The success of one organisation’s yarning circles with First Nations men has wide-reaching lessons for why safe spaces for love, conversation and deep-listening are essential to healing.
A young man slowly rises from his chair and speaks in a quiet, hesitant voice. The other men in the yarning circle are silent as they listen intently to the young man’s story of abuse, deprivation and poverty.
As the young man finishes his story the other men rise to wrap their arms around him in a show of love and compassion. He breaks into sobs, as he tells the men embracing him that he has never before shared his story.
This is just one story of many from gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men from across Australia. The annual gatherings are part of the work of an organisation called Mibbinbah Spirit Healing which has been working with First Nations men for more than a decade.
Founder and Mibbinbah CEO Jack Bulman is a Muthi Muthi man who says that yarning circles, where people’s stories are listened to with respect and love, have been a key part of Mibbinbah’s success. ‘I get to witness some really beautiful, deep hearted conversations around creating change and healing in our communities,’ he said.
Searching for safety
Jack’s emphasis on safe spaces can be traced to the origins of Mibbinbah when more than a decade ago he had just completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences degree and started a job with the Kalwun Aboriginal Health Service on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
‘My job was to get the fellas together to talk about health issues,’ he said. ‘We wanted to set up a men’s group, but we didn’t have a space for that, so we just met wherever we could. Whether it be in the park or next to the beach or whatever. But whenever we had 20 to 25 Blackfullas gathered together in public the police would come straight away and tell us to move on.’
Jack and some colleagues took their problem to the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health which helped establish a qualitative men’s health research program. Then in 2009 Mibbinbah became a health promotion charity, essentially becoming the peak coordinating body for the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s movement.
According to Jack the key is listening. ‘A lot of times people hear what others are saying, but they’re not actually listening. It’s really important to listen.
‘The government come in and say this is what’s wrong with you and this is how we are going to fix it. But our approach is to ask about the concerns and issues and then what the solutions are as well.’
The work is hard but Mibbinbah’s work is undoubtedly saving lives and protecting families from further trauma.
Jack tells the story of one man who opened up to talk about the depths of depression he was in and how he had tried to take his own life three times.
‘He told us he was planning to do it again and this time he thought he would get it right, until he come to the gathering… it was an incredibly emotional time and if he hadn’t had that camp he mightn’t be here today, and he’s done marvellous things since those times.’
The power of love
Jack sees a side of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men that defies stereotypes.
‘One of the big strengths of our men is they wanna talk about love which I don’t think other people get to hear.’
Which is why, after advice from different Elders in the communities they visited, the organisation stopped working exclusively with men and invited women and children to their gatherings and yarning circles.
Lisa Bulman is a Gunditjmara woman and since 2014 she’s been one of Mibbinbah’s leading facilitators. She thinks the inclusion of women and children into their work has been a critical development for the organisation.
‘I think that both sides get to listen to each other, start to better understand each other; understand what the males want, what the females want and what the kids want, what Elders want. I think that all sides get heard, which then creates the change,’ she said.
She agrees with Jack that yarning circles and the art of deep listening are essential to Mibbinbah’s work.
‘It’s an unusual thing to hear the word love being spoken when we talk about the challenges Aboriginal people face, but there is so much love in our communities. And I think if people made the time to sit and talk to our people, they would feel that love. They would feel the connection and the support that happens in communities.’
She argues the communities Mibbinbah works with have the information, the knowledge and very often have all the answers to the challenges they face. What is missing, she suggests, is the ability of governments and bureaucrats to listen.
‘I think we carry this pride of who we are and where we’re from and whatever happens to us, I think that we’re all able to get up and get on with it,’ said Lisa. ‘And I think what we do really well is support and listen to each other.’
‘I just think kindness goes a long way. It doesn’t matter what colour you are, where you’re from. As one of the beautiful uncles in Wadeye said to us, “We all have one heart and love is love. There is no colour with love and we all should be kind to each other.”’
‘If other Australians could learn to listen to us, they could learn a lot.’
To support Jack and Lisa’s essential work with Mibbinbah, go to: mibbinbah.org/contact
This article is from the 50th edition of Reconciliation News magazine. Read the rest of the issue.