My last day at the Family Action Centre

Family Action Centre logo

After 18.5 years, today is my last day as a staff member at the Family Action Centre (FAC). In reality, I haven’t really been an active part of the FAC since the end of last year when I discovered that, with the end of the Master of Family Studies and the discipline of family studies, there was no longer any funding for my position. Since then I have continued at the University, but I have been working from home on two projects—Name.Narrate.Navigate (NNN)and some research on assertive outreach with women—neither of which involved anybody else from the FAC.

Having recently turned 60, I am going into semi-retirement (which takes a bit of getting used to). I will continue having a connection with the University as an honorary lecturer and supporting the expansion of NNN through the Name.Narrate.Navigate Practice Pathways program (that will offer training and mentoring to practitioners to help them develop skills in working with young people who are victims and perpetrators of violence, abuse and trauma, in ways that are creative and trauma informed). I will also be continuing my voluntary work with the Alternatives to Violence Project (facilitating workshops, co-convening the AVP  international research team and writing a couple of books about AVP), supporting Upcycle Newcastle/Transition Newcastle and blogging.

It is sad leaving the FAC after such a long time, and it isn’t surprising that I’ve been reflecting on my time there. I started at the FAC as a community worker with the Caravan Project in 2003, before moving into a more academic role five years later. There are many things that I appreciated about my time there, especially when I started, and it seems appropriate to mention a few.

I learnt a great deal about strengths-based practice, which was an important foundation for all our work. For example, in the Caravan Project, we didn’t pretend that there were no problems on the caravan parks we worked on (e.g., high rates of mental health issues, drug and alcohol use, domestic violence) but our focus was on the strengths of the park communities (e.g., the sense of community and the informal social networks) and how these strengths could address some of the challenges. So when we created a project addressing domestic violence on caravan parks (and with local Aboriginal communities the FAC was working on), we focused on how neighbours, friends and family could support somebody experiencing domestic violence.

When we created a program for Aboriginal men in prison, Brothers Inside, our focus was on their roles as fathers. In prison, many of the workshops offered to the men were about not doing something: don’t do violence, don’t do crime, don’t take drugs. Our workshops, on the other hand, were saying: “You are fathers, that is incredibly important. You play a significant role in your children’s lives so be the best dads you can be.” This set a very different tone for the workshops, and it was a topic that interested them. In this context we could still to have conversations about violence, crime and alcohol and other drugs, but in terms of how these behaviours impacted on their relationship with their children. It created a very different environment for the conversations.

But a strengths-based approach also permeated the FAC’s organisational culture. Judi Geggie, the FAC director at the time, placed a large emphasis on creating a supportive, inclusive culture at the FAC. I found it a very supportive, positive place to work. For quite a while, I said the FAC was like an oasis within the University. We seemed to be protected from many of the problems I would see in other parts of the Uni (e.g., fractured teams, poor supervision, unrealistic workloads, lack of administrative support). Judi made sure that we came together regularly as a team to both discuss the FAC and to build relationships (e.g., we regularly had shared lunches). We received regular, supportive supervision that helped as develop as practitioners and team members. The workload of many academics in the Uni meant they had to work many unpaid hours but at the FAC, I remember being asked about the number of hours I was working and, if I was working too many hours, we should look at how we could reduce my workload. I was not expected to put in lots unpaid hours.  

Unfortunately the organisational culture changed overtime, particularly when the Discipline of Family Studies and the Master of Family Studies were formally established, and we became more integrated into one of the Schools. We were no longer protected as much as we used to be, but it was largely because the economic realities of our funding (including changes to how the FAC was paid for our teaching) meant that changes had to happen (particularly to workload).

One of the things that I appreciated about working at the FAC was the focus on improving practice and policy. For example, in the Caravan Project we were encouraged to reflect on our work and to come together with other services working with residents of caravan parks, to explore what we could learn from each other and to influence policy and practice. In 2006 we hosted Supporting Caravan Park Residents—A national best practice forum that aimed to improve service delivery to marginalised residents of caravan parks by:

  • Promoting best practice when working with marginalised residents of caravan parks
  • Developing and disseminating a guide to best practice based on the forum’s outcomes
  • Fostering greater connections, collaboration and partnerships between services working with caravan park residents nationally
  • Promoting awareness of issues affecting marginalised residents of caravan parks.

