~ The Art Of Change ~ with Carol Omer ~

Art and Creativity as Mediums for Empowerment , Connection and Change…

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The ART of Change. A Domestic Violence Shelter Memoir

Posted by carolom on April 18, 2017

*This is my unedited memoir in progress. I welcome your feedback and comment as I develop my work in progress.
Thank you for taking time to read my story about working in  women’s domestic violence and homeless shelters over the last 20 years and thank you for your patience with the unedited nature of the following story.

 

The ART of Change
A Domestic Violence Shelter Memoir

by Carol Omer

Chapter 1.

The Women’s Village

For many years I worked in homeless shelters and domestic violence refuges amongst complex women leading challenging lives. And that was just the staff.

That’s an old joke I used to bring out at staff meetings occasionally to remind us that although we were the shelter workers, we were not exempt from life’s dramas and difficulties. Our agency was a supported accommodation and advocacy service for homeless young women under 25, with children. It was referred to amongst the residents  as a shelter for single mums.

Many were teenage mothers dealing with issues of poverty and family trauma. We didn’t always have the answers to every problem that presented itself amongst the homeless women who came to live at the shelter for a short time but we were dedicated to our philosophy of walking with the young women in the early days of  their journey of young motherhood.

A women’s shelter is a complex, compassionate and challenging environment. There were times when staff members attributed issues amongst the women in residence as a reflection of the dynamics of that current group not realising that sometimes the discord and lack of co-operation were a mirror of our own .

As a staff team we were continuously working through complex issues of compatibility and conflict amongst our team  of ten women sharing a relatively small space day in and day out. Spending a significant part of our week days in a compact setting  required us all to take ownership of how our personal style impacted the collective and it  was an on going conversation that sometimes carried high emotion when contradictory values clashed.
We had the privilege of addressing difficulties within the context of   team development and staff training but for the women who came to live at the shelter their issues were not always identified as related to living with seven other women in a highly prescriptive shelter setting whilst under the watchful eye of a team of older women as contributing to   her stress.

Workplaces are a microcosm of human interactions and work place politics, staff alliances and staff differences, personality types and personality clashes play out on a daily basis. I think of workplace teams as a kind of arranged marriage, some of the relationships have a high success rate where others require constant attention and maintenance in order to maintain harmony and an agreement about how power and responsibility are distributed.

Identity, self worth, acceptance, overcoming negative patterns and developing new ways of thinking to overcome old beliefs and narrow perceptions are the challenges we all face in life. The women who came to live at the shelter were living an amplified version of these challenges because of the impact of domestic violence, surviving sexual abuse and poverty. At any given time there would be 20 women living behind the secure gates of the shelter and equally as many children. It was an unpredictable, sometimes volatile and endlessly inspiring setting taught me a great deal about the resilience of women during times of distress and heartache.
Human services are no different than any other institution, that creates highly contained settings where the very best and the most challenging aspects of human nature are played out. Skilled, flexible women with compassionate hearts managed our shelter and they encouraged a culture of self-reflection and team development. Like all of us, they were on their journey of life and together we created new projects and programs, some that failed and many that were successful. Accountability for choices and behaviors was as relevant for the women who worked there as it was for the women who came to live there.

The teenagers and young women who came to the shelter were marginalised and troubled young people. Some struggled with mental health issues and all were affected by trauma and grief. They often arrived with babies in prams donated by the Salvo’s, accompanied by determined social workers who had worked hard to get them into the shelter and away from the people and places they were accustomed to.

Occasionally a woman was at the shelter because of a court order and the monitoring of her daily routines by staff, social workers and psychologists would determine whether or not she would keep her baby or if a care order would be put in place. There was a lot at stake and emotions were raw and unpredictable. Any mother, regardless of her age or circumstances would find the prospect of losing her baby to an all powerful government department an agonising, looming threat.

In some ways the power that the shelter had over a young woman’s future, determined by the observations and recommendations we would make, was the same power imbalance and impending threat that she experienced in the domestic violence she was fleeing. We had the power and the resources and she had to comply and commit to making changes or her relationship with her baby, who was considered to be at high risk by the time a court order was issued, would be changed for ever.
All of the residents at the shelter were young, vulnerable women and many had become mothers at a time in their life when her own trials and difficulties were overwhelming. The reality of life as a single mother on a low income in a society that favours the educated and the ambitious is fraught with obstacles that are invisible to people outside of the subculture of homelessness, domestic violence and sole parenting.

 

Chapter Two.

The Revolving Door

Why are some people drawn to working in a shelter when others will go through their whole lives never setting foot inside of a women’s refuge or a domestic violence shelter?

The basic salary is not a reflection of the level of experience and skill of the shelter staff and career paths are limited, which is why many young social work graduates work in shelters as a career stepping stone on their way to a far better paying position of influence and opportunity.
It is my experience that there are two common reasons women choose to work in women’s shelters and neither are to do with financial reward. It is dedication and optimism.

Shelter workers are very optimistic regardless of the domestic violence statistics that say family violence is on the rise or the number of times a woman returns to access a service that she had said she will never need to see again.

