Late last century (it still sounds strange to say that!) I was a youth worker and was interested in how youth services could create an organisational culture of nonviolence. I had been running a series of workshops in schools and youth services exploring conflict resolution and nonviolent relationships, but had often been concerned by the way teachers and youth workers handled conflict themselves and the way in which they often operated from a position of power-over rather than power-with. I felt strongly that, if we were going to assist young people to develop conflict resolution skills and nonviolent relationships, we had to model them first.
I was unsuccessful in finding funding to take this interest further, until someone suggested I apply for a PhD scholarship as a way of exploring a philosophy of nonviolence for youth workers. I had enjoyed studying and had completed a Master of Letters in Peace Studies (with a minor thesis on conflict resolution and homeless youth) so decided to give it a go. As an aside, one of the advantages of being a youth worker was that going from a youth worker wage to a tax-free scholarship (with a bit of part-time work) meant my income remained the same.
I saw the PhD as a way to explore nonviolence and youth work rather than as the start of an academic career. I would have done a Master degree but wasn’t eligible for a scholarship as I already that level of qualification. On completing the PhD, I wanted to return to practice and applied for a job as a community worker with the Caravan Project at the Family Action Centre (part of the University of Newcastle). For the next five years I supported permanent residents of caravan parks in the field and, later, as the project team leader. I had been attracted to the Family Action Centre by its focus on research and teaching as well as practice. So while my role was clearly as a community worker, we were encouraged to share our experience and learnings more broadly through conferences, papers, reports and workshops. (See for example Families with children living in caravan parks and What can you do when someone you know is experiencing domestic violence?)
When I started at the Family Action Centre in 2003, it felt a bit like we ignored the rest of the Uni and they let us be. I didn’t really have a sense of being part of the Uni. This slowly began to change and we started to think about how we could contribute more to the core business of the Uni by increasing our focus on research and teaching. At the time I was the only one with a PhD at the Centre (there are now three of us with PhDs and two more have submitted or are about to submit their theses) so in 2008 I moved into a more academic role. Unfortunately this meant that rather than following the normal pathway of being an early career academic who was mentored by more experienced researchers, I was usually the most experienced researcher. My target was also other practitioners rather than academics.
Until recently, my position has been funded through teaching and externally funded projects or consultancies. So as well as teaching I’ve acted as a consultant to other organisations interested in adopting strengths-based approaches to working with communities, facilitated training or inclusive group processes and done a few small-scale evaluations. I have been asked to do a small few research projects for organisations but the funding has not included academic outputs. Because I have had to generate the funds to cover my wage, I have not had the time to use these projects as a basis for academic publications.
I know many academics work more than their official hours to fit in research and writing, but I have prioritised my family and voluntary work with Transition Newcastle and my daughters’ schools. The voluntary work ensures that I continue to work directly with communities and provides valuable experience and learnings.
My main interest continues to be working with practitioners (including practitioners in training) so I want all my work to have a real practice focus. Over the next few years I’m hoping to become better at combining teaching and practice with academic outputs that have relevance to practitioners. Fortunately there are many great examples of academics who are actively involved in practice and who do research that is directly relevant and useful to practitioners.
My blog is one of the ways I hope to ensure that my academic life remains grounded in, and relevant to, practice.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- Blogging as an academic
- Why I blog
- My background in peace and environment groups
- Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
- Navigating dilemmas of community development: Practitioner reflections on working with Aboriginal communities
- Research evidence for family (and community) workers