What are the principles of trans-disciplinary collective learning? How can they be applied to create a new compact between all peoples with all species? How can we become agents of both radical change and radical hope?
These are just some of the questions explored by speakers at the recent Eco-Health Symposium in Melbourne, an event which challenges humanity to reconsider our relationships in all their diversity, reports journalist Marie McInerney in her final report of the proceedings.
And towards the bottom of this post, one of the Symposium’s organisers, Professor Kerry Arabena, responds to the Federal Government’s decision to cease funding the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (of which Arabena was a founding co-chair).
Looking with “radical hope” at what should be, what is, what could be and what can be
Marie McInerney writes:
For a meeting that heard dire warnings about climate change, food security, and the likelihood of another major human pandemic, there was a lot of hope in the room the Oceania Eco-Health Symposium and Workshop: “Linking Peoples, Landscapes, Health and Wellbeing”.
The three-day event staged by the Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit was in many ways a family affair: academic rigour mixed in with music, tears and laughter, as people told (and sang) stories of loss, survival and regeneration, and the power of mentoring, finding connections, and asking questions in different ways and in different orders.
Acting on the principles of ecohealth and “collective learning”, the symposium brought together specialists across a range of disciplines – from farmers and designers to health academics and practitioners – around the need to integrate health, social and environmental thinking and practice.
Many had a particular connection: as former students and colleagues of Australian National University Professor Valerie Brown, who launched her latest book – “The Human Capacity for Transformational Change: Harnessing the collective mind” (co-authored with John Harris) – at the symposium, and was honoured for her leadership and mentoring.
As well as moving to set up an Oceania Chapter of the International Association of Ecology and Health, the symposium also showcased examples of innovative research and practice, often by or with Indigenous people, in Australia and the Pacific region. They included:
- Australia’s regenerative agriculture movement
- New Zealand’s Cultural Health Index for waterways and streams
- a crowd-sourcing project on Pacific Island Ecosystem Management
- Cultures-Based Innovation for communities under social and environmental stress.
- The One Health collaboration addressing infections moving between wildlife, livestock and human populations
- revisiting the whole-of-landscape Aboriginal management of the Murray Darling Basin system
- incorporating urban parks into urban lifestyles.
Onemda Director Professor Kerry Arabena opened the event with customary passion, welcoming the participants as people who “can live with uncertainty, see the wholes and parts at the same time, equally value others’ children as much as your own, and talk to each other’s imaginations.”
Noting they were in an “Indigenous held space”, she called on them to embrace difference:
“As soon as you hear the voice in your head starting to position yourself as less than or more than anyone else in the room, then I need for you to let it go. We are not less or more, we are just different. What we do to ‘difference’ in modernity is politicise it, we make difference hierarchical, we pitch ourselves against it, we ‘other’ those who are different.
Difference and diversity are absolutely necessary to our existence. I am asking all of you really to come on a journey of beyond – beyond what we are able to say, to be, to know, to appreciate, and to experience. All of these things, I think, is what it means to be held in an Indigenous space. You might even come to know yourself a bit differently and that is a very courageous conversation indeed. I hope you experience radical hope.”
Here’s a taste of some of the sessions and discussions:
Closed off towers of knowledge
A common refrain at the symposium was that people working in ecohealth or advocating trans-disciplinary “collective thinking” were seen initially as being on the fringe, and still struggled to convince others.
Canadian epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews, an ecohealth pioneer who was at the symposium to launch Brown’s book and to discuss his own – The Origin of Faeces – said:
“As soon as you start talking about it, it starts sounding a little ‘New Age-y’, you’re going to starting beating on drums and doing rain dances etc. So we try to navigate that space and say this is real stuff, this is about where we live and how things relate to each other.
“There’s a core of people who get it, and it’s often Indigenous people. They say: ‘we knew this a long time ago and now you’re discovering it once you’ve wrecked the place!’ We’re like teenagers, where you have to go out and make all the mistakes and then come back and say ‘you were right, Dad!” he said.”
Waltner-Toews said there are now more scholarly journals – “24,000, each with their own language, own culture, and often unreadable across cultures” – than surviving Indigenous languages. He said:
“We’ve gotten buried in the techniques of all the little towers of knowledge, how to solve this problem and then that one. We need to look at a much larger question: what kind of people do we want to be on this planet, and who is asking the questions and creating the spaces to do that?”