Women who work in shelters are dedicated to the long term support of families who are vulnerable to budget cuts and housing shortages and to the women who are at risk of exploitation and harm by abusive partners . In the face of shrinking housing stock and limited access to education and resources, women’s shelter staff are resolute in their commitment to advocating for safe, secure and affordable housing for marginalised women with children.

Dedication and optimism are the oxygen that breathes life into women’s shelters even though their budgets and programs are often the first to be cut during the tightening-budget phase of funding cycles and in the aftermath of elections.

Shelters that accommodate children have an extra layer of optimism and resilience. They are staffed by highly skilled children’s workers, equipped with a level of insight and sensitivity that enables them to navigate complex relationships with young women who are often very suspicious of the motives of the staff who they generically refer to as The Workers.

As a staff team we recognised that the devastating circumstances homeless women have experienced can be addressed in the case management process or at the very least their trauma can be attended to in a supportive and dedicated environment when a care plan is put in place.

I was one of The Workers in a team of ten women for a period of ten years at a shelter I will refer to as The Women’s Village. During that time I also sat on an Aboriginal women’s domestic violence service and as a board member of The Big Issue street magazine. The Women’s Village was a small community based organisation that provided accommodation and support to homeless young mothers and their children . We were the gatekeepers standing at the revolving door. Women arrived with deeply ingrained trauma and were often living out inherited family chaos that placed them into a web of poverty, family violence and limited opportunity from birth. Their children had often experienced a great deal of upheaval in their short lives and many were already familiar with the day to day routine of refuge life.

Our shelter was not the preferred place for the women who had strong, supportive networks, empowering family relationships or access to resources, however if one of our residents did have this level of support, she would usually only stay for a short time and having escaped domestic violence, would return to her supportive family shortly after.

By their very nature, women’s shelters are a place where women and children go when there is nowhere else to go.

It was not uncommon for a woman to leave with her children and return a few weeks or months later. Promises of love, promises to change, promises of a better future with troubled and sometimes dangerous men kept her trapped in the domestic violence cycle so it was our job to offer her domestic violence education and personal development training so that she could recognise the cycle and the inevitable stages that always left her vulnerable and in harms way.
Each woman has her own unique story about her relationship with her children’s father and even though her age and stage of emotional development and health issues may keep her anchored deeply in the events of a troubled past, we often witnessed great courage and determination throughout the months and, in the early days, sometimes the years that she was supported by our agency.

Homeless young mothers are one of the most vulnerable groups in Australian society so embarking on the journey of parenting at a time when she was discovering her own identity is a huge undertaking for a teenager and each staff member at the shelter would play a different role in supporting her in that journey.

We were a staff team of ten women of different ages, backgrounds, cultural and spiritual beliefs. Some of us were academically qualified and others brought their school-of-life experience to the team. To use the metaphor of The Women’s Village, we were the village chiefs, the aunties, enforcers of shelter rules and responsibilities . We were the mothers and the grandmothers who had walked our own journey to arrive at the shelter doors as a staff member. As service providers we were the educators and programs developers, the cleaners and the teachers, the advocates and motivators who often saw a young woman’s strength and potential long before it began to awaken in her own consciousness.
Although our service agreements referred to us as staff members, employees and management, there was much more to our role than the documents reflected. This is true across all residential shelters and it is one of the reasons I consider shelter staff to be the invisible army of workers and volunteers in the public conversations about domestic violence. The dedicated staff who carry a woman’s story with her until she is ready to carry it alone are the least visible but most critical to the effectiveness and safety of the women’s shelter network

In a world that calls for a clear mind and strong sense of self to navigate the challenges of living in a complex, highly competitive world, our team recognised the importance of celebrating the smallest of achievements in the grandest way possible!

Our children’s workers always met with heartfelt acknowledgement the rare smile from a severely depressed teenage mother, who was struggling with a baby and insecure toddler. The survivor of sexual abuse who was making her escape from her second or third violent relationship with a new level of resolve was greeted with the cheers and affirmations of a staff team who understood that our job is to believe in her until she is ready to believe in herself.

We knew that her chances of living beyond merely surviving a deeply troubled past and developing the skills and knowledge to create a peaceful, secure life for herself and her children would require a huge amount of strength and resilience. Many women at the shelter were facing personal demons that haunted her every waking moment. Some of the staff members could relate to the challenges she was facing because they had walked a similar journey and understood that she needed time to rest and rejuvenate, reflect and recover.

Our residents were young women who struggled to make sense of their situation and were confronted with the enormous challenge of making a better life for their children even though they faced overwhelming emotions and loneliness. I am trying to look after myself and I’ve never been very good at that and now I have two children to look after and I’m worried I will mess up their childhoods. Heartfelt, anguished concerns that I heard over and over in the 10 years I hosted our in-house personal development group.

It was the responsibility of the staff team to create a safe and secure shelter whilst also managing the daily currents of anger, frustration, sadness, grief and despair within the walls of the shelter. Concerns about lost parenting payments, bank accounts raided by the ex-partner, unpaid electricity bills from the home they had fled and needs assessments for traumatised children took up large amounts of time and resources. Fear, uncertainty, stress and grief were expressed and exhaled on a daily basis.

