I’m Telling!

 

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell 1984

I read on social media that my Uncle had just died. Another ‘good bloke’ gone to meet his maker.  What tales would they tell about him at his wake? Not the beatings and the rapes, not the abandonment of a young mother and child in a country he occupied. He is like all the other ‘good blokes’ in my extended family; the pedophile with a plaque dedicating a park and playground to him for his ‘good works,’ the murderer who killed his wife and three children before shooting himself, the football hero who imprisoned and beat his wife for two days, the arsonist who burnt down a house out of spite, all ‘good blokes,’ or so the stories that are told about them claim.

I imagine the mourners at my Uncle’s wake will regale each other with tales of mateship and bravado. We do not speak ill of the dead, so no one will challenge his ‘good bloke’ status by speaking of the horrors endured by his victims. Even if some are present, they will not tell their story for fear of ridicule, disbelief or accusations of madness. The stories of the victims continue to be buried with the perpetrators, unless we make a safe space for their telling.

My mother was who women in my family told their stories too. Over the years she told me many of those stories. But even she didn’t know them all; some stories never find a listener.

As a child she would say to her visiting woman friends, ‘little pigs have big ears,’ and my sisters and I would be sent outside to play, so we couldn’t overhear the Womantalk; the secret, sad and shocking stories of their lives.

As teenagers many of us were the subject of Womantalk, but telling our own stories was rarely an option. Victims were shamed into silence, suppressed by the threat of violence or sent away. In the 1970’s the time for advocacy was well overdue. The second wave of feminism had risen in the form of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and feminists were not only telling their stories publicly, they were acting on them, demanding law reform, the provision of Women’s health and information services and equal rights. Their stories had been kept secret long enough. Breaking the silence around issues of violence against women was a political act, a catalyst for achieving justice for women.

I became privy to many women’s stories while working in Australia’s newly created Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Refuges in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was here I learnt that every woman who came through the door had a story to tell, and often it was similar to the stories of the women who worked in the centres. I read Germaine Greer and Anne Summers seminal books, The Female Eunuch and Damned Whores and God’s Police, to gain a framework in understanding the oppression of Women as a class. With my feminist sisters I sang American song writer, Holly Near’s song Fight Back, at demonstrations:

‘Women all around the world,

every colour religion or age,

one thing we got in common,

we can all be battered and raped,

We can all be battered and raped.

And so we gotta fight back,

In large numbers,

Fight back,

I can’t make it alone,

Fight back,

In large numbers,

Together we can make a safe home.

Together we can make a safe home.’

My belief in the power of women as a force for political change emboldened me to tell my own story and advocate for the right of others to tell theirs. However it would be many years before I understood how best to advocate for myself.

While the foundation of my belief system is grounded in Feminism, I discovered that the oral telling of traditional folktales was a creative and exciting medium for expressing those beliefs. It did not take me long to find tales of wily women and clever girls. Sheroes. These were the stories I needed to hear, and thereby reasoned that others did too. Storyteller, Gill Di Stefano became my friend and mentor, and together we worked on stories of empowerment.

For the past thirty years I have told folktales, not the personal stories of women from my work in Women’s Services. Aside from the ethics of sharing another’s story in a context they are not aware of, I choose to tell folktales because they are the stories of the people, all people. They are our global inheritance. The joy of working with traditional stories is that there is a story for every purpose. They are a mirror reflecting our humanity, or lack of it. My task is to find the right story to tell at the right time to the right audience!

I am often asked why I became a storyteller, and for many years I gave explanations about the application of oral storytelling in the promotion of cultural diversity, literacy, oral traditions, education and communication. All valid reasons that I still subscribe too. However, one day I answered without thinking; because I want to be heard.

The most important validation any storyteller can receive is to be listened to. A story does not live without a listener. For centuries folktales have travelled from from tongue to ear and in recent times been written down, only to leap off the page and continue their journey with a new generation of tellers. Some stories have died with the tellers, and others have been resurrected and given new meaning.

