Parragirls and Marjorie Woodrow – A Spiritual Journey of Healing Through Research
Origami – the Japanese art of paper folding – is fitting imagery for the story ahead because of the magical transformation a flat sheet of paper into an unexpected three dimensional shape of meaning. I find it fascinating to hear the paper rasp into edges, watch the skilled movement of fingers carefully holding edges, and feeling the surprise as a definite shape emerges that inspires new visions for the future.
On one plane of my consciousness, I hadn’t ever thought of visiting Parramatta (a suburb of Sydney) especially when it is a place of trauma for my grandmother, Marjorie Woodrow (1926-2016) – Nan. She who was stolen from her mob at Murrin Bridge mission as a young girl and eventually sent to Parramatta Girls Home to be ‘trained’ to be a domestic servant. Remembering the stories that Nan told to the family about Parramatta Girls Home, they were stories about white men and white women doing unspeakable acts to her and the girls and…it didn’t leave me with a burning desire to go there – ever.
Then, another plane of conscience was created when, in early 2019, I received an email from Lilly Hibberd (details ) seeking family members of Nan to see if the Parragirls foundation could use Nan’s story in their book – Parragirls (insert link) – which of course it was; then I continued with my research work.
However, that email opened a door in my mind through which Nan’s voice drew me back to when I was a boorie that did well at school and she rewarded me a small silver trophy, as I talked about in the radio interview “Meet the Mob“, to celebrate my academic success, “keep going with education and do well for our people” was her message. That email in 2019 opened a memory door to 1978, and Nan’s spirit is the magic fold of those moments together.
More folds were to take place. After 15 years of education (Bachelor of Science, Master of Public Health, and Doctor of Philosophy) I arrived at a point in my work where I was researching the idea of embedding cultural safety in hospital emergency departments for vulnerable First Nations families in the project It was an area of work I had actively avoided – domestic violence, family abuse and child sexual assault – all things that I had experienced in my childhood.
The awakening of planes of consciousness and creation of others could also include shadows of darkness. The abuse meted out to me was not to an extent that I’d classify as serious but just normal family behaviour. This included Uncles calling wives sluts and bitches, hearing their drunken crass threats “keep ya fucken mouth shut or I’ll slap ya down”, my mother drunkenly and vehemently calling me a “smart arse little shit”, an older male cousin pushing me down on a bed and attempting to “give ya a good root” (unsuccessfully-he was interrupted), to my older brothers practising there verbal and physical acts of aggression on me – their youngest sibling. Opening that memory door also allowed other dark thoughts to penetrate my sleep over the last six months.
But my resilience is strong thanks to Nan’s spiritual guidance of the folding process. I realised that my retreat, my sanctuary, my cultural safety lay in burying myself in books and keeping quiet and out of sight. In that safe space of research, while researching for the Aboriginal Cultural Safety & Security Framework.
I found a journal article by Leticia Funston (‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Worldviews and Cultural Safety Transforming Sexual Assault Service Provision for Children and Young People‘) about First Nations child sexual abuse and it was the first article that I’d read which I’d call culturally safe – I felt that my cultural experience and my childhood were genuinely respected – something that I had never encountered in reading an academic journal article. Something that I had to do was meet Letty and the people who had guided her writing – the Aboriginal Communities Matter Advisory Group at the Education Centre Against Violence (ECAV- a NSW government organisation). I felt as though Nan’s passion for education had led me to read that article.
The folding continued with a few emails between Letty and myself about journal articles and each other’s research and thereby solidifying my intention to meet the ECAV crew. I was curious to see how their governance enabled the cultural voice of First Nations Australians to diffuse through the organisation. My research career trajectory is to focus on the analysis of policy concepts – from holism to participation to voice to cultural safety – and how they are evident in the philosophical directions of organisations. In other words, governance. A good example is the publication ‘Valuing Frontline Clinician Voice’ (2018).
Little did I realise that Nan’s spirit, the Parragirls foundation, research and ECAV would fold together into an origami profoundly significant to my cultural, educational, and spiritual journey.
The Parragirls’ Lilly Hibberd emailed again in September 2019 to invite me to the book launch of Parragirls – in Sydney – at the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct which was the location of the Parramatta Girls Home (now known as the Norma Parker Centre). Knowing the history of that place and recalling Nan’s teary eyes as she told those stories, I wondered if I could stand on the ground without being overwhelmed by grief and anger. Yes. I also decided to meet the ECAV team (Nat, Jo and Letty) because they were also “somewhere” in Sydney. Further investigation revealed their location on the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct – I could not believe it! The place (Parramatta) I was warned away from was also the place I was drawn to – Nan’s spirit was also folding me into an uncomfortable space.
I needn’t have worried because Letty, Nat and Jo were incredibly welcoming, and our discussions wound round to the point where they revealed their need for a First Nations researcher to support and enhance their education and training. Was it a coincidence? How could my passion for First Nations cultural voice in research and my lived experience – through Nan’s spiritual guidance – fold into a point along with the Parragirls Book Launch, the ECAV team and their need for First Nations research? This was an amazing metaphysical conjunction of planes of consciousness.
Mark and Ayse Göknur Shanal at the Parragirls Book Launch, October 2019.
At the Parragirls book launch, the feelings were incredibly intense as I knew they would be. I had asked friends Susan and Ayse (pictured) to come along, and Letty and Nat were there as well. Their friendship and energy was a shield of protection on that traumatised ground. But the large crowd gathered for the occasion also signalled that the Parragirls had reclaimed that site as their own and embarked on a journey of healing which Nan had guided me to join.
The origami folds came together on the day of the Parragirls book launch and the tip of the folded point is a new start for First Nations research to reclaim the way knowledge is constructed and used so that it benefits First Nations communities on their healing journeys. Now, I co-lead the development of the ECAV First Nations Research Team and am a Board Member of the Stolen Generations Council NSW/ACT Inc (thanks to Bonny Djuric and Aunty Matilda House). I feel that a transformation had occurred to show me where a critical pathway of healing through research could occur. Thanks Nan!
Nan’s story is detailed in these two books. One of the Lost Generation (left hand side) and Long Time Coming Home (right hand side)