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Narrative Community Building in CALD Groupwork

Michele McCrea PhD

I am a counsellor, psychotherapist and group facilitator from Adelaide, South Australia, on Kaurna country. 

One of three key principles of Narrative Practice that I have chosen to focus on in my group work with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities is positioning the facilitator role as ‘decentred yet influential’ (Walker, n.d.). This fits with my sense of equity and my understanding of how unconscious power imbalances can cause conflict, complications and unhappiness in relationships, and ineffective or unwelcome outcomes in therapeutic and community groupwork. This principle is embedded in the way I implement the other two principles I discuss here: strengthening culture and history, and developing collective documents.

Activating the richness of culture and history in community development work with CALD communities is crucial to my work as a group facilitator. Denborough et al (2006) describe communities ‘exchanging stories …. about special skills, special knowledge, about hopes and dreams and the ways that people are holding onto these. They are stories that honour history.’ This idea inspires me. The incredible richness and diversity of cultures in Australia, from our Indigenous people to our diverse migrant cultures, inspires me to know and learn from them. Yet sometimes I despair because I see hardship, conflict, racism and discrimination, lack of understanding, isolation, and the refusal of cultural richness. Reading about how Narrative practitioners have skilfully strengthened ideas of cultural history and connections gives me hope for more widespread change. I was especially moved by the ways in which performance has been used in community development in Africa and Australia. I adapted some of these processes to my collaborative work with English classes of adult migrant and refugee women at two community hubs where we implemented an autobiographical narrative project.

The Writing Our Story project aimed to build awareness of personal and community values and to strengthen community bonds while at the same time extending skills in English speaking, writing and reading. This project was developed collaboratively by the Community Safety Counsellor (me), the English teacher, and the Hub leader. Five sessions were held from September to November 2020. Ten participants were introduced to the idea of personal autobiographical story writing with examples, an outline of the process, support for exploring ideas and vocabularies, and individual assistance with translation and writing. In later groups, I facilitated extension sessions to encourage group discussion and support around the writing process, the challenges and feelings that came up (both in the act of writing and in remembering experiences that may be painful or difficult) and how these could be met.

A third Narrative principle I have implemented is to develop responsive, collective documents to empower communities (Denborough 2008 and Denborough et al 2006). As a counsellor, I have always found ‘case notes’, and especially the ways in which they can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to exacerbate power differences, to be problematic. So I’ve enjoyed reading about how this writing practice can be turned around and used in ways that are more empowering for clients. In my role as a group facilitator, I started developing documents from the conversations I had with groups, as a way to record and reflect our work. Then I realised the enormous potential of doing this, and started researching more about how collaborative and collective documents are used in Narrative Practices around the world. Then I began thinking about ways that I could develop my own practices of documentation so they are more collaborative, more collective, and more empowering for the women in my groups, their families, and their communities.

I had been invited to facilitate groups for women from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities to help them develop skills and understandings about wellbeing and healthy relationships. At first I was introduced as an ‘expert’ and I didn’t like this at all! I tried many ways to resist this role and to invite the women in my groups to bring their own expertise to the topic of ‘wellbeing’. When this began to work, and the women started to speak about how they manage stress and what wellbeing means for them, I was naturally drawn to document their ideas, first on a whiteboard and then in electronic and paper forms. I realised these documents were a powerful resource and that more could be done with them. So I returned to the original groups and asked for their responses to the documents. They added more ideas. And I asked, can we distribute these documents more widely? Can we give them to other groups who might find these ideas useful? And the responses were overwhelmingly positive! I see enormous potential to develop these practices further with the communities I am working with, and to link these communities in ways that will strengthen and inspire them.

I call these documents Living Texts, because of the strength and vitality they can bring to groups and communities. They are words to live by but, unlike many collective documents from the past, they are not set in stone. Instead they can change and grow in response to people’s responses to them. Unlike those old ‘set in stone’ texts – the scripts of law and religion – these living documents are always subject to the scrutiny of those who use them, and require us to think about our ideas and actions, and how our words reflect them (or not). It is a two-way relationship. These texts are living reminders of what makes us and our communities strong and healthy, and of how we want to live.

I have realised from these experiences over the past year that it is good to have a plan, to know what I want to achieve, and at the same time to invite leadership and ideas from the people I am working with. I think I’ve become better at this balancing act, yet I still have much to learn as I try out my ideas and get feedback. The more I listen, and ask the right questions, the more I learn. The ‘right questions’ to ask outsider witnesses, for example, might be questions that elicit ‘which parts of the stories … [were] ‘particularly significant’ to them, ‘what sort of image the stories … evoked for the listener’, ‘why these particular aspects of the stories resonated for them personally’ and what in the stories has especially moved them or made a difference for them(Denborough et al 2006, pp. 35-36).

It is important to have some guidelines for these documents, as Denborough et al (2006, pp. 20-21) elucidate. Living texts are most effective when they 

  • use people’s own words and phrases 
  • contain ‘richly described’ stories of both the challenges that people face and the ways in which they respond to these 
  • are organised according to themes of importance to the groups or communities
  • reflect on values, histories and the ways in which these are still present
  • document the knowledge, skills and wisdom demonstrated in people’s responses to hardship and difficult circumstances.

It’s exciting to see something emerging that makes people feel stronger, happier and more confident in spite of challenges and difficult circumstances. These practices of positioning the facilitator as decentred yet influential, of strengthening and reimagining culture and history, and of creating collective Living Texts fit with my ideas of justice and equity, and with my purpose of supporting people to find and live from their own strengths, creativity and wisdom.

References

Denborough, D. (2008), Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups, and communities who have experienced trauma, Dulwich Centre, Adelaide.

Denborough, D., Koolmatrie, C., Mununggirritj, D., Marika, D., Dhurrkay W., & Yunupingu, M. (2006), Linking Stories and Initiatives: A narrative approach to working with the skills and knowledge of communities, The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work (2), 19—51, Dulwich Centre, Adelaide www.dulwichcentre.com.au

Walker, Alice (nd), Beginning to Use a Narrative Approach in Therapy, Dulwich Centre, Adelaide.

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