Healing the root cause of Indigenous trauma
27 May 2019 at 8:22 am
As CEO of the Healing Foundation and with over 25 years experience in Indigenous affairs, Richard Weston is working to create a fairer Australia for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Weston, a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, feels fortunate he has not experienced any serious trauma in his life.
But after 12 years at the Healing Foundation, an organisation he built from the ground up and listening to the stories of the Stolen Generations, he knows that dealing with and healing the ongoing trauma is one of the first steps to take if the lives of Indigenous Australians are to improve.
Through his work at the foundation, he’s built up a strong evidence base of the impact of trauma and has overseen over 175 culturally strong, community-led Indigenous healing projects around Australia.
Working in remote Indigenous health for 14 years, he has also led the delivery of community-controlled health-care programs to children and adults with some of the poorest health in the country.
In this week’s Changemaker, Weston discusses the challenges faced in his leadership journey, his hope for the future, and the importance of listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led solutions.
What inspired you to get started in the sector?
I actually have an accounting degree and started out working in government. But in the early 90s, I started thinking about where I was going to be in 20 years time and what my sense of purpose was. Working in government, it often felt really difficult to honour the aspirations of the community and balance those against the policies and frameworks of a mainstream government department. It was a bit hard getting our voices heard in that space around Indigenous programs that impacted our communities.
When I moved into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector, I found so much more meaning in my work. I was more connected with my own identity and culture and found a lot of common ground with people around our experiences and challenges in our lives. I also set myself a goal to be the CEO of an Indigenous organisation by the time I was 40 and I got there.
Was that challenging?
In some ways, it was challenging. I first started out working at a very small health organisation, Maari Ma Health in Broken Hill. We were working very closely with mainstream health services, and it was a steep learning curve. We signed off on a partnership with the public health system to manage mainstream health programs in the area, which was risky for them because we were a fledgling organisation. The community was also suspicious and wary, because of stereotypes people held about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We were also tarred with the brush of other organisations that hadn’t done well or had failed, so we had to step up and work our way through that and gain credibility and we were able to do that over time. Luckily I had some really great Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership to guide me.
What have some of your biggest achievements been at the Healing Foundation?
We’ve been able to build up a really good evidence base of understanding intergenerational and historical trauma impacting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and how healing works in communities and how it can help strengthen them.
Doing that has really helped our work and we’ve been able to put trauma and healing on the policy map for Aboriginal affairs. Our communities have always talked about healing, but it was never really been enacted. But we’ve been able to provide some evidence that it works, that it’s cost-effective, and that Indigenous people want to engage with it, and so we’ve now got trauma and healing as a priority in the federal Closing the Gap policy.
How is trauma connected to other issues faced by Indigenous people?
Trauma is a root cause of many other challenges Indigenous people face. Things like child abuse and neglect, violence, mental illness, some chronic diseases, and drug abuse come out of trauma. That’s what I’ve learned and we’ve got the recognition that it’s an issue with state and federal governments taking a bit of action on it but we need to recognise that it is a major public health issue in communities.
It’s also important that it’s viewed as a strength-based approach and people aren’t treated as damaged goods. They are just people who’ve had bad experiences that affect the way they act in communities now. Connecting to culture, reconnecting to culture and strengthening identity have also been core components of any work we’ve done. Knowing who they are, who their mob is, where they’re from and that they are connected to the oldest living culture in the world, makes a huge difference. Those connections are the things that start to tackle their own challenges.
There is no magic drug we can give people who are dealing with trauma, they have got to be motivated and have to have a sense of purpose and hope. That’s the only way that we will start to see the numbers of our children in home care, in the juvenile justice system and the overwhelming number of adults going into jails go down.
The themes you are dealing with are pretty full on, how do you keep yourself grounded?
Staying connected with my family and kids, doing exercise, eating well and not dwelling on some of the stories that I hear and witness. I think it’s important to bear witness to people’s experiences, like the Stolen Generations. I’ve really grown to know more and more of those stories and get a deeper understanding of what it’s meant for their lives. I’ve been fortunate in my own life to not experience violence and grow up in a pretty happy home, but you do have to be careful to not to absorb these stories and hold onto the sadness in them. It’s okay to feel sad from time to time, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just you don’t want to stay there and feel overwhelmed or you feel that things are hopeless. You’ve gotta be realistic about what you can achieve and how you see yourself as part of a bigger picture, you’re just one piece in a big jigsaw. [You have to] do the role to the best of your ability, and hold a fundamental belief that things will change.
Will things change?
I think they will. I see my own kids and see what they’re like and they are streaks ahead of me when I was their age. I think you have to be optimistic. I see a lot of young people who are showing real leadership. It’s just that it takes a long time to achieve this change. We’re coming off the back of 200 years of colonisation and what it means to be people who have lost their land and had their lives disrupted and experienced a lot of discrimination and racism, and we have to recognise that’s what we’re trying to unpack here.
We’re not just a group of people who have criminal leanings or are just naturally weak and get sick easily, it’s a result of that history. I think it’s our culture that strengthens me, that I can think about my people and how long they’ve been around, surviving for thousands of years. Those are things that are part of my bloodline and that’s amazing really. Even the struggle, the idea that we’re trying to survive so that all our ancestors who’ve come before us, their lives haven’t been in vain, that we will play a role in Australia and be part of that community and have a role in what sort of country Australia will be into the future.
What would you like to see come out of Reconciliation Week?
I like the idea of telling the truth about our history. It would be great to see non-Indigenous people having the courage to listen to our stories and listen to what our experience is of the creation of Australian democracy, and that we’ve experienced hardship and our ancestors have had really bad experiences. Using that as a starting point will make for a better understanding to help us become more tolerant of each other, more compassionate, so we can make Australia the best place in the world to live, particularly for children and young people.
A lot of non-Indigenous people ask us what they can do to help, but just listening is really important and engaging in respectful ways. We’ve all got different experiences in history, but here we are in 2019, having to deal with the consequences of everything that has come before us, and we’ve got a chance to shape a different future that is cohesive and more inclusive. When I go around the country and talk to people in communities who’ve done it tough, in places like Papunya, or even the Gurindji people at Wave Hill, and ask about their experiences, they talk about Australians all being one, and they don’t have bitterness. Their approach is about reconciliation and living well together. We’re all countrymen now.