Transport to appointments, referrals for food vouchers for baby formula and nappies, accessing legal aid, hospital visits and trauma counseling, the list of urgent matters needing immediate attendance is exhaustive across women’s services. Leaving domestic violence is a big step that becomes the catalyst for the complex process of sorting through the practical aspects of creating a new life.

Although all of the young women were mothers, the reality was that many of the troubled young women living in our shelter and outreach properties were unable to meet their children’s needs as they had not yet begun to understand their own.

Homeless shelters provide a place of rest and refuge for some of the most marginalised, traumatised members of society and whilst every woman had her own unique story and not everyone was carrying deep scars of childhood abuse and neglect, it was a common enough experience that most of the young women who came to live at the shelter were considered to have high needs and were assessed as at risk by the social workers who referred them

Sharing a common bond of homelessness, young motherhood and youth culture, the programs we ran were an opportunity to learn about different ideas and alternatives to the path they have been travelling. We made sure that the programs were relevant to their age group and sometimes we got it wrong but most of the time we were able to create training tools that were adaptable for all levels of literacy levels and cultural

For some it was a turning point that they would grab with both hands and cling to with fierce determination, willingly accepting the support of the staff and the services we brought in as necessary to leaving the past and creating a new life for her self and her children.   Equally many would return to their former life after a brief respite in the highly structured and   closely supervised environment of the shelter. We are going to give it another go. He said he has really changed this time and I believe him .The kids miss him. We would make sure she had our phone number before fare welling her from the site. The younger staff, the newly graduated social workers, sometimes anguished over a resident’s return to a relationship that had brought her nothing but heartache and grief.

The older staff understood her anguish, we had all witnessed it at the revolving door as we welcomed and fare welled the young women. Each of us had to learn how to detach emotionally as a vulnerable woman made a potentially life threatening choice. We had learnt to stay connected to compassion along with a willingness to allow her to experience what she needed to learn beyond the walls of the shelter.

Occasionally two of our residents would realise they had lived in the same foster placement or government operated group home. The universe had aligned with finite precision and placed them in the same place at the same time to meet. The reunion would reflect either the worst or the best of their shared backgrounds.

They called one another the GOM kids. As children they had been placed under the Guardianship of the Minister. Government departments and an army of youth workers and foster care providers became the parent figures to replace the birth parents who were no longer the primary care giver in their lives.

Women arrive at shelters with their children in strollers, their belongings in large red, white and blue plastic bags. Sometimes their possessions are in large black bin bags, toys and toiletries hastily bundled together inside of thin biodegradable plastic that has ripped and torn during the journey from the boot to the shelter door. The young family may have left the crisis refuge in the inner city or emergency accommodation in a motel in order to set up a temporary new home inside of one of the eight on site units that we had named Peace in 8 languages that they did not yet understand. New residents arriving would sometimes pass the old ones leaving.

Social workers, counselors and occasionally family members accompanied the new arrivals. Those same family members might also be the source of her struggle and her conflicted feelings and she may tell us that she had lived at the shelter with her own mother 15years ago. The older staff would nod, remembering the family and what her mother was going through at the time. During our tea break we would reflect on what we remembered about her as a little girl and whether or not we could recall where the family went after they left the shelter all those years ago. Our oldest shelter worker had a razor sharp memory and her fondness for the little girl she once knew brought a level of heart and soul to The Village that could never be captured in the data and statistics that was diligently included in our annual general report year in and year out.

Our referrals came from a variety of community organisations, specialist support agencies, family support workers and early intervention professionals. Where were the artists and story tellers, the dancers and song writers amongst the decision makers, the researchers, academics, therapists, social workers and counselors you might ask?

How often did we see a young woman’s creative skills or interests detailed in her referral reports or amongst the voluminous case notes that followed her from service to service? Never.

Did her intake forms recommend placing a notebook, coloured pens, brush or canvas into the hands of the women? No.

Unfortunately creativity and the potential of the imagination was not discussed amongst the professionals or referenced in her files yet in the coming years we witnessed that these were the very tools that often facilitated the greatest change in a young woman’s life.

Chapter Three:

Creativity as a Tool for Transformation

Creativity as a vehicle for goal setting and personal development is not the preferred tool in the homeless sector. Reference to creativity won’t be  found on intake or referral forms and funding for hands on, imaginative programs is almost non existent in women’s shelters. Although there is a growing recognition that arts based mental health programs are beneficial for relaxation, creative expression and well being, the limited nature of funding for homeless shelters and programs precludes the arts and creative processes.

A child’s experience in the western education system at the entry level is generally rich in creativity, dance, movement, developing the imagination & having fun! Variety and movement is a key to engaging children’s attention in the kindergarten class room.

