Social work in a remote Indigenous community (TK)
This Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) experience has felt like the final stepping-stone into my social work identity. This is not to imply in any way that I have no further learning or areas of growth and development as a social worker-in fact the WIL experience has only lead to revealing more areas for growth than I was previously aware of- rather it is to say that I now feel ready to assume the identity of ‘professional’ and of ‘social worker’ (albeit a very fresh one) as opposed to that of ‘student’. This shift in thinking may seem like mere semantics, but in actual fact it represents the tangible process of change within my self over the five months. Due to a combination of peer encouragement, organisational turbulence, personal initiative, abundant opportunity, heightened responsibility and managerial trust I have found myself gradually moving from being apprehensive and passive in the workplace in March to much more confident, competent and with a stronger voice and professional discernment today. Now I feel nearly ready to start upon the first step of the next journey into a lifelong evolving practitioner.
From this WIL experience I am taking away many things, namely a passion for the rights of central Australian Aboriginal youth, an experience of injustices within the system, an appreciation for indigenous communities and peoples, positive relationships with many service-providers and clients, a heightened sense of confidence in myself and a love of central Australia. I hope that I have also left behind positive changes where I have been and have tried to stir up a little bit of red dust.
Doing a social work placement can be an intense experience, not only of gathering information and skills specific to the context, but as a microcosm of the broader socio-political context as well as a concentrated critical perspective on the self like a mirror. This experience of self-reflexivity can be both confronting and exciting, as it highlights both areas of strength as well as areas for development- both being equally as important. The areas of strength that I can identify, as evidenced in this particular workplace setting, were taking self-directed initiative and building team morale.
Self-directed initiative was a strength both identified and enhanced in this WIL experience due to the severe lack of staff in the program (with myself being the only caseworker for the majority of time). I have come to appreciate that I work well with scope for flexibility and independent action if I am encouraged and provided with guidance and support where necessary. From the outset of my WIL experience it was communicated both by my first supervisor as well as manager and Aboriginal Cultural Advisor that over the course of my stay I could assume as much responsibility as I (and the team) felt comfortable, whilst maintaining the best interests of our clients, accountability and a consciousness of my limited experience. As I move into my next professional context upon graduation, I will have to be very sensitive to and cautious of this strength given that many other potential future work contexts will likely be more structured, directed and potentially less encouraging to try new things.
One thing that I am proud of achieving in this WIL experience was the planning and execution of a two-week school holiday program for the young people in detention without any budget and outside of my responsibilities at the family responsibility Program. Whilst it was a lot of work, a challenge balancing this project as well as my family case-management tasks (being the only case-manager at this point), and came up against resistance from different bodies, it was something which I felt passionate about and was an example of taking initiative beyond the immediate demands and building trust and assuming responsibility with different staff across the field of Correctional services (especially custodial). The result was two weeks of music, filmmaking, AOD lessons, art workshops, mental health presentations and support service visits to the youth in custody in Alice Springs
Due to the nature of a workplace in a season of flux and the broader picture of social work in the NT with its issues with staff recruitment and retention, our team found itself diminishing in number and consequently morale as time went on. We were all under increasing pressure as numbers dropped and workload responsibilities increased as well as uncertainty of the future (particularly for our manager). I found over time that optimism, encouragement and communication were all strengths that I could to the workplace to enhance the common shared experience and morale. This is a strength which is already somewhat part of my disposition so does not cost or challenge me much to display. Whilst I was aware of this tendency in my nature previous to the WIL experience, the WIL experience taught me how simple yet significant it can be, particularly in an atmosphere of heightened pressure, uncertainty and hardship.
Some other strengths which have been helpful to exercise in this WIL experience, but which I may have been aware of previously, as identified by myself and supervisor are an openness to learning, capacity to see strengths of family, high levels of reflexivity, respectful awareness of white identity, non-judgmentality and community-mindedness.
An understanding of the legal justice system (particularly the criminal strand) is something that I have enhanced greatly over this social work placement due to high levels of contact, coming from a place of near absolute ignorance. However the importance of sound knowledge of such processes I have come to appreciate to be paramount in order to provide adequate support for those involved, and this is something that I am a long way from feeling confident in. It is also something which I came to be passionate about in this WIL experience, namely the youth justice system, and the ways in which this system discriminated and oppressed some of the already most vulnerable in the community. I had the privilege of being a support and advocate within the court proceedings for many young people and families, and I saw the huge need for social work intervention in such systems of power as well as the breach of human rights. For all these reasons I hope to learn more in the future about not only the laws imposed upon individuals, but also the rights they hold, particularly when working with Indigenous clients who may be living in other cultural practice, languages and strikingly; by other laws.
Supervision was a really important and stretching part of this WIL experience. My weekly hourly supervision sessions took on a philosophical air in which we would discuss ideas of law, criminality and incarceration and how these intersect with social work values. We talked a lot about the conflicting experiences of being a social worker within the criminal justice system as well as the importance of it. We also discussed in great depth the retributive policy approach to youth in NT (rather than rehabilitative) which is something that I have found to be of great concern, and would critique the systems through our social work lenses.
It was also invaluable to be working alongside the Aboriginal Cultural Advisor, who provided consistency, experience and support with case related tasks and cultural questions. It was such a privilege to be working so closely with such a strong, supportive and experienced Aboriginal practitioner (we were the only two “workers” for the majority of my WIL experience).
This placement challenged and taught me so much about myself and the complexities of seeking social justice within communities and systems of injustice and inequality. Upon the completion of my studies in November I hope to potentially move back to Alice Springs as a social worker and continue to contribute small glimpses growth within the community as well as to continue to be grown by this diverse and strong community, as I was over these significant 5 months.