From January to August 2013 PaCSIA was involved in a project to develop a commemoration event to remember the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of indentured South Sea Islander labourers at the Townsvale cotton plantation in Veresdale/Gleneagle. The This Is Our Story Commemoration Event was held on 24 August 2013 at Harvest Point Outreach Church in Beaudesert. More than 350 people attended.
PaCSIA director Serge Loode and associate Brad Lewis facilitated a series of community consultations and dialogue events which brought together members of the Vanuatu Australian South Sea Islander Community (VASSIC), the Mununjali Aboriginal Traditional Owners, the descendants of former plantation owners (the Walker family), current landowners and broader Beaudesert community. The dialogue process led to the This Is Our Story community commemoration which was attended by a high-ranking Kastom Chief from Vanuatu, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier and other local and state politicians. In the post below we reflect on the methodology that was used for the community dialogue:
For the initial meetings with stakeholders and the dialogues between the Vanuatu Australian South Sea Islander Community (VASSIC), the Mununjali Aboriginal Traditional Owners, the descendants of former plantation owners (the Walker family) and current landowners, a restorative practice methodology for constructive engagement was used. Originally we anticipated that a collective narrative practice approach, which elicits and documents stories from the different stakeholders would be most appropriate (Denborough, 2008). During the first contact meetings with stakeholders it became obvious that not everyone felt that they could contribute stories, or that it took some careful questioning and reflection for the stories to come out. Also, the stories of the different stakeholder communities were very different. Some were about the context of the coming of the first South Sea Islanders to Townsvale, some were about the effects of the indentured labour scheme on families in the Pacific Islands and some were about events that took place much later. We acknowledge that all these stories are important for the diverse and multidimensional collective memory that is connected to the commemoration event. Given the diversity of stories and the sensitivities and discomfort that some stakeholders felt before the joint meetings we decided to use a restorative practice process which acknowledges and supports story-sharing, but which is also more focused on facilitating the conversations that are taking place in the room instead of recording and documenting the stories.
Restorative practice is strongly connected to the principles of restorative justice, in which human beings are seen as parts of a social network. Constructive and destructive interactions are influenced by the socialisation of actors and their place in the community. In a restorative justice approach, responses to conflict are not exclusively reserved to the State, but are considered to be in the responsibility of the community. Restorative practice engages the community in discussion and dialogue about important events that impact on them. These discussions often take place in conversation circles in which people are asked to provide their personal view and feelings on a situation, explain and clarify their own experiences to each other and then take action together as a group to deal with a problem or create a collective vision. A key strength of the approach is that participants can gain a better and deeper understanding of the diverse perspectives and experiences of other participants. Achieving greater understanding can provide a foundation for effective and respectful cooperation. Restorative practitioners guide this process through careful questioning and process check-ins to encourage participation and to give voice to all participants and stakeholders, including the quieter ones.
For larger stakeholder meetings we also utilised the Community Café Dialogues method. Dialogue processes give participants from different cultural backgrounds an opportunity to understand the influence of existing cultures and the differences that distinguish them without letting a particular culture or cultures dominate the discourse (Banathy et al., 2005). Because dialogue lets participants experience each other in context and provides insight into values, logic and stories of the people involved, it can bridge intercultural conflicts and help conflicting parties improve their knowledge and understanding to transform the relationship (LeBaron, 2003). Community Cafés are based on the World Café Conversations facilitation method (Brown, Isaacs & the World Café Community, 2005). They allow for large groups of people to come together in a constructive and comfortable environment to discuss questions that matter. Community Cafés also provide an excellent opportunity for participants who do not know each other to come together and to build relationships. Participants share stories and experiences about their own worldviews, cultural backgrounds and interests. Some Aboriginal and South Sea Islander Elders associated with the ASSI 150 project had already participated in Community Cafés and had found the process very empowering and stimulating.
The combination of restorative practice circles and Community Cafés was useful to provide a safe space for stakeholders to meet and to have a meaningful exchange about the past, present and the future commemoration event. Parallel to the dialogue processes we also worked as part of a planning committee made up of representatives of the different stakeholders. The major event planning work was achieved through the tireless efforts of all members of the planning committee whom we would like to acknowledge here. We are proud of the results which can be seen in the video embedded in this post. The event was a significant step towards to the recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders and an important part of their journey towards discovering their identity. Many Australian South Sea Islanders commented that when they were formally invited to walk on country by the Mununjali Traditional Owners they finally felt home in Australia.