Category Archives: Diversity and Inclusion

The Assyrian Women’s group: celebrating, preserving, and sharing Assyrian Culture in Melbourne.

Foundation House is an organisation set up to help refugees and migrants who are survivors of torture in other countries, assisting them with settlement services and connecting them with other organisations such as AMES on arrival in Australia. It is also the starting point in this story of a group of Chaldean Christian women who have hopes of becoming the Assyrian Women’s Choir.

The Assyrian Women’s group is a group of Chaldean women who have fled persecution and torture in Iraq and Syria. Persecuted for being Christian and for speaking a different language, these women have been migrating to safety in Australia to begin a new life for more than twenty years, and they keep coming.

Whenever new refugees or migrants arrive, the women mobilise themselves into a welcome committee, travelling out to the airport. They help the new arrivals to find their feet in this foreign country where for many of them, language is a barrier. Every Friday, the women meet to sing and cook food together, sharing stories of their lives, old and new, as well as offering skills and support to each other. They are from places in Iraq we’ve all heard about in the news, and they know the pain of conflict, displacement, persecution and loss.

A strong love for singing their traditional Arabic and Chaldean folk songs exists between the women, and this is how Sarah Mandie, Diversity Coordinator with Community Music Victoria came to be involved in their journey.

Sarah approached Foundation House to offer skills and support to the staff and community to in her capacity as a singing leader and facilitator. Carolyn Wilson, one of the senior counsellors there, immediately thought of the Chaldean Christian Women’s group and arranged for Sarah and CMVic’s Coordinator, Oli Hinton, to meet with them. Translator and Foundation house worker, Dr Salam Dankha, made communication possible. At the first meeting, Oli and Sarah were welcomed with traditional food and songs, and a bond was formed.  In 2017 a further two sessions were planned for Sarah to work with the group ahead of their participation at the International Women’s Day celebrations, at Dianella Health in Craigieburn.

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Members of the Assyrian Women’s group in one of their initial sessions with Sarah

screen-shot-2017-06-23-at-10-28-33-am-e1498191904892.pngDuring the first session, the women chose to sing two songs: one, an Iraqi song about the beauty of Iraqi women, and the second a folk song about courtship and the relevance of bringing gifts for the girl. Their enthusiasm was evident and they conveyed their hopes of galvanising the group into something with a more formal structure which would enable them to preserve and share the music as messengers of their culture and as advocates for peace in the wider community.

Sarah has been enabling the women to find a focus and they have plans to write a song together, an anthem unique to the group, written around universal morals and themes such as peace, as part of their journey of healing, participation and empowerment.

The next phase is to obtain the funding necessary for Sarah to continue her work with the Assyrian women because, as she says, “I’ve already developed a relationship with them, and it’s a good one.” Supporting the group in selecting a repertoire and helping them to develop the structure they need to become a sustainable choir constitutes part of a proposed new CMVic led project called ‘Voices of Peace‘.

“It’s about giving the leaders already in place within the Assyrian community some skills and structure to use, it’s also about support in identifying potential new leaders and it’s about assistance with sustainability.” as well as offering suggestions and feedback around how the songs are sung: “It’s one thing for the women to sit and sing music of their culture together but in order to get out and share the material, some guidance is necessary.”

While the group is comprised solely of Assyrian women, these women are open to everyone, no matter where they are from. They don’t have any barriers around ethnicity, religion, etc. Instead, there is open-ness, recognition and acceptance of difference:

“They just understand…I told them I have an Indian husband, and that I’m Jewish and it created this openness, I mean, we’re all just different aren’t we, and we want to get along.”

This is the focus and purpose of the group: to sing their music, celebrate and preserve their unique culture and through sharing this love of it with others, to create greater harmony and understanding in society, improving mental and physical health and well-being along the way on the road to recovery.

