Supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children through a collaborative community approach

Content type
Event date

9 July 2019, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Bill Wilson, Dana Shen, Ruth Tulloch




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This webinar was held on Tuesday, 9 July 2019. 

In Australia, there is a large gap between the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants, children and parents in mandated services (such as child protection) and these families’ use of voluntary community support services.

In this webinar, Bill and Dana discussed their extensive work with non-Aboriginal services and Aboriginal communities to find ways to address this gap. They have worked to increase trust through culturally competent practices that acknowledge the history of social, political and institutional marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Ruth discussed her experience as a non-Aboriginal manager working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a non-Aboriginal organisation.

The presenters explored the practical implementation of collaboration with Aboriginal communities and how this sits alongside traditional therapeutic approaches in non-Aboriginal services to deliver positive outcomes, particularly for infant and child mental health.

This webinar:

  • explored the challenges for non-Aboriginal organisations and practitioners working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, and how to meet these challenges
  • examined current research underlining the importance of cultural competence in non-Aboriginal services
  • gave examples of organisational and individual practice that have built trust and collaboration within Aboriginal communities and led to positive outcomes for these families
  • outlined what non-Aboriginal organisations should consider in the recruitment, supervision, training and attitudes of staff when developing a culturally intelligent and responsive workforce
  • gave examples of non-Aboriginal staff being genuinely curious about the stories and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, communities, children and families.

This webinar was the fifth in a series focusing on children's mental health. It is co-produced by CFCA and Emerging Minds. They are working together as part of the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, which is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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Audio transcript (edited)

MR MOSS: Hello and welcome everybody to what is the final webinar in a series of five webinars on children's mental health that has been facilitated over the past 12 months between CFCA and Emerging Minds. We've been really proud to be able to provide these webinars for you, had a lot of fun doing it and look forward to providing you a series of six webinars in 2019/20. So my name is Dan Moss and I'm the Workforce Development Manager here at Emerging Minds which is the National Workforce Centre for Children's Mental Health. Today's webinar presentation will be about supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children through a collaborative community approach. And really glad to be working with Bill Wilson, Dana Shen and Ruth Tulloch on this project, all of whom have fantastic experience in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities and being able to provide the right types of services for those communities. So I welcome all of our guests today.

And before I introduce our speakers today, I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we're meeting which we meet here in Adelaide, but which you're also meeting with us on all across Australia. So I welcome you all and we pay respects to Elders past and present from wherever you are. So thank you for joining us. So firstly, some housekeeping details. Please remember to send through your questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar. So we'll be keeping an eye on those questions and where we can as much as possible we'll be answering your questions live as they happen. Please let us know if you don't want your questions published on the online forum following the presentation. So also letting you know that any unanswered questions may be published along with your first name on the CFCA website for a response from presenters after the webinar. We'd also really like to continue the conversation we begin today. To facilitate this we've set up a forum on the CFCA website where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised, submit additional questions for our presenters and access related resources. Please remember that this webinar is being recorded and the audio transcript and slides will be made available on the CFCA website and the CFCA YouTube channel. And that will be in the coming months.

So without any further ado I'd like to introduce all of our panellists again, Bill Wilson, Dana Shen and Ruth Tulloch and first of all I'm going to hand over to Bill Wilson. Now Bill has done a lot of work in this space, is currently the CEO of the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and is also a strong friend of Emerging Minds being a really active participant in the Aboriginal Advisory Committee. So really like to welcome Bill today, welcome Bill.

MR WILSON: Yeah thanks Dan. Yeah thanks for having me involved in this. As you said Dan, I'm a part of the National Indigenous Consultancy group here with Emerging Minds that's looking at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content to assist Emerging Minds around working with Aboriginal families and communities in a more effective way. Yeah so I guess from my perspective here today I'll be talking a bit about the relationship - you'll hear that word a lot from me today. And how do we cultivate a strong relationship and rapport working with Aboriginal families, Aboriginal community and Aboriginal organisations. So yes from my perspective, and I've had a long history of working with Aboriginal community through a range of sectors, from alcohol and drugs to working in the welfare system to working in the Aboriginal health system more specifically around Aboriginal men's health. So some of this stuff that I'll be talking about today is from my own practice and over 20 years of working closely with Aboriginal community. So yes, firstly you know there's an old saying that my uncle would say to me. He would say, 'Bill you don't get a second opportunity to make a good first impression' and from my perspective when working with Aboriginal community that is really true. You know first impressions do count and one of the things when I'm talking to non-Aboriginal practitioners about working with Aboriginal community, it's about slowing down, taking that time and how do you build a you know, a strong relationship and a really good rapport.

