The Healing Foundation CEO Fiona Petersen with Dan Bourchier ABC Radio Canberra ‘Mornings’
Thursday 19 November 2020
Topics: Stolen Generations; Intergenerational Trauma, Resilience; COVID-19; Podcasts; Identity and Culture; Healing; Constitutional recognition
DAN BOURCHIER: Well, it’s certainly been a challenging year, 2020, for most Australians and most people in the world as we’re grappling with enormous change that’s been thrust upon us very quickly. There’s been a whole discussion around resilience and around how we find the tools and the key to healing. And that’s exactly what the Healing Foundation has been looking at for members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Canberra, and of Australia more broadly. And they’ve been looking at this through a series of podcasts, of having conversations, and in particular focusing on younger people, and looking at this question around intergenerational trauma, trauma that’s passed on and on and on.
Fiona Petersen is the Chief Executive of the Healing Foundation is here. Welcome Fiona, good morning.
FIONA PETERSEN: Good morning, Dan.
DAN BOURCHIER: Wonderful to have you here. Before we get started on the work that you’ve been doing, I wonder if, as a Foundation, you might give us an explanation for anyone who’s not familiar with the term intergenerational trauma – what does it mean?
FIONA PETERSEN: Well, essentially, what it means is that there were events that traumatised people during colonisation, like the forced removal of children from their families and communities. And that has flow-on effects to today. So unaddressed trauma plays out, it’s the root, the cause of social and health problems, and other problems that we are facing today. And we’ve got evidence now to show that, if you were taken from your family, if you had a parent who was taken, then you’ve got a bigger gap that needs closing than the other- the broader gap for the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander population.
DAN BOURCHIER: And why, on that point about that gap being broader if you were taken away or a member of your family, why is that?
FIONA PETERSEN: It’s a traumatic experience. And when you’re traumatised, we know that your brain, parts of your brain shutdown that usually give you access to logic, rational thinking and solutions and possibilities. And when you’re in a place of distress, when you’re carrying trauma, you- you’re in that fight, flight or freeze. And so, it’s difficult to function.
And it means that possibilities usually open to someone in a place of strength aren’t there.
And so, our work is about moving people from acting less from distress and more from strength. And so, when you’re doing that, your children pick up your possibilities and your behaviours, and your limited ways of looking at things as well. But it’s definitely not you, it’s a human experience, and it is trauma. And the barrier to a lot of achievements and success and closing the gap, we believe, and we have the evidence for that now, is trauma.
DAN BOURCHIER: And I expect that that trauma would have a really negative impact on identity and culture. But the discussion that you’re having now is actually how those two areas are part of the key to healing. How is that?
FIONA PETERSEN: Yeah, well, we have the privilege of walking alongside a lot of our survivors, to look at survivor-led solutions and healing in communities. And walking alongside communities to … what happens in that process is it’s unearthed again, just how special our culture is, how that belonging and being grounded in a sense of belonging and identity allows us to be in that place of strength more than distress. And when our communities understand how trauma impacts, it’s empowering information, because, not only that, but it’s empowering that there’s a realisation that there are elements in our culture that have always kept us safe and well, and will continue to. And that’s what we end up needing to prioritise, to move along our healing journeys.
DAN BOURCHIER: And coming from a place where you might be in, or experiencing trauma, the challenge must be how to unlock that knowledge and how to, perhaps, a question around your own awareness?
FIONA PETERSEN: Yes, awareness, and often, particularly in the case of the Stolen Generation survivors, it’s an authority, I think, too. It’s understanding that we are kings and queens of this land, and we always had an authority. And in colonisation it was taken from us, where, as children, as vulnerable children, we were … the impact on our language, our culture and our being is so very traumatic. And in the process, walking alongside communities and sharing the evidence that we’ve now documented, our survivors regain that authority. And this has been really important during 2020 as well …
DAN BOURCHIER: [Talks over] Yeah.
FIONA PETERSEN: … And during a pandemic, because, you know, there’s rules and restrictions that can be retriggering for a lot of our survivors.
But if there’s this sense of authority and control that’s maintained through really valuable support of community organisations, community-controlled organisations and others, you know, it means that we’re surviving it because we’re in that place, that place of strength.
DAN BOURCHIER: You’re hearing from Fiona Petersen, the Chief Executive of The Healing Foundation. There’s a whole series of podcasts coming out now that are looking at this question of identity and culture as being the keys to healing. And Fiona, you touched on there, the challenges of 2020 and I wonder if you see parallels between the discussions you’re having from that Indigenous perspective to a broader construct for our region around the bushfires, for the country and the world around COVID-19 and this pandemic and the restrictions it’s put on all of us?
