The last two years have required incredible agility to move with COVID restrictions and how they impact young people’s needs differently. Strong Brother, Strong Sister is one organisation being truly dynamic to make sure there’s something for every Aboriginal young person who accesses their service. They’ve also developed more specific supports for their young people’s families and networks, as they know how important a strong kinship network is to feel culturally connected and to thrive.

Strong Brother, Strong Sister is an Aboriginal owned and operated organisation for Aboriginal young people on Wadawurrung Country around the Geelong area. They support 4 to 25-year-olds to thrive and achieve their dreams in a wraparound, culturally safe way. Their key programs include one-on-one mentoring and regular youth groups, and are all driven by the young staff and the young people connected to the organisation.

“Our role is to advocate, walk alongside, help them achieve what they want to, and be the best version of themselves. And of course there’s that cultural element too: so helping them be more connected to culture, understand where they’re from, and help them feel closer to their identity, so that they feel apart of their community, and that belonging, and that sense of pride and purpose.”

–Keeden Graham

Deputy Executive Officer and Youth Mentor Keeden Graham (he/him) is a proud Yorta-Yorta, Wiradjuri and Dja Dja Wurrung man. He shared how the organisation tune into what their young people need, and keep providing multiple ways to access support.

Young Aboriginal people smiling and wearing medals on a bus

Online youth groups to keep young people engaged

Outside of lockdowns, Strong Brother, Strong Sister’s youth groups run varied programs designed by young people once a week. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, they not only continued the youth group, but ran an after-school online program every day for three months straight. Each day they had different guests ranging from Traditional Owners and Elders, to mental health specialists, wildlife experts, nutritionists and chefs, and more.

Staff were conscious from the beginning to invest a lot of time into making this space welcoming and accessible. Keeden describes how they spent “as much time as we needed to” to give everyone the chance to introduce themselves and do authentic check-ins. There would also be a combination of staff online in the group, and staff available offline to phone in case anyone wanted to step out or yarn in private.

This set-up worked really well for that specific time, but as lockdowns dragged on staff found everyone’s tolerance for online activities getting lower. As Keeden shares, “young people don’t need to be in front of another screen. They need to be socialising and with their support networks in environments that are conducive for them to grow and learn and feel a part of the community. That’s what young people need for their development. And so it’s hard to pitch going in front of the screen for something that if they’re at home, they probably wouldn't usually do for long periods of time.”

Youth workers at Strong Brother, Strong Sister were able to read the room and read the energy of the young people. They see how what works best can change, and that’s okay. Keeden explains how involving young people in planning what comes next has been essential for this, and he’s been really proud of their leadership. Especially in the pandemic, this goes further than Youth participation happens when young people get to be part of making decisions in an active, ongoing way.youth participation or Co-design happens when young people join youth workers to solve problems  – it gives the young people something to look forward to and to feel positively invested in the future.

Home packs for cultural connection and reflection

At the same time as the online youth groups, there were also some young people that didn’t feel safe or comfortable going online. To support them, Strong Brother, Strong Sister started delivering resource packs to their homes on a weekly basis.

The packs included activities like weaving kits with instructions and video links, clap sticks and possum skin to draw their own designs on, and symbol cards with explanations of their meanings. They also provided COVID-specific information, from safety and hygiene advice to mental health supports. When young people have come together again, they’ve brought what they created into their face-to-face sessions and shared the experience they had using it.

“The young people said, it made us realise that there's people trying that are actively thinking about us.” Keeden tells. “The young people loved them, and their brothers and sisters got jealous! And so we started catering to the whole family with the packs as well. And then it gave them something that they can do together.”

The resource packs now include conversation-starter questions for families to discuss together about where they come from, culture and cultural identity. This has been an easy way to facilitate meaningful conversations in tiring pandemic times. “We have been always focused on young people, but to really make change throughout COVID - and something we’ve been hearing a lot - is we need to work with the family.” Keeden says. Going forward, Strong Brother, Strong Sister plans to continue incorporating this as a welcome pack to engage the young person and their family together from their first connection with the organisation.

Dedicated family workers to strengthen the young person’s whole support network

Strong Brother, Strong Sister work with a wide age range, from as young as four up to 25. Mentors can have direct communication with older kids, but when they’re younger, mentors have to also communicate with parents and carers. “[But] if they’re telling us stuff, and sometimes in front of the young person, it creates a bit of mistrust.” Keeden tells. For this reason, Strong Brother, Strong Sister have set up a family services worker who has a defined and separate role to the young mentors. “The role of our family service worker would be to have direct conversations about anything the parent wants to address or talk about.”

