When optimism and positivity is misconstrued as naivety

Wednesday night we attended the State Library of Victoria’s 2015 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial lecture which was presented by feminist historian Dr. Clare Wright. During the lecture Clare reflected upon the 40 years since the publication of Anne Summers’ seminal text Damned Whores and God’s Police.

For me, the overall message of the lecture was one of celebration. Clare did make it clear that the journey is one of constant change, and the journey is by no means finished. However, I did appreciate that she focused upon the change brought about by the common woman’s strength, ingenuity and resilience.

I was surprised by the questions at the end, which attempted to draw Clare into a discussion about the concerns surrounding neo-liberal feminism. I get the impression that some attendees were looking for a roadmap of continued resistance in order to further the feminist cause as opposed to the reflection which the lecture was supposed to be. Some seemed frustrated by Clare’s unwillingness to be drawn into a finger-pointing exercise in relation to the unforeseen implications of the feminist movement.

For me, this was yet another instance of positivity being misconstrued as naivety. I have been warned many times against being too optimistic, as people would take me less seriously. I am forever battling against this assumption that those who are realistic (even cynical and pessimistic) are more intelligent.

Some attendees at Clare’s lecture might have found her presentation to be of more merit if she were to rail against the prevailing injustices against the female population. Personally however, I find no point whatsoever in beating our heads against walls and moaning about those who have taken feminism in a direction which we may not agree with.

Rather, let’s celebrate our past accomplishments and those common people who led a silent revolution and had an uncommon affect on history. In so doing, we bring back into focus the original spirit of feminism and spread an infectious joy in playing a small part in enacting change.

I guess what I am asking is this: If we had one room filled with optimists and another filled with pessimists, which would be the more likely to make a positive change in this world? I would say that the answer is bleeding obvious. But then again, I’ve been called ‘naïve’.

From the collection of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

From the collection of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Digital Life Story Work with Aboriginal Children in Out-of-Home Care

I was asked to prepare a video presentation of my research for the Masters of Education students of Australian Catholic University. A transcript of the presentation is included below with links to useful resources for those who are interested.

Hi everyone, my name is Annelie and I am currently completing my Master’s thesis at Monash University. As recordkeepers and archivists we are trained to have a unique understanding of the power of records within the lives of individuals and within wider society.

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Personal records can be anything which is created through your daily activities or interactions. These records don’t necessarily have meaning or value on their own, but the value and meaning that we ascribe to these records is what makes them important to the individual. There is a strong relationship between the individual and their records, as the records act as an affirmation of an individual’s account of their life, their personal narrative.

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Personal records are created through an individual’s interactions with their environment and connections with other people. When a child is put in care, their relationships with others and their environment becomes fragmented. This results in a fragmentation of their personal narrative. Care leavers commonly report a sense of not knowing who they are. In these circumstances, the personal records of the child have an even more powerful and important role to play in their identity formation.

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Unfortunately however, these children are less likely to have the types of personal records the rest of us take for granted. They are less likely to have a scrapbook made of their early years and the situation with regards to personal records gets worse once the child enters care.

A succession of Government enquiries have consistently revealed the negative impact of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in our care systems on the already fraught nature of fractured narratives of self for the children in out-of-home care.

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The records which are created through a child’s time in care are case files which are created solely for administrative purposes. These files were not created with the understanding that the children might see what was written about them later on in life, or that the records would play a fundamental role in ensuring those who hurt the vulnerable children in their care were brought to justice.

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Two academics, Jacqueline Z. Wilson and Frank Golding – who happen to be care leavers themselves – recently published an incredible paper exposing the types of mistakes and biases that were included in the case files by publishing excerpts from their own files. They explain the dual affect of the case file, on the one hand validating what the care leaver remembers of their past, and on the other hand causing distress when the official account differs from personal recollections.

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The archival community has been involved in a number of initiatives attempting to address the re-traumatization of care leavers when they do access their case files later in life, whilst also ensuring that current recordkeeping practices by care providers are improved.

The Who Am I? project resulted in the Find and Connect website which aims to connect care leavers with the records which help to make sense of their past. The hope amongst care leavers accessing their records is to make sense of their experiences; why they were put into care, where they were at what time (in some cases children went through eleven foster homes in one year), etc.

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Up to now, the archival community has been instrumental in trying to retrospectively alleviate some of the symptoms of decades of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in the care sector. They have also been involved in a number of research projects which highlight the need for current practices to change, for carers to create records with instead of about the child.