FIONA PETERSEN: Yeah, I guess one common theme across – and you know, those kinds of events like the bushfires, we see that as a layering on of trauma – traumatic experiences across our region. But the common theme is that community, that sense of community and belonging to a community and getting through it together, it’s the collective healing that our communities are really good at, and that feeling of we are in this together.
You know, a lot of survivors are elderly now. But we have deep respect for elders, and we check in on them and we make sure they don’t feel isolated and we help them understand why this rule- what this rule means and what this restriction means. And we know what the border closures mean and that kind of thing, and always yarning, always checking in with each other. You know, we’ve always done that. Even, there are really simple things that we do that we’ve been raised doing, Dan. That help to someone in a place of heightened distress, even just sitting down, having a cup of tea. Yeah, we do that so naturally. But this is what some of our frontline services are doing for traumatised people, and we’ve always done it.
DAN BOURCHIER: Yeah. And this has been the thing that we keep hearing from politicians, of leaders this year is so much of our solution or coming through this will be how we take the shackles of physical, social distance and isolation away and find that sense of community.
FIONA PETERSEN: Yes.
DAN BOURCHIER: And I wonder if that might be part of the key of rebuilding and coming back together is – is finding those connections and rebuilding our community, whatever community that may be?
FIONA PETERSEN: Yeah, absolutely. And sharing our stories, because that’s how we work alongside each other. We hear each other, share our stories. And, you know, it’s truth telling too. There’s a lot of things that get found out in events like this that are unforeseen in terms of policies and programs falling short. We also know too, and we can sit here now and marvel and celebrate the heavy lifting our community-controlled organisations did to keep our people safe during the pandemic.
But, yeah, and to acknowledge that and celebrate those things, especially in our culture, that keep us thriving, keep us resilient no matter what’s thrown at us.
DAN BOURCHIER: You’re hearing from Fiona Petersen, the Chief Executive of The Healing Foundation, a new series of podcasts, the second of which is out now or at least in the next couple of days on intergenerational trauma healing, hinging off these questions around how our identity and our culture are the keys to healing. And Fiona, you touched on there about truth telling and at least on a political level, that’s been part of the discussion of the last couple of years. We’ve just heard, again, from the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, saying that he’s got this report from this leadership, a group of Indigenous leaders, about a pathway forward, it seems, at least for some of the commentary, that Constitutional recognition or entrenchment of a voice is not on the table or not on the cards immediately, but some sort of legislative body will be. What do you think about that?
FIONA PETERSEN: Yeah, look, it’s a good question. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the trenches a bit with that. [Laughs] But I think what’s important is that we listen to our survivors, our Stolen Generation survivors and their descendants.
There’s still so much unfinished business; 23 years ago, we had the Bringing Them Home report and, unfortunately, some of those gaps have just gotten bigger. We know the rates of out-of-home care for our children and incarceration and deaths in custody, all of those things are … that’s why people want a voice. That’s why people want … we want to be heard.
But our survivors are such pillars of strength and strong symbols of resilience. And when you hear some of the podcasts, the stories they give to us, they gift us, are just so generous and there’s still so much hope despite, you know, what they’ve been through and that hope and that generosity, you know, we need to ease the burden on the survivors and the descendants now that we know these statistics and we’ve got to hear them. We’ve got to hear them.
So, I support reform that essentially hears them once and for all. And when there’s no such thing as unfinished business anymore, we’ve done it.
DAN BOURCHIER: Maybe that’s the greatest aspect of truth-telling, is that the other side of that which is listening as well.
FIONA PETERSEN: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s such an important part of healing – being heard, being acknowledged, being validated for what you went through. But also, if we all, every one of us knew every day in our daily work what our contribution could be to healing and the recovery from trauma for our Stolen Generations and the descendants. That’s how the country is going to heal.
DAN BOURCHIER: It’s such an important conversation. I’m so glad you were able to join me this morning. Thank you.
FIONA PETERSEN: Thank you, Dan. I’m grateful to be here.
DAN BOURCHIER: Really, really wonderful to chat. That was Fiona Petersen, the Chief Executive of the Healing Foundation there.
To raise awareness about intergenerational trauma, The Healing Foundation produced this animation.
The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that partners with communities to heal trauma caused by the widespread and deliberate disruption of populations, cultures and languages over 230 years. This includes specific actions like the forced removal of children from their families.
Media contact: Ben O’Halloran – 0474 499 911 or firstname.lastname@example.org