Getting the questions right, and in the right order
Throughout its workshops, the symposium applied Brown’s “collective learning cycle” (see slide above) of what questions to pose – and, importantly, in what order – to begin any project.
She says most of us begin automatically with “what is?” – outlining the current position or issue. That’s helpful, she says, if you’re a plumber fixing the pipes, but not enough if you’re wrestling with “radical change”.
She says the order must be:
- What should be?
- What is?
- What could be?
- What can be?
She said: “The collectiveness of this is we don’t need to separate ideals from facts, from our ideas and from our actions. We continually do that and, worse, we allocate different questions to a different group of (professional areas) and then wonder why nothing comes out of it.”
As important in how we begin new projects is for us to look – again at the start of a project – at the sources of the answers (see slide below), “so we don’t just explore what we already know”.
Elements of an individual collective mind
Brown’s co-author John Harris said the research for the book revealed “five distinct self-contradictory elements of an individual collective mind”:
- The capacity to absorb the ideas of other minds while still retaining the capacity to strike out on one’s own as an original thinker.
- The confidence in one’s own intuition coupled to the learning from one’s own life experiences.
- The mental capacity for reframing existing divisions as connecting relationships, for example bringing together as dynamic systems the supposed opposites of parts and whole, stability and change, individuals and society, and rational and creative thinking.
- The practice of asking inward looking questions of introspection and reflection and outward-looking physical, social, ethical, aesthetic and sympathetic questions at the same time.
- The constant association of abstract ideas and practical action: nothing so practical as a good theory.
“We are all indigenous”: collective thinking in practice
Professor Kerry Arabena has talked to a number of publishers since she became the first Indigenous postgraduate at Australian National University to win its most prized academic award with her thesis: Indigenous to the universe: a discourse of Indigeneity, citizenship and ecological relationships.
But she admits that so far they struggle to see how to communicate it to a broader public. And she concedes that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peers implore her not to speak too publicly about its implicit challenges.
Arabena, who is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, was a founding co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
The challenge of her thesis is that, at some point, we need to move beyond the colonial constructs of who or what is indigenous – to accept we are all indigenous and therefore custodians of Country and planet – and that reconciliation should eventually move beyond being just between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia to a compact between all peoples with all species.
Calling for a new understanding that brings together all the sciences to understand that all people are already “biophysically reconciled”, she called on the symposium “look beyond”, saying:
“Indigenous philosophies show that it is possible to learn to be in the world in reciprocal relationships with all things, through cooperation and constraint, interdependent thinking, morality and action. Scientific evidence indicates that our planet is a one-time endowment, profoundly inter related with the constant energy source provided by the sun and now more than at any other time in history, humans need to understand and respond effectively to our own human role within this new information.
Because of this scientific evidence, from Indigenous peoples, Earth system sciences, quantum physicists and environmentalists, I ask you to imagine this:
We are all indigenous to this universe. We are already reconciled, not only between each other, but with every other being with which we live our lives. And as such, we all have custodial responsibilities, we have to reify the ecosystems in which we live, make subordinate our human individual requirements and practise personal development by responding to the needs of our whole community, including those in other species. This is the task really of a post reconciliation agenda.”
It’s not so much provocative, as a complex shift in perception that’s difficult to redact and easy to take out of context. See her 2010 ANU Reconciliation Address or an edited version that was published on ABC’s The Drum and attracted many abusive comments.
At the symposium, Arabena found a ready audience who received it as she intended: as a challenge to “use sciences to steer a different dialogue on the relationships between peoples, landscape and social health”.
The power of mentoring
The day of homage to Professor Val Brown that opened the symposium honoured her leadership in collecting thinking and also showed the power of strong mentoring – she has supervised more than 100 PhDs – and a collegiate approach.
Many spoke of her as a collaborator, pioneer and intellect: one of her “deeply scholarly kindness”. Farmer and author Charles Massy said the pulping of one of her earlier papers had been “the equivalent of a book burning”.
