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Grassroots Process for Resolving Structural Conflict

Grassroots Process for Resolving Structural Conflict: Conversations on Compassion event: Prison Songs D.V.D.

54% of children in juvenile detention centers are Indigenous and they are 26 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in detention. In the Northern Territory 97% of the children in detention are Indigenous.

As a species, musical communication with those around us helps to reassure us that we are under no direct threat from them, and hence helps us to experience others in a positive and loving way rather than as potential threats to our health or security….. Music in this sense is literally part of the glue that bonds societies together, enabling cooperation. As such, when we sing or make music together, we are participating in a form of social bonding that is at least as old as our species, and probably much older.

If the evolutionary biologists are right, and music is one of the primary means by which we can connect and cooperate with our fellows, then we can recognise widespread music-making as indicative of a healthy society; everyone deserves music as meeting a basic human need. ….”

Dave Camlin  2015

Manolete Mora is an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales.  Mano specializes in epics, ritual songs and  musical ethnography. After watching the Prison Songs, I asked Mano to explain the value of music in making peace especially in traditional cultures. Here was Manos response:

“Empathy, the capacity to understand and share another’s emotions or feelings, is the key to transcending individual or cultural difference. Music, as the preeminent language of emotions, has played a key evolutionary and social role in developing empathy and harmony amongst us. There are numerous instances of this: the many musical voices for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and Latin America are recent notable examples. African Americans have long use music to bring about personal and collective harmony during their long history of hardship. Slaves sang work songs in prisons and labour camps, spirituals and gospel songs in churches, and later as free people they sang peace songs in the Civil Rights rallies. Without music to bring us together in times of adversity we would be the poorer for it. We would not have access to that direct and powerful means of understanding what it is to be like someone else in good and bad times.’

On December 5th 2016, at Waverley Library, Prison Songs was screened followed by a panel discussion including Thalia Anthony, Associate Professor of Law at University of Technology Sydney and Shellie Morris, who was the co-songwriter of Prison Songs.  The Conversations on Compassion event was opened by Councilor Ingrid Strewe who informed the audience that Waverley Council had signed the Charter for Compassion thus identifying Waverley as a compassionate city.  If anyone wondered what a compassionate city looks like, we were taken on a journey with the film Prison Songs which opened the doors to the intimacy of the stories behind the prisoners. All the public reports of Domestic Violence, drugs and alcohol as well as children in poverty came to life from the songs, music and stories presented in the film.

This film should be shown around the world as it is not just the Australian context that is revealed but rather the complexity of life, which underlies the context surrounding the inmates. Thalia Anthony says in regards to indigenous incarceration:

“Indigenous people in Australia are vastly over-represented in police custody and prisons. By failing to take notice of systemic and prejudicial post-colonial circumstances affecting Indigenous people, the criminal justice system is complicit in the over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons. By contrast, Canadian judiciaries and legislatures have taken notice of the systemic disadvantage imposed by the legal system and broader colonial society on First Nations people and have sought to promote non-prison sentences for Aboriginal people.”

Shellie Morris, songwriter and performer, shared her journey with us, reflecting on the value of relationships and that it is this more than anything that enabled the music to authentically tell the inmates’ stories. The cultivating of relationships, the time, effort and sincere caring that Shellie develops as part of her work in community and music making offered us all a view into the workings behind this film.  As Dr Dan Siegel says, If we have a positive relationship with a relative, teacher, counselor, or friend, the path is set for us to create a positive relationship with ourselves. Wonderful things happen when people feel felt, when they sense that their minds are held within another’s mind (Siegel 2011). “

We were privileged to have Dale who is one of the inmates in the film, join the panel sharing his story of social reintegration post Prison Songs. He articulated the need for reviewing the support given for inmates regarding understanding the mind and behavior and the impact this has on the capacity to reflect and change. This support Dale told us was critical and yet being able to access it was not a priority or easy for the inmates.

This event was further enhanced with Terry O’Connell, expert in Restorative Justice, being present to give his views on community building as well as Grahame Chaseling, an advocate of therapeutic and trauma-informed rather than punitive approaches to young people in the criminal justice system.  We all felt moved and grateful for the opportunity to share in the making of meaning that surrounds one of society’s most growing industries, and society’s most needed reform, the prison.

Conversations on Compassion events are the initiative of Holistic Practices Beyond Borders

More information here


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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