Introduction by Croakey: On Yuggera Country in south-east Queensland, the Inala Wangarra community organisation is a partner in a research project that shines a light on the strengths of communities and young people.
The Inala Wangarra research partnership demonstrates that effective knowledge translation is based upon researchers listening to, learning from and working in partnership with communities.
The article below, the third in a series on Indigenous knowledge translation sponsored by the Lowitja Institute, shows knowledge translation being used to promote health, wellbeing, justice and decolonising.
Croakey Professional Services writes:
It’s the night of nights in the Brisbane suburb of Inala as young people in sharp suits and beautiful gowns enter the Rite of Passage Ball for a coming of age ceremony where they are formally presented to their Elders and community.
“Seeing all the sista girls and brothers all dressed up and looking deadly and all the smiles of the Aunties, Uncles and all the Elders in the community, you just felt empowered,” one young woman said of the experience.
This is a debutante ball with a difference, a ritual firmly anchored in culture that marks the commitment of the Indigenous-controlled Inala Wangarra community organisation to invest in its young people as the strengths of their community.
“We’re walking alongside our young fellas,” said Professor Chelsea Watego, a founding member of Inala Wangarra, and recently appointed Professor of Indigenous Health in the QUT Faculty of Health, School of Public Health & Social Work. Until recently, she was Principal Research Fellow in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland.
“Part of the ceremony is an introduction to the community and a declaration of who our young people are and their bloodlines to Country, but it’s also about their aspirations, about where they want to go in their lives.”
The biennial ball, an initiative of the Inala Wangarra Youth Committee, has been held since 2009 to celebrate the transition of young people aged from 15 to 21 from adolescence to young adulthood.
Over time protocols and traditions have been added to the ball and, in the lead-up to the event, the young people attend dance rehearsals and workshops about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity.
“Dancing teaches you to be delicate with each other, be kind and gentle,” one young man said in a video produced about the ball, as his partner gently notes that he steps on her toes.
Roles and Ritual: The Inala Wangarra Rite of Passage Ball case study (2018-2019) was researched by the University of Queensland in partnership with Inala Wangarra to look at strengths-based community development in practice, and in particular to gain a deeper understanding of the roles and expectations of urban Indigenous men in order to highlight their power and capabilities.
The research project, funded by the Lowitja Institute, used a Participatory Action Research framework and the Most Significant Change technique, with film, in-depth interviews and photovoice to gather qualitative data from young men participating in the 2018 Rite of Passage Ball, their partners, families, and stakeholders.
The project findings indicate that rites of passage and rituals should be celebrated to show the value and legitimacy of young Indigenous men in an urban Indigenous community – “a community constructed as economically poor, yet culturally rich”.
As an Inala parent said: “These kids know that they matter more than anything in this world…we want them to love themselves as much as we do.”
A Rite of Passage Ball debutante added: “It’s just that feeling that you’re making everyone in your family proud.”
What does it mean to be a blackfella?
Indigenous male wellbeing is of research interest in North America, Hawaii, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia. Professor Watego led the research team that asked 13 Inala men and teenagers ‘What does it mean to be a blackfella?’
Their answers revealed a distinct concept of Indigenous masculinity rooted in place with an intergenerational sense of responsibility.
“Much of what we know about Indigenous men is about loss, or they are typically framed as problems, as threats and risks,” Professor Watego said.
“But in our research we saw they are powerful and beautiful and vulnerable.”
The researchers heard stories of men having to ‘act hard’, having to be strong and having no choice but to stand up for themselves.
“Indigenous men spoke about being better for one’s children, about being a better version of one’s own father, about being respectful, about providing and guiding and about showing your children that ‘it’s okay to hurt’,” Professor Watego said.
“The articulation of a strong Black masculinity centred on a strong sense of brotherhood and belonging that sustained men in everyday life.”
Speaking on the video, participants said:
Being a blackfella, you either stood up for yourself or you lived on your knees.”
To be a strong Black man you need to know who you are and where you’re from; and if you don’t know, you need to find out.”
The old people taught me the difference between right and wrong.”
The research, funded by Lowitja Institute, was developed every step of the way with the Inala Indigenous community and produced knowledge translation resources including a strengths-based approach practitioner guide for policymakers, vodcasts and videos.
A teaser film about the Rite of Passage Ball was pitched to SBS TV, which produced the documentary Rite to Dance and premiered it at Citipointe Church at Inala.
“Knowledge translation is not something you do after the research,” Professor Watego said. “If the foundations on which the work is built aren’t strong, if they aren’t grounded in Indigenous sovereignty and strengths then what follows will be all but useless.”
The Inala Wangarra research partnership was approved by its Board, which was kept up to date throughout the study. The Inala Community Jury for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, a group of local Indigenous people, provided community approval for the research to progress and the Inala Indigenous Men’s Advisory Group oversaw cultural content produced for the project.
Home is where the heart is
The suburb of Inala is situated in Yuggera Country, 18 kilometres south-west of Brisbane’s CBD. It was a place where many Indigenous people came in search of affordable housing when government and church-run missions closed in the 1960s.
It’s now home to one of the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Brisbane and known for its strong sense of community that extends well beyond its geographical boundaries.
“It was a place where blackfellas could get a home relatively easy because no one wanted to live here. Now, many of us live here because there is real beauty in this community,” Professor Watego said.
A Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman who moved to Inala 20 years ago, Professor Watego was among a group of volunteers who established Inala Wangarra around that time, as a self-determining community-controlled organisation to empower Indigenous people to collectively control their futures. It provides community-driven programs and services for sport, education, health, employment, justice, culture and arts.
