In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.
*(this is an opinion piece and in no way intended to offend or make assumptions about complex racial or cultural issues)
Stories are important for cultural change because they ignite conversations. The way in which these stories are delivered determines the magnitude by which they enact positive change by removing stereotypes, healing trauma, and creating space for empathy and understanding between people and entire nations.
When it comes to storytelling, lived experience trumps academic experience, something that is agreed upon by people all over the world, but what exactly is lived experience?
Lived experience is defined as “personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events rather than through representations constructed by other people”.
Think of it like this.
History books are filled with the culmination of years of expert academic research, record keeping, (some) eye-witness accounts, statistics, and information. That is fine, and of course, they serve a purpose.
At MY BOOK CLUB we recently read the incredible book The Happiest Man on Earth, by Eddie Jaku. Eddie recounts his actual lived experience of the Holocaust, and for me, this was infinitely more powerful than any history book I have ever read on the Holocaust.
My education on the Holocaust was very Eurocentric. Most of my history books were written by British or American historians. My recollection of WW2 history throughout secondary school in Ireland was chapters and chapters of information on either Hitler or the eventual formation of an Allied army to defeat him. We learned very little of the lived experience of the Jews at that time aside from minimal insights into the life of Anne Frank and some fractured accounts of the horrors at Auschwitz.
History is a subject where opinions are shared and debated which means that we have to be careful of bias. Not everyone’s story and perspective are included in history – and this is a big problem, particularly when dealing with matters of race, culture and genocide.
This is why, lived experience trumps academic experience – every time.
At the heart of our cultural awareness, no matter our background, is language.
From language we get storytelling, through storytelling we find our voice, and eventually our voice breaks down century-long barriers of silence. Silence is what holds back progress which is why we all need to embrace stories that come from lived experience.
Storytelling has a profound impact on culture because it shapes beliefs and ideas. Humans tell stories every day and our stories have the power to pass on cultural awareness from generation to generation. Since the beginning of human existence stories were a vehicle for passing on traditions, sharing knowledge and protecting culture.
The indigenous Ainu people of Japan’s Hokkaido Island had to develop a strong tradition of storytelling to pass on their culture.
In Ireland under colonial rule speaking Irish or Gaelic was banned. Irish speaking teachers formed what was known as ‘hedge schools’ where teachers and students would quite literally sit out in the fields, hidden under thick hedges, and share stories and teach lessons. The strong preservation of Irish culture and traditions is attributed to these hedge schools.
In Australia, Aboriginal legends are very important to indigenous cultures. Indigenous voices are central to protecting and preserving one of the oldest cultures on the planet.
Storytelling can certainly be a catalyst for cultural change, but what happens in societies where culture and tradition have been almost lost due to years of oppression and silencing?
If the stories we see, hear and read are told through the lens of non-lived experience then we miss out on complete truth. Our opinions, knowledge and learnings are thwarted, even if we do not realise it.
Are the stories of lived experience key to healing racial and cultural trauma?
I believe they are.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, was founded by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It was established to deal with the atrocities of the Apartheid era in South Africa. The TRC’s objective was to achieve reconciliation by hearing the confessions and stories of the perpetrators and the victims, respectively.
Reconciliation is complex and a myriad of elements must come together to achieve one very important thing – truth. This requires vulnerability, acceptance, awareness, forgiveness, transparency, listening, empathy and much more.
In South Africa it is questionable if the TRC provided a complete path to reconciliation because some were not ready to forgive, others were not ready to tell the truth and others were not ready to listen.
However, I believe that these shared stories were the beginning of healing and, if anything, a powerful antidote to silence.
Australia has a complex relationship with its colonial past. A culture of denial and general lack of awareness only further complicates the path to reconciliation in Australia.
"If you're not a person of colour, chances are you don't understand the concept of racial trauma from cradle to the grave," – Indigenous psychologist Kelleigh Ryan
Indigenous languages are disappearing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. By extension, this could mean a complete and irreversible loss of one of the most beautiful cultures on the planet.
So, what is the way forward?
The ability to imagine a better world is the beginning of any movement for change. To be able to communicate that world to others lies in the power of storytelling and sharing lived experience.
Victoria became the first state in Australia to embark on the path to negotiating the nation’s first treaty with Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victorians with other states following suit. What impact will this have?
Ultimately, however we get there, the steps taken must be decided by members of our Indigenous communities. Now is the time to listen to and embrace the rich history of the Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Australians.
"I've been explaining my blackness my whole life, I can't hide from it. I'm glad we have a new generation of Australians wanting to learn the truth and they want Indigenous people to tell it” – Kween G
*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are amongst the most incarcerated people in the world.
* In Australia approximately 65% of incarcerated children aged between 10 and 13 are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
*There have been 474 Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia from 1991 to 2021 and no criminal convictions for the accused.
Putting lived experience in context I pose this question,
If you were to hear these stories of incarceration, injustice and violence from the victims and their families or from a third-party researcher or reporter, which would be more powerful?
I know my answer.