And I guess some of the things I've heard back from other practitioners is, 'Oh Bill we're time poor, we've got big caseloads, there's not a lot of resources to cater for the workload that we've got'. And I guess one of the things I always say in that is that if you're already going from that mindset around saying time poor, in many ways that can equal relationship poor. And if you don't build a relationship with Aboriginal people and families in the setup, in the foundation, it's going to be very difficult no matter what body of practice or model that you work from to work really effectively with those families and with the community. And you know a quick example of that is when I was employed in Aboriginal health and I was working at a country regional hospital, one of the things they wanted me to do was to provide cultural awareness training to the GPs. Anecdotally there was about 20 GPs working in Murray Bridge at that time but I knew anecdotally most of our – most of the Aboriginal community was spread across three GPs. And out of those three GPs one of them would have had about 70 to 80 per cent of the Aboriginal community that were going back to see him. So that left 17-odd that didn't really have any effective relationships or any Aboriginal people voting with their feet in seeing those other 17 doctors. So it was about me highlighting what that one doctor in particular, what he was doing well with the same timeframes that he had. And it was about you know, his preparedness to give something of himself in that relationship, in the rapport setting up, and building that – building that strong relationship which is really foundational when you want to engage and work with Aboriginal people.

Within that you know the consultation and the engagement really needs to be really authentic, and when I want to try to unpack authentic, it's about having some equity in that relationship with them. And also allowing appropriate time and space for that relationship, that rapport to build. And you know as I sort of stated previously, it's foundational in terms of how you set that up and it's really an investment. Once again my old uncle would say to me, 'Bill you know you reap what you sow and if you're prepared to take a little bit more time at the start of the relationship, you will see that come back threefold, fourfold in terms of that work that you do with those families, with those individuals later in time'. You know, I'm a big believer that words and actions must really be in alignment and so they are congruent within that.

I think working with my community for over 20 years yeah, if your actions aren't matching the words in which you are speaking to, in which you are trying to deliver on, that's one thing I've really noticed with our mob is that they're very perceptive when they aren't matching up. And when they don't match up, what you tend to see is that you know, there will be a loss of faith in you as the worker or the program, or the organisation. And I think once that happens, our mob are pretty stubborn in that way in terms of that you will get one opportunity and it's around how you try to maximise that from the program and services perspective.

One of the things I always like to say from a practitioner standpoint is that once you get an Aboriginal person or a family come into the organisation, that if you can see them in the context of them being a relation or a spiritual cultural being within that. And I really do feel strongly that our mob in particular are strong in the relationship and that if there's no investment in the relationship then you know then it's going to be pretty difficult to have successful outcomes in terms of working with them. And I always think the best services that I've worked in can acknowledge that and tap into those two. One, around the relationship but also seeing them as a spiritual cultural being as well. And yes if you can fit into both of those you tend to have better outcomes. And I guess some of the things that you've got to check in with them is around you know issues of culture, cultural identity. What are their cultural obligations within that, what are their obligations to family, you know, their connection to land, their connection to mob. Who are the important kinship relationships within that family. You know, we know the role that grandparents play and particularly grandmothers in Aboriginal families and being quite matriarchal in terms of their level of support to child rearing in particular.

I will touch on a service that I had a little bit of work in in terms of the Aboriginal Community Connect Program which we'll hear a bit from Ruth a bit later. But I think when that program first started I think some of its clinical KPIs were very focused around that clinical output and what it probably needed at that time was – given that it was an Aboriginal specific program working with community around issues of alcohol and drugs - that it needed to have a cultural lens laid over it in that. And I think once we started to have some shift or get that balance right in terms of the culture and the clinical outcomes, that it became more readily accepted by Aboriginal community to the point where there were peer referrals coming from Aboriginal people who were accessing that program, and they were deriving something quite positive from that program, that they were speaking to family and friends about that particular service. So I think that was a program that indicated that once we got the balance right of culture and clinical, that it had optimal outcomes.

And a part of that was some of the cultural assessment tools that were developed, and also around training of 
non-Aboriginal workers in terms of better engagement with Aboriginal people, individuals, and to work in a holistic sense to work more closely with the family within that as well. Yes just to continue to follow on to that as well. It was around allowing the entire story to be heard as well within that. And I know as workers or practitioners within that we want to get into the problem solving as quickly as possible, but I think if we can just sort of sit back on that and just allow their story to develop and be told organically. I think when we rush in to sort of problem solving and switch our mindset to that, we're actually switching off to actually hearing from the individual or the family about what their own solutions might be in that as well. And for me as a worker I know it's always important - part of my practice is that if we can have Aboriginal people and families being engaged in themselves determining their own issues, that when we talk about long term sustainability you know it must be led by self or within the family if we're talking about sustainable change.