The world of play and creativity at the pre-school level begins to be left behind once children step through a very different door to enter junior primary and step on to the long road that leads towards qualifying for university. The university lecture theatre   could not be further away from the dynamic creativity of the early childhood world and by the time those who have done well in the system arrive there, they are often carrying the belief I am not creative.
Where the kindergarten’s internal and external spaces are designed for the development and use of imagination, play and exploration  in a high activity setting, the next level of schooling requires a transition to sitting still for long periods and engaging in activities that do not involve the feet, song or the same level of movement.

Many of the women  who came to the shelter had not completed high school and very few had a university education. With some exceptions the one hat, fits all approach to educating hundreds of thousands of children simultaneously means that the individual with her personal struggles and concerns can become lost within its corridors.

Most had come to believe they were not very smart and that learning created a great deal of stress with very few outcomes so it was to be avoided when ever possible.

I once asked one of our young social workers if she had any training in the subject of creativity during her years at university and her response was No, nothing like that, I hadn’t even thought about it until I began my placement here.

Many young people have not had success in the one-hat-fits-all approach to learning, especially the ones who are kinesthetic learners, who absorb information when there is movement and rhythm like there was in their early child hood. These are the young people who struggled with sitting still for years on end in the class room and by the time they arrived at our shelter they did not identify with the education system or the prospect of re-entering it.

We often saw the young mothers immerse themselves into play group activities with uncharacteristic concentration, absorbed in activities that were designed to develop a strong bond between mother and child. Play group often revealed a playful, imaginative child within the most troubled young woman and in her enthusiasm to play and enjoy the creative exercises, her child might be ignored as she immersed herself in the free flowing creativity that she had not experienced for many years.

In those early years it became apparent that whilst we had identified the importance of play and creativity, variety and fun for the developmental well being of the children in the shelter, it was time to pay attention to the daily evidence their mothers had the very same needs for creativity and play.  In fact the same could also be said for the staff members of the agency, even though art, creativity, story telling  and play for workers was a pretty outrageous concept in a sector that places high value on the importance of  professionalism and a code of conduct that does not include dancing in a circle wearing fairy wings as we eventually did as a team for one of our staff meetings.

A significant number of the young women who came though our programs  had been born into family systems that were assessed as a high risk environment. Some had spent their vulnerable childhood years surrounded by chaos and family violence with government departments, backed by court orders and mental health authorities. The adults in the lives of this marginalised group were often parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties who were afflicted by alcoholism and poverty   and their own unresolved issues.

By the time the young women made their way to the shelter, it was time for a change!

Chapter Four
C.H.A.N.G.E.
Creating Happiness And New Growth Everyday

To be continued

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Creating wearable Empowerment Art…

Posted by carolom on February 13, 2017

 Bead Happy Empowerment Art  is an ART of Change  program for Women who have experienced violence.

We hand roll  beads  from air drying clay to create an empowerment necklace. Meeting over 3 sessions at the Shelter,   participants shape their beads based on a Vision they hold for the future or as an expression of  strength and developing a clear, confident  sense of Self and identity etc.

When  the personal vision  beads are dry we paint them and give them life, colour and vibrancy. Das clay is  quick drying and a very hardy medium that is not heavy once it has dried.
The rolling of the clay and shaping the beads is a very relaxing process,a form of open eyed meditation that  is very conducive for learning and relaxation.

The Bead Happy Empowerment Art project engages two significant aspects – process and completion, which are often difficult to attain for people who are living with post traumatic stress and the effects of violence, losing ones home and coping with injuries and grief.

The talking circle format is a very relaxed, creative  environment .

This informal setting  is often more culturally relevant for many of the participants from CALD backgrounds. (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse).

The environment does not have a counsellor – client dynamic. It is an empowering model that facilitates conversation  beyond pain and issues to the place of connecting with personal power, natural talent and new possibilities.

We celebrate personal strength and explore the potential we have to move beyond limitations and the impact of domestic violence.

Thank you to the Women who have shared their work in the images below.

Although they remain anonymous in the photos, the very personal stories and amazing creativity that is expressed through the clay and the beading process  affirms to me how privileged I am to provide art based life coaching at the grass roots, community level where so many amazing women have extraordinary stories to share.

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We roll the beads from air drying clay

 

making-beads

As we roll and then sand them we are holding the vision of our goals and aspirations

 

spraying-beads

Spraying the Bead Happy Empowerent Necklace seals in the vision and stengthens the clay

 

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Every bead, every necklace is as unique as the fingerprints of the woman who created them as she  pressed her vision into the clay

Carol Omer is a certified Life Coach and Artist. She specialises in creativity based empowerment and healing programs for women. She is the author of The Big Girls Little Coloring Book, a life coaching colouring book for women.

http://www.CarolOmer.com

Posted in ART of Change, Domestic Violence, Sisterhood, Transformation, Uncategorized, White Ribbon | Leave a Comment »

When things turn up and make you smile …

Posted by carolom on September 6, 2016

This is a true story and it began this morning when I was preparing to go for a morning walk.

I could not find a second hair clip and rather than waste time looking I decided to go with a hair clip and a hair grip ( as Mum used to call them). I had already lost half an hour to emails so I didn’t want to waste any more time!

