Profile of PACFA member and CATSIHP Convenor Dr Carlie Atkinson

 In this PACFA member profile, Dr Carlie Atkinson, CEO of We Al-li and Convenor of PACFA’s College of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Practices talks about her organisation and how she became involved in trauma-integrated healing. 

Dr Atkinson: We Al-li is a phrase of great significance to me, as a proud Yiman and Bundjalung women and Chief Executive Officer of the culturally informed trauma-integrated healing organisation of the same name. 

In Woppaburra language ‘We’ means fire and embodies the spirit of cleansing that is essential to healing, re-creation and regeneration. ‘Al-li’ means water, the source of all life. Traditionally, once a place has been burnt and cleansed by fire, the rain comes, and green shoots thrive to give evidence of new life.  

This hopeful imagery is a powerful symbol of the work We Al-li and I do every day embracing and promoting Indigenous cultural traditions and ways of sharing, caring and renewal. 

We Al-li is built on the principles of integrating Aboriginal cultural processes in conflict management and group healing, paired with therapeutic skills for trauma recovery and experiential learning practices.  

Having developed the programs with my mother (Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson AM) - the seeds of which were planted during my time at UniSA - I am at the helm of these trauma-specific and practice-based approach activities where we create safe spaces for people to heal throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific every day. 

What also makes We Al-li’s programs so unique is the requirement for people carrying them out to do their own individual trauma work. I know intimately the power of recognising one’s own personal shadow path. 

Growing up in the isolated mining town of Meekatharra in regional Western Australia before beginning my primary school years in Papua New Guinea, this period of my life was marked with significant violence in and around my home.  

Whether it was in the community or within my own family, there was this violence all around me. Being that child just sitting on the outside of that looking in – sometimes being dragged into it and being physically hurt too – had a big influence on me and I was a really troubled child. 

It bled into other parts of my life as well. Teachers often told me that I’d amount to nothing, and my attitude reflected this, until a social science teacher recognised a spark and began to help me see it as well. 

Mr Fowler really nurtured me. He said, ‘You've got all this life experience, but more importantly you think really well, and you're able to write and articulate it’. I just thought ‘Wow – maybe I do have some form of a brain and I can contribute to society’ – it was the first time I believed I was something.  

Feeling the impact of what one advocate could have on an individual’s sense of self and life path, I decided I wanted to be what Mr Fowler was to me and to others, and set off to UniSA to study a Bachelor of Social Work.  

A focus on understanding and unlearning trauma and violence has always been central in my research and professional career, and while at university blazing my own path in the space, my mother’s own work in intergenerational trauma was gaining more recognition.  

A steadfast presence in my life, my mother Judy instilled at a young age a pride in our identity as Yiman (from the Central Queensland region of the Upper Dawson River) and Bundjalung (the northern coastal area of New South Wales) women.
Despite initially resisting following in my mother’s footsteps, another vital mentor in UniSA Social Work, academic Dr Adam Jamrozik AM, not only supported me through the unfamiliar and pressurised environment of university, but also encouraged me to embrace my mother’s teachings instead of shying away from them. 
Bolstered by my tutor’s faith and confidence in my abilities, I took my highly regarded UniSA Honour’s work to Tamil Nadu, India and began a PhD that took me across Australia, delving into the relationship between Aboriginal male violence and generational post-traumatic stress disorder. I also developed a psychometric measure. 

After another stint in Papua New Guinea – this time as an adult with my partner and toddler twins – implementing this research and developing trauma-informed workshops within communities there, I formed the beginnings of We Al-li’s programs.  

We know that trauma is not just something that happens within the brain, it happens in your whole being, so we use somatic processes to move it through the body. 

We find Indigenous processes of ceremonial release seem to be the best way to heal trauma as we create safe spaces during our workshop-style yarning circles. 

We also use a deep listening process called Dadirri which has its equivalence over all Aboriginal groups in Australia. It’s a different word for listening, though there's nothing quite like it in the English language, it's to listen with your ears and your heart, to feel it through your feet. 

Non-Indigenous counsellors and psychotherapists who have completed our trainings report a deeper connection to themselves, others and the truth of the country they walk on, developing a deeper sense of belonging.    

The embodiment of the knowledge through ceremonial process and deep grounding activities and a “slowing down” have helped them to more deeply connect with the people they walk alongside in their practice and stimulate a more authentic community of care and practice amongst their colleagues. 

The organisation has now delivered more than 200 workshops to more than 6350 participants since its establishment a decade ago, blending Aboriginal cultural practices that have for a millennium served our needs to express, make sacred, heal, resolve conflict and renew and honour Country, one another and ourselves. 

With a practice so tied in with Country, community, and family, We Al-li and I are the embodiment of this relationship and how it can truly work, in the process helping thousands of people heal and thrive from their own trauma’s ashes. 

Read about PACFA's College of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Practices.