New Things: Red Dust Healing with Tom Powell

"When the dust is settled on our lives, all we get to keep and take with us is our dignity, our integrity and the love and respect we shared with people."
Red Dust Healing Motto

I believe that sometimes people cross our paths for a reason. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it whatever you like, but sometimes the planets align because some things are just meant to be.

Quite a few months ago I had a chat with psychologist Amy Felman for her podcast We All Wear It Differently. One of the wonderful comments we received was from another psychologist called Jodi who said that she'd appreciated the emphasis I'd placed upon the proper attribution of responsibility - that we aren't responsible for the actions of others.

Jodi said that it had reminded her of a workshop she'd attended by a man named Tom Powell called Red Dust Healing and that he'd made a similar point using one of his tools called "Bird and Fish" to highlight that we can't control other people and when we try, we invite stress into our lives.

Jodi also let Tom know about the podcast and on one of his long drives across the countryside, he listened to our podcast conversation and was moved to make contact, which I am so, so grateful for.

I'd never heard of Tom Powell nor Red Dust Healing before, but I have now, and I want to introduce them both to you because this is the stuff that being a human being is made of.

Although we've not met face-to-face yet, I know Tom is a beautiful proud Warramunga Man from the Wiradjuri Nation. From what I've read about the Wiradjuri people, they have strong ties of kinship, which is so strong in Tom Powell that you realise it from the moment he says hello. This is a photo of Tom working his magic.

Tom Powell resized
Now, I can't really speak about Red Dust Healing because I haven't done the training yet, but I can point you in the direction of their website. What I can speak to you about though is my conversation with Tom, one that will lead to many, many more if I'm fortunate, and the impact that it has had on me. I'm even going to try and do the Bird and Fish story justice for you!

But first, some background on Mr Tom Powell - I've been doing my research!

Tom was raised in Central West New South Wales surrounded by red dust.

His father, one of his heroes alongside his mother, operated road graders and Tom's earliest memory is of his father driving home in the grader with red dust swirling all behind him. No wonder he associates red dust with his father's work ethic, his support of his family, and his ability to "make things happen".

In an interview with Jilya, an Indigenous Psychology Services publication (issue 2, 2016) Tom said that his parents raised their children on five key principals - right, wrong, love, respect and boundaries - but mostly love.

Tom Powell was born and bred to create Red Dust Healing. No doubt about it. And after a 13 year career working for the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice, Tom took leave without pay and did just that, ten years ago this year.

Tom and I had a life-changing twenty minute phone call after which this beautiful man and the psychologist with her eyes-wide-open instantly felt as though we'd known each other forever - kindred spirits.

In that 20 minutes Tom managed to describe grief and loss, trauma and rejection, racism, the importance of support networks and what it means to be human using his custom-created unique story-telling tools in ways that I had certainly never heard before, but more importantly, in ways that just made sense.

Why don't we all think like Tom Powell?

Tom has generously allowed me to share with you a poster of the Red Dust Healing Tools to help illustrate the Bird and the Fish principle of grief and loss - top right hand corner. Part of the explanation comes from our conversations and I'm not ashamed to say that I got more than a little help from the chapter Tom co-wrote (chapter 27: Red Dust Healing: Acknowledging the past, changing the future) for Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice - 2nd edition. (The link will take you to the ebook version of this valuable publication)

Red Dust Poster page resized

First Tom asked me to imagine the seed of a tree being planted - no matter what the type of tree, all trees begin this way, as a seed, under the ground, growing roots, keeping the tree grounded and allowing it to grow strong.

Imagine the roots as our support networks, our family, our friends, our people. Then imagine us as the trunk of the tree, growing up thanks to our strong roots, and the branches representing all of our choices, all of our experiences.

Tom then said the most riveting thing to me. Imagine when a branch falls off, leaving a scar. That scar never heals. The branch never re-grows. Imagine that scar as the death of a loved one or another major life event or trauma. While the branch may never grow back, two things do happen.

