Bless this Road: A Unique Approach to Community Education and Healing Road Trauma
By Wendy Sarkissian PhD
On 30 September 2018, in the Uki Hall, northern NSW, John Bevelander and I co-hosted Bless this Road to blend our two grieving communities: to share our sorrows, to thank all those who had helped us in the crashes and their aftermath and in our mourning, and to affirm that life continues.
Bless this Road was the most moving and powerful event I have ever experienced.
Part 1: Road Safety Workshop
We began at 9:30 am with morning tea for Workshop participants. We then held a two-plus-hour workshop on road safety to explain – and work through – the principles of a Safe System approach. The workshop took place in the small meeting room.
We had a leading expert to guide us, Dr Lori Mooren, who earlier in her career was responsible for road safety for the whole state of New South Wales.
We also had an expert graphic facilitator (and local Nimbin resident), Michelle Walker, a leading authority in graphic facilitation, who did the graphic recording of the whole workshop. (See https://www.curiousmindsco.com.au/author/michelle/ )
Graphic facilitator Michelle Walker recording
The first chart of graphic recording
The second chart of graphic recording
The advice from workshop participants in the communiqué from this workshop will be sent to all senior politicians and road safety specialists throughout Australia. A report was also published in a UK online road transport journal in December 2018.
We began with a road safety workshop for about thirty participants who registered in advance, responding to our invitation.
Objectives of our road safety workshop
Understanding the legal and governmental framework that governs how local councils deal with road crashes (and especially fatalities) in rural areas in Australia.
- Working out what the field of road safety can learn from the recent (2015 and 2016) crashes and fatalities on the Kyogle Road near Braeside Drive, Uki.
- Exploring the gaps in road safety knowledge that this workshop could contribute to filling by discussing these crashes and fatalities.
- From the perspective of the field of road safety, exploring what would be ideal outcomes – for policy and practical applications – in cases such as these that involve injuries and fatalities on rural roads in NSW.
- Exploring what forms of community engagement would be beneficial in rural areas such as this one into the future to: (1) build and strengthen community capacity about road safety; (2) strengthen road safety initiatives; and (3) reduce injuries and fatalities as a result of road crashes.
- Exploring the key steps that would be necessary to bring about a fundamental improvement in the way that local governments and other authorities deal with road safety issues in rural areas in Australia.
I chaired the workshop with my co-advocates, Dr Lori Mooren (Fellow, Australasian College of Road Safety), and Kev Cracknell. Graphic recording was artfully undertaken by Nimbin resident and experienced facilitator, Michelle Walker. All three of us presented our views on road safety, as a local councillor, as a road safety specialist and as a survivor. We had hoped to have a presentation by Tweed Shire Council in response to a number of questions we had provided to the Council but at the last minute, the Councillor was unable to attend.
Among the things we did at the workshop was to present the perspectives of family and friends of road victims (Wendy Sarkissian, John Bevelander, and Kev Cracknell). In session 2, Lori Mooren addressed the question: “What is the Safe System approach to road safety in Australia?”
We then teased out the basic and generic points that emerged for the field of road safety from considering the circumstances of the six fatalities in 2011 and 2016 on Kyogle Road near Braeside Drive.
We then addressed the specific protocols or initiatives (within the official environment) that must be in place to ensure that there are: (1) appropriate responses when serious injury crashes occur, (2) that all agencies and levels of government have a supportive attitude and (3) that they coordinate well?
In our final session, we attempted to produce a communiqué from this workshop that presented our community vision of the future – for a total systems approach to responding to road fatalities and injuries. I facilitated this session which looked at road design, human behaviour, how official bodies are involved, how to nurture a respectful, helpful altitude amongst all players, how to achieve a more joined-up approach, community advocacy and support, and a plan so that more fatalities do not occur.
We asked what forms of reporting and data and information collection and sharing are necessary (such as crash maps)? We reiterated the importance of the role of high-quality and easily accessible information.
Part 2: Matilda’s Rainbow Lunch
Then at 12:15, the whole focus shifted, as the road safety workshop participants leave the meeting room to greet and join with other participants who have arrived for the rest of the day.
Now we dressed brightly in Matilda’s favourite rainbow colours.
One corner of the hall was lavishly decorated with rainbow decorations.
Now we were into high energy, bright colours and bright music — as we shared Matilda’s Rainbow Lunch and celebrate her life.
We devoured a gigantic rainbow cake.
Much-loved Northern Rivers legend, activist singer-songwriter, Luke Vassella, softened our hearts with his sweet melodies. (For Luke’s website, please see: http://lukevassella.com/)
Here is a link to me singing with Luke at Bless this Road: https://blessthisroad.blog/reflecting-on-bless-this-road-change-of-heart-with-luke-vassella/
I chose this song by American feminist activist singer, Holly Near. Called Change of Heart, it’s a song about what happens to us when we are trying to build our courage, and we witness someone else’s courage. It resonated with my feelings that to undertake road safety activism from a cold start (and absolutely no experience) required a lot of courage. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC4egRR3YL0)
Part 3: Opening of The Matilda Way and Gift Giving and Appreciation
Then we moved on to Part 3 — after lunch –to proclaim The Matilda Way. The Mayor of Tweed Shire, Cr. Katie Milne, cut a huge purple ribbon to formally proclaim this stretch of Kyogle Road (symbolically only) forevermore as The Matilda Way. Accompanied by many of Matilda Bevelander’s teenaged friends and two of Karl’s special young friends, Ashwin and Erin Bulmer, the Mayor formally declared The Matilda Way to be open. Now we can always call it by that new name and no longer “the crash site”.
Gift giving and appreciations
The final part of our day was gift giving and appreciation — and speeches of thanks. We gave gifts for many first responders, the police, emergency services and hospital staff who helped us. In all, we handed out forty certificates of appreciation, as well as a dozen gifts of succulent plants (plants that are loved for their “resilience”).
During the afternoon of gift-giving and appreciations, Tony, a senior paramedic who attended on his own time, wept publicly, explaining to us how Bless this Road had caused him to radically reconsider his attitudes toward so-called “victims” of road trauma. They were real people, he now understood, with loved ones who cared deeply for them. He found that insight both heartening and healing.
We all wept together, singing, finally, Amazing Grace.
* * *
We achieved our aims: to share our grief and pain, to express our gratitude, and to build our individual and shared courage – as a community of mourners – to move on with our lives despite the tragedies we had experienced. We were building community.
Message from Cr. Isaac Smith, Mayor of Lismore
Isaac Smith, Mayor of the neighbouring City of Lismore, sent a welcoming message that showed how deeply he understood our shared intentions:
I am sorry that I cannot join you today, but I want to thank Wendy and all those who made this significant event happen.
Every individual and, indeed, every community, must make a choice on how to respond to tragedy. We see many examples of human nature at its worst when that response pulls people apart.
But what we see today is the best in us. What we see today is the inspiration and the restoration of trust in the human spirit.
By gathering here and blessing this road, we are all standing together in the hope that our future will be brighter and that those who have scars may be healed.
This is a great example to all communities that the roads which inevitably create angst and loss, can also represent peace … if we so choose.
The residents of Nimbin and the whole of Lismore Shire thank you all for gathering today to bless our road.