It is difficult for Indigenous men when they are forced to exist in a world that does not understand their history and cultural heritage, and when their challenges are often glossed over or misunderstood by the wider community.
They, along with Indigenous women, are carers for family, carers for country, leaders among their communities and peers. But unless they are given knowledge about their culture and history, the life skills and inner strength that they need to fulfil such roles cannot be acquired.
There needs to be a coordinated, guided approach for a fundamental change to ensure they are provided with knowledge about their culture and history. First, educators must properly understand what they are delivering to the young men in question.
Many issues arise when the traditional learning and spiritual growth required to become an Indigenous man, are not properly understood by those whose structures, laws and rules need to be adhered to in the wider world.
"Educators must properly understand what they are delivering to the young men in question"
Empathy without understanding is the same as knowledge without the wisdom to apply it practically. What good is empathy, if the underlying issues that created misfortune are not understood?
Indigenous people are born into disadvantage, and there is a great misunderstanding about their cultures by the general public. This means they have to learn two ways of existing in the world. The first is the lifestyle learned at home regarding family and relationships with extended family and friends, with a unique language and cultural way of being. The second is learning how to make that understanding fit with the non-Indigenous way of life.
The role of family and sharing is very important in Indigenous cultures. With the history of removal of Indigenous children from families and cultural traditions of peoples, we're left with an absence in young people's understanding of who they are, and what purpose they are to fulfil in life.
This is evident in the way that young Indigenous people band together in the community and form a kinship with others from the same background and experiences. But without the strength that comes from understanding one's history and culture, these interactions can quickly descend from being a helpful means of binding together and supporting one and other, to becoming the focal point for shared distaste and anger towards the rest of the world for pigeon-holing them.
"The disempowerment felt by individuals and groups alike can strengthen the resolve to fight back against a society that does not cater to their needs"
Such is the case for many young people who feel separate from the mainstream group of students at school, and feel alienated by the wider community. The disempowerment felt by individuals and groups alike can strengthen the resolve to fight back against a society that does not cater to their needs nor recognise the reasons why there are problems to begin with.
Outreach and diversionary programs can offer some great initiatives to the young people in question, but are not preventative. There would be a great deal of multigenerational history behind a young person acting out or committing crimes. These behaviours do not arise overnight and out of nowhere. There are many precursors to such antisocial and detrimental interactions.
Looking back to go forwards
Being a social or community worker means having the ability to listen and allow clients to come to conclusions themselves. But being a leader in the community means that proactive engagement must be undertaken to support outreach and diversionary practices.
"We need to instil values and moral guidelines, and direct young people towards greater reflective thinking to encourage them to ask the right questions"
To affect change and assist young people in their growth into adulthood, we, as leaders and influential members of the community, need to instil values and moral guidelines, and direct young people towards greater reflective thinking to encourage them to ask the right questions, not just of us, but of themselves. Only through such self-reflective thinking can we hope to have any influence on the direction of these young people’s futures.
A major obstacle confronted by some service providers is their lack of awareness about the way in which lessons are passed down from one generation to the next in Aboriginal culture.
This lack of understanding is by no means anyone's fault. It just means that there are cultural differences that need to be taken into account when devising programs from policies and procedures that service providers are governed by when engaging with young Aboriginal people.
An Indigenous person receives almost instantaneous acceptance into the inner circle of these young people's lives because they know that a person from a similar background will have a greater understanding about the issues they are currently facing. And in that, there is the automatic response to looking towards an Elder for possible solutions to their current dilemma.
"Community service providers should be focusing on giving non-Indigenous people a greater understanding about Indigenous culture"
The ingrained fundamentals of culture and the family and community structure is what makes an older Aboriginal person engage more easily with young people, there is an unspoken bond and connection that does not need explaining for them to be accepted.
Community service providers should be focusing on giving non-Indigenous people a greater understanding about Indigenous culture. It is important that they understand how lessons are passed down and what practices guide Indigenous youth into adulthood:
- Traditionally, a young man in his teens would make the transition into adulthood through an initiation ceremony.
- Another process for an Indigenous boy to grow into adulthood is to practice a 'walkabout', where they leave their community group and walkabout in search of themselves.
- Learning from Elders’ life experiences is also an integral way of learning for Aboriginal people and how to react if similar experiences were to arise in the young person’s life.
- Lessons about country, plants, animals and Dreaming stories for all those things are also ways by which the young person is educated about their place in the community and wider world. These parables for life lessons are one of the most integral learning tools for a young person.
Aboriginal culture and lessons for young people take a holistic approach. Everything is connected. Everything is equally important.
Once that basic point of understanding is acquired, the idea of 'owning' one's responsibility can be assumed. Only addressing the fact a crime was committed or an incident occurred does not always work. Instead it highlights certain 'shortcomings' about the individual at the time. We need to look at why and how to prevent it happening again.
"Aboriginal culture and lessons for young people take a holistic approach. Everything is connected. Everything is equally important"
We need to look at how we can encourage growth and prompt an individual's consideration about how much power, influence and most importantly, how much choice, they have in assuming responsibility for their own lives, and what they want their future to look like.
Young people have expressed to me their desire to hunt, camp and learn more about their languages and heritages. Young 'at-risk' men, who may have a history of violence and aggression, and service provider staff members need to be cautious about undertaking an activity such as hunting. But the counter argument is that practices such as hunting, camping and fishing are a significant part of their cultural heritage and identity. So how can we deny them that?
There needs to be a way that the young people in question can be culturally empowered, while at the same time be responsible for themselves, and towards their communities and families.
What I propose is that an alternative way of learning must be devised that works to better educate young men about their culture.
Trying to change thousands of years of cultural identity and replace it with an outside view will not fit with the family dynamic that these young people are a part, and will further add to their disassociation from culture, and alienation from a society that doesn't understand why they can't function like other people in the community.
"What I propose is that an alternative way of learning must be devised that works to better educate young men about their culture"
Such thinking needs to be applied to outreach and diversionary programs so we can better deliver the kind of content that young people need to aid in their development into adulthood.
It’s with this perspective that I approach the way I work with young people in my role as an outreach worker. I hope that by tailoring my approach to what is needed, while keeping in mind my role's obligations, I can successfully be a community worker, while still maintaining my integrity as a leader of my people and aid in developing the leaders of our future.
Darryl Bellotti is a Yamatji/Nyoongar man from Carnarvon, Western Australia. He lives in Perth where he works as an Aboriginal youth outreach worker for the City of Cockburn. He works with at-risk young people within the cities of Cockburn and Fremantle.