Researchers at Victoria University (VU) are collecting stories of incarcerated Aboriginal women, or those at-risk, to explore the benefits of cultural practices in their paths to building resilience, connection and identity.

The project, Blak Women’s Healing, aims to identify where and when incarcerated or at-risk Indigenous women’s worlds changed, in a bid to understand their journey to poor health, prison, emotional and physical abuse, and recidivism in the criminal justice system.

Moondani Balluk Indigenous academic unit director, Karen Jackson, said Blak Women’s Healing reflects VU’s dedication to connecting with Aboriginal communities and agencies in Melbourne’s west.

“Aboriginal people in the west of Melbourne have expressed a desire to understand the impact of dispossession and dispersal on their identity and community,” said Jackson.

“This project provides opportunities for them to deepen their own understanding of cultural practices and contemporary ways to engage in healing.”

The project will involve incarcerated Aboriginal women at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre—many who have children in child protection—as well as women in the Footprints for Success project, an initiative designed for Aboriginal women seeking assistance to keep their children at home and in school.

Blak Women’s Healing will build upon growing international research that shows Indigenous people’s recovery from both historical and present-day trauma, due to the systematic dispossession of their land and culture, can largely benefit from embedding cultural practices into daily life.

The research team will facilitate programs that explore the trajectories of women’s lives, their families and extended families, community and connection to Country. The programs will include activities to build—or rebuild—relationships, gather stories, and create art for a public exhibition.

“The workshops take you through sessions where Aboriginal women can talk about the stories in connecting to earth and the land, what it means to them and what they see in their own local landscape,” Jackson said.

One of these programs is ‘bush dyeing’, where women go out and collect materials such as flowers, bark or wattle from their local environment. The materials are then wrapped up in cloth, tied with string and boiled, creating intricate patterns of leaves and natural colours.

The women will be encouraged to discuss the materials, where they found them and what they feel like.

“It enables them to connect to where they are currently living, but also connect to the other women that they are doing the work with. We think that’s vitally important for all of these women.”

“The idea is to give them these practices so they can do it themselves. Whenever they’re feeling low or confidence is down, they can remember their cultural practices and that will give them the strength to say, ‘It’s okay, I can get through this day. I know who I am and I know what’s important to me in terms of being an Aboriginal woman’,” Jackson said.

Due to current COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria, the women are restricted to collecting materials within a five-kilometre radius and can’t gather in groups to discuss. Jackson said the programs have had to adapt to the pandemic: she said “things are done in stages” and deep online discussions are held before participating in the practical work.

As one of 12 projects awarded funding by the Australian Government’s Indigenous Research Exchange, the research will be collated through the women’s yarns during programs such as the bush dyeing.

“These stories will come out and we’ll be able to identify the moments that their ‘worlds fell apart’. Asking things like what happened, who was there to help you? If nobody was there to help, what would be a different way to find support in that space? For the women in prison, we expect those same yarns to come out. It’s mostly linking stuff together,” Jackson said.

Blak Women’s Healing also aims to enhance the capacity of partner agencies in responding more sensitively to engaging and working with Aboriginal women, including the development of appropriate training and education for community workers.

“We want to help them listen deeply to Aboriginal women’s stories and then use that knowledge to think differently about how they react and interact with the Aboriginal women that they’re providing services to,” Jackson said.

VU researchers involved in the Blak Women’s Healing project also include Paola Balla, Professor Christopher Sonn, Dr Amy Quayle, and Rowena Price.

By Imogen Kars