Storytellers, Bettina Nissen and Harriet Mason said respectively, ‘ All stories are personal,’ and ‘If you want to be heard you will be.’ I have taken these words to heart, allowing them to guide me on my storytelling path. This is why I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

This ‘protection’ story is a metaphorical tool for understanding power within society. It is also a story of empowerment with active agency by the girl. Unlike the reality for many victims of violence, a folktale has clear delineation of good and evil, goodness prevails and justice is dispensed. Little Red Riding Hood is not blamed for the wolf’s attack and the wolf is not free to attack again. End of story.

Given that so many women have loosed their stories upon the world, how is it that there is not an end to violence, in all its forms? Have they not been listened to? Have their stories been twisted into fantasies, buried or ignored?

While I have breath in my body, fire in my belly and a song in my heart, I am beholden to tell the stories of ‘the poor mother,’ ‘the hungry girl,’ ‘the foolish boy,’ ‘the abandoned baby,’ so that they may rise to the surface of our consciousness and be a torch to light our humanity and promote civil and compassionate societies.

Photo by Roman W. Schatz

untold 21

Advertisements

Deadly Dogs

How effective is storytelling as a health promotion and education tool? We were about to find out through our work on the Healthy Dogs, Healthy People Project at Lockhart River, a remote Aboriginal Community in Cape York, Australia.

Roman and I have used music, oral literature and visual art in education, health promotion and community strengthening projects, in Australia and overseas. However this project differed to previous ones because the health and welfare of animals was at the heart of it.

The project’s implementation was informed by the evidence-based work of the Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC), a not-for-profit organisation that uses a One Health approach to coordinate veterinary and education programs in Indigenous communities in Australia. The Healthy Dogs, Healthy People Project  aimed to improve human health by improving care and management, and combat diseases relating to animal (particularly dog) health and welfare in Lockhart River.

The work by AMRRIC in the Northern Territory has shown that improving the health and welfare of the dogs in a community directly impacts on the human population. To this end the Lockhart River Council allows the free registration of four dogs per person. With registration, free veterinary care, including desexing and an Ivomec treatment programme for the elimination of ticks, fleas and parasites is available.

We worked with the Animal Management Team, a veterinarian and ‘Dog Champions’ to inform the community of the benefits of registration, desexing and the Ivomec treatment while simultaneously dispelling myths around the care of dogs. We did this in our usual mediums of songs, stories, art and talking. What emerged from our engagement with the community and animal advocates was the creation of a dog mural, the naming of the Kuu’aka Healing Centre and the production of a calendar for 2017 showing happy, healthy dogs and their owners.

We are looking at the next phase of the project, Pups and Bubs, that will take place later in 2017. Here is a selection of photographs of the project.

 

Making a Difference… or Not

There comes  a time, and it comes with increasing frequency, to reflect on the purpose of my work. According to Will Durant’s definition, We are what we repeatedly do. (Will Durant 1885-1981) I’m  a storyteller, a writer and a musician and if called for, I can elaborate on the genre, medium and style of my practice. However, the diversity and context  of my work has changed over the years and I find myself opting for a more general and inclusive term to describe my work – artist.

I am an artist. I am no more special than any other human being, and my work is no more important than anyone else’s, or less for that matter. Obviously if your house is burning down you want to have a firefighter on hand, not a storyteller, and if you have a brain tumour you want a neurosurgeon not a ukulele player.

Generally speaking, artists don’t ‘save’ lives, so we don’t fall into the ‘heroic’ category of workers. However many of us in the arts education and health and well-being field believe our work can improve the lives of others, and this is at the heart of what we do. We want to make a difference.

One of the first things many artists are told when working with marginalised people or undertaking community development or health education projects that address ‘big’ issues in communities or sections of them, is ‘don’t think you can make a difference,’ or words to that effect. We are reminded that we are ‘not the first to try and make changes here,’ and that we ‘shouldn’t expect too much.’ Health workers and educators may also be greeted with similar sentiments. Rest assured I have spent many hours reflecting on the impact of my work and whether I and other community artists make a difference.

