The Nargneit Birrang Framework

The policy context

The Nargneit Birrang Framework has been developed in response to the Victorian Government’s intent to develop an Aboriginal-led and co-designed statewide family violence holistic healing approach for Aboriginal communities across the State.

The Victorian Government has long recognised that Victorian Aboriginal communities have consistently led the way in the development of strategic priorities and actions to prevent and respond to family violence, and that a process that embeds self-determination is paramount to developing a uniform approach for holistic healing to support all Aboriginal people.

Nargneit Birrang was developed in acknowledgement of the persistent and disproportionate impacts of family violence on Aboriginal people and the desire to keep more Aboriginal people safe from family violence and the need to further develop Aboriginal responses to promote healing and safety.

Violence against Aboriginal people encompasses a wide range of abuse and can include physical, sexual, emotional and economic abuse as well as inter and intra-group violence and lateral violence. Spiritual and cultural violence is also used against Aboriginal women and men when non-Aboriginal partners or family members exclude or isolate them from their culture or community.

Violence against Aboriginal people disproportionately impacts women and children, who undoubtedly experience violence at much higher rates than other Victorians. Aboriginal women and Aboriginal children are at a higher risk of family violence in Victoria than other women or Aboriginal men, regardless of whether they live in rural, regional or urban areas.

Family violence is perpetrated against Aboriginal people by both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people and is experienced within intimate relationships, families, extended families, kinship networks and communities. The resultant trauma and violence impacts on the whole of family regardless of whether individual members are directly impacted.

It is not the case that Aboriginal people accept family violence. Aboriginal people are affected by family violence from colonisation. We live with it and become accustomed to it.

The project was committed to:

  • find better ways to understand and express what family violence and holistic healing mean for Victorian Aboriginal communities
  • draw upon Aboriginal cultural knowledge and practice to identify approaches that effectively enable healing
  • develop better solutions and outcomes for Aboriginal people

Traditionally, Government has funded time-limited Western models to address family violence and used rigid approaches to reporting and compliance. It is recognised that there is a gap between the development and piloting of culturally appropriate responses to family violence, and the long-term, sustained support required to ensure enduring change and accountability approaches.

Western approaches largely focus on the individuals who are affected by violence rather than a more inclusive approach that intervenes with the family and community. Western responses do not address the systemic impact of violence that has been perpetuated on the Aboriginal community and its legacy for individual Aboriginal people and families. Whilst all Aboriginal people have been affected by the impact of past policies and practices and current systemic issues described above, individual and family responses will differ. Holistic healing approaches need to individualise healing for individuals and families within this broader approach.

Further, Aboriginal approaches appreciate the importance of restoring and/or enhancing connection to culture, community and land as intrinsically linked to healing. Holistic healing approaches reflect this broader view and locate the individual or family healing in the context of their community and culture to build resilience and support. Western approaches largely fail to recognise the healing (or clinical) value of culture and its expressive outlets, such as art and dance, and their capacity to reduce adverse symptoms and build positive self-identity for individuals and families.

Self-determination is a complex concept. In this framework it is understood as promoting agency, voice and empowerment at both the individual and community level. Self-determination becomes the foundation for achieving holistic healing.

Trauma informed Aboriginal Holistic Healing

Aboriginal holistic healing is recognised by Aboriginal people as a meaningful way to respond to trauma, intergenerational trauma (including family violence trauma) and restore wellbeing at a community, family and individual level.

Nargneit Birrang recognises that colonisation was the first act of violence, and that this trauma accumulates across generations.

As stated in Free from Violence: Victoria’s strategy to prevent family violence and all forms of violence against women:

Family violence is not and never has been part of Aboriginal culture. Rather, the impact of white settlement, colonisation and the violent dispossession of land, acts of cultural genocide and removal of children has displaced traditional Aboriginal roles and resulted in an accumulation of trauma across generations.

The Healing Foundation defines intergenerational trauma as the unknowing passing on of trauma through behaviour as a result of not having an opportunity to heal. It can affect the way people think and act and overwhelm their ability to cope and engage. It can impact a person or communities for many decades and in many ways, with common symptoms including fear and anxiety, difficulty with relationships, impulsive behaviour, feeling sad and hopeless, tired and confused.

As a result of intergenerational trauma, children can experience difficulties with attachment, disconnection from their extended families and culture and high levels of stress from family and community members who are dealing with the impacts of trauma. This creates a cycle of trauma, where the impact can be passed from one generation to the next.

