About We Al-li

We Al-li provides activities, workshops and recreations that promote social, spiritual, cultural, physical, emotional and mental wellbeing for all individuals, families and social groups through trauma informed and trauma specific programs.
We Al-li as a healing program?
The We Al-li program is an Indigenous community therapeutic response to the individual, family and community pain many people carry as part of their life experiences. For Aboriginal peoples, this pain is more specifically defined as the traumatic impacts of the multiple intergenerational experiences of colonisation, resulting in ill-health, individual, family and community dysfunction (dys - Latin - meaning bad or as a medical term it means literally impaired functioning), alcohol and drug misuse, personal, inter- and intra-family violence, rape, child abuse and neglect, youth and adult suicide and suicide attempts, and self injury. These are all major health issues impacting on the health care and criminal justice systems of Australia. Trauma recovery (or healing programs) is a demonstrated need within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities nationally, and within Australian society generally.
The We Al-li program is built on the principles of integrating Indigenous cultural processes for conflict management and group healing, Eastern and Western therapeutic skills for trauma recovery, with action or experiential learning practices. Under Western academic definitions the approach is cross-disciplinary, in other words, an integration of a number of disciplines. Under Indigenous definitions the approach is holistic. These approaches have been blended into workshop programs which provide cognitive learning, reflection and emotional release within a training syllabus for multi-skilling of workers in the trauma recovery field, including healing from domestic violence, sexual assault, childhood trauma, and alcohol, drugs and other addictions. These skills would be equally applicable for Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers.
Why do we need programs of healing?
‘(There are) families where we can trace the trauma back five or six generations. The 1860’s, the generation of our great-grannies, was for some the generation of first contact, the massacre times, the poisoned water holes, stock whips and hobble chains. The 1890’s, the next generation saw the setting up and removal of people to reserves. The 1930’s to the 1960’s, the third generation, the period of assimilation, saw children forcibly taken from their families and placed in state run institutions. My generation has seen massive changes. And now there are my children and grandchildren. Through the generations we have seen too much violence, too much pain, too much trauma. In its multi-layered context, it sits on us like a rash on the soul, and it stays in our families and communities to destroy us. This violence comes as forms of self abuse, and abuse of others, as in alcohol and drug misuse, suicides and homicides, domestic violence and sexual assault (Atkinson 1994, quoted in Cameron 1998).
Following the founders own six-generational trauma-gram which links the historical events of frontier intrusion into Aboriginal lands with its resultant epidemics, massacres, starvations and removals of people to reserves to the next period of protracted traumatisation; the removal of children and intense government surveillance of Aboriginal lives; and on to the third level, which acknowledges the intensity of present-day government attempts to rectify past wrongs, including what Noel Pearson calls 'passive welfare', while making no allowance for the levels of traumatisation in the lives of people in the present.
Such a trauma-gram could be extended to chart each person in the first generation shown, to trace what has happened both in relationship to trauma compounding across generations located in place, and to charting interventions that have changed the lives of those involved.
The trauma-gram traces one line of this family across generations, listing the known (documented or narrated within the family) issues of being victim to physical violence, sexual violence, perpetrating violence, diagnosed mental illness, suicide attempts and alcohol and/or drug misuse. It is clear that trauma, unacknowledged and unattended to, compounds and compacts, increasing the likelihood of further traumatic events occurring.
Naming this trauma is not about placing blame on previous generations. In allowing the trauma-lines that run through families and communities to be acknowledged, a context to the pain and the behaviours that articulate that pain is provided so that people in the present can make more sense of their lived reality and begin to work for change (Atkinson, J., 2000: extract from Ph.D. thesis Lifting the Blankets: The transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia).
How do people heal?
The first and most essential step to trauma recovery is to create a safe environment for people to heal. Issues of safety are therefore of vital importance. In such safe places people can enter the first stage of a trauma recovery processes ‘Telling the Story’. Workshops provide activities that promote telling and interlinking individual and collective stories or life experiences. Workshop modalities introduce participants to various skills to facilitate the stages of an incremental healing process:
Telling the story.