Yes and just in closing, from an organisational standpoint, you know, if we can really place a value on every engagement that we have and see it as a real opportunity. I know it's very hard at times to get stuck in a mindset when we've got little resources and so many clients looking to access. But how can we get those clients, those families to continue to want to return to the program and the service. And you know I always use the term that if you can get clients to vote with their feet, if you can get them to continuously come back and gain something positive from that program and service, that that's a great thing and it should be the aim around getting those referrals to sort of come back. And I guess some of the stuff that we're talking about or that I've talked about previously is around setting up that foundation, setting up the relationship within that. And that it is an investment in the relationship.

One of the things about our mob, Aboriginal people that I've found in my experience you know of over 20 years, is that if an Aboriginal person has a good engagement with an organisation or with a worker, they're probably going to at least tell four other people within their family about it. Consequently if they have a negative experience with a particular worker or particular program or particular organisation, they're probably going to tell at least six people about that negative engagement. And that that importance, that word of mouth that can really sweep through an Aboriginal community very quickly can have a real negative impact upon that program and service.

And just finally one of the things and I use this term as around sort of having this synergy of energy of when someone presents, an Aboriginal person presents to your organisation, and how you must have a connection between the front of house in terms of who's the first person that meets them as they walk in the door, who is that person, because they're in a very, very important position. And that there has to be as I said some synergy between the front of house and the back of house in terms of that first engagement as they come into the organisation. And that we want to be making that the most positive experience as possible in doing that. So yes, I say to organisations that there must be a connection there in terms 
of – and a plan in terms of how you want to engage someone from coming in through that front door, and then ultimately leaving through that door again, and how do we get them to come back again and derive a positive experience from that program or organisation. Yes.

MR MOSS: Thank you Bill, we really appreciate some of those really clear and powerful messages that you've shared with us today. Really looking forward in the Q&A, we've already got some questions from our participants about just how we work with mainstream practitioners and non-Aboriginal practitioners to you know, not go straight into that problem solving mode and be able to spend some time building those relationships. So thank you. Our next facilitator, our presenter today is 
Dana Shen. Dana is currently the Director of DS Consulting and previously to that has a long history of working in both government and non-government organisations in providing services and advice to both mainstream and Aboriginal communities and practitioners. So we welcome Dana, Dana has just recently authored a toolkit for Emerging Minds just on this subject, so really look forward to hearing Dana's thoughts today. Welcome.

MS SHEN: Thanks very much Dan. And thank you so much everyone out there that's listening today, it's so lovely to be able to share an area of work that's so important to us with all of you, so really looking forward to this. And part of the things I'd like to do today is to first of all build in to a bit of what Bill has just said around the importance of relationships. And as Dan was saying, the topics that I'll be talking about today are directly from the toolkit that I contributed to so you can make reference to that on the Emerging Minds website afterwards. After that I'll be talking about three other topics, one of them is around how we sit with discomfort sometimes in how we have to work with Aboriginal communities and understanding why we might feel uncomfortable and how we work with that. I'll also be touching on what it means to advocate inside and outside work for Aboriginal people and social justice issues. And finally something that I hold very important to me is that in a lot of working with Aboriginal people and communities there is actually a lot of pain and there is a lot of trauma that comes from the history of colonisation and then systematic racism and things that have occurred to our communities. But also in all of that there's a great deal of hope and there's a great deal of joy and there's a great deal of celebration and I just want to talk about what might be required for practitioners and organisations to actually be able to hold and see both of those at the same time.

So first of all in working with Aboriginal communities if I can build on to the things that Bill was saying. A really important thing is how we invest in the relationships we make with Aboriginal people and community. And there are three areas that I would like to touch on. First of all one of the points I've made here is that a key obstacle in making those connections is the obstacle of expertise. And when I say that, it is what I mean is that as practitioners we can bring in our degrees and our university education and all the things that we've learnt and at times that can be a barrier to how we really connect with Aboriginal people and the people that we are listening to and working with. And look this comes from things that we learn in Western society, that is that we need to always have the answer all the time, that is by studying a lot we have lots of expertise and we know a lot of things. We learn through work that if we're asked a question we need to come up with a solution et cetera. But I guess what I'd really invite people to think about is that despite our degrees of which I've got two, that maybe we don't know everything and that maybe if we take a position of not knowing, of curiosity, and sitting back, actually we could learn a lot from a very wise and old community. So I'd really invite people to do that and to really just – you know of course expertise is important, but how do you actually learn from the expertise of the people in front of you.

So what do we do, how do we do that given the way Western education and work can teach us this way of thinking. One of them I think is how we really get to know and learn from people, and the way in which I've learnt to do this in my practice and work is applying the concept of deep listening. So when I think about deep listening, there's a couple of things that I really think about. The first thing is that when I'm in a space of deep listening and really listening to the people in front of me, I am sitting there with an openness, a curiosity, without too many assumptions, and I'm just really fully listening. And I remember saying this to a person I was speaking to about this point before. When they were talking to me, every word that they said really mattered, that's how I took my listening approach in that context.

