John Stanton and I headed down to visit Lisa Martello-Hart (Australiana Artist and Children’s Book Author) in Kojonup on Thursday, 17 February. We were invited to learn more of what was going on in the town and engage in various discussions with key community members that focused on what an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach could do to enhance the social and emotional wellbeing of the community, with an emphasis placed on empowering and connecting youth. I was in Kojonup for six days and John for two days. John had previously visited in late October last year when I was unable to attend due to illness.
Kojonup, a multicultural community of around 2,000 people, is located 256 km south-east of Perth in the Noongar Kaneang region of the Great Southern of Western Australia. It is known as a rich food bowl that has built its reputation and people’s livelihoods around sheep (for wool and meat) and crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and canola. The township also prides itself as being the first Shire in Western Australia to accumulate one million sheep.
I had first visited Kojonup five years ago, before heading out to view Carrolup Native Settlement. I initially met with John Benn and Glenys Russell at The Kodja Place, and they enthused me about all that was going on there. I spent time viewing the interactive museum and story-place repository, which hosts a rich collection of personal and cultural stories that embrace the shared histories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the area. John Stanton and I subsequently gave talks about Carrolup at The Kodja Place, and I visited on other occasions. There was something about Kojonup, the town closest to Carrolup Native Settlement (later known as Marribank), that touched my heart. John has enjoyed visiting the town since the mid-1980s!
So, what had brought a social anthropologist (John), a psychologist and former neuroscientist (me), and an artist and children’s book author (Lisa) together?
Lisa first contacted John and I about seven months ago. She had been exploring local shared histories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples for a new children’s book she was writing, and on seeing our work on Carrolup asked if she could visit us in Perth. During our initial meeting, we emphasised how a major element of our Carrolup project was to emphasise the importance of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people walking alongside each other as equals. Lisa pointed out her desire to see strengthened connections between the different cultures in Kojonup, and a greater cross-cultural understanding as her community moved forward into the future. A strong bond was quickly sealed between the three of us!
We discussed the magical happenings that occurred in the Carrolup Native Settlement schoolroom in the second half of the 1940s, with teacher Noel White connecting with the traumatised Aboriginal children and helping release their creative urge. Their landscape drawings were to attract acclaim in various parts of the world. The supportive environment that Noel White created in his classroom at Carrolup, in part through his empathy and compassion, gave the children the opportunity to thrive emotionally, socially, and creatively. They were empowered, gained a sense of belonging, and felt trusted and loved. They gained a strong identity and connected with their culture and country.
World-leading trauma experts now recognise that the activities in which Noel initially engaged the children—singing, dancing, drama, drawing and storytelling—are key for calming stress responsivity systems in our brain (which are hyper-reactive in traumatised people), facilitating connection and healing. An environment was created in which the children helped each other heal. Noel White and the Aboriginal children of Carrolup left an important legacy for schools in Kojonup and further afield.
Lisa pointed out that she and other parents in Kojonup wanted to do more to support their children by developing a local support network that enabled the youngsters to become more connected within the community, which in turn would help them improve their social and emotional wellbeing. Lisa said that one factor contributing to current youth disconnection was that the groups that used to intergenerationally connect children and give them a strong sense of belonging, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and church groups, are no longer, or far less, active in Kojonup. These groups had helped stimulate young minds, engage children in healthy regulating activities and form enriched relationships. Now, children are far more engaged in disconnecting ‘screen time’ activities with their phone, computer, and other devices.
Lisa also felt that local parents in general had become increasingly concerned about their children’s safety and, as a result, youngsters were not exploring the neighbourhood unaccompanied and engaging in out-of-home activities that involve the type of stressors (predictable, moderate, and controlled) that are key to facilitating learning and creative problem solving, mastering new skills, and building resilience to the adversities we all face in life.
I pointed out to Lisa that what she described occurring with children and their parents in Kojonup was happening around the world. World-leading experts were concerned about what was happening, since our relational health—our connectedness—is key to our health and wellbeing.
‘Our society’s transgenerational social fabric is fraying. We’re disconnecting. I think that’s making us more vulnerable to adversity, and I think it’s a significant factor in the increases in anxiety, suicide, and depression we are currently seeing, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.’ Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
Lisa and I also talked about how world-leading trauma experts, like Bruce Perry, were stressing the key importance of Indigenous healing practices for helping tackle some of these modern-day woes, emphasising further the need for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal to learn from each other. We also discussed the ABCD approach, and how it could be used to facilitate multicultural community development and enable improved social and emotional wellbeing in Kojonup. A first step in this approach is to identify, connect and mobilise assets in the community.