“We spent two years just yarning with our community, asking ‘What do we want? What can we build with strong foundations that no matter what happens we’re not going to fall over?’” Professor Watego said.
Inala Wangarra had a strengths-based approach from its inception, investigating the knowledge already held by the community and using that to inform community development programs.
“When we looked at our strengths in Inala we found it was our young people, a community that is often problematised in health. But we had a different imagining; we are proud of them and we see them as an asset, not a risk,” said Professor Watego, a mother of four sons and one daughter.
Like many Indigenous peoples and organisations, Inala Wangarra recognises that reaffirming and strengthening connections to culture, spirituality, Country, language, and place is integral to achieving better health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
There is also a recognition that culture is not static but undergoes a process of re-articulation between generations.
A contemporary symbol is the graffiti tag ‘Inala Boyz’ that engenders community pride in Inala as an historical site of Black resistance and an inclusive place of belonging for diasporic Indigenous communities. The moniker ‘Inala Boyz’ has a special meaning to young and old men from Inala, representing a proud identity, strong connections and a sense of community belonging.
To Professor Watego, a strengths-based approach is about truth-telling that questions and counters dominant racialised stereotypes to mobilise existing power, capabilities, knowledge, skills and talents.
In Inala the community organisation works from the premise that “blackfellas might know something; we are knowledge holders, not just subjects in need of saving”.
One research project led by Professor Watego investigated effective quitting techniques for smokers in her community, drawing on the strengths-based approach and translating that knowledge to the community.
Instead of targeting the smokers in the community, the researchers flipped the demographic and interviewed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who had successfully quit to find knowledge to pass on.
Some of the ex-smokers had just passed the three-month quit mark while others had given up for 30 years and all were proud to be involved in research they saw would have impact in their community.
Professor Watego found the mainstream motivators of health risk, guilt or stigma had little effect “because when you’re poor and Black you’re guaranteed to already live with stigma”.
What did work, though, were the anonymous Quit phone lines where trained counsellors were non-judgmental and provided follow-up, instead of doctors lecturing about the dangers of smoking.
Major changes in life events – a significant birthday, a new job, a new start after divorce, or becoming a grandparent – was often the impetus for quitting smoking.
“So we learned we have to use the whole-of-life story and see where smoking fits into identity,” Professor Watego said.
Professor Chelsea Watego has worked in public health and research for more than 20 years, achieving a PhD and most recently being awarded a prestigious national research grant.
But as one of Australia’s leading experts on the impact of racism and social exclusion on health inequities for Indigenous peoples she witnesses the violence inherent in the dehumanisation of Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples and the deficit discourse about their wellbeing.
Public health is fairly new to the concepts of decolonising practice and Professor Watego questions whether it has the capacity to use strengths-based practice as a common sense, everyday approach to Indigenous health.
“But when you look at an Indigenous community like Inala operating in a context of clear need – and operating from its strengths – it offers some hope for public health,” she said.
A few years ago the ‘Inala Manifesto’ called for a new way forward for Indigenous health research where health inequalities were recognised as the product of an ongoing process of colonisation, which continues to claim that poor health experienced by Indigenous peoples “is a product of Black lack, biologically or culturally”.
Her vision is for health research to privilege Indigenous sovereignty, not as a radical or alternative position but one that makes visible the knowledge, strength, capability and humanity of Indigenous peoples.
“Health and wellbeing is a fundamental human right, which means that health research is a question of politics and political struggle, rather than simply the production of an evidence base for action,” she said.
Last December Watego was awarded a $1.77 million Australian Research Council (ARC) grant for her team to develop Indigenist Health Humanities as a new and innovative field of inquiry. The aim is to develop a transdisciplinary collective of Indigenous health researchers, and a more sustainable and ethical approach to advancing new knowledge, research careers and health outcomes for Indigenous peoples.
The ARC’s National Test Statement for the grant noted that despite decades of investment by federal and state governments, there were still significant health inequalities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“This research agenda aims to yield new insights into Indigenous health and wellbeing that will be used to better inform Indigenous policy responses, recognising the limitations of relying too heavily upon a medical response to what is effectively a socio-political problem,” the statement said.
Professor Watego said there had been too much investment in descriptor studies, “telling us what’s wrong with Black people”.
“It’s not that we don’t know why Black people are dying earlier, it’s not that we don’t have the evidence base. We lack the political environment to make the changes for blackfellas to live longer.”
There are high hopes that the field of Indigenist Health Humanities will transcend western methodologies and power bases and reconfigure the role of the Indigenous health researcher as a public intellectual, a truth-teller and change maker.
“We’re not coming to research for discovery,” Professor Watego said. “We’re coming to research to reclaim all that is ours.”
• Professor Chelsea Watego’s book, Another Day in the Colony, published by UQ Press, is scheduled for release in November 2021.
This article was written by Linda Doherty and edited by Associate Professor Megan Williams, a Wiradjuri researcher and the Research Lead and Assistant Director of the National Centre for Cultural Competence at The University of Sydney, on behalf of Croakey Professional Services.
The series was conceptualised and sponsored by the Lowitja Institute, which had final say over the content. Register here to attend a Lowitja Institute webinar on 12 August on Indigenous Knowledge Translation.
We thank Inala Wangarra for permission to publish the photographs, and CEO Karla Brady for assistance with arranging these. The 2018 and 2019 Rite of Passage balls were photographed by Animal House Reference Photography. The Rite to Dance premiere was photographed by LaVonne Bobongie.
Pictured in the feature image, L-R: Brielle Tyson-Costello, Takeisha Riley, Keleira Fenton-Barratt, Lili-Jade Malone, Nadiene Richardson, Mikayla Stumer and Maya Bond.
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