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It is Spring time in our part of the world and  the Jasmine vines, my very favourite flower, are bursting with new life. There was a massive flowering vine hanging over the edge of fence in one of the very old lane ways and I picked some but as I was only half way through my walk I thought I wish I had brought a bag with me…

I exited the lane way into a car park and there, on the edge of the car park  was a lone shopping trolley with a bright pink,  empty bag sitting in it.

No car nearby.

No people to be seen.
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This must be my bag! 

I smiled as I put the Jasmine inside and reflected on how sometimes there is great power in our throw away thoughts. We throw them out into the ether, often thousands of thoughts in a single day  and sometimes they boomerang back to us wrapped around a prize  catch created by the matter of fact nature of our thoughts !
Did you know that often the things that matter in those matter of fact moments can  matter’ialise when we least expect it?

I arrived home, took the beautifully perfumed Jasmine from the bag and placed the flowers in  Mums  old ceramic boot vase that she made many years ago.

Since Mum passed away  last year I treasure every single thing she made and there are many art and craft creations she lovingly made over the years.

For example that is one of her knitted dolls hats on her manikin that is embracing mine.

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I am an avid student of the power of the mind and our role as co-creators with life but there was no way I could have guessed what was in the bottom of what I thought was a completely  empty bag!

Here it is! A second hair clip!

Exactly  the same as the one I was looking for before going with the hair grip instead.

 

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Hand on heart this extra bit of Magic just kind of made my day! As the late and wonderful Dr Wayne Dyer wrote You’ll see it when you Believe it!

I definitely believe in the Magic of life!

I don’t know how the empty pink bag ended up sitting in an empty trolley in a near empty car park and I would happily return it to its’ owner if there was identifying information in there.
But then again it is quite possible it just turned up because I thought I wish I had brought a bag with me  and before that I need that hair clip, my fringe is in my eyes…

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She walks alone at Midnight…or does She?

Posted by carolom on August 17, 2016

I went outside at midnight to round up Junipurr and Purrly.

At the end of my driveway a woman was walking past.

She said : “What are you doing out so late?” and I said:
“I’m calling my cats in, what are you doing out walking so late?”.

“Oh I don’t sleep much these days. I often walk at night.

My son died 5 years ago. I haven’t slept much since”.

It was one of those unexpected moments where everything in the world funnels down into this one encounter with a stranger.

Junipurr ran towards us, his bell jingling with vibrancy and gorgeousness, so full of life and vitality.

“I am so sorry for your loss. The world isn’t the same anymore is it? My Mum died last year.”

I know this because since Mum died it feels like the doors and windows are permanently open and drafts and winds blow in at anytime of the day or night.

But I know that losing a child is not the same as losing your Mother. It’s a different kind of pain because I’ve seen it in my friends C’s eyes.

“He was only 20.” She said this twice.

” See that star up there, the bright one. That’s him”.

I realised that’s why she walks at night alone. She isn’t alone at all.

5 minutes before my biggest concern was a failed creative project I had been working on for hours.

It was a moment that completely reorganised my thoughts and perspective from the personal to the Universal.

“I’m truly sorry for your loss”…I couldn’t find any better words. I would have liked to have.

“Thank you. And I’m sorry for yours”.

“It makes you wonder why we are here” she said.

She walked off into the cold but very clear and crisp night and I came inside with my kitty-cats.

I went out 10 minutes later to see if she was walking back. Maybe a coloring book would help.

But the street was empty.

This song is for all of the Mothers who are living in the world without their children.

 

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When a Throw-away line Casts a Wide Net. MagNETic!

Posted by carolom on August 17, 2016

Sometimes it’s the throw-away lines of our mental chatter that have the attractor factor.

I listened to an interview with one of my favourite authors, Norman Doidge who wrote the fabulous book The Brain that Changes Itself.
A must read for anyone interested in neuroscience and neuroplasticity and the extinction of the dinosaur belief that the brain is hard wired and can not be changed.

“Once broken can never be repaired” paradigm is sailing away across the oceans of the flat world as we speak… 😉

In the interview with Dr Doidge there was mention of his new book published by penguin in 2016 “The Brains way of Healing”.

I thought “Would love to read it, will check with library” but forgot to check and book it when I got home.

Three days later strolling around 2nd hand store and there is a brand new 2016 copy of “The Brains Way of Healing’ sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to notice it.

And I did.

How did this newly released $30 book arrive in perfect condition on the shelves of a second hand store for $2.99 just a few months after it’s release and three days after my intention to read it?

Throw-away lines sometimes cast the widest net perhaps….

 

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Words-Swords and the Emergence of Impersonal Language in Human Services

Posted by carolom on July 29, 2016

The following is an excerpt from my unedited draft of The ART of Change memoir. The names and details have been changed as a matter of confidentiality however the impact of language that empowers the worker  or the academic whilst disempowering the recipient of those words is a significant problem across human services and the legal system.

Words Cast Spells

Words ~Swords on the Cutting Edge.

The language and politics of homelessness and social work theories and practices changed many times over the years that I worked in homeless and domestic violence shelters.