As part of the International Women’s Day event, there was a fashion parade and it was a chance for everyone to get dressed up and a celebration for all women, from all cultures. “The Assyrian women came out wearing jewelled gowns, and having a wonderful time with the Indian women; celebrating being women.”

As the Assyrian Women’s Choir, these women will find new opportunities and ways to meet people, make connections and friendships, to share and celebrate where they are from and and to participate and contribute to the richness of the diverse, inclusive and safe society they have found themselves part of.

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Members of the Assyrian Women’s group singing at an event for International Women’s Day 2017 (above and below)

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Listen to an early session with the Assyrian Women’s group, here.

Written by Deb Carveth with Sarah Mandie for Community Music Victoria

 

 

Diversity & inclusion & why we shouldn’t be indifferent to difference

Life would be boring if we were all the same. Living in the most culturally diverse state in Australia, as Victorians we are encouraged to be inclusive and tolerant of everyone, and to show respect for aspects or characteristics in a person perceived to be different to our own.

Diversity and inclusion are important components of a healthy, happy and effective society where everyone feels recognised, valued for who they are and able to contribute, irrespective of their background, religion, ethnicity, language etc.

Over the coming weeks, this blog will take a closer look at the ongoing work done by Community Music Victoria to promote diversity and inclusion in our music making communities, with focus on two particular projects:

1: The SINC program (Singing for Inclusion) A series of workshops run by Community Music Victoria in partnership with Creativity Australia to train singing leaders in running inclusive singing groups.

2: Voices of Peace: a project to empower recently arrived and settled refugees from Assyrian Chaldean background to establish a Women’s Choir though which to build and strengthen connections and to reduce the pain of dislocation and loss sustained through the persecution they have endured.

As a prelude to these posts, we felt it worthwhile to re-visit what is meant when we talk about diversity, and inclusion.

Diversity:

According to good old google, diversity is ‘The state of being diverse or ‘a range of different things.’

Through its very essence, diversity is not restricted and defies definition.

While the most obvious and noticeable points of diversity in people such as age, race, gender, and other physical attributes are external, you can never assume anything about a person simply by looking at them. Avoid stereotyping at all cost.

Non-visual or invisible diversity covers a plethora of factors, issues and circumstances that are not seen readily and can only be ascertained if that person choses to share them with you. Again, never judge a book by its cover, and be prepared to ask people about themselves in an open, direct and empathic way.

Put simply, diversity means there is a point of difference.

Global Diversity Practice UK states: “Diversity is about empowering people. Fundamentally, diversity means respect for and appreciation of differences in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin that are implemented by laws and policies…

…the power of diversity can only be unleashed and its benefits reaped when we recognise these differences and learn to respect and value each individual irrelevant of their background.”

Which brings us on to the other side of the coin: inclusion.

Inclusion:

We each carry a diverse and unique set of cultural beliefs, experiences and attitudes which define us. Inclusion is the practise of allowing our individual differences to be recognised and socially accepted. It is about being welcomed into a situation and feeling fairly and equally treated for the person you are and not judged on your religion, origin, age, gender, marital status, etc.

Inclusion is vital in creating a rich and stable environment where shared learning leads to strength and cohesion and one in which people can thrive. It is about creating what Community Music Victoria refers to as ‘a free and fearless space’ in which everyone has the capacity reach their full potential because they feel genuinely included, supported and valued. It requires a commitment to the process of continued learning, and in this respect is a journey for us all with a number of positive outcomes.

“Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are as an individual or group; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others so that you can do your best… Inclusion is a shift in an organisation’s mindset and culture. The process of inclusion engages each individual and makes people feel valued which is essential to the success of the organisation. Individuals function at full capacity and feel more valued and included in the organisation’s mission. This culture shift creates higher performing organisations where motivation and morale soar.”  Global Diversity Practice UK 

In its 2016-2020 Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, the Victorian Government writes “Inclusion makes us stronger, exclusion makes us weaker…

diversity and inclusion enables us to grow our understanding and find new ways of doing things.”