So one of the things that I didn't do was prepare myself to have an answer or to prepare myself to know what was better or whatever it is. I take an approach that I sit back and listen and I just allow those words to come into my ears, for me to sit with that and to really be present with people. So of course part of that then means how you are really there. You know there's so much going on in our work life and personal lives but when we're in a process of deep listening we're really sitting there seeing the person in front of us as the most important person in the room. And I think once we can do that, and I've been really lucky to be able to do that a lot, you can really, really deeply get to learn about and understand people. And this is a wonderful thing particularly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, so it's worth giving it a go.

So a very key part of this as well is also that if we want to challenge that obstacle of expertise it is really about bringing our whole self to the relationship that we have with people. And in fact as Bill was talking about you know part of that is how we get to know and understand community but also how they get to know us. Who are you, who are you as a practitioner, who are you as a human being. Those things can build deep connections with our communities. Even if you don't always have the lived experience that service uses might have, you can still bring yourself and your life to that and that has a great deal of meaning when you're working with our communities. So yes I'd really encourage you to give that a try and it really helps, it really helps with connection.

So in terms of building relationships, part of that is also at times having to deal with a level of discomfort. And this is because we can be working with Aboriginal people and communities that have gone through a lot of trauma and in many ways are still going through trauma that is created by our current systems. And this isn't necessarily about individuals, it's about the way systems can operate. So part of that is being able to understand the difference between what you are bringing to this relationship versus what the system has brought. And noticing how someone in front of you, an Aboriginal person, begins to see you and not the system and that takes time. You can sit there and you can notice that as you're talking about particularly hard issues et cetera, what is the difference between what a service user is seeing. Have they seen you yet as a person, have you made that connection, or are they still seeing a system and are they angry about that. So that anger and pain at times can be directed at you. Most of the time it's not about the individual, it is about history and systemic issues and trauma and things that have happened in a person's life.

So by listening to those things, by being present with that, what is it that we can learn about the true experience of Aboriginal people and the systems that can hurt. You can learn a lot about that and in fact by learning a lot, and by listening to it, we get to understand why people bring that history, why they have brought that anger or they have brought that sadness to you. And sometimes some of the easiest ways to think about and deal with that with a community member is to actually acknowledge that and to see that that was real and that really happened. So this is really important I think in terms of building relationships, it does feel uncomfortable, it's not meant to feel unsafe, but it can feel uncomfortable at times. But I guarantee if you can sit there with that discomfort you will build a greater rapport with Aboriginal people and organisations.

So of course part of this too then is that when we walk into this work, we can be put in positions where we have to make a stand because we can see things that are not working in the right way and that means at times that we have to advocate. And this can occur not only within our workplace but also in our personal lives. Now a key part of this and a key part of listening to this is that Aboriginal communities and the work that occurs can be very political and can be very contested. And I think there are two different reasons for this, there's lots of different reasons but two main ones that I think. The first one is that there is an assumption still that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people will all have the same view about things. And I think it's really important to understand like everybody else, we are different people, we are different communities, we are different nations, we will carry different views about what's right for our people and that is right for us like it is for everybody else. So that's the first thing.

And then secondly, there are lots of people that think they have answers for us, and think that they have solutions. So this can be contested. So what's important is to sit back and listen to those different views, make sure you are listening to those voices and notice when you start to have to make a choice about when you have to advocate in and out of work. So for example, out of work in your personal life are you noticing a level potentially of ignorance about Aboriginal communities or potentially a level of racism that can occur. How do you make a choice when to challenge or not, that's a really important and yeah, sometimes a little bit uncomfortable to know when to do that. But it's some of those questions to think about when you're working with our communities. And think carefully about who you take guidance from. There are wonderful people, Aboriginal people in our communities, Elders and wise professionals, that if you take the opportunity to chat with them, be open to their knowledge, it can help to guide you in thinking about how best to do this.

And finally I just want to finish up on something that matters so much to me and that is that whilst there is a lot of trauma and there is a lot of pain in our communities, there is lots of hope too. So I wonder whether it might be an interesting thing for you to think about that in terms of working with Aboriginal communities that it is a great privilege to be able to do that. So the way I think about it as an Aboriginal person is that we've been on this country for at least 65,000 years and isn't that wonderful. Isn't that special to get to know communities that have been here for so long and the magic of that, and the greatness of that. So I think we can always learn more and value an ancient wisdom and an ancient community that despite colonisation, has actually been resilient and grown and evolved and done the things they need to do to survive in this. So I think that's really important.

Then finally if you take the time not only will you see the wonder and the greatness and the pain and things like that, but on the day to day basis, the wonderful joy. So a story I love to share is that in every room that I walk into where there is a majority of Aboriginal people, there is always laughter. And that can be in the most difficult situations, where we're talking about horrendous things, but somehow people can still laugh. And we're in it together and sometimes we're crying together, and I suppose my sense is if as non-Aboriginal professionals who are listening today to this, if you're able to take the time and the space not only will you be able to build the relationship and support communities to heal hurts, but you really will be able to enjoy that laughter as well. Thank you.