Making sense of the story.
Feeling the feelings.
Moving through loss and grief to acceptance
Reclaiming the Sacred Self.
Dadirri, a ceremonial contemplative deep listening, is used to support the process of listening and learning. Many strategies are used: narration, reflective discussion, art, dance, music, symbols, ritual, drama, bodywork, and group process in emotional release work. In this process, healing theory is continually being redefined and redeveloped.
The program has been running since 1993 and has been well-received, with a rising demand for its services by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. The Western Australian government Crime Prevention and Domestic Violence Unit for example, refers to the work of We Al-li as ‘pioneering work on healing’ for Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens in its letter asking for access to the program. Healing has been defined by a participant of the workshops as ‘educating me about myself – who I am and how I have become who I am’.
Philosophy and Theory
The series of workshops embraces the concepts and principles which complement Indigenous understandings and learning that are understood to be a life-long process. All adults have the right to continuing educational opportunities as part of their own personal growth and career development. The educational approach involves the assumption that each person has the potential of knowing him/herself and is capable of making life choices that will best enhance growth and meaning. It is based on an educational philosophy that is fundamentally derived from the Latin roots of the word 'education’ (ex - educare: to lead out from).
As a consequence of this educational philosophy, all workshops offered through this course will be a blend of the experiential and the didactic, with different balances of each in different programs and program presentations. At the same time, it is assumed that all personality growth and development occurs in the context of relationships - first in the family, then in other combinations of friends, social networks, educational and work acquaintances. Thus all courses will be oriented towards the group process that will illuminate the individual person’s life at home, in the community, in society and at work.
The course presents not so much old theories, but Indigenous and non-Indigenous cutting-edge practice from which new theories are presently evolving. It moves beyond the medical and professional health services delivery approach to health, into a socio-cultural model which skills and empowers workers for personal and community developmental approaches for individual and group well-being. A healthy community is one where, among other things, the social and emotional needs of the individuals and the families within the community are being met. This fundamentally involves ‘quality of experience’ over ‘quality of life’. The course provides participants with skills and understanding, helping people to heal together, so that people in a community can move through the incremental stages of healing to reconciliation within the self, and with each other.
Cultural tools for healing
The strongest cultural tools for healing have been found to be narrative processes or story telling, art, music/dance, theatre, dadirri and reflective discussion, as described below.
A strong cultural educational tool is the use of story or narrative. In the workshops the stories are the life experiences of those who are working together in the circle. A series of action-learning experiences have been created to help the stories flow naturally from people: Lifting the Blankets, Past-Present-Future, story maps, loss history graphs are different experiential modules developed and used in the workshops.
With the first workshop, Lifting the Blankets, all the hurts came up. We saw them in the blankets, and we wrote them on the wall. Some, you wouldn’t even of thought of naming yourself. I think sometimes we just look at ourselves, this is what happened to me. But now I could see the whole picture. The men there, and the other women, all of us, we all shared our experiences. I was sexually abused as a child and I thought that was a separate issue but now I could see that other people also had that happen to them. I could see that it was part of a bigger picture. The loss history graph was really powerful. When I put down all the different things in my own personal story, things that had happened to me, the people who had died, I didn’t feel bad, just stronger that I had survived all this. And lighter because it was really like those blankets had been lifted. Also I could understand why sometimes I find it hard to cope. Now I understand why and I make decisions to take more care of myself. I can say No louder (Priscilla Iles in Atkinson, Fredericks and Iles: 1996).
Some people who are traumatised are unable to verbalise their feelings, so art was used to allow the story to be told in a way that provided another level of expression and self-exploration. Art is also used to integrate the healing. Group paintings helped the group to start to work together as they blended their individual stories into a whole. Art is a language of its own. Humans use art as a mode of expression across all cultures. It is an effective tool for healing, used by people of all cultures in all ages. During the workshops art becomes a powerful tool of expression and integration. This isn’t ‘art therapy’. The art process is healing in itself. Art does not require verbal reflection or interpretation. In the creation of images, symbols and collages, natural resistance can be overcome. It is possible to review a person’s art over a period of eighteen months to two years and actually see the depicted changes in the person, yet no verbal therapy has taken place. People can participate deeply, effectively and safely in healing through art, because art speaks of the inner needs and experiences. A young man in prison, after attempting suicide, for three months and in the deepest despair, painted the most beautiful paintings as he went within himself to find a new direction in his life.