Here are two anecdotes:
Both Massy and Arabena spoke of the “considerable risks” Brown took to back them as PhD scholars, although they lacked formal qualifications. Arabena had first met Brown when they were both on a health promotion agency in Canberra. “She thought I would be a little shy Indigenous woman from Cairns and might need some assistance; on first meeting her I thought she was a sweet little old lady. What started off as a meeting of stereotypes ended up being an extraordinary relationship. I call her my exquisite Elder.”
(Arabena also told how then ANU Vice Chancellor Ian Chubb had canvassed the possibility of her doing her doctorate. Brown’s full support – going through a suitcase of papers to meet the standards – ensured she qualified to enter. “Many years later, Ian and I were both nominated for ACT Australian of the Year Awards,” Arabena recalled. “I shook his hand as the awards were being announced and said: ‘see what happens, brother, when you give someone a hand up!’)
Associate Professor Mardie Townsend talked of having been invited by Brown to join an editorial team for a book, and now reflecting on it in the context of Elias Canetti’s four characteristics of the vigour of a crowd-sourced effort: growth, density, equality and direction.
She said: “I really think that sums up what happened in that experience of editing the book. There was a group of four, but there was no hesitation in growing (the group and the ideas). The density came in the close contact: we would go away for 2-3 days at a time, to work together on writing and editing. In terms of equality, I was the typical late mature age female student who raised children and then went to uni aged 34 and was very much of the view that I didn’t have much to offer. But I was never treated in that group as somebody who was not an equal. And direction: we had a serious purpose and we achieved it.”
Much talk of metaphors
As well hearing about new research into the metaphors that shape farmers and their practices, the symposium had a crash course into Polynesian metaphors from Prof Herman Pi’ikea Clark, Director of the Tokorau Institute of Indigenous Innovation at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, one of three Maori universities in New Zealand.
He told how he was taken, as a child, by his great grandmother out to the edge of a Hawaiian reef, one step away from the deep, dark, ocean where she talked about squid: “how they can swim against the tide, in multiple directions, change their appearances”.
Noting that his great grandmother had been born under the Kingdom of Hawaii, when it was an “(independent) member of the brotherhood of nations”, who had witnessed the landing of United States troops in an act that launched the US as a global power, he said her story was “an example of very, very high risk of Polynesian pedagogy: that intends that the student is bright enough to understand!”
It took him some time, he said, to realise “she was trying to talk to me through metaphor about survival.”
There is much work to do…
Statement by Professor Kerry Arabena, who was a founding co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
“National Congress was established to be the representative voice of the First peoples in Australia. National Congress has always committed to having a robust relationship with government of the day, providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the opportunity to engage with parliamentary processes and get their voices and aspirations heard.
National Congress has engaged with their members to provide widespread input to government policies and positions including Justice Reinvestment, Education, Country, Health and Education. In fact, the Health Leadership within Chamber 1 of the National Congress came together to form the National Health Leadership Forum and consulted in partnership with government of the day to develop a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan.
National Congress is a solid performer in a ‘start up’ phase, tasked with the responsibility of growing the organisation’s membership, then engaging this membership across diverse populations and geographies and contributing to the development of well consulted position statements. Not an easy task.
Part of the strength of any organisation is to have a diversity of funding sources, to assist meet the needs of a diversity of need – any organisation that is reliant on a singular funding source is at risk. The government’s position to not extend funding to National Congress will require the members to get behind the organisation and support the organisation making their voices heard well into the future.
There is no denying the calibre of people who are part of the newly established Indigenous Advisory Body giving advice to Tony Abbott whose primary role is to advise government. Similarly, the calibre of people who have been involved in the development of the National Congress of Australia’s First People also needs to be acknowledged. Amongst their number are community leaders from across Australia who are also award winners within our own community; Finalists and Australians of the Year; Professors, people with University higher degrees, people from remote areas with high standing in their community and within their institutions and people who are locally affiliated with international connections.
The National Congress was the first company in Australia to have in its Constitution the principle of gender equity, of equal representation, and was recognised by Human Rights Commissioners as a model organisation. There is much that has been done, and much work for Warren Mundine and his body, and for the National Congress to do. I do not think this is an either/or situation; I would hope that there would be opportunities to work together for all our sakes.”
And, finally, as we turn our sights to 2014, some pointers from the EcoHealth Symposium….
• You can track Croakey’s coverage of the Oceania Eco-Health Symposium here.
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