The Art of Relationships

Reading Time: 9 min


When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a storyteller. People often respond by asking what that means, if I tell stories to kids, if I write novels, or if I make films. It seems to me that a lot of people associate stories with technology like television, cinema, books or podcasts, forgetting that a story is its own form of technology. Humans have long shared stories to connect with one another and their surrounding environment through oral traditions passed from one generation to the next. According to Thunghutti and Bundjalung man Warren Roberts, stories are a relational tool.

“We say today storyteller, but it’s more or less how we make sense of the world. As we share stories, our collective trust strengthens and our relationships grow.”

Warren grew up surrounded by his Elders.

“They were always sharing stories, they did everything in relationship. I learned from them and how they interacted with people. My Nan’s brother said to me, you are just continuing what Elva and Patricia were doing, what you do is a continuation of what our Elders have always done.”

His Nanna, Elva Taylor, was one of nine sisters and three brothers, a remarkable family of Aboriginal organisers and advocates widely known for their significant achievements.

“They were community organisers, working with our community, bringing people together, having cups of tea and cake. I can show you photos of my Nan, Auntie Pat and all the Aunties having big dinners with their friends and the community. You see what they did and you’re like, that’s deadly, maybe we can do that a little bit different, or do the same thing they’ve always done and scale it up because those look like deadly experiences and we should create more of that. It’s about relationship building.”

Warren’s Elders always affirmed the importance of relationships.

“We got taught growing up to make friends, because you can rely on them, they can be around all the time. If you make friends, you’ll live a good life.“

It was his Elders’ way that inspired Warren to create YARN Australia. YARN was founded in 2007 at the University of New South Wales with the goal of uniting the Original Peoples of Australia and non-indigenous Australians through workshops and events held within safe and respectful spaces. These spaces were initially focused in universities, but have since expanded into community, corporate and government spaces across the continent, as well as online. During its near 20 year history, YARN has gone through different phases, organically evolving alongside Warren’s life.

“At first we would ask each other questions, and if we didn’t know the answer we would do research and share what we found with the group. We started to create a curriculum, but we then shifted our focus onto running events with a community group in Sydney called Sixty Thousand. Our first event was at 107 Projects in Redfern, and it made us think about what we needed to do to hold a safe space for everyone who was attending, especially with some of the stories that might come up. That’s where the safe space idea came from.”

Creating a safe space is a key part of any YARN event. After people enter the space, they have a cup of tea and connect with the other attendees, then they gather as a group. There will be Welcome to or an Acknowledgement of Country, and then Warren will ask attendees what is a safe space and what makes a space safe for them.

“When we started doing events I would ask what are some values and ideals that you grew up with that you’d like to share with us? But now safe space is whatever they feel to share, it could be anything, it could be what you’re feeling now, it’s very flexible. But it’s important because when you hold space for people, you have responsibility for them.”

While this belief is rooted in the customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, it was through his experience of attending boarding school in regional New South Wales that Warren appreciated the importance of emotional and cultural safety. 

“I was one of the only blackfellas in my school.” 

Blackfella is a colloquial term used amongst Australia’s Original Peoples to refer to other Original Peoples, both individually and collectively. 

“There was one other senior blackfella when I first got there, but he was in high school and I was only a kid, I didn’t know him, and when he graduated, it was only me, the only blackfella around. I think when you experience difference like that and know what it feels like, I don’t want anyone to feel that, because I felt that the whole time I was at school. When we had our ten year reunion, the other students said you’re different to when you were at school, at school you were quiet, but today you’re very talkative, very confident. When I was at school it was just full judgement, everyone judging everybody. 

“When my mate came to YARN and he spoke about witnessing racism at school — he saw the senior boys being racist to local Aboriginal people — he knew it was wrong, but he didn’t quite know what to do. There aren’t really spaces for us to reflect on those experiences, where we can speak openly and be our true vulnerable selves. They don’t exist. There are anti-racism or multiculturalism courses, but these rarely allow for people to talk about their lived experiences, it’s all preaching and pointing fingers and white guilt. But what about my mate, where was he going to learn about handling racism without having a space to speak about this experience he had?”

After safe space, a YARN will shift to focus on the theme of that particular event, which could be related to the time of year, the location of the event, or the significance of the date when the event is held, like Mabo Day. In-person events like this were the focus for YARN until the COVID Pandemic, when people could no longer gather and, like all of us, Warren was forced to adapt.

“Before that we never did anything online, we never recorded anyone’s story, we refused to involve technology in YARN, but then we couldn’t meet in person so we evolved with it. Now the majority of YARN is online, using technology and recording stuff.”

Warren now runs online storytelling workshops with the goal of inspiring one million Australians to become intentional storytellers by 2028. Using the old curriculum as a foundation, the workshops were designed to empower participants with the skills and confidence to intentionally share stories by creating a safe space to reflect on their personal and cultural experiences, and sharing tools to articulate these experiences through storytelling. The workshops also focus on the cultural practices and lived experiences of Australia’s Original Peoples. Each workshop has a specific theme.