MR MOSS: Thank you so much Dana. I found that really motivating and really appreciate your hopeful and powerful message so thank you. Thank you for that and certainly as you were saying if people did want to access the toolkit and those words that you've written which very much mirror what you've just talked about that, we would certainly encourage you to do that. So thank you very much again. Our third presenter today is 
Ruth Tulloch. Ruth has got a long history now of working within a mainstream context, the mainstream organisation providing Aboriginal specific alcohol and other drugs and homelessness services through Aboriginal Community Connect. And she's going to talk to us today about some of the challenges and successes that she's had throughout that experience and really want to welcome Ruth to today's panel.

MS TULLOCH: Thanks Dan for the opportunity to really share my learnings and reflections as a non-Aboriginal manager in supporting development of an Aboriginal specific service in the mainstream context. So this service that - Aboriginal Community Connect that we were developing, the development began in 2014 and was a drug and alcohol treatment service to be set up across three country regions and Adelaide as well as an existing homelessness service working with rural and remote Aboriginal families. I think for me one of the first key things that I had to do was be really honest with myself and be aware of my own (indistinct). I did not have the lived experience or the connections to really make sure that Aboriginal Community Connect had a cultural lens over it, had cultural practice (indistinct) through it. And that was – had some authenticity in our work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

So for me it was really about looking at ways that we could design this service that enabled it to be accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. That it was considered authentic to the clients that we were working with and that it was considered you know really based on the community needs and the community groups that we were working with. So I learnt very quickly and as a manager you are surrounded by funding limitations and key performance indicators that you need to meet. But one of the things that I learnt really quickly is that when you're setting up an Aboriginal specific service, that process can take longer, and that's because of the need for the importance of relationship and trust building with Elders and community members that you were working with. So given the service was across three country regions and Dan is smiling, you know there was considerable time needed to build partnerships and relationships in those regions. And to really listen to each region and what their specific needs were. And to be open to receiving criticism and listening to that criticism and being able to turn an existing model that we were given into a model that our clients would be more likely to use.

So the importance of relationship building and what I found is this was something I had to adapt to. I was very targeted as a manager in my approach in getting things done, so I really had to value the importance of relationship building with Elders and community members. And being prepared that if an Elder walked into our service that I would give them the time and then the 60 minutes in listening to what community and what Elders actually value. One of the things that came key to me was the need to co-design and really let community lead the service and the approaches just to ensure that we have the cultural authenticity within our service. So you know we set up advisory groups across each region to ensure that we were listening to local voices and Aboriginal key stakeholders in making sure that our practice really had the cultural healing moving through it and the community engagement ongoing. The co-design took a lot longer than expected but that's what's needed in making sure that clients want to walk through your door and want to use your service. And that we were providing the service that community actually wanted.

One of the things too is that was essential in my role was bringing my organisation along the journey with me and along the journey with the service so you know, Aboriginal Community Connect does exist within a broader mainstream context. And it was really about working with the various departments to really pass on what I was learning from our Aboriginal workforce and also from community members and Elders too. So you know talking to the relevant HR personnel and the relevant marketing around things like the need for better recruitment processes, developing and designing specific Aboriginal leadership roles, making sure that positon descriptions included you know the monitoring of cultural practices as well. Making sure our marketing materials were relevant to each region and that they suited and would appeal to the client groups that we were actually working with. Also the other key factor I think in Aboriginal Community Connect being accessible and recognised by our clients is working alongside and in partnership with Aboriginal control organisations.

So and making sure that it is a genuine partnership that we do listen, that we take on board their guidance. But also that we're not just taking and taking from Aboriginal controlled organisations and that it's a neutral partnership and we're really giving as much as we're receiving. And you know yeah and continuing to strengthen that collaboration as well and seeing that sometimes our model may be different but that we actually can in some ways complement models and service delivery with Aboriginal controlled organisations. You know one example is our drug and alcohol treatment service really complements you know the therapeutic communities in that our families can stay in our community residential rehab houses for up to 12 months. Yeah so these were really the key – I think the key four factors that our service really had to think about and consider in developing Aboriginal Community Connect.

So whilst I've talked more about development of the service and bringing the organisation along the journey with us, we then had to look at our client work practice. And one of the things that we found was initially we were given a very clinical model but you know the feedback from clients and community and staff was that the clinical practice didn't necessarily suit all the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families that we were working with. So we really had to look at all our assessment tools, intake tools, the way that we were doing our case management and care planning and really evaluate were they being effective in working with our clients.

And we found that they weren't and that we weren't actually getting the information needed to gather client's whole stories including the impact of colonisation, what kind of cultural healing clients would like, underlying trauma. So we basically redesigned our tools to be Aboriginal specific and to ask the Aboriginal cultural connection questions. Now that was quite a lengthy process involving both our Aboriginal and 
non-Aboriginal staff but also involving clients and community members as well.