The branch falls to the ground and is reabsorbed into the ground, into the roots of the tree, continuing to support the tree, providing it with strength. While it is no longer in the same position, it hasn't gone away. It's still there, a vital part of the tree.

At the site of the scar, where the branch fell away from the tree, regrowth occurs all around it - this is our adaptation, our coping, our grieving process, around the loss.

What a way to conceptualise grief and loss. Magic.

Then Tom talked to me about the Bird and the Fish.

He asked me to hold my fingers up to make the shape of a love heart - one hand forming one half and the other doing the same to complete the heart. Tom said, "One half of your hand is the bird and the other is the fish."

When you look at the diagram, you'll see the bird flying above the water - he can never enter the water, therefore it's difficult for him to control anything that happens in there.

The fish you'll see is swimming in the water - he can never survive up on the land, therefore it's difficult for him to have any control over what happens up there. If the fish tried to come up onto the land of the bird tried to enter the water, both would find themselves in an extreme state of stress. However, when they both accept their situations and both only focus on the things they have control over they find a greater sense of calm and peace.

What an exceptional metaphor for one of the greatest lessons we humans can ever learn - let go of the things outside of your control and focus only on what is in your ability to chance. I think this represents why acceptance is such an important part of the grieving process. The more we struggle to change an unchangeable situation, whether that be to un-do a past hurt, or bring back someone we've lost, the more distress we will experience and the more stuck we will become.

There's another side to the Bird and Fish story, one that is not based on love, peace of calm. There are unfortunately some birds that prey on fish. They sit on top of the water, coaxing the fish closer before diving below the surface to harm them. This is an example of a use of power and control and is equivalent in human terms to situations of domestic violence for example, when one person uses their power to control another. This is not love.

You see, mutual respect between the bird and the fish, leads to an equilibrium - a balance - love.

Tom sent me some information about the Red Dust Healing Program and what is written below, as well as the poster above come directly from Red Dust Healing.

The Red Dust healing program facilitates the understanding of “Rejection” and “Grief and Loss” being the foundation of all hurt and trauma. Though written from indigenous perspectives Red Dust Healing also targets non indigenous people because rejection knows no boundaries it's the same for young and old, it's the same for male and female, it's the same for black and white - IT JUST HURTS.

As at January 2017, over 12000 people have now officially completed different stages of the program with some outstanding results. The main reason why this program has had success is that it is targeted at the heart and not the head.

The program targets four key areas:
1. Healing
2. Pro-social Modelling
3. Professional Development
4. Cultural Awareness

Its tools are designed to complement the clinical model for health professionals everywhere who have struggled to effectively diagnose the mental health issues of Indigenous people through lack of understanding of not only the cultural differences but also their histories of trauma, grief and loss and rejection. In fact, Tom Powell works closely with Southern Cross University and the Australian Psychological Society to educate students and psychologists to enhance their understanding of these issues in order to improve the outcomes for all involved.

The program allows for numeracy and literacy issues, it caters for all ATSI men and women young and old, Cultural Awareness modules for non-ATSI people. The program has also been run with a mixed group of ATSI and non-ATSI people. The program creates an environment that allows for confidentiality to be kept and participants feel free to express their emotions.

"Thanks for rolling with the Red Dust! Spread Out and Stick Together." Tom Powell

You can contact Tom Powell This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit The Red Dust Healing website for more information.

I can't thank Tom enough for his time and generosity so far and I look forward to attending a Red Dust Healing training program as soon as I possibly can. Perhaps I'll see some of you there! In the meantime, please leave any comments for Tom or myself below - we'd love to hear your feedback and don't forget to share us with your friends and subscribe to our newsletter on the home page. x

RDH LOGO smallchair 51px


  • Comment Link sasha %AM, %06 %024 %2018 %09:%Aug posted by sasha

    Uncle Tom Powell, What a honor to have meet such a strong, loving,passionate man. I was that touch that after your speech I came up to you and thanked you for coming to gumbanyggirr country, with Red Dust Healing. Hope to one day again see you very soon all the best Uncle Tom.