The cumulative effects of individuals, institutional and structural violence and racism over the generations have contributed to widespread poverty, disadvantage, pervasiveness of family violence and the severity of its impact on Aboriginal people today. Aboriginal children placed in care have a common history of family violence as a key contributor to their removal from families.

Responding to family violence in this context is complex and challenging. The lack of responsibility of broader society to reduce systemic racism and exclusion is often overlooked as a contributing factor to the levels of family violence experienced by Aboriginal communities.

These factors have played a key role in Aboriginal communities advocating for holistic healing practices as this approach delivers benefits to people experiencing trauma.

The Healing Foundation:

  • describes healing as reconnecting with culture, strengthening identity, restoring safe and enduring relationships, and supporting communities to understand the impact that their experiences have had on their behaviour and create change.
  • recognises the power of healing in emphasising physical, psychological, and emotional safety for people seeking help, and creating opportunities for people affected by trauma to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment [3]

Holistic healing seeks to address underlying trauma and its impacts by taking a strengths-based, trauma-informed and whole of life approach to safety, wellbeing and empowerment. Healing needs to occur at community, family and individual levels and across a person’s lifetime and across generations.

In Victoria, the Indigenous Family Violence 10 Year Plan Strong Culture, Strong Peoples, Strong Families (2008-2018) advocated strongly for a more holistic approach to trauma-informed healing:

We appreciate the importance of a holistic healing approach to family violence in Indigenous communities based around family and Indigenous community strengthening, collaborative approaches, appropriate resources and flexible program and service delivery arrangements.

Cultural and trauma informed resilience and healing approaches are also recognised as a Guiding Principle to deliver on the Aboriginal 10 Year Family Violence Agreement (2018-2028) Dhelk Dja: Safe Our Way – Strong Culture, Strong Peoples, Strong Families.

Taking a cultural and whole of life approach to restore social emotional wellbeing, as outlined in Balit Murrup: The Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing Framework 2017-2027, requires strengthening the multiple dimensions of an Aboriginal person’s connections including connection to: spirit; land; culture; community; family and kinship; mind and emotions; and body.

What emerged through community co-design?

Throughout the Aboriginal-led community codesign process undertaken to develop Nargneit Birrang, Aboriginal people were very clear in wanting access to healing through a holistic approach that was inclusive of the following community members:

  • women, children, men, families and communities experiencing or impacted by family violence, inclusive of people who might identify as LGBTIQA+ or people with a disability
  • people using family violence
  • healing for individuals, families and at a whole of community level

There was also a recognition of the need to include non-Aboriginal family members given how many Aboriginal men and women are in relationships with non-Aboriginal partners. These couples may experience cultural differences and conflict in dealing with and managing cultural and communication differences, which could potentially lead to higher levels of violence.

When you say holistic healing, it means everyone is involved.

The critical importance of self-determination; a recognition that Aboriginal people are thriving when self-determination is at the core of healing; and the connection to culture, community and country was also strongly emphasised and heard.

It was identified that Elders and respected community members with healing knowledge are valued, and cultural practices and activities inform healing. Being safe, including cultural safety, was seen as a pre-condition of healing.

We heard that across Victoria there exist many Aboriginal-led healing programs developed with, and in response to, localised Aboriginal community needs and priorities. There are also many Aboriginal people and their families across Victoria who are thriving. Key elements shared in common by these programs include:

  • Aboriginal-led and designed
  • promotion of healing and wellbeing
  • cultural strength, connection to culture and/or resilience are central
  • safety is central

The co-design process revealed that the community were consistent in the key messages of:

  • Self-determination is critical.
  • Healing takes time and all individual’s healing journeys are unique.
  • Everyone should feel safe. While addressing trauma can be overwhelming, the healing process can help survivors develop inner strengths and lessen their fear of safety for themselves and their families.
  • The past impacts the present, and trauma, including intergenerational trauma, should be acknowledged and addressed as a part of holistic healing approaches.
  • Aboriginal holistic healing is valued and should be funded as a meaningful way to respond to family violence trauma, recognising that healing is for all people.
  • Aboriginal services should be prioritised in funding healing programs and resources should transfer from mainstream services to Aboriginal agencies.
  • More flexible approaches to funding and Aboriginal defined measures of success are required.
  • Recognition that strong models of Aboriginal-led healing already exist in Victoria.
  • Aboriginal-led holistic healing in Victoria needs to be expanded to respond to the disproportionate impact of family violence on Aboriginal people.