The forum, and report, that followed encouraged me (and the other forum participants) to reflect on how we worked and why we did what we did. I found this combination of practice and critical reflection inspiring, and it helped me develop my practice a great deal.

The Family Action Centre emphasises the value of combining research, teaching and practice (although the ending of the discipline of family studies has undermined this significantly). Through the combination of the three, I had the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues including strengths-based practice, community engagement, evidence-informed practice, best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation, violence prevention, assertive outreach, and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Not surprisingly my experience at the FAC has a major influence on my approach to work. In 2015, when we were doing some work for the federal government’s Children and Families Expert Panel, we identified seven principles that underpinned our approach, which continue to shape how I work:

  1. We build on individual, organisational and community strengths
  2. We are committed to community-driven and family-centred approaches
  3. Our approach is relationship driven
  4. We are flexible and adaptable
  5. We integrate community service, teaching, professional development and research
  6. We are committed to social justice
  7. Our focus is on capacity building

I am also sure that I was a better parent because of my experience at the FAC. It really was a family friend place to work and having a strong focus on engaging fathers gave me greater confidence to be actively inovlved in my childrens lives, and to take on roles that were not traditionally associated with fathers.

I know it’s dangerous to start naming people (because as it is impossible to name everybody) but there were a number of people at the FAC who had a particular influence on me.

The FAC was led by some amazing women—Judi Geggie, Penny Crofts, Deb Hartman and Kerrell Bourne—who worked so hard at creating a positive work environment and ensuring that the FAC stayed relevant and innovative, who treated everyone with deep respect and who provided real support to their staff. They taught me so much about the importance of organisational culture, valuing individuals, and finding possibilities in challenging situations. They also showed me how it was possible to be supportive while still having high expectations and challenging staff when necessary.

I learnt a great deal from my colleague Craig Hammond (or Bourkie). I first worked with him in Brothers Inside facilitating the fathering workshops with Aboriginal fathers in prison. Going in with him as the only white fella in the workshop was quite an experience, and the trips to and from the prisons allowed us to talk about many things. Working with Bourkie really reinforced for me the importance of relationships in this type of work. When we arrived at the prison, I would be aware of how much we had to do in the workshop and be wanting to get on with it. Bourkie, on the other hand, spent time chatting to the men about the Knockout (an annual Aboriginal rugby competition) the NRL (The national ruby league) and where they were from. I had to learn that the workshops HAD started, and that this relationship building was so important. It was often magic watching how he could build relationships with such a wide range of people.

The person I worked the closest with (for around 10 years) was Dee Brooks. She had been a one of my students when I taught at TAFE (a tertiary vocational training college) and I was very pleased when she joined the Caravan Project, and later changed roles to focus more on asset-based community development (ABCD). We worked on many projects together including one where we provided training in ABCD and community capacity building to all the staff nationally of the Defence Community Organisation (which supported members and families of people in the armed forces). We learnt a great deal through the process, and it was always interesting (and a pleasure!) to work with Dee on this and a range of other projects. I learnt a great deal about facilitation from her, she introduced me to new processes and approaches, and was full of energy and enthusiasm. I am particularly pleased that one of the things I am doing as an honorary lecturer is supervising Dee as she does her Master of Philosophy exploring common elements of strengths based, participatory community engagement and development approaches.

There were many other staff at the FAC who inspired, motivated and taught me but I can’t list them all. While I think the FAC (and the University) is going through a challenging time, I look forward to seeing where the FAC goes next and what new opportunities open up.

As I come to the end of my time at the FAC, I am ever so grateful for the opportunities I’ve received and for the many amazing people I’ve worked with.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. “Course optimisation” and the end of my time at the Family Action Centre
  2. Blogging as an academic
  3. 7 principles guiding my work
  4. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  5. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  6. Don’t call me doctor!

