Professor Judy Atkinson.
Professor Judy Atkinson.

Professor works towards hope

Showing her capacity for deep compassion, Professor Judy Atkinson has spent many years of her life trying to understand and address the causes of violence in our society. As the head of the Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University, she has introduced innovative educational programs which not only help people to understand violence, trauma and healing in society, but foster personal and professional development for both Indigenous and white Australians.

“We developed units that took people from the community and gave them a sense that they could come into university,” Professor Atkinson said. “A lot of Aboriginal people feel that they don’t have a right to be at university because of their educational experiences. They really believe that it will screw them over again and that it will teach them that they are no good.”

Professor Atkinson now opens her classes with a smoking ceremony and teaches the Aboriginal listening technique of ‘Dadirri’ which allows students to be aware of and sit with their own issues while listening to others.

“We teach cultural safety and security and Dadirri is our way of establishing a safe environment so we can listen to each other in a deep way. I believe that this raising of critical consciousness is important because it involves people in changing their circumstances.”

Her students are encouraged to learn about themselves before they can become professionals capable of working with other people.

“Professional workers in the field often fall apart,” Professor Atkinson said. “They want to change people to be something different, but they can’t if they don’t hear the stories that are driving this pain and distress. We give people the capacity to know who they are and where they are located in their own social system and history.”

As well as working toward creating a future of hope and healing for Aboriginal people in Australia, she has taken her programs overseas to other colonised countries such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Using art therapy as a way to explore these issues, her workshops aim to engender healing and empowerment within other Indigenous communities.

“Part of my agenda has been to show people in communities that they can do some of their own healing work. They are already doing it and have survived – I just help to bring it out and strengthen it.

“I actually come from the three I’s – indigenous, invader and immigrant,” Professor Atkinson said. “Although I’m an Aboriginal woman from the Jiman people of the Upper Dawson in Central West Queensland, I’m also part of the invader force. An ancestor came out on a prison hulk without permission, and my mother’s father and mother were sent out from Germany in the 1890s.

“I don’t claim Bundjalung heritage but my great grandfather was Bundjalung – he was born in 1840 and Uncle Eric Walker was able to locate me within that family line when I got here. That’s what Aboriginal people do… they want to know about you and who you are.

“It gives me a sense of responsibility to this place and it allows me to acknowledge the layers of trauma that have happened here. One of the first things Uncle Eric Walker did was take me out for a whole day and showed me the massacre sites around here. He petitioned me to remember them and now I can’t drive past them without remembering what he told me.

“Before colonisation, there was a vibrant Aboriginal heritage here of looking after country… some of the cultural protocols and practices have been fragmented but not lost and we just have to work to bring them back to a functioning base within ourselves.”

Professor Atkinson’s workshops in grief, trauma and healing have also played an important role in creating a connection and understanding between white and Aboriginal people.

“I was doing a mixed program a few years ago and at the end a senior health official was reflecting and said, ‘I would never have understood the depth of pain that Aboriginal people are living with if I hadn’t done this course’. My aunty was sitting next to me and said, ‘And I wouldn’t have known that white people have pain too if I hadn’t been here’.

“I hadn’t ever thought of that before,” Professor Atkinson said. “When you are in pain, your own pain is all encompassing and you actually can’t feel or understand that other people are in pain around you. When we start to share stories, people start to bounce off each other and they find the way forward – they have the capacity, skills and knowledge to work together to develop this – just like a good therapist should help people find their own strengths and not keep them locked in their own crap.”

One of the formative moments in Professor Atkinson’s life that put her on the pathway to exploring issues of violence came in 1987 while she was working with the Aboriginal Coordinating Council in Cape York.

“After a meeting, an elder came to me and told me that the week before, a five year-old girl had been raped and the police said they didn’t have to do anything because it was cultural. She was distressed because they knew who had done it and wanted some action.”

Judy then began to look closely at the issue and ask questions about the violence and trauma being experienced in Aboriginal communities. She travelled to Canada and found that, as in Australia, there were no appropriate educational programs established to train people in the field of alcohol, drug and violence treatment. In 1992, she then decided to write her PhD on these issues and began to make connections between what happened to people during war-times and what has happened to colonised groups such as the Indigenous peoples of the US, Canada and Australia.

“Within a few months of starting the PhD, I threw out the window the whole theory-base of domestic violence as men bashing up women and I started to read up on trauma theory,” Professor Atkinson said. “I looked at what happened when war veterans came back from war and about what was happening during the holocaust in Israel. I began to understand that violence goes into people and stays there and doesn’t go away –it moves and changes them and they act it out in different ways. Now we have started to talk about historic, social and cultural trauma.

“I wish the people who had decided to invade Iraq had understood the trauma vortex in the Middle East before they made those decisions. They might have understood they were only reinforcing the trauma and violence of generations.

“A study of trauma levels in the Israeli population during the Gulf War showed that men said they were less stressed than women, but physiological tests on the body showed that men were more stressed than women – that’s why men die more of heart attacks. During the Gulf War, violence against women and children in Israel increased dramatically. Men took their stress out on them and the most traumatised group had previously been through the holocaust.

“In Australia there is also a generational impact – when you’ve been though one thing, you hand it down,” Professor Atkinson said. “When Vietnam veterans came back to Australia, they rejected society and we learned from their war trauma, but this society has not applied it to colonised groups.

“Why is it that groups that have been colonised have similar health statistics? Is it because we are all the same and can’t be healthy, or is something else affecting us? Why is it that when societies and political systems start to respond to those trauma needs that the statistics start to improve? Unlike the US, Canada and New Zealand, in Australia, we are only just starting to acknowledge this.

“People want healing, but healing has been a word the academy has not been comfortable with,” she said. “Finally, after the apology, Mr Rudd has now funded a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing foundation and I’m on the board of that – healing is now legitimate.”

Professor Atkinson believes that childhood trauma is the biggest public health challenge our society is facing today.

“We are still little kids locked into adult bodies,” she said. “Young people have a low sense of self and have a void inside of them. This consumer society tells us how we should look and when we are hurt, we try to fill ourselves up with junk food, alcohol and other drugs to try to meet the pain. To fill up the void, young people are becoming aggressive, sexually promiscuous, self-harming and suicidal. They mistake wanting to kill the physical body for the desire for ego death – to put to death the pain the ego/soul/self.”

She believes that if society does not address the needs of young people now, the levels of bullying and juvenile detention will continue to escalate.

“There is an epidemic of sexual violence in this country which is now in our faces,” Professor Atkinson said. “My experience is that it has been generational and the government and educational institutions need to do more to put adequate programs into place to deal with this.

“When I worked with young Aboriginal kids coming out of detention centres, they had no sense that there is a future for them. To be able to create an educational curriculum that builds hope and healing for kids would be a master stroke in this society. My great fear is that we will continue to buy into educational programs that are inadequate to meet these needs.”

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