Connecting with community, culture and Country
The Stronger Culture, Healthier Lifestyles project has been a transformative cultural journey for all involved – the children, mentors and Elders of three Aboriginal communities in the Shoalhaven region, and Dr Rebecca Stanley no less.
Dr Stanley is an Early Start Research and NSW Health Early Career Research Fellow working to understand the importance of culture and its role in health and wellbeing. In particular, she focuses on working with communities to develop and evaluate school-based activities and after-school programs for children that promote healthy lifestyles.
“Every child should have the opportunity for a healthy start to life, which includes feeling connected, knowing who they are and where they come from,” she says.
In 2014, a visit to the Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre on a typical afternoon – the centre flooded with restless kids – sparked a flourishing relationship between Dr Stanley and the Shoalhaven Aboriginal community. Together, they have developed an after-school activity program connecting Aboriginal kids with their culture to remarkable effect.
Guided by co-investigator Dr Anthony McKnight, a local Aboriginal man and lecturer with the School of Education, Dr Stanley and the UOW research team have spent the past four years working with the community to understand their needs. “The Elders had noticed that the children were disconnected from their culture and it was having huge impacts on their health and education,” she says. “The more I got to talk and listen to the Elders, the more I understood that their connection to culture, their health and their education can’t be separated.”
Her work with the community led to the Koori Kids Culture Club, the first program of its kind. Aboriginal song, dance, arts and craft, bushwalks and fishing are all part of the program designed and created by the local Aboriginal community members for primary school-aged children.
“My role is to support them to bring those activities to life. It’s very much community-driven,” Dr Stanley says. “It's so meaningful because they’ve created it – they own it – a link that I think is missing in a lot of health promotion projects.”
The program is a powerful example of how engaging with culture can promote healthy behaviours and improve educational outcomes for Indigenous children. It has directly increased the children’s sense of cultural connectedness and belonging, boosting self-confidence, and improved their engagement at school. Suspension rates have dropped and children are standing up in class, sharing their culture with their peers.
With funding support from the UOW Global Challenges program and NSW Health, Dr Stanley has been gathering critical evidence on outcomes of the project to ensure its longevity, changing her research practices to include yarning with the kids and documenting their cultural journey to capture the whole story. The benefits of the project also extend to the community with mentors involved in the program going on to secure traineeships in early childhood centres and employment in the tourism and education sector.
“We have made a commitment to these communities to continue working with them beyond the life of the funding that we currently have. Anything that we can do together to make this program sustainable, we will.”