In a fully inclusive society, diversity is embraced and celebrated as opposed to shunned, feared or stereotyped and the potential and opportunity for connection is greater. Through seeking to understand and educate ourselves about difference, we can move forward more cohesively and, in doing so, create a rich and varied society where commonality and difference co-exist happily, where people feel safe to share their backgrounds and culture whilst retaining the practice, beliefs, characteristics and traits which make each of us so delightfully unique.

Three ways to immediately be more inclusive:

  • Don’t make assumptions about an individual
  • Think before you speak: Understand how what you say and do impacts on others
  • Recognise and celebrate diversity

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor, Community Music Victoria

References and further reading:

Global Diversity Practice UK

Victoria State Government Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2016-2020. Download a copy here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music and Mayhem in Mirboo North

Twice a week Mayhem breaks out in the life of Gippsland based Singing Leader, Jane Coker. This has nothing to do with escaped chooks or lost car keys, Mayhem is a music and drama group, organised by Scope and facilitated by Jane, for adults from day centres in Traralgon, Wonthaggi, and Warragul. Everyone comes together at the Grainstore, a beautiful old wooden building in Mirboo North, to sing and dance and meet other people. It’s about therapy, fun and having a good time together. It’s about making a racket and making a mess. And it’s awesome.

The group are extremely wide ranging in their abilities, some people are really high functioning, others communicate with the blink of an eye and Jane runs the group by herself. Five or six carers come along and take care of the physical needs of participants, assisting them with morning tea at the start of each session and with lunch at the end, as well as helping them to take part in the activities.

The group was established by Jane’s mate, Kate Jackson, who recognised a need in the area for this type of group and was doing all she could to enable people to have a creative experience. When the time came for her to hand over to somebody else, she approached Jane who had no previous experience of leading a group of people with such diverse abilities.

“Kate was getting people singing, she was getting people dancing, she was doing a bit of drama. I looked at it and thought, well, I reckon I’ve done enough of this in my life, I think I can probably have a go at that and I’ll treat it as a training course because everything I’ve ever learnt around Community Arts Development in my life has been learnt on the job.”

Jane decided to train herself, try leading Mayhem for a year and see if she liked it driven by her guiding principle: To find a way to enable everyone in this group to participate in some way in what’s going on. The next question then, was how? How to do this with such a mixed group?

To begin with, Jane took a lot of guidance from the carers. While it’s obvious to see when some people are participating, with others this is more difficult particularly if you don’t recognise the significance of the sentiment they’re relaying with their eyes or from their movements or the sounds that they make.  For one or two of the participants, it is hard for anyone to decipher whether they’re benefitting from taking part or not and for them Jane believes Mayhem has to exist as a sensory experience in as much as they’re having something happen as opposed to having nothing happen around them and this, perhaps,  is as participatory as it can be.

Jane approaches leading Mayhem as she does all her other groups. People are people.

‘If my main aim is full participation and I’ve got to fathom out how to get somebody to participate where it’s not obvious and it’s not easy, the only way to go about facilitating that is (a) To collect as much information about each person as I can, and I engage the carers to make sure they are part of the whole process, and (b) to actually engage with that person as much as I possibly can and try to find out how I can have a relationship with them. It might just be the tiniest thing like a finger uncurling when I touch their hand but if that happens repeatedly, that’s feedback and that’s me developing a relationship with that person.’

Over the course of the past four years, Jane has learnt a lot about the subtlety of changes in the facial expressions of  participants: ‘I’ve really learnt to to recognise the sounds and the subtle little changes in their faces and their eyes….I’d never had that experience before and it has been amazing.’

Jane begins and ends each session with the same song. To begin with she thought everyone would grow really bored of this, but the opposite has happened, and they love it. And the more they do it, the more they know it. For some of them, it has taken four years to develop the confidence to sing that song and Jane recognises this as something working with Mayhem has taught her: there is so much to be said for repetition of material.