Lisa started to engage the Kojonup community as soon as she returned from Perth. Our discussions continued over the following months via phone and internet. John and I were thrilled to be invited down to Kojonup in mid-February to meet key community members Lisa had identified as initial Assets and Asset Connectors, including Kaneang Aboriginal Elders. She wanted us to learn about the local developments that had been happening. A meeting was set up for John and I to meet and share our knowledge and insights with Kaneang Aboriginal Elders, and in order to help establish trust and acknowledge the need for cultural celebration and shared learning as being key to moving forward in a positive manner.
John and I also spent a good part of a day with The Kodja Place committee members who look after the interests of this community centre. Lisa and colleagues have identified Kodja as a hub of ‘cultural unity that can be a safe place for inclusivity, place and belonging.’ It can be a place where children (and other community members) engage in activities together, and also showcase their talents to local people and to visitors to the community. John and I joined community members as they toured The Kodja Place history displays, led by highly respected Noongar man Craig McVee, and discussed how this important cultural centre could be revamped to better highlight the voices and stories of the community and bring the different cultures together.
I gave a talk focused on enabling connection, resilience, and healing to local Shire members and this was followed by a general discussion. I also spoke about the ABCD approach and how it could be implemented in Kojonup.
I later met with school principals and teachers to learn what had been happening recently in local schools, including how local history and its multicultural significance was being incorporated into the school curriculum. The importance of non-Aboriginal children learning more about Aboriginal culture was recognised. We discussed how an ABCD approach could benefit the children and their learning activities, and considered helpful creative solutions in and out of school that could promote the social and emotional wellbeing of children. We emphasised the importance of schoolchildren enjoying close links to the wider community, and agreed that having them engage in art, craft, music, drama and dance activities at The Kodja Place would be of great benefit.
John and I also visited our good friend John Benn and he showed us his mother’s collection of artefacts and a wide range of other items. John’s mother, Myrtle Benn, was a teacher and landscape artist. In 1947 and 1948, she took John and his fellow pupils to the school at Carrolup Native Settlement where they met the Aboriginal child artists. John would have been seven and eight years old at the time. He has several of the Carrolup children’s schoolbooks.
I sensed a real passion and drive amongst the community members I met during the time I was in Kojonup and involved in informal and formal discussions. (On my last full day, Lisa and I were involved in six hours of meetings!) The number of gifted and thoughtful people who have joined up with Lisa to facilitate community development using the ABCD approach is inspirational. Both John and I felt the strong community spirit and drive to improve community wellbeing. We have no doubts that there is an abundance of Assets in the community, and I am sure they will gradually be identified, connected, and mobilised. I should emphasise that the ABCD approach is a citizen-led initiative—it belongs to the community. However, John and I are more than happy to offer our continued support, if and when required.
I want to take this opportunity of thanking Lisa for her kind hospitality. She put me up in her Air B&B for free, along with John for the first two nights. We had invited Susan Ford, a very special Noongar lady originally from Katanning, and Alan Young down from Perth so that Susan could reconnect and support local Elders in Kojonup. Susan has been following The Carrolup Story project soon after it was launched in 2018. She and Alan stayed the second two nights with me, giving us ample time to have some rewarding discussions. On the last two days, two of my closest friends, Geoff Lobb and Pauline Morrison, parked their Winnebago outside the house and spent time with us. They happened to be passing through Kojonup and decided to stay over for two nights.
For all but one night, Lisa and her husband Jamie invited me, and whoever else was staying over, to have dinner and drinks at their house. We had a fantastic time with Lisa and Jamie, their son Harry and their three dogs. On the other night, the family and one dog came over to ‘our place’ for the evening. I felt as if I have known Jamie for many years.
Lisa Martello-Hart is one very special lady. She is knowledgeable, talented, and very determined to help the children of Kojonup, and the community as a whole. She is so full of energy! One of the highlights of John and my stay was hearing Lisa tell us the story of her first art class at one of the local schools and the impact it had on the children. She then pulled out her iPad and showed us the children’s art. The story was amazing, some of the artwork stunning. All created in less than 50 minutes, including the initial period of time when she took the children outside to help them regulate. I’ll leave Lisa to tell the full story in a future blog.
I returned to Perth exhausted—I hate to think how Lisa must have felt.
I would like to take this opportunity of thanking all the people I met in Kojonup for helping me have such an enjoyable and stimulating time. From my view, the future looks very bright for your community, if you continue in the manner you have started. Remember though, community development takes time and is built on trust. There will be many adventures, both positive and negative. However, the passion, drive and intellect I perceived will help you overcome stumbling blocks and turn challenges into opportunities. I wish you the very best on your future journey.