Evaluating the work of artists in communities is problematic because evidence-based programmes and projects often expect the artist to also be the researcher. The fashion of having everyone do everything does not lead to excellence. It’s not the democratisation of skills (unless people want to learn them).  That, a reliance on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology, (numbers versus stories)  and a lack of sustainable funding has meant that many arts programmes are not ongoing or connected to each other.

So why do I continue to be an artist and not a (substitute what you like)? I have listed a few examples of why I believe my work makes a difference. It may not make a difference to a lot of people but to make a difference in one person’s life is enough for me.

The two year Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme had many outcomes, from picking up on children’s hearing problems to strengthening their relationships with their carers. However one outcome stood out for me.  A young mother told me she read a book. Seeing the joy her children experienced from being read to and told stories in the storytimes, we brought to the young mothers group, inspired her to want that for herself. She hadn’t read a book since being at school, and then she only read the prescribed texts because she had to. Now she chose to read a book for her own pleasure. Modelling storytelling and story reading is empowering and now she was modelling to her children.

Over my three decades of storytelling I have twice considered the impact of storytelling on people who found it difficult to communicate their responses. In the first instance I would visit a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease and conduct reminiscence sessions, telling stories set in Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s. A worker told me not to worry because half my group went to sleep. She reassured me that  the stories relaxed them and made them content. One woman was often in an anxious state and picking at her clothes, when the sessions began but by the end was showing much calmer behaviour. Another of the ‘awake’ participants told the worker that at the end of a session she felt very happy. She didn’t know why she was happy, she just was. I learnt from this, the power of being in the moment and that the emotions experienced listening to stories are more important than the stories themselves.

At the Support Unit at my local primary school I spent a number of years playing music and storytelling with children who had disabilities, some with severe and life threatening illnesses. While some children were active participants, others, because of their illnesses could listen but it was difficult for me to gauge their responses. Working closely with the teachers and aides helped me to interpret individual responses and interact accordingly.  A child who I mistakenly thought was happy because she was was smiling was in fact, fitting. As I got to know the children over the years and in consultation with the aids, I became familiar enough with their verbalisations and movements to be able to understand when they were engaged in the storytelling. They taught me about being in the present, spontaneity and communication, and I will be forever grateful for their teaching.

As an artist I have learnt the following and much more:

I am not an engineer who can build a bridge across treacherous terrain that will shorten the distance and make it safer for children to walk to school, but I can build a bridge of desire for knowledge, where a child can learn from and care for others.

I am not a surgeon who can restore a limb, remove a cancer or heal a broken body, but I can facilitate the telling of a story to demand justice, heal pain and ease sufffering.

I am not a farmer who grows food to nourish family, friends and community, but I can plant seeds into the minds of young people so that they will grow and mature into productive, resilient and beneficial human beings.

Artists Can Make a Difference

p1070539

Photo by Roman W Schatz

The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant,(1924) New York: Simon & Schuster

At the age of 57 she realised all she wanted was a living wage

How do you survive? Not by selling crocheted hats at markets that’s for sure! I admire any artisan who can make a living as a market seller, but most I’ve spoken with supplement their income from markets through selling online and they usually have another ‘proper’ job or income support. For the first time in my life I have no income from any source but my music and storytelling. I am too young for the pension and too old to be on the checkout at the reject shop. I am not going to centrelink to be taught how to write a job resume and then spend my precious time applying for inapproriate positions in marketing and sales. So before anyone takes it upon themselves to see me gainfully employed there are a few points to consider. I am a feminist, a socialist, and a humanitarian. I have a strong sense of ethics, will speak out against injustice and advocate for the disempowered. Too late to be a candidate for the United Nations new Secretary General, but even that position is not up my alley because I’m a storyteller and musician. These are the mediums I work in.

How about volunteer work? Often seen as a way into paid work I believe all artists volunteer in their communities, or all the artists I know do, to varying degrees. For the past sixteen years I presented weekly storytime sessions to the kids at my local school, the last ten years working with children with learning difficulties through to children with severe diabilities in the school’s support unit. This was my heart work, because the children in the support unit taught me how to be a better human being, and I am eternally grateful to them for the privilege of sharing songs and stories with them. However having an income also meant that I could commit to voluntary work. As to ways into paid work, there was never any interest expressed by the leadership in the school to have me conduct storyarts programmes or be an artist in residence. I suspect an attitude typical of many schools in Australia.

