Friday, 29 May 2015

For the girl who wasn’t there

Photo by Xena Girdler

by Xenia Girdler

Mental health and addiction is managed under separate community health services and training packages. Xenia Girdler says clients with complex support needs will continue to fall through the cracks if this doesn’t change.

As we drove from the Alice Springs airport in June last year my colleague pointed to a young woman striding down the highway – on the pathway through The Gap. Her ears plugged with music, her head, (almost defiantly), held high – eyes straight ahead.

“Anorexia” he said.

I would have passed by her, that afternoon, without acknowledging her – but now I noticed. I silently watched for the few moments our worlds were shared. Us heading into town, she out of it. I didn’t see her again for the remainder of that short stay. I wasn’t convinced, at that time, that my colleague was right. I am never convinced things are so singular. Although I did consider, imagine or wonder if I fleetingly saw demons, right there, beside her.

I come to Alice Springs regularly now – and, after my first sighting of the walking woman, I came to look for her each visit. Depending on the length of my stay, I might see her more than once. Walking. Always walking. And whilst my colleague’s diagnosis-via-distance may certainly have had validity – the singular lens did not and could not account for everything. Because I had been right too – there were demons – and they were multiplying, right there beside her, with her, every step of the way. And all she could do was to keep on walking.

Each visit, the walking woman got a little thinner, a little thinner, a little thinner. It wasn’t sudden so it wasn’t shocking. But it was sad. December, just before Christmas, I made my final visit to Alice for the year. After our final day of teaching I went to the local hotel for a de-brief, and as I sat talking and unwinding with my colleagues, in she came. Not striding anymore. No music in her ears either. And this time the demons weren’t beside her – they were inside her. They had moved inside the skeletal cage, barely holding her upright. I didn’t want to watch too closely although I suspect she would not have noticed if I had. The walking woman was in the final stages of her disappearance and her energy was narrowed and channeled. Focused and unwavering.

There seemed to be a new ritual taking place. An interruption to the usually uninterrupted walk. This afternoon she came into the Hotel, sipped on a brightly coloured drink in the empty back bar before walking out and momentarily standing still, holding her face toward the blistering sun. She repeated this a few times that afternoon before not coming back. Perhaps she was trying to still feel life. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. I do know though it was the last time I saw her.

The Walking Woman left this life, her life, on Australia Day 2015. Her name was Clare. She was only young and for the past few years she had been walking the pathways of Alice Springs. Thirty-five kilometres. Every day. As therapy, her mother wrote in an obituary, which appeared in the local paper. And Clare did this because there was nowhere else for her to go.

I come to Alice Springs to deliver education and training in mental health and AOD. I have been delivering this kind of training for years. Before moving into education, I was a community support worker in mental health. I separate mental health and addiction because government funding and service agreements with community health services and Vocational Education training packages in Australia demand it.

This in no way reflects the reality of the clients presenting at services for support. Nor does it meet the needs of learners – either wishing to upskill or wishing to enter the field. Nevertheless, in this deficit funded systems of ours – that is, despite years of paying lip service to the person-centered, strengths-based approach to case management – services will always be funded for what clients can’t do. The Community Services Industry and the Skills Council endorsed Training Packages silo out client need.

Clients with multiple and complex support needs will continue to simply give up and fall through the cracks. The ricocheting between services for clients will not only continue but intensify as services shut their doors on the complex reality of life. Self-medicating, self-therapy – almost always maladaptive – will go on.

Why are we, educators and service providers, not demanding an end to compartmentalised siloed service delivery and siloed education and training? Why are we not demanding an end to the separation of need?

There are no votes for the vulnerable in our world. And it is their feeling of utter inertia – numb and disconnected – which screams out, at and through me.

On my way back from classes this morning I walked through some scrub to the side of the road. I happened across a small A4 laminated sign lying on the sandy Todd River soil. "Walk for Clare" was printed on it.