“In one of the workshops we talk about tension, and I give participants the option to reflect on and share their experiences of interacting with Australia’s Original Peoples. These are the stories I want to listen to, because there are so few spaces to talk openly about these things, and it’s where the biggest learnings come from. It’s like how it’s challenging to speak to people about money. Shouldn’t we have confidence in talking about that? Why is it that we become awkward and sometimes destroy a relationship because we talk about money? We should have solid relationships where we can talk about anything, so we need to create the spaces to explore the tension that is often present in our social interactions.”

While YARN is a space that explores difficult topics, it is also a space focused on listening.

“We had a couple of YARNs with the Aunties, and they were sharing their truth and everyone was like, oh that’s heavy. But one of my Elders said, you created a safe space where they felt like they could share that, because they felt listened to and that’s rare. I was always told growing up that not everybody has a Christmas, not everybody has someone supporting them at home, or they don’t have a positive person they can yarn with who encourages them. So I always think maybe they don’t have someone who can encourage them or to support them, and I remember this whenever I create spaces for others, because we’ve got to do things together instead of doing our own thing. That’s what is wrong with this world, we’re all doing our own thing, we’re all in silos, we are all avoiding each other. 

“We want to do the opposite of that, we want to know everyone’s passion and actually work with each other in our strength. We don’t need a devil’s advocate, we don’t need the one that sits on the fence, we just need to know what we each bring to the table, that’s it. But where can we develop the confidence to say this is my story or this is how I’m feeling? Can we create spaces for that? Most people don’t know how to create that space, and so most people don’t know how to share how they truly feel and who they truly are. If we can create a space of positive energy and encouragement, and allow people to have the flexibility to say whatever they feel or want to see in the world, that’s what we need. It’s not about interpretation from the outside, it’s about what they feel within.”

As with a lot of Warren’s wisdom, this comes back to his Elders, particularly his Nanna.

“I was with my Grandmother, I was a little boy, I don’t know how old, just old enough to understand what she’s talking about, to understand what she’s saying, but not to understand the bigger picture. She looked down at me and she said you’re going to be the best. I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about, I was like, oh really, mad, I’m going to be the best. It’s just that belief, right? You’re going to be the best, she kept saying it, and she said you’re going to grow up and people are going to say a lot of things, people are going to talk, but remember they don’t know your story. No matter what anyone else says about you, only you know your story, because other people don’t know, they are just thinking, oh he’s great, but they still don’t know your story. Or everyone’s ready to cut you down. Everyone’s ready to cut down Gina Rinehart, John Howard and John Laws, but we don’t know their yarn, who are we to say what they are and what they’re not. Same with what my Grandmother was telling me, you’re going to be the best and no one will know your story. But if the relationship is there and it’s solid, if we have a few cups of tea and plenty of cake, and plenty of disagreements, we’ll get to some of those deep stories, we’ll share those deep yarns.”

There is a simplicity to what Warren shares. I have read powerful books, witnessed great plays, and watched incredible films. I’ve had great mentors who have taught me important skills and methods, but it’s the simple wisdom that Warren shares about storytelling that I always come back to. Warren speaks of the essence of all stories.

“The way I put it, and I’ve always put it, is I’m just doing my work, that’s just what I do. It’s not about ticking a box or being noticed or anything like that, it’s about relationships. If we have solid relationships, who cares about an award? Are we good? If we’re good, that’s all that matters. And that’s what I say to the storytellers in the workshops, this is not just this YARN thing you’re doing for three years, we’re friends forever. That’s what this is all about, making this massive world really small, because it is really small, it’s not a big place. You start to build relationships with people, it’s a small place, time and distance doesn’t matter because the relationship is there. That’s the recognition, the continued relationship.

“I always say at the end of every YARN, I look forward to hearing your story and walking with you, and walking together. Once we build the trust and understanding and connection, anything’s possible. And that’s why we set up YARN, to do that, we’re the ones who have to create the spaces for that, this is what’s missing in the world. We all should reflect on our story and have places where our stories are valued and respected. We should have people who walk with us on our stories, who support us and encourage us and all of those things. No marketing ploy, no box to tick, no incentives, just friends. Anything’s possible when you have friends. You have no friends, forget it. We live in a planet where life is not easy, it’s pretty full on, it’s hard, difficult, challenging, but it’s way better if you’ve got friends.”

Considering eco-nnect is a website focused on humanity’s relationship with our environment, I ask Warren how this connects to the natural world.

“We’re a product of our environment, that’s who we are, we’re not separate. What do we eat? We eat the environment every day. It’s part of us, we’re part of it. We can’t continue in this world without eating and it all comes from the Mother. That’s what our people say, we look after the Mother, the Mother looks after us. We’re not separate to nature. The West might make you think that, that we all separate, but we are all one and the same. There’s no us and them. There never was. It’s just us. We’re in it together.”


Anton Rivette is a writer and photographer. He leads storytelling at eco-nnect.

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