Yorta Yorta researcher Dr Mishel McMahon and colleague Dr Corina Modderman, from La Trobe Rural Health School, were engaged by the Victorian Government to conduct a co-designed Aboriginal-led review of a widely used, yet under-evaluated, youth work approach known as Aboriginal youth mentoring.
Aboriginal organisations in regional Victoria regularly run On Country camps for Aboriginal young people who may be disconnected from their culture or facing challenges in their lives.
As part of its Korin Korin Balit-Djak plan, the Victorian Government set out to evaluate the approach, to develop a strong and consistent service model for current and future providers.
Dr McMahon said: ‘Anecdotally, community talks about the benefits of On Country mentoring, but research has not properly looked into what contributes to the successful outcomes they see and what features need to be included so each program works.’
Dr Modderman added that earlier evaluations were not First Nations-led, which meant that findings on cultural concepts and processes were missed.
‘Those evaluations were skewed towards “How well does this address at-risk youth?”, rather than the First Nations perspective of “How well does this empower young Aboriginal leaders?”
‘Through this work, it became clear that every Aboriginal young person holds leadership capabilities, which are ignited through connection to their culture and community.
‘As one young person told us after completing the program, “I am a warrior”.
‘[Another] young person I interviewed said that being On Country, connecting with Elders and community, was “like medicine”. It doesn’t get more powerful than that.’ Dr McMahon added.
The evaluation focused on mentoring led by Aldara Yenara, an Aboriginal Corporation based in Kyabram in north-central Victoria.
It was conducted in two phases: a scoping review followed by fieldwork, where academic and community-based researchers participated in camps and yarning circles, led by Aldara Yenara staff and local Aboriginal Elders on Yorta Yorta Country.
Recommendations from the evaluation are now being considered for a potential statewide model. They are:
- Mentoring needs to be delivered on Country. Country is a stakeholder and critical to healing. ‘You become the person you want to be out in the bush,’ said one mentee.
- Mentoring is not just for young people and should involve family, extended family and members of community, to ensure messages are reinforced outside of the program.
- Mentoring should adopt Aboriginal language and communication to engage youth. This includes humour, storytelling, teasing, silence, yarning, two-way conversations and deep listening. This also means that deficit-language is dropped. For example, replacing ‘tackling or combatting’ with ‘investing in’.
- Mentoring can only be done by Aboriginal people. In practice, this means programs need funding to bring in Elders and Aboriginal healers skilled in cultural restorative practice. Non-Aboriginal staff can support, but Aboriginal people must lead.
- Healthy eating and self-care must feature in the programs. This could include nutritionists attending camps to emphasise links between healthy living, strong thinking and culturally strong identities.
- There is value for separate On Country camps for non-Aboriginal cohorts (child protection or youth justice), using a fee-for-service model.
- Men’s and women’s business in program design is important, but Aboriginal-led approaches for including LGBTQIA+ Aboriginal youth are needed.
- Mentoring programs should support mentees to take part in future programs as young leaders and mentors.
Aldara Yenara is already using the findings to strengthen its own programs and enhance its reputation as a leader in Aboriginal youth mentoring.
For Dr McMahon, the future impact is exciting.
‘Aboriginal youth mentoring is a concept [that is] thousands of years old and I hope this work enables more providers like Aldara Yenara to make a real difference to young lives,’ she said.
‘This is a practical example of self-determination within research, where we see First Nations concepts for healing, engagement and leadership front and centre in program delivery and design.’