2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge

This year I will be partaking in the Australian Women Writers Challenge which ‘was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women’. Throughout 2017 I will be reading and reviewing at least 6 books which are authored by female Australians and are related to the following subject matters:

  • Archiving/Recordkeeping;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and;
  • Memory/Identity.

Currently I am brainstorming potential books to review and welcome all suggestions. If anyone wants to read along and join the conversation, my reviews will be shared through this blog.

Book ideas:

stasiland.jpgspyinthearchive.jpgthememoryartistprivatelives.jpgdna.jpgunearthed.jpg

Ethical and interpersonal challenges of researching with Aboriginal communities

Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Brett Baker which was part of the University of Melbourne Office of Research Ethics and Integrity’s seminar series. The title of the lecture was ‘Ethical guidelines for researchers working with Aboriginal communities’ and it reflected upon interpersonal challenges in addition to ethical guidelines related to research within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Being a reflective researcher is particularly crucial when conducting cross-cultural research. This seminar was very illuminating and the presenter acknowledged that conducting research with Indigenous communities takes more care and forethought. It takes conscious effort to build trust and relationships with community, thus this research in considered to be more involved.

Applications for indigenous research projects are subjected to an intense level of scrutiny. All indigenous research projects are considered high risk because Indigenous Australians are arguably the most researched group of people in the world. Some individuals within community deem research to be a continuation of the scrutiny which the government subjected them to for generations.

The Melbourne University ethics committee which considers Aboriginal research proposals is composed of 13-15 people and includes everyone from lawyers to psychologists. The committee also has at least four representatives from community.

Gratuitous concurrence is a well-established issue which, in this context, means that Indigenous people are likely to agree to being involved in a research project without necessarily first considering whether they actually want to take part.  The Ethics committee takes this very seriously and all research projects are assessed according to how beneficial they would be to the Indigenous communities before being approved.

In particular the ethics committee looks for:

  • Established ties with the community (researchers being invited back into communities for subsequent research projects are looked upon favourably),
  • They also look for evidence that the researcher is tying themselves in with existing Indigenous organisations, projects or researchers, as researchers who turn up in a community and introduce themselves are not trusted as readily as someone who is introduced by a trusted organisation or individual,
  • The committee also looks for evidence that the project is collaborative; ideally indigenous people are involved in conducting the research and being compensated if at all possible.

Once your project has ethics approval:

  • Do not just walk into community and start talking to people. Researchers need to contact the relevant Aboriginal Land Council and ask for permission to access the land with a ‘research permit’ as opposed to just a ‘visitor permit’. This basically involves being given verbal consent by someone who has the right to grant you access, but it is very important.
  • Do not just jump straight into questions. Building rapport over a cup of coffee is crucial. Without trust you will not be invited back.
  • Informed consent – if English or literacy is a barrier it is acceptable to record the exchange between you and the participant as evidence of explaining the project and receiving informed consent.
  • Understanding kinship is crucial as it impacts on every aspect of the society.
  • Interpreters are often required in order to manage the risk of misunderstanding participants. Even when the individual speaks English fluently, they are likely to have different nuances.
  • Hearsay can be misconstrued as truth. Don’t use it.
  • Interaction is limited between the sexes, and expect to be directed to speak to the elderly.
  • Learn about the indigenous ‘ways of behaving’. Being polite is very important, and involves things like not singling anyone out for special attention.
  • Often your point of contact is what anthropologists refer to as ‘brokers’ – intermediaries between the two cultures.
  • The indigenous community want to see that the researchers and outside community are interested and respect the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
  • Do not take trust for granted. Consciously continue to cultivate it and always inform the community about the outcomes of the research.
  • Nothing about their culture is impersonal.
  • Respect the community, their kinship ties and culture.

Remember: You have no intrinsic right to research their community and they have an intrinsic right to be left alone. Be appreciative of the opportunity that you are given and reciprocate accordingly.

Within the next year, please keep an eye on this blog if you are interested in Monash University’s ethical guidelines related to research with the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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.

Respecting cultural differences vs ‘othering’

As researchers in the interpretivist paradigm we are expected to grapple and come to some sort of understanding of our participants’ worldview. This strikes me as an impossible task. When asked, my supervisors assured me that it is in fact impossible, but as long as we accept that we have tried our best and engage in reflective practice that our research will be robust. I find it difficult to come to terms with these concepts especially since my research focuses on Aboriginal culture. I feel as though it would be the height of stupidity to pretend to have even a basic understanding of their worldview. Although my professors raised the point that perhaps I am actually doing the Aboriginal community a disservice by assuming that we have vastly different worldviews. How do I navigate the line between ‘othering’ the Indigenous community and respecting the fact that cultural differences exist?

Introspection by Giulia Marangoni

Introspection by Giulia Marangoni

The Second Stolen Generation

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

The facts:

In 2008, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a ground breaking apology to the Stolen Generations. Many thought that this would be a momentous step toward reconciliation and a fresh start for Aboriginal Australians.

Instead, removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd said sorry to the Stolen Generations. This has largely gone unreported by the Australian media.

According to The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services there were 14,991 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care as of 30 June 2014.

That makes up 35 per cent of all children in care, despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children only make up 4.4 percent of the population.

According to New Matilda, Debra Swan worked in NSW Child Protection services for 13 years before she quit in protest after her sister’s grandchildren were removed. Debra said that “The Stolen Generations never stopped. It’s a continuation. They just changed the language of it.”

These human rights abuses are continuing. The Australian archival community are making a valiant effort toward supporting victims of the previous Stolen Generations to have access to their records and therefore make sense of their experiences. Projects such as the Find and Connect web resource have made significant contributions toward helping these individuals reconnect with their records and their past.

However it is no longer enough to focus upon making our archival systems less biased towards white Australian and governmental records. We need to be engaging actively in outreach programs to minimise the damage done to these children today instead of waiting for the publication of another Bringing Them Home report in the future.

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