The other key factor, I think, in having some authenticity within our service was originally we didn't have Aboriginal specific positions but it became really clear to me that that's actually what we needed and leadership roles as well. So one of the things we did was we did a bit of a staff restructure and I know staff restructures can take time but this was absolutely worth it in making sure that we had Aboriginal leadership roles to provide cultural support and supervision, as well as looking at creative ways to recruit particularly an Aboriginal workforce.

We also had to be prepared to challenge and change mainstream service models. So to give you one example, you know, the original model we were given there were aspects of it that were quite individualised and we felt that from what the community was telling us that there needed to be more of a family focus. So we did – you know, we had to be prepared to advocate to our funding body for that and actually changed the service models so that we weren't just working with individuals but we were working holistically with families in the context of supporting children and young people as well.

One of my learnings was really, you know, travelling across through country regions, was getting to know the different communities, was the diversity that exists within the Aboriginal communities themselves and the different nations and recognising that – you know, quite often you hear Aboriginal or Torres Islander but there's such diversity in the range of meanings just from even metropolitan to regional areas and it is about listening to those – to the community that you're working with. Our homelessness service particularly works with rural and remote Aboriginal families. So even the diversity in how you provide a service to families from the APY lands to families from the rural areas, that needs to be taken into consideration into your service delivery as well.

So my personal learnings as a non-Aboriginal manager working alongside Aboriginal staff and non-Aboriginal staff, we have a balance of skills sets and taking the organisation along the journey with us. So I can't emphasise enough how important the ongoing communication is in regards to gaining the credibility within your service and that's not just about attending, you know, the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events. It's also about keeping your door open to community members at any time who want to come in and provide you with feedback, provide you with ideas and really generally taking those ideas on board. But realising for me that process may take longer due to the relationship building. You know, we were given 12 months to setup Aboriginal Community Connect. You know, the consultation process took, you know – is ongoing but the initial consultation process really took 12 months. So really investing that time and making sure that your team are investing that time in providing the best possible service delivery that you can.

Reflecting and analysing on your own values when working with diverse groups and you know, a lot of the time I had to acknowledge my own mistakes and shortcomings but also learning and improving from that and you know, always wanting to look at quality improvement. For me it's really important as a non-Aboriginal manager not to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and really work alongside to at times be a facilitator in creating opportunities for staff and clients to really advocate their own needs.

I've done a lot of advocacy within my own organisation, about the needs of the service and also the needs that sometimes we do need to be creative and flexible in how we do things and that's about really finding, you know, champions in the organisation that are willing to listen and be prepared 
to - understanding, you know, a diverse range of perspectives in working with Aboriginal services. But I think most importantly, I think you know - and Aboriginal Community Connect does have a lot clients walking through our doors. I think most importantly it is about putting in some sort of monitoring around your client work practice. I think, you know, Bill mentioned before, you know, first impressions are very important and disengagement can happen with practitioners if, yes, if you're not seen as being authentic in your engagement.

MR MOSS: Thank you so much for that, Ruth. That was really quite a detailed and amazing insight, I think, into some of the challenge that you faced over probably the last five or six years and how you've met those challenges particularly as a non-Aboriginal manager in an Aboriginal service. That was really insightful, so thank you. All of our presenters have been just so powerful and insightful today. We're going to do a final round of questions in a minute. As I said, we're not going to get time for all of our questions. I feel like I could speak to our presenters for another two hours and not get to all of the questions we might like to ask and thank you to those people who have sent them in.

But what I'm hearing from all three of our presenters today really clearly is the need for non-Aboriginal practitioners in particular to be able to really deeply listen. To be able to listen to Aboriginal families and children and parents when they come in and the need to distance themselves from that problem solving quick fix solution that so often we kind of are faced with or we feel like we need to do. So what I'm going to ask is for all three of our presenters just to kind of reflect on that a little bit with a particular view to telling us what they think are the main ingredients that mainstream practitioners or 
non-Aboriginal practitioners need to think about to be able to achieve this deep listening. Bill, I might start with you if that's okay.

MR WILSON: Yeah, Dan. Look from my perspective I know as a worker in a program services organisation we all have our own assessment tools. One of the things I would encourage – and usually standard practice of that comes out the first time that you engage with someone. Once again, that's around that time poor scenario but one of the things I would encourage is to not get that out on the first meeting and just sit, listen, maybe check in that it's okay to maybe take some notes that you might want to capture but I would strongly encourage you to park the assessment tool. Some of that can be – in terms of there's a lot of boxes there that need to be ticked and sometimes that can be a disengagement tool rather than an engagement tool. So yeah, if you can allow a bit of time just to sit, get into that deep listening and establish a strong relationship and rapport from my perspective.