Buzz words came and went as words like empowerment, agency, self determination and the words consumer and stakeholders replaced shelter resident and workers crept into human services through out the 90’s.

People stopped ‘talking’ and entered into dialogue, we would no longer ‘catch up for a chat’, we would debrief with one another and instead of ‘talking about things’ like we did in the old days   we would be invited to unpack complex issues and investigate multifaceted causes that underpin marginalisation and disenfranchisement.

With each new turn of phrase the culture of homelessness and service provision changed.

Discussions about the importance of using ‘professional’ language were bandied about during training sessions and statements we would have once made like ‘I think  the family is doing it really hard right now’ were spoken by the new young social workers as It seems that the high and complex needs as a result of the multiple issues facing the family as a unit will require external intervention and on going support to be put in place.

Many social workers and counsellors, health workers and researchers came in and out of the shelter on a weekly basis and the newspeak and jargon was so pervasive at times that we would chuckle as one of our residents, when asked if she had met her new social worker would say: “Yes, she seems okay but I can’t understand what she is saying”.

When offering support to a heart broken, confused teenage mother, our staff might say amongst ourselves ‘she needs a hug and to know she is loved’ or it’s a shame her mother has too many of her own issues to be able to support her daughter. Those internal state altering, mood changing words were nowhere to be seen in the mountainous pile of service agreements and policy documents.

Reassuring an upset teenager with a hug may be considered inappropriate and unprofessional. Physical contact had become almost outlawed in a society traumatised and made paranoid by the horror stories of paedophiles and child molesters. There was a vast new language landscape  that accompanied the hyper vigilant (freaked out) policies.  Terms such as non-physical client engagement and maintaining professional integrity and non self disclosure was the cultural indoctrination for the new generation of social workers and counsellors.

At times the newest theories and current research findings were far more complex and controversial than the complicated lives of the people whose lives they were designed to improve!

The distance and differences between grass roots service delivery in shelters and the academic institutions that conducted research into the lives of homeless people was so vast that our role as shelter staff was to be an interpreter of the newspeak as it gushed out of the government departments, and landed in the lives of the young women who spoke a very different language, developed from within a very different reality than the world of academics and researchers.

I came face to face with an adaptation of the newspeak in the late 90’s. I was visiting a member of SAYM (Strength As Young Mothers) who was living  in our outreach accommodation. Rosie had the great misfortune to have been born into a volatile and abusive family who had inflicted neglect and violence on her through out her childhood. She had  a shattered self concept, outraged ego and hair-trigger temper that could erupt anywhere at any time, especially when she had to deal with people in authority. Her anti-authority trigger might include anyone from a   bank teller to the social security staff and it definitely included the midwives at the hospital where she gave birth to her daughter. People she thought looked at her the wrong way in supermarkets, especially older women who she thought were judging her, would be on the receiving end of Rosie’s wrath. Both of Rosie’s parents were in and out of jail throughout her childhood and her family were well known to many government departments, including correctional services, welfare and the education department.

Under the surface of her volatile and recalcitrant behaviour there was a bright, funny, thoughtful young woman who was a very quick learner. She had been identified as having learning difficulties and ‘behavioural challenges’ during her school years, labels that followed her from class room to class room. Rosie had a reputation as a disruptive and difficult student and she made sure to live up to the way she was perceived!

It was very apparent that Rosie’s perceived learning difficulties were most likely a result of the relentless stress and chaos of her family home and her many trips in and out of foster care every time one of her parents went to jail. Her bright mind and astute grasp of new environments kept her afloat amidst the chaos of her family life but her reputation and the limitations of the education system to accommodate and nurture traumatised and volatile students meant that she spent her entire school years repeating the negative behaviours she learnt in her family home – and developing some new ones of her own. She left school at 14 and I am sure more than one or two teachers would have breathed a sigh of relief to be free of her hot temper and disruptive class room dramas.

It was no surprise to her social workers and former teachers that Rosie had her first baby at 16 and her second two years later.

There is an old saying ‘you become an expert at whatever you practice… so be careful what you practice’ and like many of the young women who came to our shelter, Rosie had great expertise in enlisting social workers, youth workers and counsellors to help her to get food vouchers, taxi vouchers, Christmas hampers and other kinds of assistance that is available to people in need. Her family had lived on welfare for several generations and Rosie had inside knowledge on getting the most out of the system that she was born into.

On this particular day she was trying to convince me to give her a taxi voucher from our very limited resources so that she could travel to the northern suburbs to catch up with an old friend. She didn’t like using public transport and would often end up arguing with strangers when she was out and about. Conflict was so deeply ingrained in Rosie’s mind that it was inevitable she would find it – or create it –where ever she went and putting all analysis aside, who wouldn’t prefer to catch a free a taxi rather than enduring a hot bus trip to the other side of town?