I realised it was referring to the young walking woman my colleague and I watched slowly disappear to death. Around this small sign were footprints. No longer hers – and perhaps no longer belonging to anyone who even knew who she was.

There has to be more to it all than this.

The funding bodies and skills council regulators might dictate we continue to separate client need but surely the walking woman and others like her demand we don’t.

This was originally published on Open Forum, and has been republished with the author's permission.

Xenia Girdler is Program Coordinator of VET Alcohol and Other Drugs and mental health programs, is an award-winning leader in design and implementation of student-centred, industry-led programs in Melbourne and the Northern Territory. Xenia’s professional experience, whilst traversing many industries, holds common themes of creativity and innovation. During her years working in the community sector she became noticed as an engaging public speaker and educator. Currently, Xenia’s programs cover pre-vocational and workforce development Certificates and Diploma’s in Melbourne and Katherine, Alice Springs and the Remote Aboriginal Community Ngukurr in East Arnhem Land. Check her out in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The telling and selling of Struggle Street

Struggle Street. Image supplied by SBS.

By Dr Evelyn Tsitas

Now that the Struggle Street has aired in all its three part ‘poverty porn’ glory, the ratings are in. The series was a winner, but in nabbing such a large audience, who were largely tuned in for a voyeuristic peek into the underclass of the Lucky Country, it has caused the media to ponder issues of consent in the documentary genre.

The controversial documentary series first aired on SBS on 3 May and was the focus of outrage even before it was first screened. Objectors launched a petition for SBS to suspend the broadcast.
It is clear that Struggle Street’s phenomenal ratings appeal is the door being kicked open to a new and brutal form of storytelling and marketing when it comes to people’s lives. And one that should force all of us involved in any aspect of the media to pause and question exactly what informed consent really means when we ask people to expose themselves to public scrutiny.

A television series like Struggle Street is aimed at garnering large ratings. To do that, the show must be constructed for audience expectations – tastes that have been weaned on reality television and sensationalism.

In this genre the audience wants to see excess, be it the voyeuristic and aspirational appeal of ostentatious wealth or the suffering and struggle of the underclass.  Participants may willingly let the media into their lives, but remain ignorant of how their stories will be shaped in the editing suite and in the subsequent marketing campaigns.

Yes, Struggle Street was a highly successful documentary. It attracted a large number of viewers. But is it enough to win a ratings war? Media analysis has now rightly focused on the issue of consent – specifically whether it is enough to gain written consent from people who may have no idea what happens once the cameras stop.

I suggest that consent can only really be given when participants are fully informed of the final campaign that will be used to sell their story.

In the communications business the client understands their story will be used to sell the product. In this case, the telling and the selling of the story are entwined. The client sees the final product and has been briefed on the marketing campaign, and is a part of all different stages of the process. They see the rough cut, the edited version and have the right to veto the story and steer the tone of the marketing campaign.

This is not the case in journalism, where the documentary filmmaker asserts control, obtains consent to film, and then the subject hands over their life and good will, not understanding that this is simply one part of the process.

According to SBS Chief content officer Helen Kellie, quoted here in Mumbrella, the role of the program-maker was to “make sure we’re not showing the story the participants wish they could tell…We are telling the story as it unfolded through the six months of filming.”

Indeed, the curation of content is contingent on more than just the filming, or collection and compilation of the images. It is in the editing that a political slant can be made, that references, relationships and dialogue are brought into focus. It is in the final ‘package’ of the story that the participants may feel their lives and views have been distorted to conform to an over arching narrative that is not their own.

In a comprehensive look at the issue of consent and Struggle Street, Denis Muller in The Citizen (7 May) asked: “Has SBS done over the people of Mount Druitt?” pointing out that the editing and of the series raised “questions about betrayal of trust, fairness of portrayal and the effects of stereotyping. But consent, as a cornerstone of professional ethics, is fundamental.”