  • Comment Link Sasha %PM, %05 %083 %2018 %12:%Jan posted by Sasha

    Uncle Tom Powell is Red Dust Healing.I was privileged to have meet this wonderful man when did one of his workshops in Coffs Harbour .I hug him , thanked them for coming to Gumbaynggirr country bringing Red Dust Healing. He may not be my Uncle by blood. I call Tom this for respect towards him. I know Red Dust Healing is for me, hope you come back.

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of It %PM, %18 %317 %2017 %16:%Jun posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of It

    Hi Adrian,
    Sorry for the late reply! Tom has some upcoming workshops in Victoria in the next two weeks! He is in Warrnambool on June 29th and has another workshop earlier than that in another location. Have you been in touch with Tom via his website or email? I hope you're able to track him down and attend a workshop.

  • Comment Link Adrian Menna %PM, %10 %583 %2017 %23:%Jun posted by Adrian Menna

    I know this program RDH is for me. How do I find out if Tom or other practicioners run programs in Victoria? Might start with the RDH
    Facebook page

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of It %PM, %23 %345 %2017 %17:%Apr posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of It

    Thank you for your comment Sandra and you are very welcome. I feel very privileged to be able to share Tom's work and I'm in the same boat as you - perhaps we'll meet at his training one day. Jodie

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of It %PM, %23 %344 %2017 %17:%Apr posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of It

    Dr Donnelly, congratulations on realising the importance of including Tom's work into the psychology curriculum at Southern Cross University. I could only have dreamt of being presented with something so inspiring and motivating during my training. I mirror your sentiments that the APS get on board soon and I very much look forward to meeting Tom and undertaking his training as soon as I can. Thank you very much for reading my article and for taking the time to comment. Warm regards, Jodie

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of It %PM, %23 %341 %2017 %17:%Apr posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of It

    Bronwyn, thank you for your comment and for so succinctly defining Red Dust Healing. I hope you enjoy reading Tom's Conversation on the Couch! Jodie

  • Comment Link Sandra Lee Barber %PM, %15 %449 %2017 %19:%Apr posted by Sandra Lee Barber

    Thank you for sharing the poster. A work colleague used to have one on her wall. Thank also for sharing a bit of what the programs about and who Tom is
    I haven't participated in any of his work shops but I heard nothing but praise ?
    Keep up the wonderful work Tom ?

  • Comment Link Dr. James Donnelly %AM, %14 %122 %2017 %11:%Apr posted by Dr. James Donnelly

    Thanks for the kind words about my good friend and colleague Tom Powell. I have asked him to come and talk to my Psychology Honours students at Southern Cross Uni several times now and his all-day introductory workshop on the Red Dust program is consistently cited as the most moving and important part of students' psychology education. Tom connected compassionately and with great clinical skill with a diverse range of students from urban and rural areas, and various ethnicities, ages and levels of experience. After over 20 years of experience working as a clinical and neuropsychologist, I still learn something from Tom during his workshops as he supports students as they apply the Red Dust metaphors and tools to their own developmental histories and current stressors. I was fortunate to assist Tom and the other authors in writing the chapter you mention. It is a great summary but there is no substitute for spending time experiencing the Red Dust program. On a personal level, Tom lives what he preaches and I always look forward to catching up over coffee to hear about his latest work in the community, and road trip accompanied by the country music classics :) I do hope that the APS gets on board soon and promotes the Red Dust approach. Warm regards. Dr James Donnelly, Psychology/School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour, NSW

  • Comment Link Bronwyn Barnett %AM, %14 %104 %2017 %11:%Apr posted by Bronwyn Barnett

    Red Dust Healing is a journey of acknowledgment, respect, love and acceptance, It is a walk through Self amongst friends. The result is reconnection and peace. My dream is that many more First Nations people, all people, will travel this intergenerational healing journey. Nga Mihi Aroha Tom.

Leave a comment