During her time at the shelter, Rosie had learnt that, unlike with some of the less experienced social workers and younger youth workers she had been allocated over the years, she couldn’t manipulate the shelter staff. We weren’t intimidated by her outbursts or threats to report us to human services for treating her unfairly. Like many of the young women in the shelter who had learnt to use aggression instead of assertiveness and believed that life victimised them over and over, it took many months before we developed the degree of trust that is necessary for a partnership on the journey of change. We kept our rules constant and allowed her to return to the groups after an outburst or dramatic exit and for someone who was very familiar with inconsistency and rejection the firmness accompanied by friendliness eventually allowed her to settle down and think about her future for the first time. The other young mothers weren’t impressed by her disruptive behaviour in the group room and the mirror of Rosie’s peers and their influence reflected far more to her than the staff of ‘geriatric grannies’ as she once called us with a dismissive slam of the door.

Rosie had been pleading her case for a taxi voucher, for almost half an hour. She lived on a direct bus route, the bus stop was half a block away and the weather was sunny and fine. I wasn’t prepared to give her a voucher, preferring to keep it for more important needs such as assisting a pregnant woman to get to the hospital or a mother with a sick toddler to go to the doctors. Rosie could see that her battle for the free taxi ride was just about lost when she drew her last resort weapon to the fight.

“Carol I need that taxi voucher cause it’s important for me to maintain my social networks.  I am marginalised cause I am a single mother. I am socially isolated in the community and my social worker told me I need to integrate more and explore new options. It’s not just a taxi voucher you know, I’m not just trying to scam a free ride, it’s a social justice issue cause I need to see my friends”.

Rosie’s words took me completely by surprise. I was both delighted by her new strategy and highly suspicious of her motive. She demonstrated that by adopting the language of her oppressors, she believed she stood a much better chance of getting what she wanted and whilst it didn’t get her the taxi voucher she was lobbying for, it was a very levelling moment that show cased how astute Rosie was in spite of the myriads of case notes, files, police reports and hospital records that stated the opposite.

I kept our taxi voucher and gave Rosie a lift out to the northern suburbs delighted to reward her sharp mind and creative use of the gobbledegook that had surrounded her since the first day welfare authorities began to interpret who she was and what she was capable of, tattooing her tragic history in files and reports through out her precious growing years.

 

I Choose My Words

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Casting Shadows

Posted by carolom on June 23, 2016

I was walking along a path  that is also  bicycle track in a park on the edge of the city this morning and in spite of the school and heading to work traffic I suddenly experienced a sense of vulnerability. The trees and bushes obscured the path from the main road and my imagination created a scenario based on stories in the news.
My work in domestic violence shelters has created a heightened sense of awareness of the vulnerability of women although many of my friends  will say they are alert to danger in some public places.
These thoughts were not my preferred rumination on a pleasant, brisk winters walk but as I began to refocus them, my own shadow caught my eye as its stretched out before me.

I was reminded of Robert Johnson’s illuminating book Owning your Own Shadow- Understanding the Dark side of the Psyche and what a pivotal moment it was when I read it many years ago.

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I was so immersed in contemplating the shadow and observing my own thinking about how it plays out in people’s lives  that I didn’t hear the footsteps behind me until a shadow unexpectedly imposed itself over  my own, making me jump and turn around, eyes widened by a rush of adrenalin.

A woman’s voice said Oh, I ‘m sorry.I thought that might happen. Good thing you are not a karate person. And there standing in front of me were the sources of the shadow that crossed my path.Harley and Shanti. Two beautiful, friendly happy little souls who were walking without their lead and were so very excited to see a new friend on their walkway they had bounded up to me to say hello!

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I explained to the woman that I had been thinking about shadows and domestic violence and had just taken a photo of my elongated shadow. She said Gee, it’s really long isn’t it?

It was obvious that these thoughts were a long way from her morning walk.

We parted ways at the traffic lights, Harley and Shanti now happily on their leads, wagging their tails and leaving me to ponder about the tale I had been wagging on the beautiful, sunny  crisp winters morning walk, where between our three shadows, mine was most definitely the longest…

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Mandalas as tools for Staff Training and Development.

Posted by carolom on June 21, 2016

*Updated:

The Mandala ( the Circular form) which I have shared in other sections of my blog,  is a great tool for inspiring right brain thinking and reflection during our  creativity based staff training sessions.

As people engage with the rhythmic movement of adding colour and meaning to the individual black and white templates, the process is akin to a mind-massage that facilitates  access to parts of the brain we may have lost touch with in education settings and workplaces that don’t engage the hands equally as the eyes and ears for training purposes.

This is especially so in the western system whereas other cultures, i.e. Aboriginal culture, engage hands and creativity as part of the process of telling stories, generating ideas  and transmitting knowledge. This multi-sensory engagement is core to every day life.

In some cultures creative expression and development is not reduced  after early childhood as happens in some aspects of the western school system where the arts are often not considered as important as the sciences and therefore colour movement, dance, story telling, art and the application of the imagination are diminished over time. Creativity does not conform to a pre-existing template and systems that are outcome oriented are often not able accommodate creative expression and exploration.

 The system we are brought up in has enormous influence on how we think and create.

Sadly many people are living their life with the belief (belief )  I am not Creative, in spite of shared experience we all had as creative, imaginative, ‘magical’ children who were not bound by pre-existing templates during times of play and invention.
You can read a little story about what happens to the ‘magical child in exile’ by clicking here..

