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Totem Poll's positive pedestal


MARTIN Seligman was invited to South Australia in 2012 to help create a ‘state of wellbeing’. Crowned a Thinker in Residence, the world leading psychologist and expert adviser on public policy was tasked with building happiness and resilience in government, business and the community.

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Three years later and these concepts have started to take hold. World leading research institute SAHMRI has a prominently placed a Wellbeing and Resilience Centre in the heart of its Mind and Brain theme, and local businesses are embracing the idea of promoting wellbeing.

“We want this totem head to be something that they can defer to, recognising their own strengths and internal excellence.”

Digital branding agency Freerange Future is one of them. As part of the Come Out Children’s Festival, they’ve created Totem Poll, an interactive art project based on Seligman’s concepts  that lets school children journey in to their own self, identifying their strengths and qualities.

“When you work from your own values and your own strengths you enjoy yourself a whole lot more in life,” says Amy Milhinch, creative director on the project.

Totem Poll is a play on taking surveys and traditional totem poles found in cultures throughout the world, which represented commonalities between people and cultures in the past and present.

It consists of nine journeys based on psychology from Seligman’s work and a swathe of other influences, such as archetypal roles in storytelling, the enneagram of personality, ancient wisdoms and many more.

Students take these journeys, such as ‘The Future’, ‘Bonds’, ‘Abilities’ and ‘Beliefs’, on a tablet or computer, by answering playful questions that reveal their qualities and inner selves – “what superpower would you choose for yourself?” and “if legs weren’t invented, by what means would you move around?”

“There are lots of surveys you can do to identify your own strengths. That stuff is really fun for me, in regards to understanding my own self-knowledge and working to those strengths,” Milhinch says.

At the end of the experience, participants are presented with a recount of their personal experience, and their own totem – a wild graphic representation of themselves.

Freerange has taken elements of Tiwi Islander Pukumani, Indigenous Australian memorial poles, Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman Obelisks, and the totem poles of American First Nation tribes and wrapped them in digital storytelling.

“It’s about being able to take these strengths in to stuff you don’t like. Morning meetings, we used to do them all the time and I hated them. But how do I bring a positive attribute in to that to enjoy myself? I brought in a sense of fun and humour – you can have a giggle at all times.”

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The totem not only quantifies a child’s qualities and capabilities but also asks them how they might apply those to the rougher parts of life.

“How is it that you create an aptitude of resilience and what do you do when things aren’t very good, to help yourself? We want to think this totem head will be something that they can defer to in regards to recognising their own strengths and their own internal excellence.

“If they’re having a bad time they can turn around and say I’ve got that totem head to remind me of all the excellence that lives inside of me.”

Totem Poll is aimed at students aged 8-12 years old, a key time that marks the development of complex empathy and recognition that others have the same rich inner life.

Their pole will not only represent their own special attributes, but also allow them to find commonalities with other people, as well as recognise the value of differences – breaking down barriers and growing the classroom community in the process.

“What we saw is that quite often there’s a dynamic that lives inside any social group. Quite often you get your leaders and you get people who are transient through groups and you get cliques forming.

“Maybe the goths don’t speak to the cool kids – we thought it might be really nice that someone who’s an outsider is able to meet a trajectory with others. Maybe at the heart of it there’s this great want for universal acceptance,” Milhinch says.

Students are presented with the other totems made by classmates, though these are anonymised with kooky ‘totem names’. Perhaps they see another student with an elephant’s trunk on their totem and try to find out the common quality they share.

“Someone in Queensland at a children’s festival can connect with someone in the Adnyamathanha lands in South Australia.”

“Being able to identify similarities – not knowing who the other people are – but recognising that with some of these more abstract things that there are other nutbags out there who emulate some of your nuttiness, as well as recognising differences, that’s important.”

This flies in to the long-term goal of Totem Poll – to open up the experience to a nationwide – or even international – experience.

At the moment it’s limited to South Australian school groups as part of the Come Out Children’s Festival, but Managing Director of Freerange Future, Nick Crowther, says the potential is there.

“Connection is one of the most interesting aspects of it, certainly when we first envisioned the project,” Crowther says.

“There is a bit of a limitation on how much connection we can build, because of the anonymity necessitated by the school audience we’ve got. But we’re definitely interested in that. There’s more we can do to fill that goal, but at the same time what it’s doing now is valuable as well.”

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Nick Crowther and Amy Milhinch of Freerange Future.

Milhinch believes that the digital nature of the engagement allows for an extraordinary amount of connectivity.

“Depending on how this project flies, we can open it up to other states. Someone in Queensland in a children’s festival can connect with someone in the Adnyamathanha lands in South Australia. Past that, it might open to India, or kids in China, with a whole different set of archetypal tools,” Milhinch says.

“Year of the Monkey, Year of the Dragon. We could take those things and build these visual styles, build your own totems with people all over the world. That could be really great for kids. That level of connectivity has never been done before.”

The leader of SAHMRI’s Wellbeing and Resilience Centre, Gabrielle Kelly, has expressed her support for the project.

“She recognised that people such as us could take the learnings of what’s happening there, her vision of having a mindful state, and we could add to it through the knowledge that they’re bringing,” says Milhinch.

“She liked the fact we were thoughtful in taking their realisations and doing something active with it, something entrepreneurial as well. There are people undergoing massive change in this state, and they are asking how they can create a feeling of resilience.”

Seligman’s report, Building the State of Wellbeing, argued that the qualities of wellbeing and resilience could be measured, taught and embedded – essential for a population undergoing challenging conditions such as the loss of major manufacturing industries.

“The state of wellbeing that South Australia wants to bring is supposed to permeate groups of people everywhere. It happens in governments and corporations, but obviously a nice place to start is in schools.”

Totem Poll is available now to schools in South Australia, for children aged 8-12.

It also features Teacher’s Notes to help schools develop curriculum around the experience.

Totem Poll will be on display in the Adelaide Festival Centre for visitors to experience from the launch of the Come Out Children’s Festival on 22 May.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story. Copied to Clipboard

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