 “As mentors, we don’t have a ‘worker’ sort of title attached above our heads. It’s more of a community member.” Keeden explains. “And especially as young people, we’re not really ‘stigmatised’ the way that other workers are, and so we want to keep that trust really good.”

This is not to say that the mentor won’t engage with families – if the young person wants that, it can happen. But the option of a separate family services worker means the mentor is not the automatic go-to for families. This way the young person feels more of a sense of ownership over that relationship, and the mentor’s focus can be to guide and advocate for the young person. It also means that the family has their own channel to help them support their young person.

A group of smiling young Aboriginal people in sport uniforms

Embedded mental health support to remove structural barriers

Strong Brother, Strong Sister know that Aboriginal young people need specialised mental health and suicide prevention support through the pandemic. They also know that Aboriginal young people may face structural barriers to accessing these supports, so they strongly advocated to the Victorian Government to provide it through their own services.

Aboriginal young people can now get immediate access to mentoring, counselling and psychology services through Strong Brother, Strong Sister’s multiple options.

  1. They can choose to see a specialist at Strong Brother, Strong Sister. This way they can avoid going to a GP and getting the delay of months-long wait times, and instead access support in a culturally safe and familiar environment.
  2. They can choose to have their sessions paid for with a psychologist they already know.
  3. Strong Brother, Strong Sister can link the young person up with other services and organisations for additional support.

Keeden notes that many of the young people who access their service “come to us with pretty low self-esteem and self-confidence, lacking connection to culture and identity and belonging.” Making it more straightforward to access mental health supports through the service they’re already coming to not only improves their social and emotional wellbeing, but also their resilience against pandemic stressors.

Staff Support

Strong Brother, Strong Sister has had a longstanding commitment to supporting staff. As a youth organisation that is also fully youth-led, they recognise staff support as an integral part of their service.

Keeden reflects how the organisation already had many pre-existing supports for staff, for example:

  • Monthly supervision and monthly team days
  • Monthly individual days to do something you want to do - “anything to help you reset because obviously, we are still young people. So we’re still figuring out our own journey and everything that’s going on with us and identity as well.”
  • Mental health leave
  • Cultural leave

From the start of the pandemic, their team identified how they were going to look after themselves. This ranged from how to defer work to checking in with their managers.

“We discussed different options and different things that we’ve got available, and we asked everyone to also be creative and have a think about what would work for them,” Keeden shares. “No-one’s necessarily going to get through COVID unscathed, or be in these circumstances without feeling emotions or having highs and lows. But being able to communicate that effectively, and keep that ‘family feel’ to our organisation … I think that’s probably one of the biggest things that I’m most proud of our organisation for doing.”

Two young Aboriginal people on a paddle board in the ocean, smiling

 Going forward

Keeden says many young people over the last two years have come to Strong Brother, Strong Sister talking about a range of issues: spanning across COVID but also climate change, Black deaths in custody, the next Stolen Generation in out of home care, and suicide in Aboriginal communities. He describes having great pride in their communication and resilience, which motivates the whole team.

“[These young people are] fighting and pushing for issues that are affecting our whole community, while they’re also traumatised and going through their own issues as well. They’re wanting to do it not for selfish reasons, but so that the next generation of young people don’t have to go through the same. That’s probably where our organisation gathers a lot of inspiration from: seeing even younger people fight and advocate and want things better for the next generation.”

Strong Brother, Strong Sister are also using their adaptions and learnings over COVID to keep improving their services.

  1. Supporting an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young person also means supporting their family and network. The organisation knew this before but is learning new ways to do it with young people spending so much time at home.
  2. The most effective or engaging program has not always been the same thing over the course of the pandemic. Strong Brother, Strong Sister adapted to this: they didn’t just keep doing what they knew, or keep doing something because it used to be successful.
  3. Supporting young people also means looking after young staff’s wellbeing in unique, personalised and genuine ways.

Youth work often talks about ‘person-centred’ practices, but Strong Brother, Strong Sister doesn’t only apply this to the young person. It’s also relevant for the people in their network, and those in the supporting organisation. Working this way means the organisation can find a way to work with the needs and goals of every young person who connects with them.

To learn more about Strong Brother, Strong Sister, visit their website or Instagram.

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your feedback. 

All photos provided by Strong Brother, Strong Sister and published with permission.