Using the same song also acts as an effective signal to everyone that the class has begun, and that it has ended so that even if they don’t really know what’s going on, people have a sense that something is in process and that they are a part of it.

Music played on the PA gets the Mayhem mob dancing and taking it in turn to pick the tunes which vary from ABBA to YMCA, to Pink and everything in between, reflecting the range in their ages.  While the dancing is taking place, anyone in a wheelchair is helped to move by Jane and the carers: ‘It’s dancing in the broadest sense with some people dancing in their minds.’

‘One guy’s into really heavy aggressive rap, and I draw the line there as the material isn’t suitable to impose on other people and politically I can’t play it myself, but he participates fully in other ways, and I talk to him about why I don’t play his stuff and I think he gets it!’

Singing through the microphone proves popular, offering a lot of fun and visibly increased confidence to the singers. Jane says ‘I never thought I’d think that was a good thing to do but I do! Because it’s what they see on the TV and it enables them to do something that they recognise and they have a LOT of fun doing it… And while they’re doing that, everyone else is dancing and using really nice bright coloured pom poms and stuff to dance with, twirling around, there’s a lot of colour and everyone’s doing their own thing, and it is, well, mayhem!!’

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Jane in dress-up mode at CMVic’s 2016 Music Camp

Jane uses a big pile of percussion and dressing up clothes with Mayhem. Because there’s no funding for this, she spends spare time scouring op shops for anything they can use in the group. For anyone who can’t physically grip a shaker or move their hands, Jane has made velcro variations and modified instruments which can be strapped onto an arm, enabling that person to make music and she’s always on the look-out for instruments that can be adapted. Soft stuff comes in handy too, as there are a lot of participants who throw things.

“If I can find a soft ball with a bell inside it, that’s perfect because it can be used as an instrument but when it’s thrown, it doesn’t decapitate anybody…”

Call and response features heavily in Mayhem, techniques learnt by Jane through voice-work training workshops. “I make sounds  to the group, they make sounds back at me, and it’s a beautiful thing because people who are non-verbal do still use their voices a lot  and will do that when invited to do so. So they’ll make sounds and we can make them back, and in this way they are participating fully.

There is a basic sign language called Key Word Sign used by the carers to indicate food, going to the toilet, etc, and Jane feels this is a skill which should be developed and taught more widely: ‘If I was able to go on some sort of course to learn Key Word Sign, or the appropriate sign language to use with people which is used across the board in those kind of facilities, that would really add to my skills.’

A forum was held at the recent CMVic Singing Camp between singing leaders working with marginalised sectors including disability.  Jane found being a part of this conversation invaluable because it reinforced her belief that the best way to develop confidence and strength in your own ability is to network with other people who are doing the same kind of thing:

‘Have a phone conversation with somebody, go to their group, see what they’re doing and participate. If you can apprentice yourself to somebody else who is doing it, that would be amazing, but this is a little bit unlikely, given that we are so few and far between. It might work better in the city…’*

Now into her fifth year working with Mayhem, Jane reflects on how it has become easier as time has gone on. “I’d say the training course took two and a half years of me leading the group once a week, and since then I’ve led it twice a week. And now I feel confident in doing what I go there to do. It’s about the fun, the relationships and the positive attitude…

“I love the fact that I’ve proved to myself that the principle of as much inclusion as possible, in the moment that you’re in is the one that works best.”

 Article by Deb Carveth with Jane Coker

 If you have any percussion instruments, shakers, bells, or things which are fun to play that you would like to give Jane and Mayhem, let us know!

RESOURCES:

If you would like to get in touch and speak with Jane about her work with Mayhem, she can be contacted on jane.coker@bigpond.com

*Music Action is a closed Facebook group run by Melissa Murphy for people facilitating all abilities music groups for adolescents and adults. It’s an ideal forum to share ideas, news and conversation.