Darlene Thomas, photo: Paul Jeffers
Gambling in Aboriginal communities was a major topic at the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s three-day Gambling Harm Conference in August. The conference theme was ‘taking action for change’ – epitomised, on day one, by the First Nations Workshop hosted by Gunditjmara trainer, facilitator and author Richard Frankland.
Under the guidance of its Aboriginal Gambling Harm Reference Group and Aboriginal Gambler’s Help services, the Foundation aims to ensure events like the conference are respectful and inclusive of traditional Aboriginal ways of sharing knowledge and learning. Yarning circles are one such way, and with the support of Aboriginal partners, four yarning circles were organised for the First Nations Workshop, each with a different theme: Culture – helping people get and stay strong; Making counselling safe for Aboriginal people; Our stories, our strength; and What we know, what we need to know. The yarning circles were held at Deakin University’s Koori Education Unit, a culturally appropriate and welcoming space.
The First Nations Workshop explored the experiences of indigenous communities in dealing with gambling harm, and participants included Aboriginal people from Victoria and New South Wales, Maori experts and non-indigenous practitioners. Each yarning circle was hosted by a representative from an Aboriginal Gambler’s Help service.
Fallon Harris, community engagement officer at Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, which covers Victoria’s Greater Shepparton area, hosted the ‘Our stories, our strength’ circle. She says the relaxed structure quickly put participants at ease. ‘People often want to ask questions but don’t – they feel like if they do they’re not being professional. So a yarning circle breaks down those barriers and makes a more comfortable setting.’
She adds that the lasting connections made between people brought together for the first time in their ‘circle of chairs’ are particularly useful.
'A yarning circle breaks down those barriers and makes a more comfortable setting.'
Fallon Harris, Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative
Ring of knowledge
The mix of participants at the workshop encouraged a rich exchange of suggestions and stories, says another circle host, Darlene Thomas, team leader at Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS).
Working with the theme ‘What we know, what we need to know’, Darlene says the circle she hosted canvassed a range of issues, including the need to better inform Aboriginal people who gamble about the risks of gambling and about the many regional support services on offer. ‘We got to know a lot about each other in a short period of time, with people sharing stories and experiences,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of information coming out of it.’
The circle also enabled non-Aboriginal participants to learn more about the unique challenges faced by Aboriginal communities affected by gambling harm, including the historical context of many gambling addictions.
Some people questioned why abstinence was not often pursued by indigenous communities affected by gambling harm. Darlene says this led to a conversation about the fact that, for many Aboriginal people, gambling is a social activity with positive aspects. ‘For some people, gambling is a respite, part of their “me” time,’ she says. ‘So it’s about how can we make that safer, to make sure that it’s not a financial strain on people or making them depressed.’
'For some people, gambling is a respite, part of their "me" time.'
Darlene Thomas, Mallee District Aboriginal Services
Darlene has seen the power of yarning circles before, in an MDAS project for Elders who created a weekly yarning circle to discuss issues relating to addiction. ‘It was a really strong and positive conversation, a circle in which they’re safe,’ she says. ‘It allows people to talk freely and without judgement – they can talk about issues, they can talk about solutions and they can talk about where to from here.’
The other two circles at the workshop were hosted by the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.
While the prospect of yarning circles at future conferences will be discussed with Aboriginal Gambler’s Help services, Dea Morgain, senior community engagement advisor at the Foundation, says the signs are positive.
‘We are trying to provide culturally safe ways of working, under the guidance of some very good people. Knowing the staff in the Aboriginal Gambler’s Help services is hugely important. They are incredibly generous and tolerant people and when we miss the mark, they will politely tell us,’ she says. ‘There is a shared intent to get there.’
'They can talk about issues, they can talk about solutions and they can talk about where to from here.'
Darlene Thomas, Mallee District Aboriginal Services
Darlene is one who’d like to see the vibrant forum repeated. For her group, the lack of a talking stick – used traditionally in yarning circles to designate a person’s turn to speak – was no impediment. Instead, they found a mandarin. ‘There was nothing else handy so we tossed that around – it was pretty juicy by the end of the session,’ she laughs.
Like a mandarin, the segments of these yarning circles came together to form a nourishing whole.