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:
- We build on individual, organisational and community strengths
- We are committed to community-driven and family-centred approaches
- Our approach is relationship driven
- We are flexible and adaptable
- We integrate community service, teaching, professional development and research
- We are committed to social justice
- 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:
- “Course optimisation” and the end of my time at the Family Action Centre
- Blogging as an academic
- 7 principles guiding my work
- Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
- 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
- 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.