Drawing this together, Nargneit Birrang seeks to establish a shared understanding across Victoria of Aboriginal holistic healing so that it can be used as a clear and consistent way to provide services and fund Aboriginal designed and led approaches for individuals, families and communities to heal from family violence.

Through the consultations of Nargneit Birrang, it became clear that there is a real interest in sharing knowledge across Victorian Aboriginal communities, Government and other service organisations on what culturally-appropriate tools exist, what healing approaches are most successful with Aboriginal people and what collaborations are working well for communities. It seeks to build upon and complement a range of Victorian Government strategies and frameworks (as listed in the Appendices section of this document) which further emphasise self-determination, social and emotional wellbeing, and the right to live free from violence. These strategies and frameworks are referenced throughout and have informed Nargneit Birrang.

What is the strategic intent of Nargneit Birrang?

The Framework is a strategic response to guide:

Service design, implementation and evaluation: Aboriginal services and communities in Victoria will apply the framework to guide the design, implementation and evaluation of holistic healing approaches to family violence that support Aboriginal people in their communities in their healing journeys.

Funding guidelines, compliance, indicator measures and evaluation: The Victorian Government – across multiple departments and agencies – will use the framework as a blue print to direct funding to Aboriginal services and communities in Victoria who demonstrate holistic healing approaches and responses to family violence, recognising self-determination as a pivotal design feature. This will require the government to adopt new funding guidelines, reconsider current compliance measures, and value Aboriginal knowledge and approaches to evaluation including definitions of what constitutes success in line with this framework.

The process to develop the Nargneit Birrang Framework

In order to bring together the knowledge and wisdom that exists around Aboriginal holistic healing, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) and ThinkPlace (Co-design Specialist Agency) worked in partnership with Victorian Aboriginal communities between September 2017 to June 2018 to explore the needs of Aboriginal communities for both preventing, responding and bringing about healing to family violence. The project was funded by Family Safety Victoria and delivered in consultation with the Dhelk Dja Partnership Forum.

From project commencement, a strong focus was placed upon taking the time to build trusted relationships and to bring people – communities, organisations and government - along on the journey together.

Nargneit Birrang was developed by drawing upon:

  • existing evidence, research and Aboriginal community led models of holistic healing to address trauma, with a focus on family violence trauma; and
  • Aboriginal sources of evidence, wisdom, community knowledge, stories and experiences shared by Aboriginal people, communities and services during the project consultation process

Nargneit Birrang describes what Aboriginal holistic healing is, why healing is needed and how healing works to heal family violence and associated trauma for Aboriginal people and for non-Aboriginal family members.

This consultation and this framework recognises that Aboriginal cultures and communities across Victoria are diverse, and that healing is different for someone who experiences violence to someone who is using violence.

The project started with a literature review and field research to build upon what has come before and what has been said previously across Victorian Aboriginal communities – noting that what has been said before has not always been heard or acknowledged.

Through interviews and focus groups, the project captured ideas and knowledge from Aboriginal communities across Victoria about what healing is, why healing is needed, how healing works and what healing looks like.

In the early stages of the development of Nargneit Birrang, the story of the river emerged as an important place for healing that connected many Aboriginal communities across Victoria. The river narrative evolved into a way for people to reflect on holistic healing and family violence without having to draw on traumatic personal stories or memories. It created a culturally safe way to connect and talk about family violence and described a story of a healthy eco-system and rejuvenation, centred around safety, strengthened families and whole of community healing – thereby enabling deep listening that supported the co-design process.

We agreed to travel together along the river to the billabong of healing. We built the canoe to carry all of the cultural knowledge to assist Aboriginal people lead their healing – ThinkCamp participant

A two-day co-design ‘ThinkCamp’ forum was held with more than 70 key stakeholders from across Aboriginal communities, organisations and government to actively listen, design and commence building a common understanding of the vision for a holistic healing approach for Aboriginal communities in Victoria. Through this process, the desired outcomes that Victorian Aboriginal communities seek in their healing journeys was heard.

Subsequently, regional prototyping workshops were held with local Aboriginal communities to test and further refine a set of draft design characteristics that emerged from the rich input gathered at ThinkCamp. These were further tested at a second one-day ThinkCamp held in mid-2018.