MS SHEN: I think another thing that could be considered is around practising it. So I was saying before that as part of my work I get to actually listen to people all the time and that's often in relation to consultation or service redesign or, you know, a range of different things and so I get to practice it a lot. So I would really suggest two key things. First, is just to come with a sense of humbleness with Aboriginal people and who you're listening to but also if you can find spaces with other people, not only Aboriginal people but other people, where you actually get to spend the time really sitting and listening to their stories and holding back, not feeling you have to say something, not feeling that you have the answers all the time but just fully being there and listening to people and if you practice that that really helps.

MR MOSS: Dana, you mentioned a little bit during your presentation around the importance of listening to the different voices and why that is so important. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that?

MS SHEN: Yeah. It really goes to aspects of what Ruth was sharing and that is when she went – was running a program and developing it had to really think clearly about the different communities that you're working with, we're not all the same. So first of all, we are very, very diverse across the nation on where we – on what we – what our landmarks are, our stories, our narrative. We're also very different in history in terms of how colonisation has affected our people and our families and then we are individual people that have very different views and that could be political views, that can be what we believe is right or wrong for our people, the way – the directions we should go in, et cetera. So all of those are valid and important and it is okay to not know always which one to go with and to be able to hold that for a while and that's – I'd invite people to really just listen.

MR MOSS: Ruth, can you tell me a little bit about how you've encouraged your non Aboriginal practitioners in your services to do that? To actually just take a step back and listen and build relationships?

MS TULLOCH: Yes, Dan. So for some of our non-Aboriginal practitioners who sometimes come in with a mindset, you know, particularly because we're a drug and alcohol service, you know, I've got to get the drug and alcohol information or I've got to get, you know, the housing information and there's not enough time actually spent in exploring clients connection to culture and whether it's a connection to a specific land or a particular family group that – yeah, so it's really – what I find with some of our non-Aboriginal practitioners is they'll go straight into asking the direct questioning about the particular drug and alcohol aspect or housing aspect.

So what we encourage our practitioners to do is to give the clients that we work with the space to really talk about their cultural connections and where they're from and what they're connected to. Family groups, kinship but we also recognise too that there's a diverse range of clients that walk through our door and sometimes clients may not want to talk about that or may not know about that. So that forms a part of our holistic assessment too and whether clients want to learn about that as well.

MR MOSS: So Dana and Bill, you talked a little bit about how working in a mainstream organisation a practitioner might become the embodiment of some of the structural disadvantage that an Aboriginal person has experienced and that it might be important to have a conversation around that with an Aboriginal person. I'm wondering if Dana and Bill, you might just like to comment a little bit more about that.

MS SHEN: Yes. So I – it was interesting. As you were asking that question, Dan, I had this kind of – a bit of a visual and that is that 'cause I've been – I've worked in organisations that represent something too and I'm an Aboriginal person and so the sort of approach I take to this is when I hear that anger and that pain and in our communities we call that growling, so we get growled at, at times. I actually just really, again, allow that – allow it to – to really listen to it. So basically what I do is I don't take it personally. I don't allow that to – because generally it's not but what I actually listen to is what is the real experience of this community member or this service user or this family member? What did they go through? Why do they feel the way that they do? Really listen and acknowledge that and then as a person that's been in those systems, do whatever I can to not replicate that again. That is, I think, really, really important.

MR WILSON: And for myself, Dan, what I would just add to that is, as an Aboriginal person that worked within a child welfare system which was, at times, a very – a very tough position to be in as an Aboriginal person working within a system that has a long history with Aboriginal people within this country. So very similar to what Dana just added is that, you know, you absolutely listen to the story. You're validating their story. You're validating their experiences with the system. I guess for me in that situation it was around, once again going back to what I touched on earlier, that my words and actions from that point going on were aligned, were matched up and that I couldn't change their past experiences but what I could give them from that point going on was an ongoing commitment to work to my best ability to support them in a system that's been very challenging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country.

MR MOSS: Thank you all. So that's about all of the time that we have for questions today but we really want to make this the beginning of the conversation. So I know that a lot of the work that's happening particularly at Emerging Minds with people like Dana and Bill at the moment, is really the beginning of the conversation. How can we work particularly in mainstream services to think about the challenges but also to add to the discourse of what works and how we can get better at this and how we can take it upon ourselves to help accessibility and to join with Aboriginal children and families to hear their stories and to genuinely listen.

So if you've got further questions we'd invite you to please submit questions or comments on the online form following today's webinar and that's at So once again, I'd really like to personally thank our three guests today, Ruth, Dana and Bill. I think you'll agree that their presentations were all really comprehensive, powerful and insightful and all offered a unique insight into their significant work over a number of years. So thank you to the 500 plus of you who joined us today. It's been great to have so many of you who are interested in doing this work and thank you again to our presenters and we will see you next time.