Feedback after the creativity based training  includes statements like this:

  • I was amazed at how much more information I absorbed even though I was not always looking up
  • thank you for giving us permission to go in to our own creative space and contribute without having to sit still all day in the one position, i am always the biro flicker in workshops because my hands get bored sitting still all day
  • Wow! That was fabulous! I am going to share these tools with my daughter and grandchildren

The following are samples of some of the work that was created during a series of Cultural Inclusivity Action Plan workshops.

The four themes that were central to the day were

  • Team
  • Community
  • Our Place
  • Workplace Balance

You can see the theme is written on the Mandala and the individual creative input is an unique and diverse as the participants and the Community they serve.

We honour the traditional owners of this great land when we implement processes that Aborginalise the western mindset by engaging with traditional cultural practices of art, creativity, story sharing, talking circles and FUN! (Thankyou Dana Shen for introducing me to  the term Aboriginalising ways of learning and information sharing).

This kind of training setting is a along way vastly different from sitting in a row of chairs or around tables and watching but not actively engaging with information. Slide shows, pie graphs and classroom style information sharing  lacks the creative engagement that occurs when hands are given access to creative processes and the information is presented in a way that evokes the imagination and new ideas.

Creativity based learning is a very different setting than the more common workshop environment where people sit still, watch and listen rather than create and interact with the material.

Our Place

Team

Balance in the Workplace

Each Mandala has a developmental theme and is used as both a creative and discussion tool as

  • an individual process,
  • in the small group talking /action plan group and
  • as a larger group we have poster size replicas which, by the end of the day become the centre of an action-plan installation art.

You can see how wonderful it is to create the ART of Vision / Action over the tired old butchers paper sheets that tend to be rolled away and disappeared forever once the workshop is over….

Posted in Aboriginal, ART of Change, Community, Creativity, Imagination, Patterns, Power of Focus, Reconciliation, Social Artistry, Staff Training, Stories, The Art of Change, Transformation, Uncategorized, Wisdom | Leave a Comment »

A cup of SpiritualiTea….

Posted by carolom on March 22, 2016

The BBC news of The World site is asking what is the best way to make a cup of tea.

These are my top tips…

1. Only enter the tea making space with good cheer and lightness of spirit. Annoyance and hurriedness may sour the liquid and result in spillages and splashes.

2. Ensure your tea pot has been pre-warmed and that the water you use comes from the sky or spring not the fluoride treatment plant.

3. Use tea leaves that speak to the imagination as well as the taste buds. e.g Some packaging has only the name and bar code but others will tell you some of the story of the region where the tea originated or of the family business and their commitment to their tea and its processing.

4.When you pour the boiling water over the leaves do so in a circular motion to evenly distribute the water rather than drown the leaves.

5. Whilst waiting for the tea to brew (or “mash” if you come from Hull smile emoticon ) ensure your cups are clean and, if you are using a strainer, that it does not have a build up of tannin.

6. When pouring the tea think about the lovely things in your life, the blessings you have and the loved ones who are no longer here but with whom you shared many a cuppa with in past years. This will bring the SpiritualiTea forth (however if you have only recently lost your loved one, perhaps avoid the remembering step in case you pour sorrow forth).

*The number of spoons of tea will vary according to the strength you prefer but generally the “one for each person and one for the pot” formula is a reliable one.

A touch of CreativiTea can be added by drinking out of cups and mugs that both delight and inspire you such as my brightly coloured Mandala tea cup that was given by a thoughtful friend recently. (Morgan and Finch – fabulous!).

At all times you should avoid drinking your tea out of a styrene cup as that is akin to drinking a fine wine out of a tomato soup can. Practical when camping but highly questionable from a SpiritualiTea perspective…

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PS If you must use a tea bag rather than fresh leaves, make sure it has been certified as organic as there was most likely a chemical process used in turning the paper into a bag. At no time allow the tag to fall into the water as there is ink and print on that label.

 

 

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A Day at the Home Office

Posted by carolom on February 18, 2016

You are home alone. Comfortably so.

From the other room you hear what sounds like the printer starting up…all on its own.

You walk a little cautiously towards the printer and indeed notice it has begun to click into the print mode – that familiar sound that is never spooky in the least…

You look over towards the sleeping cat who is now wide eyed staring at what seems to be a spot slightly above your head.

Eyes trained on staring cat you edge towards the printer as it begins to churn out paper after paper….

Cat remains transfixed on spot above your head…printer is printing what seems to be a list of sorts with instructions on it.

I am home alone. Now not quite so comfortably so..

Junipurr suddenly breaks his stare and leaps off the couch and rrrrrruns past me…towards his food bowl.

I realise his stare is his psychic transmission for me to get his lunch and my lack of response required a physical manoeuvre on his part to get the message across…

As the printer finishes its unexpected production I call my husband…

“yeah, I ‘m still at the library…did the printing job come through?
Remember I told you how we can send a print job to it through email”.

Yes it did.

No I don’t.

I’ve got to go…Junipurr is hungry….

A day at the home office…

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