I believe in the ‘power of naming’ as an effective strategy to break the silence about violence and abuse. Through our shared stories we discover new meanings and build strong connections that challenge the divisive tactics of violence and abuse and overcome the resultant isolation and self-blame experienced by women and children. Never underestimate the power of a story to create change.
Chris Burke is a self-taught puppeteer with 30 years of experience that draws on her combined Irish and Darug ancestry – two strong story-telling cultures. Her journey as a puppeteer has been shaped by her firsthand knowledge of both family violence and gender inequality.
Chris was the first person in her family to be tertiary educated. As a primary school teacher, she came to understand how the power of education can help a person to step outside their own experience. Wanting to help victims of child sexual abuse more directly, Chris left teaching to help establish an incest counselling service, Dympna House, in Sydney. This non-government agency was established in 1984 to assist women survivors of child sexual assault and, until it was shut down in 2009, provided much-needed therapy and counselling for women and children who had experienced sexual abuse by a member of their immediate family.
In 1986 Chris attended the International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in Sydney and saw an American program, ‘Kids on the Block’. This inspired her to write and perform a child sexual assault prevention program called ‘I know that now!’ for NSW schools and communities. Using two puppets, Joanne and Nam, to tell the story of Joanne’s experience of sexual abuse, this conveyed important messages – ‘it’s not your fault’, ‘it’s ok to tell someone, and ‘keep on telling until someone does something to make it stop’. It allowed children to ask questions of the characters and many of them disclosed their own experiences of abuse to teachers or child protection workers who were on stand-by after the show. The program was only performed at schools which had implemented the NSW Department of Education Child Sexual Assault Curriculum so that the teachers had been trained to respond and to support children appropriately. The puppet show made Chris realise how powerful stories can be, capable of engaging people of all ages. Using the puppets made the story more accessible for children and it also gave them problem-solving and help-seeking strategies. Chris received a National Violence Prevention Award for this work.
In the early 1990s, Chris designed and implemented a new and unique child protection program called Jannawi Family Centre and was the Director for 14 years. Continuing to work through the power of puppets, she created a group of characters called the Jannawi Kids in order to give voice to children’s experiences of family life. The puppets represented the children in the program and made numerous media appearances. In 1999 they were highly commended for innovation in the prevention of child abuse by the National Child Protection Council. The Jannawi Kids went on to star in two domestic violence resource kits, both written and directed by Chris –‘Change could come’ and ‘Creating the future’. These received a Certificate of Recognition in the National Violence Prevention Awards presented by the Australian Heads of Government in 2001.
In 2004, Chris launched her own production company, Gracie Productions, and created the ‘Strong, Smart & Deadly’ group of characters called the Yarramundi Kids Puppets® – Nikita, Danny, Max, Lilli Pilli and Baby Ben. They were named after Chris’s Darug ancestral grandfather, Boorooberongal man ‘Yarramundi’, meaning ‘storyteller’ or ’the keeper of the knowledge’. They became the stars of the first commissioned children’s program on NITV in their self-named TV Show – ‘Yarramundi Kids’.
As is often the case in Chris’s work, the back stories are not made explicit. For example, bright-eyed, ten-year-old Nikita lives with her Nan, who teaches her Darug language and culture. We learn, with a very light touch, that Nikita’s mother has been killed by domestic violence and this is why she lives with her Nan. The Strong, Smart & Deadly Yarramundi Kids, with Nikita at the helm, is a vibrant, un-preachy program that educates children about the importance of family and friends, about healthy eating and caring for the environment. It features avatars, animation and puppets as well as indigenous role models from the real world. It incorporates location stories and indigenous language in a playful and engaging way and is a fast-moving, fun-filled program for the whole family.
Chris presents the ‘Strong, Smart & Deadly’ show at schools, communities and theatres throughout Australia. She also provides consultancy for people who wish to develop their own puppet projects, helping them to get their puppets up and running and to tell their own stories. In addition she presents training workshops on child protection intervention in the context of domestic violence. Through Gracie Productions, in partnership with other organisations, Chris has written, directed and produced numerous DVD resources to address social issues.
Chris has been shaped by the feminist understanding that ‘the personal is political’. This means that personal experiences are not ours alone: they reflect a broader political context, one in which many others have had similar experiences of abuse and oppression. Naming that abuse helps break the silence around it.
Chris is passionate about the need for more education to help young people take responsibility in personal relationships. Using the power of storytelling and her own lived experience, she has spent her working life seeking justice and the prevention of violence against women and children, always from a child’s point of view.