Journalist Michael Lallo (Sydney Morning Herald May 9) reviewed the first episode of Struggle Street  more kindly than most commentators, writing that the show didn’t mock or degrade its participants, who mostly were portrayed as doing the best they could in circumstances of poverty, and drug abuse, with dignity and resilience. For Lallo, Struggle Street offered “a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks”.

Brian McNair, writing in The Conversation (7 May)  also added, “Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades”.

Yet later commentary, after the massive success of the three part documentary, raised more serious concerns about consent. Michael Bodey (The Australian 18 May) noted that “the ethical issue of consent will be tested more frequently in the future after the success of the three part series”.

I would also add consent for the marketing campaign should be obtained before anyone signs off on giving over their lives to a documentary. Because when it is all said and done, the ‘success’ of Struggle Street is not about whether it effectively tells a story about the inequalities of Australian society but whether that story sold, and how well it sold, and how it was sold.

When success is measured in ratings and marketing spin, then consent must be given on this basis, and the residents of Mount Druitt should have been briefed on the marketing campaign, and allowed final veto of the end product or offered a say in the reediting, just as with any stakeholders in a communications campaign.

Friday, 15 May 2015

How to use social media to improve research impact

image via iStock
by Tseen Khoo, former Senior Advisor (Research Grant Development) at RMIT University
In the last five years or so, I’ve completely changed my attitude to communicating research.
Guess how much I used to do before?
I published in journals and scholarly books. I presented at academic conferences and ran a research network. I dutifully applied for research funding. I thought of myself as a good, productive academic.
And that was it. I wasn’t really on Twitter and I blogged about our network activities – but only really for our members. I didn’t do community forums or write for other non-academic publication outlets.
Don’t believe me? Read on!
I wrote what appears below in June 2012. It talks about how I regretted not being more involved in community outreach and research dissemination while I was an academic. At the time I wrote it, I’d been in a professional role for about a year and a half.

The further I move away from academia career-wise, the more I realise how little I contributed to general commentary about issues relevant to my research interests.
I never had an op-ed published.
Actually, I never even tried to write one.
I only attended a handful of community engagement events. I actively avoided having to be the one quoted voice about particular Asian Australian issues.
My hang-up was that it’s all very complex and I didn’t want to have what I said ‘dumbed down’ to a sound-bite (I know, I know, just bear with me here…). This feeling of being misrepresented in the media was widespread around the areas I moved in academia, and it led to a general suspicion about talking to journalists or pursuing other outlets for research findings.
Now, as one half of Research Whisperer team and working as a research developer, I can see what a negligent and dense attitude that was. Given the sociocultural critique of existing values and hierarchies in Australian society that made up my academic career, what was the point of the research I was doing if it wasn’t communicated to a broader audience in an accessible way?
This complete change of attitude is fed very much by increased confidence in what I’m doing, and the advent of things such as blogging and Twitter (two very effective ways to represent yourself and your work with little mediation, or to ‘set the story straight’ if you needed to). The growing numbers of online news sources, too, is excellent for the flow of more and different kinds of stories and topic concentrations.
Now, when I’m not a full-time academic anymore, I’m thinking about writing for online publications and engaging more broadly all the time.
I love the idea of The Conversation and how it presents university research and commentary in accessible, non-jargonistic language. There are also heaps of web magazines and social issue blogs to which I think I could make a contribution. I’m already involved as a founding advisory editor for Peril: An Asian Australian magazine of arts + culture, and the team has decided to start a rolling series of posts from the editorial group as part of the publication’s development. I published something with Right Now back in late March [2012] – Validation and Solidarity –  and I’d like to do more of this kind of writing, with less of a focus on me and my experiences (cos it’s not all about me…).
As I am no longer a full-time academic, though, I start wondering whether having my ‘voice’ out there is worth less because of its lack of professional gravitas. Similarly, I wonder how long I can continue as a convenor or ‘leader’ in the AASRN when I am no longer actively researching in the field (this gives you an idea of the things I’ve published and researched).
For the first time, I actually said to someone last week that I was no longer an active researcher. It felt weird, but it was true. I was an active (academic) researcher for almost twenty years (including my MA and PhD). This doesn’t mean I don’t do research now, but I don’t do it with a view to publishing in academic outlets or building towards a major academic research project.
With a 9-5 day-job that is non-academic, I can’t commit time to that kind of work anymore. The offers and opportunities are still being made – some more attractive than others – but I’ve turned them all down. I still write a lot, but it’s channelled into different modes: professional and personal blogposts, Twitter, fiction, reviews, and more process-driven work stuff. Having the burden of representation eased by stepping away from academia has meant that I feel much more willing and able to get word out there. Let’s see how it goes.
Now, I can’t imagine not getting the word out about research through various channels, and feeding project findings and conclusions out to the communities that informed my work.
I once sent an academic article to a local council because they contributed to the work through several interviews. Thinking back on that now, I cringe. I would do things very differently today.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Adapting to change can be your greatest asset