My Research

In contrast, my research project will focus on a way in which the child can create their own narrative with or without their carers through the use of a digital life story work application. Providing children in out-of-home care with the means to take ownership over their own narratives seems to me a fundamental right. The social work system is one in crisis, meaning that the current Life Story Work practices are impractical in their reliance on carers with the time and inclination to support the children through the sense-making process.

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Life Story Work is a sense-making practice employed by the Social Work discipline, and was established by Ryan and Walker in 1985. It is designed to create opportunities for meaningful conversations with the child/youth to help them make sense of their fractured environments and relationships and to create a continuous narrative of self.

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The reason I have chosen to focus upon the design of a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youths in particular is threefold:

  • The NSW Department of Family and Community Service’s ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ appears to preference Western ways of communication and Western ideas of family and community.
  • Adolescents typically are unwilling to ‘engage with traditional life story work resources, frequently citing them as being “for kids”‘ (Hammond, 2013, p. 1). The current life story work resource was developed by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services in 2005 (in the pre-Web 2.0 world), and very much appears to have been created with young children in mind.
  • Other current life story work and digital storytelling initiatives are being developed without appearing to consider recordkeeping and archiving principles, which is particularly concerning when one considers the vulnerable nature of these children and the crucial role which personal records and personal narratives play in their ongoing identity formation. Recordkeeping and archival practices would help to ensure that these records continue to be accessible to the individuals throughout their lives.

The urgent need for improvements in this area becomes apparent when one considers that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families has increased by 65% since the Federal Government apologized to the Stolen Generations in 2008. Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than children of other races.

According to The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, Indigenous children make up 35% of all children in care, despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children only make up 4.4 percent of the population.

Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au

Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au

Whilst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle aims to help ensure that Indigenous children removed from their families still remain within their mob, this is only actually done in 37.5% of cases. Critics call this the ‘Second Stolen Generation’.

My research aims to develop a set of principles and requirements for a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. It is expected that at least one of the requirements will stress the need for the children to be educated about the communities from which they have most likely been removed. This can done with Web 2.0 technologies which would connect the child to their kin through interactive capabilities and communication platforms.

The existing ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ is not customizable, and there is just the one resource for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child, regardless of language or mob. Many children identify with several mobs, and a digital application would ensure the flexibility required to customize it’s information according to the child’s age, sex and mob(s).

An additional benefit of encouraging Indigenous youth to actively create and engage with technology is to address the digital participation gap. A fundamental flaw in the current government initiatives to ‘bridge the gap’ is that the aim is to bring the levels of Indigenous literacy up to the lowest of the rest of the populations’ literacy levels. Surely that aim is unworthy of our Indigenous community?

It is likely that you will encounter many children in out-of-home care in your classrooms through the course of your career, however any child would benefit from Life Story Work for the creation of personal records and a continuous personal narrative. As teachers, you have a unique opportunity to help address the identity issues which children from fractured backgrounds commonly experience.

Useful Life Story Work References and Guides:

Hammond, S., & Cooper, N. (2013). Digital life story work: Using technology to help young people make sense of their experiences (No. 1). British Association of Adoption and Fostering.

Rose, R. (2012). Life story therapy with traumatized children: A model for practice. Jessica kingsley publishers.

ASA Conference: Volunteer Work and Entering the Profession from the Periphery

ASA Conference Panel

The theme of the Australian Society of Archivists‘ 2015 conference was ‘Archives on the Edge’. Speakers spoke on a variety of topics derived from this theme: archives on the edge of extinction, the edge of great innovation, the edge of redefinition.

The Panel

My colleagues and I chose to flip the term on its’ head and presented a panel on the role and impact of volunteers within the archival profession, and the challenges involved with entering the archival profession from the periphery – its’ edges, if you will. As new professionals, Christopher Stueven, Christine Holmes, Romney Adams and myself discussed the experiences of volunteers within the Australian archival profession. The four of us had had extensive volunteering experience whilst undertaking studies in wildly varied organisations and different motivations.

The relevance of the topic and the issues presented with our profession’s reliance upon volunteers was made evident by the amount of participants who attended the session. The discussions within the room were wide-ranging and touched on a number of issues. It would be impossible to capture the discussion here and give credit to everyone for their individual contributions; I by no means aim to represent these opinions wholly as my own. This post will briefly highlight the issues that seemed to be of particular relevance to the Australian archival sector, before touching on the potential research project and best practice document that have come about as a direct result of this panel.

