also fits the cyclical action research model where one action informs subsequent actions, observations and reflections in an ongoing cycle of iterative development and inquiry, to bring about positive social change.

This is more than undertaking analysis and answering a question: it is, as the panel members described yesterday, a heartfelt response to a community's wishes for help and support in ways that help them to grow, feel empowered and develop stronger cultural links. There's a great personal commitment to undertaking research of this kind, as it impacts on the researchers' own communities and families. It's engaging our right brains to develop our whole self through community based participatory research. There's a symbiotic relationship between research and living, community and culture, and also between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, potentially, as we come to understand that our own quality of life is linked with that of others, as realised in Watson's quote:
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. ~Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.
I wished there were policymakers and government staff in the room yesterday who would have heard first hand the work these researchers are doing and how they were doing it. There's a strong focus on developing relationships both with communities and with government departments and service providers (particularly in the case of Dr Wright's project, on which I'm also working), and a heartfelt commitment to truly listen to the community's wishes and needs, as well as understanding the time it takes to grow such work (which is counter to the funded project habit of finishing up in one or two years, for example).

All the panel members are doing such great work and making a difference in their communities. If governments were this committed imagine how much could be achieved!

Professor Chandler used the phrase, "cultural wounds need cultural medicine", a number of times during the discussion which resonated strongly with those present. It says much about how non-Aboriginal culture needs to support more positive impressions of Aboriginal culture instead of the negative stereotypes and discrimination we are more familiar with today. Cheryl Kickett-Tucker mentioned this yesterday saying that such stereotyping supported misguided 'rites of passage' by Aboriginal youth reconfirming such stereotypes, as a way to confirm their Aboriginality - what a sad indictment on our society that it has come to this? Juli Coffin also confirmed the impact of stereotypes in her work and in fact both researchers have been working with kids to uncover aspects of school bullying and its links to racism and cultural identity. Coffin said that some Aboriginal kids they spoke to had no positive cultural experiences at school, yet it is essential to a child's wellbeing to develop positive cultural impressions in those vital early years. Interestingly too, there is no Aboriginal word (in the region Coffin works) for 'bullying' - it's a white man's word.
Aristotle said, "Hope is a waking dream'. By asking challenging questions and inquiring into why things are the way they are, yesterday's panel members, along with Professor Alfred and many, many likeminded others challenge non-Aboriginal people to "wake up" to the situation and be a part of a new era that sees us all participate in deconstructing the effects of colonisation, so that we all can become better people, in a culturally secure and just society.

Some further reading
Coffin, J (2007).Rising to the Challenge in Aboriginal Health by Creating Cultural Security, Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, Volume 31 Issue 3 (May/June 2007).
Guilfoyle, A, Coffin, J & Maginn, P (2008), Chapter 10 Make sure there is a shady tree: Participation and action research with Australian aboriginal communities. In Paul J. Maginn, Susan M. Thompson, Matthew Tonts (ed.) Qualitative Urban Analysis: An International Perspective (Studies in Qualitative Methodology, Volume 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.213-240.
Wright, M (2011). Research as intervention: Engaging silenced voices, Action Learning, Action Research Journal, Vol 17, No 2.
Kickett-Tucker, C & Coffin, J (2011). Aboriginal self-concept and racial identity: Practical solutions for teachers. In N. Purdie, G. Milgate & H. R. Bell (Eds.), Two way teaching and learning (pp. 155-172). Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.
Chandler, M & Lalonde, C (2008). Cultural Continuity as a Protective Factor against Suicide in First Nations Youth. Horizons --A Special Issue on Aboriginal Youth, Hope or Heartbreak: Aboriginal Youth and Canada’s Future. 10 (1), 68-72.
Chandler, M, Lalonde, C, Sokol, B & Hallett, D (2003). Personal persistence, identity development, and suicide: A study of native and non-native North American adolescents. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial no. 273, 68 (2).
Professor Taiaiake Alfred: [Lots of accessible work, publicly available.]