Image via iStock
by Marcus Powe PhD (Innovation), Entrepreneur in Residence, RMIT University
‘To be a successful innovator, companies must encourage disruptive processes within their businesses’

Over the last few years, new terms and phrases have been introduced into the language of enterprise. The result has seen added confusion of the fundamental terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. Advisors, consultants and experts have embraced the new language and now business, government and educators are fluent. Some of my favourites include; creative innovation, applied entrepreneurship and deep insight. And the best is of course the smart phone; who on earth would want to by a dumb phone?

To be a successful innovator you need disruptive processes. What does this really mean? Perhaps what this is saying is you need to introduce change?

I have been introducing change for thirty years in business, education government and not-for-profits in 4 countries. I use the term innovation; after all, innovation introduces change that impact on the way we do things and the way we think about things. Even today, there is much confusion about innovation, invention, continuous improvement, Blue Ocean, Pink Sky; on it goes.

Everyone is fearful of change. I often ask my Executive MBA students “who likes change?” and people pop up their hand. I think “yeah right”, I then change either the assessment or syllabus and they freak out (an academic term) and then I think, my students are being trained to embrace change to enable them to grasp the future, mmm….

So how can you be successful using change (disruption)?

In your organisation you only have three things to work with. I know you are thinking, not another bloody checklist (have you seen LinkedIn lately, it’s THE place for lists and aphorisms, I love it). Well, it’s really simple, frighteningly obvious and scares the hell out of those people I like to call “the complicators”.

In your organisation you only have three things: (1) people, (2) current processes and (3) the products/services you sell.

To be a success, (for the purpose of this article success means that the organisation makes more than it spends consistently, or in the case of not-for-profits, reduces its reliance on grants and handouts) we need to determine which of the three is the easiest to disrupt?

The easiest to disrupt are processes, as processes do not resist change. The second easiest to change is the product or service. The real challenge, as you marketing enthusiasts know, is effective use of strategies and tactics to change the behaviour of consumers so that they embrace your new market offering and keep them from going to the competition.

OK, so you have guessed the hardest thing to change: people.

The reason is straightforward. We dislike and often resist change, because we simply do not or cannot effectively communicate the benefits of change to each other.

To change a process looks really easy, it is not at all.

In many organisations I work with, I am still surprised when management wonders why integrating processes do not work as planned. The classic example is when people from different parts of the organisation sit together and talk after processes have been changed and make it apparent that they still do not know what the other does or even worse, they don’t care.

So what should we do to create success?

Simply disrupting your processes in order to be successful is weak and often reactive. By using the word disrupt, we somehow dehumanise our organisations. We all work with people. People do not like change, especially in the current economic and technological turbulence.

Why not have conversations with those who work with and for you? Why not say to them: “we need to change or we will no longer exist”? Why not say: “help me to do this so we can all be successful”?