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As a whole, the room acknowledge that in most cases volunteering represents a mutually beneficial and welcome exchange of free labor for occupational experience. All of the panel members stressed that their volunteering experiences had been invaluable in gaining the skills required in order to obtain employment within the sector.

Given the immensely positive impact that archival institutions could have upon volunteers and vice versa, it is disappointing how little information and research the panelists were able to find which illuminated the Australian context. Each of the panelists remarked upon the lack of research which identify the motivations of volunteers in the Australian archival sector, and as a profession we have little to no idea how many volunteers we have nor where they are. Without proper planning and a clearer idea of the people who volunteer in our sector, archives run the risk of wasting the time and resources of both the volunteer and the archive (Frevert, 1997).

We are a relatively small, young and unknown profession, we must therefore take good care of the volunteers that we do manage to attract (Leonard, 2012). Volunteers reinforce the ties between an archive and its’ public, and each volunteer represents an opportunity for the relationships between archives and their communities to be strengthened. Once we acknowledge the unique opportunities that volunteers represent, it is only logical that our profession invest time and resources in order to leverage these opportunities to our greatest benefit. Of course, just as a positive experience can lead to our volunteers becoming our public relations advocates, a negative experience can lead to critics within the communities which we serve. It is absolutely crucial therefore that volunteer programs be implemented strategically.Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 7.03.39 PM

Main Issues Discussed

  • Christopher Stueven stated that in his opinion Australia was behind in having these conversations, given that countries such as America and England have published great swathes of data, best practices and policies with regards to their volunteers, volunteering programs and volunteering initiatives. Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 6.57.22 PMThis is perhaps unsurprising given that the Global Financial Crisis impacted the Australian economy less severely than that of both England and America, and therefore have not had to have the same level of reliance upon volunteers.
  • The room agreed that the Australian Society of Archivists and the archival community as a whole would benefit from a statement of ‘best practice’. A senior member of council who was in attendance suggested that the panel members draft such a document for the consideration of the council.

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  • In line with current literature, participants agreed that volunteers should never replace paid positions and should not do core business as this would weaken the position of the archive and potentially the profession as a whole. For many who have seen the profession of Archives elevated from being a Librarian in the 1960s, to becoming its own sector, de-professionalisation is something to constantly be guarding against.
  • As Leonard (2012, p. 313) states: “The labor of a volunteer employee is not—nor should it necessarily be—without cost to the employing institution.” In fact, a number of participants in the session stated that at times volunteers demand more time and resources than they contribute, but that the intangible benefits of having volunteers (fresh insights, enthusiasm, connection to community, etc.) made this worthwhile.Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 7.04.16 PM
  • Romney Adams stated that there should be one point of contact for volunteers, and that this staff member should be selected based upon their interest in cultivating a rewarding experience for the volunteers.
  • Given that archives in Australia have recently published a huge volume of archival material for the centenary of World War One, I stressed the importance of some sort of support system, even if a staff member just allows the volunteers to debrief over a plate of cookies in the tea room.
  • Volunteer programs should be implemented strategically, i.e. as a means of demonstrating the value added by a particular service or product, in order to obtain the funding required for the position(s) to be paid – and maybe even result in a job for the volunteer.
  • A source of frustration according to the majority of those in the room was the lack of a central point at which potential volunteers could register their interest in volunteering at archival institutions. It was suggested that such a portal would be invaluable, especially if volunteers could create a little profile stating what type of experience they were looking for, and alternatively archives could advertise for volunteers to help with specific projects or initiatives.

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The Outcome

Researching and presenting on this panel made it increasingly clear that further research into the volunteers in the Australian archival and recordkeeping sector should be conducted. Currently efforts are being made to review relevant literature and draft a statement of best practice for the consideration of the Australian Society of Archivists. We are also in the process of compiling a list of questions to be included in a survey which is to distributed to, and completed by, as many volunteers within the archival sector as possible. If anyone would like to make any suggestions of what to include in the survey, please feel free to contact me through the feedback form included below. The survey will be based upon similar resources that have previously been developed, and members of the Australian Society of Archivists will be invited to contribute feedback and further suggestions through the ArchivesLive website.

While these informal conversations have been occurring for some time, we are thrilled to see them becoming more formal.

*A kind thank you to Sigrid McCausland for being an exemplary moderator, and to Chris Stueven for providing feedback on this post.

References:

Leonard, K. B. (2012). Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost. Journal of Library Administration, 52(3-4), 313-320.

Frevert, R. H. (1997). Archives volunteers: Worth the effort?. Archival Issues, 147-162.