The benefit of yarning circles for culturally safe engagement

February 21, 2024
If you are looking to engage in a culturally safe way, have a yarn with Vikki.An Aboriginal artwork representing yarning circles

The Social Deck recently completed a project that included engagement with First Nations people about access to safe and appropriate housing. You may remember in an earlier blog, we talked about ‘Showing up for culturally safe engagement’.

To make sure we gained as much input and information as possible from community, we organised yarning circles to support our recent engagement. In this blog, our First Nations Engagement expert, Vikki, shares some insights about how these worked and the ways we have built on the basics in that blog to design our yarning circle approach.

What is a Yarning Circle?

Yarning circles have been used by our First Nations peoples for thousands of years. They are a conversational process used to resolve conflicts and share knowledge without anger or blame. Yarning is a culturally appropriate and safe way to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through their own storytelling.

The yarning circle approach ensures that everyone’s story is of equal value and importance. You can create a comfortable space that lets people speak openly and honestly with others who are not from their community. This is crucial, given the inherent lack of trust some people may feel toward government institutions and their agents.

It is important to understand not all First Nations cultures are the same. There is huge diversity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. However, many communities do share the yarning circle process.

Protocols are important

Yarning has its own protocols that go hand in hand with other conventions and practices when engaging with First Nations people. Take the time to familiarise yourself with the expectations of the community you are visiting. The success of your engagement will largely depend on your efforts to convince the community that you are genuinely interested in their stories and have an understanding of their circumstances.

When we design a yarning circle, we invite a trusted community member, and/or work with a local organisation, to give us advice on community protocols. We partner with or invite community members or organisations to attend and help with the yarning circle. These stakeholders can help to distribute information about the consultation and encourage community members to attend. This is particularly important in rural and remote communities where it is unlikely potential participants would see advertising for events by other means (mainstream advertising, Facebook, Insta, etc.) It is equally unlikely that they would register for events using standard methods (Humanitix, Eventbrite, etc.)

For our latest consultation, each yarning circle was different and was developed with relevant local leaders and organisations. Based on their advice and the briefs for each location, the yarning circles focused on the particular parts of the consultation relevant to the community we were in (e.g., we deliberately avoided some areas of discussion or deliberately focused on others.)

The benefits of yarning circles in community consultations

Yarning circles draw participants directly from the community. This allows for grassroots participation and opens up the consultation for input on matters that directly affect the people you are consulting.

In this way, it’s different to formal research.  We don’t want to pre-define the conversation and while you may have specific topics you need to cover you can be open to adapting the order of conversation and questions. The outcome of this is you gain input about an issue that draws directly from the perspective of the people and community you’re engaging with, rather than pre-determining what is important.

By partnering and involving local organisations, each yarning circle is a bespoke event where venue, catering, timing and attendees are all organised to fit around and involve the community. We used local First Nations businesses for catering and Welcome to Country ceremonies and we used local venues that were familiar and felt comfortable for community members.

Yarning circles are informal discussion groups so expensive collateral is not needed or wanted. Neither are community members interested in fancy venues or fancy food. In fact, participants are more likely to be intimidated by them. You will gather more meaningful information from participants while seated in a circle in the local community hall or park.

What we learned

Cultural awareness training is a must and de-escalation tactics are useful skills to have when facilitating a yarning circle. However, if you do your homework on local issues and take the advice of local Elders/ACCOs, the need to employ these skills will be greatly reduced.

During this latest consultation, we learned the value of yarning circles is in the quality of the information that came out of using this process. Because the participants felt safe and comfortable during the yarning circles and due to the targeted nature of the consultation, they spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the topic. They highlighted specific issues and proposed solutions that were appropriate for their communities.

This allowed us to provide specific advice to Government on the issues raised by community members. Instead of First Nations voices only being captured and presented as a part of the public consultations, we were able to present both some common issues and ideas present for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This included specific areas of concern for particular locations and communities. The richness of this information will help governments design better policies that consider these common and specific needs of Community.

How can we help?
If you are looking to engage in a culturally safe way, have a yarn with Vikki.
Vikki McIntyre
Editorial and First Nations Engagement Manager