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Slide outline

1. Supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children through a collaborative community approach
Daniel Moss, Bill Wilson, Dana Shen and Ruth Tulloch 
CFCA Webinar 9 July 2019


  • Send through your questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar.
  • Let us know if you don’t want your question published on the online forum following the presentation.
  • All our webinars are recorded.
  • The slides are available in the handout section of Gotowebinar.
  • The audio and transcript will be posted on our website and YouTube channel in the coming week.

3. Individual practice

Relationship and rapport

  • a time investment

Time poor = relationship poor

4. Stories and experiences

Consultation/ Engagement

  • Authentic
  • Individuals and partnerships with Aboriginal Organisations

Importance of words and actions

  • congruent

5. Practitioner/ Organisational considerations

Best practice principles

  • Relational and spiritual/ cultural beings
  • Best outcomes arise when service providers tap into both of these elements

6. Practitioner/ Organisational considerations part 2

Assessment tools

Allow story to be heard

Don’t rush into ‘problem solve’


Allow client/ family to develop their own solutions

7. Practitioner/ Organisational considerations part 3

Every client engagement is an opportunity

Clients vote with their feet


Importance of word of mouth

Synergy and energy

8. Investment in Relationships

The obstacle of expertise

Getting to know & learn- deep listening

Who are you?

9. Being uncomfortable

What is about you & what is about the system

What are you learning?

Understanding & acknowledgement

10. Making a stand & advocating

Working with Aboriginal Communities can be political and contested

Advocating in work and out of work

Who is your guide?

11. Pain, hope & celebration

There are many hurts

The privilege of working with Aboriginal communities

The wonder & the greatness…if you take the time

12. Uniting Communities – Aboriginal Community Connect


We acknowledge that this land we meet on today is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their country. We also acknowledge the Kaurna people as the custodians of the greater Adelaide region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.  We pay respect to Elders both past and present.  We recognise that the Aboriginal youth are the future generation to carry on Aboriginal Leaders Legacies. We acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people Australia wide.

13. Program Learnings and reflections

Learnings and reflections from a Non-Aboriginal Manager working alongside Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workforce in developing and implementing an Aboriginal specific service within a mainstream context

  • The importance of relationship and trust building with Elders and community members.
  • Co-design and community led approaches is essential in having cultural authenticity within your services.
  • Bringing your organization along the learning journey with you.
  • Working in partnership with Aboriginal controlled organizations.

14. Program Learnings and reflections 2

Finding the Balance between Cultural and Clinical Practice.

  • Making sure that cultural practices are valued and considered as much as clinical practice.
  • Developing Aboriginal specific Leadership roles to provide cultural support and supervision. Changing staff recruitment practices.
  • Being prepared to challenge and change mainstream service models.
  • Understanding the diversity within Aboriginal communities and recognizing the diverse range of needs.

15. Program Learnings and reflections 3

  • My learnings as a Non-Aboriginal Manager working alongside Aboriginal staff, community members, organizations whilst working in a mainstream environment.
  • Community engagement is essential in gaining credibility within your services.
  • Processes may take longer due to relationship building needed.
  • Reflect and analyze your own values when working with diverse groups.
  • Acknowledge your mistakes, learn from them and improve practices.
  • Be a facilitator in creating opportunities for Aboriginal workforce to advocate for their own needs.
  • Be prepared to advocate to your own organization about the needs of your services and staff.
  • Working and monitoring that client work practices have embedded in them clinical and cultural practices.

16. Continue the conversation

Do you have any further questions?

Please submit questions or comments on the online forum following 
today’s webinar:

Related resources

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Bill is a Ngarrindjeri man, who has worked with Aboriginal children and young people for many years to improve social and emotional wellbeing outcomes. He is currently the CEO of the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and supports Emerging Minds as a cultural mentor. Bill has a strong passion and commitment for self-determination and supporting local Aboriginal organisations in his region. He also has experience working with Aboriginal children, parents and families as a senior practitioner of Aboriginal Community Connect, a residential and outreach treatment facility based in South Australia.

Dana Shen | Aboriginal/Chinese and a descendant of the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia and has a passion for working with Aboriginal people and communities.

Dana is Aboriginal/Chinese and a descendant of the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia. She has a passion for working with Aboriginal people and communities. Dana has extensive experience in the public sector – in health, child protection and Aboriginal-specific services and policy. Dana runs her own consultancy business, DS Consulting, and supports Emerging Minds as a cultural consultant and writer.

Ruth is the manager of Aboriginal Community Connect, Uniting Communities. She has worked in the community services sector for over 20 years and has qualifications in alcohol and other drugs and community services management. Her career has often had a focus on working with CALD, refugee and asylum seeker client groups. She has been a manager in Aboriginal services during the last five years - addressing homelessness and social emotional wellbeing. She also lectures on culturally respectful and inclusive practices.