Allawah! Burdiyas! Elders Community Conference held at Point Walter on 30th and 31st May 2022

Allawah! Burdiyas! Elders Community Conference held at Point Walter on 30th and 31st May 2022

Allawah! Burdiyas! Elders Community Conference: A Call to Action, 30 and 31 May 2022

The fire crackles to life in the crisp morning light atop of Point Walter, Dyoondalup, overlooking the expansive Derbarl Yerrigan. Smoke winds around the conversations rising and falling as people gather for Day One of the Conference. Nigel Wilkes and Alice Kearing welcomed conference participants onto Boodja with the Djuripin Djindas dancers, a group of young, spirited Nyoongar girls, proudly dancing their culture, led by Sarah Kearing.

The tea and coffee flows as everyone warms themselves into the space, making new connections, reacquainting themselves with old mates, and coming together with a shared interest to change the way mainstream services support Aboriginal people in their health and wellbeing.

The morning kicks off with an introduction by Elders Aunty Oriel Green and Uncle Albert McNamara who take to the stage with project lead, Associate Professor Michael Wright, to recount the origins of the Looking Forward research. The Looking Forward program of research works with over forty Elder and youth co-researchers to change the way mainstream mental health and alcohol and other drug support services engage with Aboriginal people to access their services and provide culturally safe, respectful, and responsive care. Michael recalls the early days when he visited the Perth Nyoongar community in the southeast suburbs to seek their views about how mainstream services could improve their service delivery and care. A resounding plea was made to address the structural racism present across mainstream services and for service staff to learn about and understand the important role culture plays in an Aboriginal person’s life and health. They also encouraged Michael to work with the Elders, the bosses of their community, as they are the cultural wisdom holders and custodians. And so the Looking Forward journey began.

The conference is a culmination of ten years of collective efforts by the Aboriginal community, Elders, youth and service leaders to work together to change the way organisations provide access for and respond to Aboriginal people. With ten partner organisations, including the WA Mental Health Commission, this has been no small achievement.

But why a conference? The answer to this question stretches back to an Elders meeting in December 2021 where the project Elders were keen to hear from each other about the work they were doing within the services. Although the Elders had worked with services, in some cases, for almost eight years, they had not had many opportunities to share their work together as a group. Thus, the conference idea was born. Eight Elders were nominated to form an Elders Working Group and from February 2022 a series of fortnightly planning meetings ensued to enable the Elders and the Looking Forward project team to bring the conference into being.

In addition, the Elders wanted to intensify the learning and changes made in the services and were keen to see the work expand not only to other services, but also to include more people from the Aboriginal community. With the project winding down, the Elders wanted the work itself to continue and the idea to develop a Call to Action statement was tabled. This Call to Action would be an invitation for mainstream services and government to put their resources, intentions and current strategies behind the work of the Elders to ensure the work could be sustained longer term.

Day One saw the Elders share their work with the Community. It was a celebration of the Elders’ efforts and years spent working alongside service leaders. Teaching, holding, guiding, shaping, and many times, disrupting, in order to bring about the changes they want to see in these organizations so that community feel safe and respected. Uncle Albert McNamara described the two-way learning he and the Elders experienced within Richmond Wellbeing, working with the CEO, Adrian Munro, over the past seven years. Aunty Moya Newman described the ongoing need to find meaningful ways to engage the Aboriginal community to meet their needs as she and Aunty Oriel worked alongside WANADA, the peak drug and alcohol agency. Aunty Carmel Culbong told a moving story of transformation of an Aboriginal family and their experiences with child protection and the way staff valued culture and family links to better support children in care through a “story animal” sewing project. Aunty Muriel Bowie sat together with program manager Daniel Toher as a show of mutual respect for the skills and experiences that each brings to the working together process. The genuine relationship they have was evident as they talked together about their work. Uncle Charlie Kickett was full of praise for Palmerston staff, led by CEO, Emma Jarvis. He explained how the wall of ignorance is broken down by spending regular time together. Aunty Dot Getta described how this had led to the opening of a regional site as Palmerston engaged with local Elders to set up the new service in the southwest. Aunty Helen Kickett explained how she felt stronger in talking about mental health, having learned more about the services and what they can offer. When Aunty Millie Penny and Aunty Charmaine sat together with WACOSS CEO, Louise Giolitto, it was obvious they shared a warm and respectful relationship built over four years of working together. The word respect was used multiple times as they recounted key moments of their working together journey. Uncle Percy and Aunty Louise Hansen were joined by Aunty Joanna Corbett and family members who, together, have worked closely with staff and students in Curtin’s Occupational Therapy fieldwork placement program for over five years. Aunty Louise recalled many stories shared with students and how they were always amazed at the diverse backgrounds students had, yet how there were many similarities through which they could relate to one another as human beings. A key part of this work with students was being able to bring along family members and celebrate the layers of cultural knowledge they possessed as a collective. Yawuru Elder, Uncle Kevin Puertollano closed out the day of Elders’ stories with a yarn with Dr Michelle Webb, project team member, describing the challenges Aboriginal young people face in accessing youth mental health services. Valuing culture and being on Country were two of the key aspects required to ensure young people felt safe to share their experiences with service staff to bring about the changes needed to support them in their mental health and wellbeing. Uncle Kevin had travelled from Broome to attend the conference.

The impact of the Elders on the services was evident in the stories they shared. Building trust, showing mutual respect, spending time together, understanding, learning, and sharing stories, are all words that the presentations had in common. Community members and service staff who attended day one were excited by the impact of the Elders’ work with services and being a part of the day.

Many attendees stayed on to share dinner together and yarn some more about the Elders’ work. Uncle Percy spearheaded the evening’s entertainment with some Country tunes penned by himself and Aunty Louise. They were supported by the talents of Alice, James and Shannon Kearing, Nigel Wilkes and Uncle Fred Penny, to produce a glorious night of musical memories and laughter in celebration of the Elders’ work.

Day Two began with a Welcome by Uncle Peter Wilkes as attendees gathered around the fire once more. The morning breeze dropped as the sun warmed our backs on the cool Djeran morning. Invited guests, joined the project partner services, from government agencies such as WA Department of Health, Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, Mental Health Commission, senior Curtin University Faculty of Health Sciences staff, and CEOs from the mental health, drug and alcohol, community and women’s legal support sectors.

The day brought these guests together with the Elders and Community members to develop a Call to Action, as a way to continue the Elders’ efforts and deepen the commitment of services and government to work more closely with the Aboriginal community. As the morning progressed, emotions ran high as experiences were shared that showed how much trust was required to work respectfully together and bring about change for the benefit of Aboriginal families. It was evident that old ways of “doing business” did not work and resetting the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people was needed to truly close the gap across sectors and services.

By lunchtime, the bones of the Call to Action were taking shape, informed by the Elders’ stories of impact and change as well as the Looking Forward project’s outcomes and findings, which were presented in a series of posters around the venue for all to read and reflect on.

The project Elders came together to present the Call to Action to invited guests from mainstream services and government agencies in a message stick ceremony. The ceremony was a show of the Elders’ collective strength and solidarity on behalf of the Aboriginal community, with a clear message to services and government to mark their commitment to the Community to respond to the Call to Action in a meaningful and considered manner. There were many moving moments during the ceremony, as service leaders received their message stick from the Elders with grace and humility, speaking aloud their commitments for all the Community to hear. They were embraced by Elders, with whom they had worked for some four to eight years – a mark of the strength of and commitment to their relationships.

The day concluded with a round of thanks to all involved as the team packed the many posters and materials away, taking with them a deep experience of two days shared together.