Dardi Munwurro: Bringing out the best in Aboriginal men, for stronger communities

It’s NAIDOC Week – a week in which we celebrate the cultural riches and indelible contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our nation’s first peoples. This year, we pay special homage and respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that lead and support their families, communities and fellow Australians every week of every year.

Although not obvious at first glance, it’s because of these women and their children, that organisations like Dardi Munwurro, who work directly with men to stop their use of violence, now exist. ‘Building stronger families and safer communities’ is indeed the Dardi Munwurro vision. A vision best achieved by connecting with the heart and mind of an Aboriginal man who uses violence.

For Alan Thorpe, Director of Dardi Munwurro and Board Member of No to Violence, tackling a problem head on is an approach he’s used well both on and off the sporting field, having played in the AFL in the early 1980s for both Sydney and Footscray. Not long after football, Alan sought after a deeper meaning, for both himself and the men in his community. With not much else but a mobile phone and a car, Alan began visiting Aboriginal men that had lost their way in life, men disconnected with their identity and angry with the world and those around them. The approach, which has naturally been refined over the years, was simple: Heal the man, stop the violence.

A key support for Alan’s early work came in the form of John Byrne, a big-hearted Irishman he met while working at Galiamble Men’s Recovery Centre in St Kilda during the late 1990s. Affectionately known as ‘JB’ to most and the ‘Black Irishman’ to some in the Aboriginal community, John has been working with Aboriginal men to improve their health and relationships for over 20 years.

Over countless kilometres and conversations, Alan and John have little by little accumulated the support and trust of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working to break the cycle of violence in communities.

Still adjusting to their new office space – co-located with Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services (VALS) in the northern suburbs of Melbourne – Dardi Munwurro has grown to a team of 10 staff. Most of the team are men’s healing and behaviour change facilitators who work regularly with Indigenous and non-indigenous psychologists, family violence advisory councils and legal services.

Lionel Dukakis, a Gunditjmara man from southwestern Victoria, is Programs Manager of  Ngarra Jarranounith Place – a residential healing program for Aboriginal men using violence – a world first. Supported by the Victorian Government and the Collingwood Football Club, the 12-16 week program uses therapeutic family violence and personal development programs to engage men, while supporting women and children to safely restore their own lives.

“We have a Family Safety Engagement Officer, that is unique to the Dardi model” says Lionel. “We’re working with both the men and their partners and families to make sure their linking in with the services they need. It’s a whole of family approach” he says.

It’s Dardi Munwurro policy for the Family Safety Engagement Officer to be a woman and it is she who will first assess the safety needs and options for women and their children, particularly important when parents can’t be together. Asked about the challenges of involving affected family members in the programs, Lionel is pragmatic. “There’s obviously times when it’s not safe for there to be contact between partners. We’re not there to unify the family. For us, it’s about addressing what men need, to stop being violent” says Lionel.

Before men can stop being violent, both Lionel and Alan believe men must heal the trauma in their life. “It’s important to understand the importance of healing in our work” says Alan. “While mainstream focus on behaviour, which is understandable, we’re trying to address both healing and behaviour.”

“It’s a different space. Aboriginal people carry a big weight, issues like racism, colonisation and the stolen generation. We’re trying to address all those issues as well as change the cycle of violence. It’s only once we address this trauma, that we can move onto accountability and responsibility” says Alan.

While more knowledge is being shared between Aboriginal and mainstream family violence programs than ever before, there’s no doubt that culturally specific programs for Aboriginal men are essential in Alan’s mind.

“Mainstream services aren’t yet equipped to address cultural losses in a safe environment” says Alan. “I know of a situation where a discussion in a men’s behaviour change program that ran during Australia Day week, caused conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. Because of that conflict, four Aboriginal men left the group and never came back. That right there is the difference” says Alan.

No to Violence is working with Aboriginal experts in men’s family violence in the development of the new practice manual for Men’s Behaviour Change Program (MBCP) facilitators, and will be developing new training courses in the coming months to support the culturally safe delivery of MBCPs.

Dardi Munwurro sees the rebuilding of cultural identity and the identification of emotional strength among its participants as central to its programs. Men in these Healing and Behaviour Change Programs attend camps where they participate in therapeutic healing circles, work with Elders and learn the skills to plan for a future with healthy, respectful relationships.

When the programs finish, Dardi Munwurro, follows up with participants on a fortnightly basis for up to 18 months. “It’s checking in on them and making sure they’re linked in with a community men’s healing centre in their region. We do this to make sure the men are maintaining what they’ve learnt in the groups” says Lionel.

Asked how men can better enjoy healthier relationships with women, Lionel says “first and foremost, it’s respecting women. Whether that’s your mum, your sister or your partner.”

In a week celebrating the achievements of Aboriginal women, Alan speaks about the importance of walking “beside” our women and “sharing responsibilities” with them. “Women have been incredibly nurturing in our culture, but strong leaders too. I think of Aunty Elma Thorpe and all the great work she’s done to care for Aboriginal people” says Alan.

Lionel believes that role models like Aunty Elma Thorpe who established the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) in the early 1970s and her granddaughter, Lidia Thorpe, who in 2017 became the first Indigenous women elected to the Victorian Parliament, instil pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Along with the public role models, everyday men and women in the community are powerful influencers for good too says Alan. “People are always watching in our community” says Alan. “If you do something, everyone knows about it. The more Aboriginal role models there are, the more our people will walk with integrity” says Alan.

Through modelling effective, properly evaluated programs of its own, Dardi Munwurro recently received a Family Violence Perpetrator Innovation Grant from the Victorian Department of Justice and Regulation to work with more men, more comprehensively than ever before.

From humble beginnings, Alan has built Dardi Munwurro from the ground up. Those around him are in awe at his achievements and where he’s taken Dardi Munwurro.

For Alan, it’s all the other way around. “It’s the support from others along the way, the relationships, it’s because of my unbelievable wife Carol, that we’re able to keep going” says Alan.

For more information on Dardi Munwurro and its programs, please visit their website dardimunwurro.com.au or call 1800 435 799.

(L-R) Lionel Dukakis, John Byrne and Alan Thorpe