So maybe you just aren’t good enough? I have worked in some of the world’s elete international schools and given papers and workshops at international teaching and librarian conferences. I travel to urban and rural areas in Australia to provide professional development training in oral literature and storytelling to early childhood educators. I still do and tomorrow I may receive a reply from one of the hundreds of organisations I email each month saying ‘we want you’ for whatever project/professional development/concert/programme they are organising. Then again, I may not. Much is dependent on funding and getting to the right person. My degree is in performing arts, not librarianship or teaching so those two traditional employers of women are not a haven for me.

So what is the solution? A living wage for every person, regardless of what they do. I hear the haters harking back to that old eighties term of abuse, ‘dole bludger.’  What about the capitalists who make money out of money? No one ever calls them investment bludgers and demand they pay tax! (Actually some of us do but they are more likely to be revered as heroes or larrikins and put on congratulatory rich lists than be made accountable as white collar criminals).

Still, having a living wage is a human right. A more equitable society is not only more just and compassionate , it is more productive. It means that my friends in their 50’s and 60’s who are not working full-time can continue to look after their grandchildren, make art and carry out the tasks associated with their role as community  elders.

Pictured is Artist Joy Serwylo and granddaughter

Early Years Conference Cairns 2016

There is nothing like having your work scientifically validated! At the Early Years Conference in Cairns, Australia, I attended the keynote address by Dr Lane Strathearn, a neuroscientist and Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Iowa, and experienced this. He spoke on his research into mother-infant attachment, brain function and neuroendocrine systems and how they relate.

‘Infancy is a time of rapid neural development, in which repetitive, attuned social experiences – most often involving facial expressions- are transformed into neural connections, and pathways that become the foundation for social behaviour… Our research has demonstrated that mothers with secure patterns of attachment show greater brain reward response when viewing their own infant’s faces, and increased release of the hormone oxytocin during mother infant interaction. This is accompanied by more attuned maternal behaviour, including verbalization regarding the infant’s internal state, and mother-to-infant gaze during infant distress.’

Neuroscience supports Baby Bounce/RhymeTime/0-5 groups because they strengthen baby’s brain development as well as mother/carer bonding with their baby. Further neuroscience research into the impact of depression, addiction and unresolved trauma on mother-baby attachment shows that there may also be effective treatments.

For many years I have maintained, as I am sure many other early childhood educators also believe, that the more we put into resourcing and supporting mothers and babies, early childhood education and arts and health programmes for young children and their families, the better the outcomes will be not only for the participants i.e. children and families, but all levels of our society. Specific early literacy/live language programmes for babies and their carers have been offered by numerous public libraries in Australia over the last decade. But we need more. In previous blogs I have spoken about the myriad of outcomes gleaned from them.

My workshop at the conference, Humble Offerings: The application of oral literature in family support and early childhood education settings gave an overview of 3 projects which I have referred to in previous blogs. Each had oral literature; storytelling, rhymes and songs as their foundation. They were conducted to provide positive literacy experiences to parents, carers and teachers, and the children themselves. Additionally the first project also had a specific health objective.

The Tales for Terrific Talkers project was a year long project in collaboration with Port Macquarie Speech Therapists, to trial storytelling as a speech therapy technique for the treatment of speech and language delays in children aged 2-8.

Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness was a two year programme conceived by Kempsey Library to provide outreach storytimes to families with young children in need of supported literacy programmes, such as young mothers groups, supported playgroups and Aboriginal Preschools.

Everyone has a place: Positioning Aboriginal kids in the World Through Storytelling was a 6 week storytime programme to follow on from the Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme based at two Aboriginal preschools in Kempsey.

In each programme the presentations had a twofold purpose; to create a positive shared storytelling experience and to mentor the adults to recreate this experience in the home or early childhood setting. The beauty of oral literature is its accessibility and myriad of applications. In each of these programmes the following outcomes were observed: family bonding strengthened, cultural identity affirmed, listening protocols learnt as well as hearing problems identified.
Thanks to The Early Years Conference Committee for providing a forum where scientists, social workers and educators could meet and discuss how their work intersects and supports each other.