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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12 Responses to My last day at the Family Action Centre

  1. I’ve been reading you blog from the UK for several years and have found it so very helpful. I’m a central contact for community engagement at a Scottish university. Your blend of very practical community development experience and working in a university setting was just the source of knowledge I was looking for. If you ever fancy doing a guest talk, over Zoom or even maybe visiting us one day, we would love to have you! I am on local@ed.ac.uk if you’d like to chat

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  2. Louise Rak says:

    Graeme- you were on my interview panel when I first started at the university many moons ago. Then when my boss at the time thought it was a good idea for me to bring in my 18 month old to a meeting on a day I wasn’t supposed to be working (I think to demonstrate family friendly flexibility?) you got down on your hands and knees to pick up the blueberries she threw everywhere so that I could finish presenting a point to the meeting. Anyone I have told that story to has said they wished they could work with a “Graeme”. I have had the privilege to work with you for the last two years and look forward to working with you for the next three. And even though you mentioned one of the PhD students you are supervising (which wasn’t me by the way), I won’t hold it against you, and say that you are also a great PhD supervisor. 100 thank you’s Graeme!

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    • Thanks Louise It’s been wonderful working with you more closely recently as I really admire your approach and skills as a practitioner. I can promise you that, without a doubt, you are my favourite PhD student (even if I didn’t name you)!

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  3. Judi Geggie says:

    Dear Graeme,
    Thank you for the wonderful reflection on the FAC, its culture and the way we worked with families and communities. I appreciate your kind words about the leadership team and how we valued and respected our staff. What a joy it was to team with committed people like you, who understood it was a learning experience for all, as we worked with families and communities to bring about change.Your commitment to the strength based approach and your relaxed but analytical approach to your work made you someone who could cross the academic, practitioner and researcher roles very effectively.
    I am sure retirement is not a choice for you, as you are such a committed and skilled person in making the world a better place. It’s all about choices now. “What is it that I would like to do? ”
    The NNN Project looks like a much needed community program, helping young people to change.
    I have enjoyed seeing your daughters grow into such strong young women who have already made a stand and contribution for making the world a better place. You and Cathy must be so proud.
    Kind Regards
    Judi

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    • Thanks for you kind words Judi. The FAC certainlly gave me a very solid foundation.
      Yes I’m sure I will be kept busy. I’m planning to put more time into AVP as this has been a passion project for many years. You didn’t hear much about it because I had put it aside while the girls were little, but I’m looking forward to seeing how we can collaborate with various organisations to get regular workshops in the area. Hope to see you soon.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Graeme on your amazing contributions to the university, to individuals and communities with which you work and to the FAC. Your post provoked a flood of wonderful memories for me, as the mobile project with which I worked also visited the caravan parks and engaged in strengths based practice. Warm memories too, of working alongside Judi, Kerrell, Deb, Bourkie, Penny and Dee across a number of roles and projects. These were such privileged times to be working with families and communities. Wishing you every success as you venture forth and I look forward working with you again.

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  5. Rob Mueck says:

    Hey Graeme

    I would welcome sharing a meal with you to tell you about the start up I am driving at the moment, the provision of aged home-care using a novel financial model. I think there are parallels in our work and alignment with NewCoh.

    The start-up provides many benefits, one of which is opportunity for women at risk of homelessness. One of the challenges/opportunities of the enterprise is how to sustain relationships which are both supportive yet accountable. I am guessing you would suggest a strengths based approach. My vision is that the enterprise enables self-development. I need advice on how to address the unhelpful behaviour of people who have a lot to offer yet are highly vulnerable.

    Please do not hesitate to call me if you have any queries.
    Rob Mueck
    NewCoh Treasurer and Membership Officer
    m 0419 160 361 | e rob@rmps.com.au
    “The spirituality that we need to develop for social change is one that mobilizes us for social change. It doesn’t just enable us to sit there and enjoy the world no matter what. It creates a quality of energy that mobilizes us into action.”
    Marshall Rosenberg

    Liked by 1 person

  6. wvorobioff@optusnet.com.au says:

    Congratulations Graeme. That is a hell of a stint, and I hope new doors open to places you can continue to add value to. Would like to talk to you some time about all that – opportunities arise and pass away – life really. Go well and see you soonish

    Well done

    Liked by 1 person

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