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"If I’m not at the table I’m on the menu"

24 September 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
When Bindi Bennett was asked to contribute to a book about working across difference in social work, she hoped to change academic publishing. If she was going to write a chapter on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, she also wanted to join the team of editors.

“I wanted to show that Aboriginal academics were more than tokenistically added onto a book about diversity,” she said in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

“Normally people just tick a box – that’s the Aboriginal chapter – but I’m not a chapter; I’m much more than a chapter. I could probably write every single one of those chapters, unfortunately, because of the statistics in Australia. That’s why it’s so important that we become governors and true intellectual property is given, because you probably can’t be a social worker without us.”

Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the Sunshine Coast, has been an academic for five years and before that was a practising social worker for more than a decade.

“I’m very radical in some ways because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are born political; we have to be leaders and forward thinkers,” she said. “Nobody really likes someone who makes you uncomfortable, and that’s what I’ve got to do, is question non-Indigenous people around their cultural responsiveness and anti-racist practices”.

“Just imagine what I could do”

Bennett is a Kamilaroi woman originally from Narrabri in northern New South Wales. When she was young she saw social work from the other side with interventions in domestic violence and alcohol abuse in her community. Mental illness in her family sparked her desire to become a social worker and change the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

“Then I decided I wanted to change the world and I wanted to change social workers,” she said. “I thought having one culturally responsive social worker is nice but if I could have a hundred, just imagine what I could do then. That’s how I got into teaching – I thought let’s change the whole degree.

She has fought successfully for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in the course, for recognition in the code of ethics of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), and for a director on its board.

“Now stop stealing, that’s my latest thing. Let’s involve us in real governance, that’s my next one. That constant conversation of being the conduit between the community and the settlers, the colonisers, is what I’m trying to do in this world.”

Dr Bindi Bennett, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the Sunshine Coast

Dr Bindi Bennett, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the Sunshine Coast

In 2017 Bennett was invited to present her ideas on cultural appropriation and protection of Aboriginal knowledge in academia at the first SSSHARC Huddle, which was on “Working across difference and inequity in social work and policy studies”.

Twenty academics and social workers gathered for the all-day discussion at the University of Sydney, organised by Susan Goodwin, Professor of Policy Studies, and Donna Baines, Professor of Social Work (now at the University of British Columbia in Canada). With a book already in mind, they asked participants to circulate draft chapters in advance and workshop them with the group.

“The best thing about the Huddle scheme was that it wasn’t simply conference or symposium funding,” Goodwin told SSSHARC. “It was an opportunity to bring together researchers to work on something that would have a concrete outcome.”

Games of truth explore identity

Social work practice is still dominated by Western perspectives and any difference is treated as an add-on, Goodwin said. The mainstream approach is “how can social workers work with, for example, Muslim communities or work with transgender people or people in mental distress, as though they are subsets of society, rather than centralising the really interesting critical perspectives emerging from transgender social work or critical mental health social work or Islamic social work.

“Knowing there was some really exciting work going on, we were trying to make that work accessible so that other social workers can start from those perspectives.”

At the Huddle, Rebecca Howe, Amy Harper and Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett explained their use of creative “games of truth” with transgender and non-binary young people to show how they can contest socially constructed arguments about their identity and needs.

“At the level of theory there’s lots of people talking about things like that,” said Goodwin. “But at the level of practice, how you actually work with young people, and how they can shape what is known about them, is quite a different thing.”

Emma Tseris spoke about similar work she was doing from a critical mental health perspective, arguing that terms like “recovery” and “consumer participation” can pigeonhole people and the way are treated. Others addressed aspects of aged care, domestic violence, disability, Indigenous and Muslim communities.

A panel of speakers presented the day’s “hot topics” to an audience of 200 at a lively public event in the evening. Alankaar Sharma, a visiting scholar from the University of Minnesota (now at Australian Catholic University), gave a compelling talk about men as allies in opposing violence and discrimination against women. Donna Baines introduced the term “white fragility” to describe the defensive reaction white middle-class social workers might have to criticism of imposing their ideas on others.

One of the hottest topics was Lobna Yassine’s research into Federal Government-funded programs to train social workers in identifying potential violent extremism in Muslim communities. Goodwin explained: “Islamic social workers had tried to persuade the Australian Social Workers Association not to take on these training programs, because of what it meant for stigmatising Muslim communities.

“The Social Workers Association didn’t get how social work was being implicated in repeating stereotypes about Muslim communities. It was a tension that hadn’t been publicised, so Lobna created a bit of a movement and debate that hadn’t been there.”

When Bennett explained cultural appropriation of Aboriginal knowledge to the audience, “you could hear a pin drop”, said Goodwin. “She was one of the speakers who put the whole issue on the table for everybody in terms of the Huddle and the book that came out of it.”

Working Across Difference

Bennett has been talking for years about how to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultural knowledge within academia. Despite “embedding” and “Indigenising”, people are still stealing, she said. “So some of the work we were talking about in the Huddle was about the word allies and the fact that it isn’t enough. We need more of an anti-racist view of our practice and we actually need traitors – traitors to colonisation.”

Working Across Difference: Social Work, Social Policy and Social Justice (Macmillan 2019) had four editors, Donna Baines, Bindi Bennett, Susan Goodwin and Margot Rawsthorne. The whole first section covered Aboriginal perspectives, edited by Bennett for governance and cultural responsiveness. Every author in the book wrote a statement about working on Aboriginal land, and wrote their biographical note in terms of connection to place and experience of difference, as well as academic affiliations. They all used practical vignettes to illustrate their research and theory.

Working Across Difference: Social Work, Social Policy and Social Justice

Working Across Difference: Social Work, Social Policy and Social Justice (Macmillan, 2019)

“Getting together and being so well prepared really changed the aspirations for the book,” Goodwin said. “Rather than just doing a scholarly book, people really wanted to make an intervention, a new way of producing knowledge, a new way of writing.

“It went out to reviewers in the social work community and most of them said it’s about time, we really need to change our scholarly practices as well as our social work practices.”

In another “knock-on” from the Huddle, Bennett is now employed by the journal of the AASW to prepare protocols for authors who want to write on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content. They can be summed up in her saying: “If I’m not at the table I’m on the menu.”

For example, she said, “If you’re going to write around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, you must create a standpoint, you must know who you are, you must know what’s your cultural identity, what makes you the person for this research?

“A second nice one is if you’re on the paper, why are you on the paper? Why isn’t someone Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leading it, governing it, why aren’t you mentoring?

“And if you’re doing a research paper about a community or peoples, what are you giving back, what are they getting out of it? You need to be very clear what they get other than a published paper, which is worth nothing to them. If this is only about your career and another published paper it’s really not closing the gap, it’s not social justice.”

With more than 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social work graduates in the country, Bennett would like to see them in more than the current 2 per cent of academic positions in 30 schools of social work, more in higher offices in universities, and more than one director on the AASW board.

As she pushes on, she said, the SSSHARC Huddle “formed a lot of my current thinking and my future work so I found it incredibly useful. On a personal level, they were beautiful people to be around as well. So it was a win win for me”.

The SSSHARC Huddle “Working across difference and inequity in social work and policy studies” was held at Fisher Library, University of Sydney on October 9, 2017. A public panel followed on “Social Work Thoughts on Hot Topics: Cultural Appropriation, Islamophobia, Anti-oppression, White Fragility and Resistance”.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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