narrative ways of working with groups and communities
reflections on dulwich centre training, April 2008
|From April 21st – 25th tCA’s Jason MacLeod headed south from Brisbane to Adelaide to participate in a 5 day workshop, Towards Collective and Community Practices: Narrative Ways of Working with Groups and Communities, organized and facilitated by members of the Dulwich Centre Institute for Community Practice.|
As a popular educator it is always a pleasure to participate in, as opposed to facilitating training. There is something I find relaxing about being in an educational space without having primary responsibility for pedagogy or holding the space. But most of all it is a privilege to learn from ones peers. When it involves experiencing and learning about a new method, facilitated brilliantly by experienced and gifted trainers, then it is a real treat indeed. Certainly this was my experience attending a workshop on narrative ways of working with groups and communities, facilitated by David Denbrough, Cheryl White and Barbara Wingard from the Dulwich Centre Institute for Community Practice. For five days we listened to inspiring stories from Aboriginal Australia, Rwanda, Palestine and each other. And in doing so we immersed ourselves in several narrative practices, and learnt how these tools may be applied in our own settings. The process itself is a captivating mixture of solid theoretical grounding, technique, and creativity; simple, respectful and subtly powerful.
Informed by a rich synthesis of narrative therapy and popular education, narrative ways of working with groups and communities is essentially about creating space to enable people to tell their stories in ways that make them stronger. In doing so the process can help build community and support social change. At its heart this involves what one of the founders of narrative therapy (and the Dulwich Centre), the late Michael White, calls “double storied testimony”. It is a process of understanding the nature of the problem – its history, strategy and tactics – in ways that separate the problem from the person. Narrative practitioners are fond of saying: “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. At the same time “double storied testimony” involves listening for and noticing alternative story-lines and the special skills and knowledges (even if the people themselves haven’t recognized them) that have enabled these alternative story lines to emerge.
Yet narrative work in collective settings is about doing community work, not about therapy. In consultation and partnership with community members, the narrative practitioner sits alongside people to richly or thickly describe their stories. Skills and knowledges are elicited, values and beliefs excavated, the histories of these practices uncovered, and the contours linking them to other people and places are mapped. Once thick story descriptions have been generated, these are reflected back to the listener/s in order to ensure they have been faithfully recorded. Stories can then be creatively documented, in text, song, film and other mediums.
The next step of the process involves amplifying the story, finding an audience to share these documents with. Ideally this is an audience who is struggling with similar issues. In this way the story tellers are enabled to make a contribution to the lives of others. This step is critical in order to reinforce the practices that support these alternative story lines that are already embedded in community settings. In addition by keeping the process other-focused, the risk of re-traumatizing people who have talked about going through hard times, is minimised. In the case of the Dulwich Centre Institute for Community Practice’s work in Port Augusta and Yirkala in Arnhem Land around strengthening local resilience around the work of suicide prevention and healing, making a contribution involved linking the two communities as part of a rich and ongoing process of feedback (see Linking Stories and Initiative). Finding an audience can also support the process of reaching out to allies and through stories strengthening the bonds of solidarity. This processes of two-way feedback can be ongoing. In the case of exchanges between Port Augusta and Arnhem Land, story telling back and forth continued over several months and several visits. The process helped forge significant relationships and strengthened local and particular practices of resilience and healing developed by the two communities. The final stage of the process involves finding appropriate ways to celebrate the contributions people have made.
The above process is merely one of several narrative techniques. There are others that can be used for shorter projects, or even opening exercises. A particular favourite that both the Dulwich Centre and tCA use is “Seeds of Fire”, a tool that comes from the well known Highlander Centre in the Appalachian Mountains, the “Graceland” of Popular Education in the U.S.
Immediately after leaving the workshop I had an opportunity to apply some of these techniques and the thinking behind them, to a workshop with a group of Aboriginal women. By incorporating narrative techniques into the workshop design I found I was working in a completely different way from how I normally facilitate. It was a gentler, richer process as we explored the objectives of the workshop through a rich process of telling and reflecting on stories. In doing so, space was created that affirmed and integrated peoples own traditional and contemporary knowledge and experience into what was this group’s task of creating a new organisation. I certainly look forward to using these processes again, and think the potential to richly story strategy and tactics for activist groups could be very rewarding.
If you are intrigued by the ways stories can build community and support social change, and if you find yourself with the opportunity to attend a similar workshop at the Dulwich Centre, I strongly recommend you do so.
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