Pictured are  Balaclava Children’s Centre Workers after a Storytime workshop. 

FNQ

Baby Bounce

It has been my privilege and pleasure to present a four week Baby Bounce Programme through the Clarence Valley Libraries in NSW in June 2016. Most people who work in Public Libraries are aware of, if not already delivering these library-based family literacy programmes (Baby Bounce, Rhyme Time and similarly named programmes for the 0-2 age group).

Professor Susan Hill has been an advocate and researcher into the outcomes of these programmes over the past decade.  You can read her paper here on the studies she has conducted and the myriad of literacy outcomes achieved through these ‘live language’ programmes.

http://www.unisanet.unisa.edu.au/staff/SueHill/Babybounce.pdf

Here are some photographs from the sessions I have presented, with an accompanying commentary.

  1. Mentoring: Here we are in a photo shoot with our babies. A key component in teaching rhymes and songs is demonstrating positive actions and interactions that can be easily learnt and applied in a home setting, and offering parents and carers accompanying written resources to enhance their skills.

P1110803

2. Modelling: “Clap hands, clap hand till Daddy comes home.” Parents and carers are children’s first teachers, and what better way to learn than through songs and rhymes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

3. Active Listening: “All fall down!” As well as learning concepts such as up, down, high, low, fast and slow, babies extend their vocabulary, learn how to identify rhyming patterns and experience the thrill of anticipating a rhyme’s climax.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

4. Integration: ‘But let the little brumby go bare, bare, bare.” Sharing examples of how we can integrate rhymes and songs into baby’s daily life, such as bath time, change time, sleep time and food time .

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

5. Co-operation: “Here is baby’s belly-button, round and round it goes.” When older children are familiar with the rhyme they actively participate in discovering the body parts mentioned in the rhyme for themselves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

6. Body Awareness: “The Moon is round as round can be.” Skin to skin contact in a gentle rhyme that that teaches about facial features, the senses and shapes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

7. Trust, Intimacy and Love: Through repeated performance of rhymes and songs by the parent or carer, babies learn to forge bonds of trust, develop intimacy and experience the joy of loving and being loved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

8. Music-Making and Movement: Babies learn that holding something and shaking or striking it can create a sound. Repeating that movement creates music. Rhymes also have a beat that they can clap their hands and kick their feet too.

P6160427

9.  Engagement: Babies are active learners and active listeners. They learn through their senses and from the moment they are born they are interpreting their environment and who is in it. They form strong bonds with their carers and long before they can talk are actively communicating with those around them. The rhythm of walking and talking is a natural one for babies.

P1110854

10. Community: Babies are part of our community and enjoy listening to music, experiencing rhymes and expressing joy through active participation like older children and adults do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhotos by Roman W. Schatz

With Thanks to Katrina Shillam from Clarence Valley Libraries, NSW Australia.

Storyteller: Best Job in the World!

I have the best job in the world! A contentious statement I admit, but I will stand by my words. There are so many reasons why I believe this and chief among them is the people that I work with, primarily children and librarians. Of course there’s also parents, teachers, artists, musicians, healers and advocates for social justice who enhance the mix.
During the past month I have had the pleasure of conducting storytelling and oral literature workshops to staff at an early childhood centre in South Korea and two groups of public librarians in Australia. In each instance I parted with a feeling that the material I shared would in turn be be passed on to the children in their care. And that is my intention; I want to be a conduit for quality stories and rhymes.
There are easily accessible written sources, including my own, for presenting oral literature, however, there is nothing like a live language experience to feel the power of oral storytelling. This is why everyone, babies through to elders enjoy storytelling and oral literature in its many forms. The best evidence for this assertion is on a child’s face when they are experiencing storytelling. Even before children can talk, they can enjoy songs, rhymes, stories and being read to. Here are some pictures from the Baby Bounce sessions I am presenting in June through the Clarence Valley Libraries in NSW.