Dr Caroline Atkinson

Dr Caroline Atkinson


Watch Caroline's Story

We Al-li is a phrase of great significance to Dr Caroline Atkinson, Chief Executive Officer of the culturally informed trauma integrated healing organisation of the same name.

Information correct at the time of receiving the award

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 begin to thrive to give evidence of new life.

This hopeful imagery is a powerful symbol of the work We Al-li and Caroline do every day.

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

Having developed the programs with her mother Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson AM, Caroline is at the helm of these trauma specific and practicebased approach activities where she creates safe spaces for people to heal throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific.

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. Caroline knows intimately the power of recognising your own personal shadow path.

Growing up in the isolated mining town of Meekatharra in regional Western Australia before beginning her primary school years in Papua New Guinea, this period of time in Caroline’s life was marked with significant violence in and around her 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,” Caroline says.

It bled into other parts of her life as well. Teachers often told Caroline she’d amount to nothing, and her attitude reflected this, until a social science teacher recognised a spark and began to help her 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, Caroline decided she wanted to be what Mr Fowler was to her 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 Caroline’s research and professional career, and while at university blazing her own path in the space, Caroline’s mother’s own work in intergenerational trauma was gaining more recognition.

A steadfast presence in her life, Caroline’s mother Judy instilled at a young age a pride in their 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 her mother’s footsteps, another vital mentor in UniSA Social Work academic Dr Adam Jamrozik AM, not only supported her through the unfamiliar and pressurised environment of university, but also encouraged her to embrace her mother’s teachings instead of shying away from them.

Bolstered by her tutor’s faith and confidence in her abilities, Caroline took her highly regarded UniSA Honour’s work to Tamil Nadu, India and began a PhD that took her across Australia delving into the relationship between Aboriginal male violence and generational post-traumatic stress disorder, developing a new psychometric measure as well.

After another stint in Papua New Guinea – this time as an adult with her partner and toddler twins – implementing this research and developing trauma-informed workshops within communities there, they formed the beginnings of We Alli’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,” Caroline says. “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.”

We Al-li has now delivered more than 200 workshops to more than 6,350 participants since its establishment a decade ago, blending Aboriginal cultural practices that have for a millennium served needs to express, 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 Caroline 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.

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