Similarly, it has been found some people are able to dance (or move) the story through their body. Dance is also used to help people feel what is inside them, and express those feelings in creative movement. Another young man approached music and dance as means of expression of his deep inner feelings:
I’m in training - I’m using all my anger - all my emotions - the stress and the pain and the shit I got to go through - I use it all for my dancing. Like We Al-li says, we use our anger, we recycle it, we use it as power for us. These people showed me a different life … to make beautiful things out of your anger, out of your hate, out of your sadness. [Anon].
Acting has proved to be an excellent tool to allow safe learning to occur, to create further points for discussion, and to provide deeper understanding about the trauma story. Often in role-playing, either as participants or as audience, people will have flashes of insight essential to understanding behaviour, including their own. A safe learning environment can be created through drama, for insight that can be painful yet empowering for change.
Emotional Release
Creating a safe place for feelings to be felt, expressed and released is essential. Our experience is that many Aboriginal people have layers of unexpressed anger and grief stored in their body, and these feelings are the root cause of much of our distress, criminal behaviour and physical and mental illness. The Prun and other ceremonial conflict processes where deep feeling were expressed, were re-created in We Al-li, and the anger – grief workshops became the ones people wanted the most.
Body Work
Massage, breath, and other body therapies are proving to be valuable tools in healing work.
The use of these multiple pathways and cultural healing tools provides holistic integration and they are most effective within a group process, which appears to be stronger, for Indigenous people, than is individual work. The most important tools used, however, are the processes of dadirri and reflective discussion.
The Healing work of We Al-li
The healing work of We Al-li provides a simple shift in focus from the treatment of illness and dysfunction to promote health and well-being in family and community relationships. We Al-li seeks to move away from classifying, labelling, pathologising, and medicalising human bodies, minds and emotions, and criminalising human trauma behaviours. It seeks to promote a curiosity about the breadth, depth and diversity of the human subjective experience, acknowledge of the untapped potential of personal resources and the formidable tenacity of the human spirit for more than just survival.
Health and well-being is not about perpetual happiness, contentment, the absence of fear or even the absence of disease or pain. It is an unqualified embracing of life for its own sake. Quality of life is not about adherence to some conjured-up definition of normality or compliance. It is the experience and expression of what it means to be fully alive. One can be fully alive while in a wheel chair, lying on our death-bed, living below defined the poverty line - whether we are in ecstasy or despair.
Optimal health exists when a person experiences Self as an integrated whole that encompasses the body, the emotions, the mind and the spirit. This state of health, experienced as a pervasive sense of well-being, can only occur through connection with other Selves –‘ without you there can be no me’. To become whole, the Self needs to be experienced, expressed from the inside and recognised from the outside. Hence the critical context for both health and healing is the interpersonal (Self-Other) relationship (Fewster 2000: Health is Generated from Inside Out).
We Al-li seeks to have people come to the knowledge that each person – irrespective of disability or assumed deficit – possesses the resources to promote and experience her or his sense of connectedness with Self, with others and with the world in general. In its state of unity, the natural order is neither hostile nor damaging to human life; so however disconnected or fragmented the person appears to be, the challenge remains the same – to access the resources for connection and health that lie within. Health is not a struggle against adversity but a life-long process of seeking and sustaining wholeness. Through participation in life, through Self-Other contact and by creating conditions in which connectedness can grow and flourish, healing occurs.
The workshops of We Al-li therefore promote and provide skills for exploring the Self in relationship with others within group processes and learning environments. These are both for personal healing work and for professional skills development that are interconnected and interdependent. The skills build capacity and contribute to removing some of the barrier to Employment that many of our mob face.