Undertaking my final placement in …. was a careful decision. I know, from some experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, that Australia’s Indigenous population faces many issues pertaining equity, explicit and implicit forms of racism and systemic and social stressors, to name a few. It was my presumption, undertaking a position as a community health social worker, that the real “meat” of my placement would be in how I engage with these issues and at what level change may be possible. However, it became apparent very quickly that my work and time in …. would be about far deeper learnings for me as a student, and as a person.
Of course, I was constantly challenged to work with clients who didn’t want to engage with our service; pressed to advocate in complex and imbalanced systems; witness to stories of abuse and neglect. Though, the most challenging work came in how I related myself within the community. That is, addressing the biases, skills and knowledge that informed my work, and how these tensioned against the values of my Aboriginal co-workers. In one example, I noticed myself becoming frustrated as ideas or discussions would be slowed down in meetings with service managers. Without realising the affect that this style of work was having on me, I mentioned in supervision that I was finding some challenges to the workflow. My supervisor and I unpacked this idea for some time. We talked about why the workflow was an issue – my own preference to excel through tasks – and what the experience was like in meetings where I felt we were not working to our potential. After sharing some of their own experience, my supervisor helped to reframe that I was becoming flustered at my own sense of “doing”, rather than moving to the pace of the people that really mattered – my colleagues.
This thought was profound because it highlighted to me how ingrained my “western” ways of doing things are. Although I believed that I was able to work in a de-colonising way, I realised I was still allowing myself to be overwhelmed by personal values. This moment, although seemingly innocuous, was truly one of the most important in my entire WIL placement, as it challenged me to step back and critically reflect on processes that may allow me to be a more effective cross-cultural practitioner. Just as my practice has been so dramatically informed by this one experience, so too has my perspective by another pivotal moment.
I sat with a mother in her front yard one day. We yarned for 30 minutes, talking about how her son was coping after discovering the body of a close friend who had completed suicide. I wanted to paint a bit of a picture about how life looks in this household. During our chat, it came to light that this woman had already lost a child to a premature death. She had been stabbed, buried multiple family members, dealt with domestic violence and addiction. Even one of these events in someone’s life would be a lot to manage, but she seemed to have been through it all. And yet, here she sat, talking openly with me as life continues on. There was not much to say to this woman. It was obvious she was fiercely strong. She didn’t ask for help and my sense was that she would decline any offer, anyway. At the end of our talk, I got back in my car and drove away.
I felt unnerved and I didn’t know why.
Was I in awe of the fact that this woman had experienced so much hardship in one lifetime, and yet continued on – resilience? Or was I saddened that she had dealt with so much adversity that she was now numb to it – over-exposed? Perhaps the semantics of this don’t matter to some, because the outcome is the same: she is who she is. But I don’t view it that way. If she is so strong of character that she is able to rebound from these events, then that is truly something great; something to explore and unpack and learn more about. However, if she has had to settle and accept that grief and loss will continue to be in her life – that there is nothing she can do but accept it – then this is something much more worrying.
In essence, the point of this reflection is the new perspective I have developed since my time in …. I have learned that the real social work begins in how we engage with these kinds of issues/questions. In this case, what factors have influenced the woman’s view? For example, are our institutions and services so catered to the dominant Australian cultures, that marginal groups have given up seeking meaningful support? Or, what message does the nationalist Australian discourse tell Aboriginal Australians about their place and rights in society? Translated to my own professional and personal development, this insight encourages me to look past acute presentations – to seek the big picture stuff. This is not to ignore or devalue the individual challenges that will arise throughout my career, but I believe that to be effective I should strike a balance between addressing these mirco/messo problems, while continuing to gaze toward macro systemic issues. It has been this discovery which has best enabled me to more clearly articulate my professional framework; to understand the theories and practices that best inform me as a social worker. Undertaking this unique placement was not only challenging to my practice, though. The stressors related to a regional or rural placement go beyond the academic and practice context, to affect the student at a social and economic level.
A great benefit of being from Brisbane, and doing placement in …, is that I’m never more than three hours from home. At the start of the semester, this sounded like a meagre amount of time. However, as friends’ weddings, family occasions and mandatory university contact hours came and went, a three-hour drive started to feel like an eternity. Not only this, but there was substantial cost involved with all of the petrol and vehicle maintenance. Anyone who has done a WIL placement might understand the challenge of working five-days a week at placement and balancing academic and social duties (social being equally important to all others as a mode of self-care). This means, undertaking a regional or rural placement requires the student to carefully consider their financial capacity for that semester. In my case, I have known for some time that I will pursue a career working alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, after university. This meant I would not have missed the opportunity to work in an Aboriginal community, while receiving the extra support afforded to a student on placement. I believe, in full sincerity, had I not been a recipient of the ACEN Scholarship, I would not have managed this placement without the need to extend myself beyond my capacity. As my fortunate circumstance allowed, I was able to complete my final research project – understanding good collaboration alongside Indigenous Australian communities, in policy development – while concurrently doing my placement hours. As a result of my research, I made contact with senior service managers, in …, and have since been offered a permanent full-time contract working with the community. I’m pleased to say I have accepted the position and will begin my career as a master of social work graduate, working in ….