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rev rsing c I rn

practices with
lndig n us p pies
Christine Fejo-King and Linda Briskman
Australian social work has some way to go in understanding Australia's Indigenous
peoples across the dimensions of culture, policy and history. In order to contribute
to policy and practice debates, social work must first and foremost examine the
theoretical and policy constructs upon which its practices are based. It is important
to be cognisant of the admonishment of Aboriginal social worker Stephanie Gilbert,
who provides a timely reminder that social workers continue to hold central roles in
areas where injustices have been carried out against Indigenous peoples, including
child protection and health (Gilbert 2001).
To further traverse the complex terrain, it needs to be understood that social work
operates withina political context that aims to 'close the gap', an uncritical 'practical
reconciliation' notion1 premised on Western-style aspirations of economic gain, home
ownership, education and employment. This represents a disjuncture with Aboriginal
aspirations that go further to include sovereignty, land justice, cultural recognition
and spirituality. Indigenous knowledge has been subjugated, discarded and denigrated
in solution-seeking, and problems need to be seen as amenable to solution and not
intractable (Crawford et al. 2007). Many of the issues still confronting Indigenous
Australian~ can be attributed to the colonial process and ongoing colonialism in the
structural and policy arrangements that filter down to human service practice.
In addition, social workers, like other community members, are confronted with
a media barrage that focuses on dysfunction in Aboriginal communities and evades

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stories of strength and resilience. This then presents Indigenous communities as

'victims' rather than 'survivors'. In policy terms, this detracts from goals ofliberation,
instead emphasising social control, law and order and paternalistic responses.
In exploring the dilemmas, we turn to a critical social work lens to establish
whether some selected paradigms-whiteness, colonialism and racismcan forge understandings that work towards achieving the human rights of
Indigenous peoples. Drawing on the examples of the 2008 government apology
to Indigenous Australians and the 2007 Northern Territory 'emergency response',
we provide a critical social work analysis of ongoing policy imposition and how this
critique can assist social workers in formulating critical practice, a practice that can
be derived from a commitment to critical social work education.
The inclusion of a critical perspective in policy directions is a challenge that
confronts social work with Indigenous communities. Such a challenge asks the
critical social worker to adopt a reflective approach to understanding their own
values and beliefs, and those of the profession, and to interrogate the application
of value systems in policy and practice applications.

The context
At the time we write, there have been some important changes for Indigenous
Australians. First, there was a change of government from a conservative
coalition to Labor in November 2007. In early 2008 the new prime minister,
Kevin Rudd, offered an apology to Indigenous peoples for past wrongs, ending
years of frustration with the previous Howard government's failure to do so,
a dereliction of moral responsibility that resulted in disappointment, hurt and
anger among many Indigenous Australians. Second, the Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples was, after a long and bumpy road, adopted in 2007 by the
United Nations General Assembly, although a number of Western governments,
including Australia, stood in opposition to it. The Rudd Labor government has
signalled that it will now support the declaration, another measure that provides
some optimism.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the apology offered by
the Australian government was seen as a possible beginning of a new chapter in
the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and a longawaited actioning of one of the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home
report (HREOC 1997).
For the Stolen Generations, the apology inspired the prospect of renewal and
healing where there had previously been pessimism and sadness, as many had


believed that they would not live to see the day when the symbolism of an apology
would be offered for the anguish and sorrow resulting from their forced removal
from family, community, culture, language and country, or the resulting abuses
they experienced for no reason other than their race.
The apology was also seen as a first step into a blank page where history, or
'theirstory', could become 'ourstory'. An example of the concept of ourstory can best
be illustratedthrough the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander view of the apology
being important not just for them, but for the broader Australian population, as
it provided an opportunity of healing for the nation as a whole. These thoughts
have been vindicated through many emails that have been received by the Stolen
Generations Alliance with comments about how Australians, both Indigenous and
non -Indigenous, feel they can now hold their heads up and be proud of being
Australian for the first time. The two-way healing can best be illustrated through a
story related about events following Apology Day.
As the Stolen Generations who had come to Canberra to hear the apology in
person congregated at Canberra Airport to return to their various homes, they
noticed something different about themselves and about others who were not
part of their groups. They felt a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders.
They were happy, and this happiness was reflected in the way they saw themselves,
held themselves, and communicated with those around them with smiles and an
openness that they would not previously have offered. As they looked into the faces
and eyes of the 'other', they saw the same happiness, hope and acceptance reflected
back at them for the first time in their lives.
Another important issue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
that received attention through the process of the apology was the recognition
of Indigenous Australians as the First Nations of this land. This recognition is an
important step forward in acknowledging something that may not necessarily have
been the intent of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition-that is,
the recognition of the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,
which has never been ceded. This recognition of the First Nations of Australia
supported the very public yet apparently unrecognised and unspoken notion of
sovereignty, which was enacted through the historic welcome to country which
occurred for the first time ever in the Australian Parliament. Prime Minister Rudd
stated that the welcome to country would occur at each sitting of the Parliament
and this was agreed to by the leader of the opposition.
These actions and their possible implications are sure to attract attention
and discussion in the future. It will be interesting to see how this is handled, and
whether the Australian government will keep its pre-election promise to ratify


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the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how, if
at all, there will be substance and action, or if these were only hollow words and
empty promises.

Theoretical leads
There is not one body of theory that enhances our understanding of Indigenous
issues in Australia, nor is there one body of knowledge that helps in formulating
solutions. What is clear is that some theories from which practice has been derived are
clearly against the interests of Indigenous families and communities. These include
some in the psycho-dynamic realm that advocate a form of child care based on
Western models of attachment, and that ignore the extended family and the holistic
approach to children and families that permeates Indigenous world-views. Mental
health is another area in which Indigenous people have attacked Western paradigms
of knowledge and their application, as they frequently ignore Aboriginal constructs
of emotional wellbeing, fail to consider the impact of colonialism and ignore the
strength of spiritual connections in healing. Indigenous academics, activists and
practitioners are at the forefront of challenging conventional Western approaches and
formulating new knowledges that have their basis in Aboriginal cultural practices.
Turning to critical social work pointers, one of the most powerful constructs
to find its way into theorising Indigenous issues is that of 'whiteness', stemming
from the work of Ruth Frankenberg (1993, 1997) in the United States and applied
increasingly to the Australian context. As discussed in the previous chapter,
examining the social construction of whiteness assists in understanding the
dominance of monocultural concepts that fail to consider a diversity of worldviews and ways of being. Proponents of a whiteness framework tell us that being
white is not questioned, as it is the standard against which everything is measured
and is hence invisible (Brislill1an 2007).
For non-Indigenous social workers, this can mean a blindness to their own
race privilege whereby a 'colourblind' approach to practice may reproduce racist
practices (Mullaly 1993). Once we begin to recognise that white is a colour, we can
begin to question the assumptions that strip white people of their ethnicity (Macedo
& Bartolome1999) and reverse the assumption that race is 'the prison reserved for
the Other' (Moreton-Robinson 2000: xix). It is through such recognition that we
can adopt a stance that interrogates the privilege and power of dominant groups
which becomes normalised and not scrutinised (Quinn 2003).
Constructs of whiteness need to be considered within the ongoing colonialist
discourse that stemmed from the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century


that included a belief in progress. This belief resulted in the proclamation of

superiority of those deemed to be at a more 'advanced' stage on the journey of
progress (Briskman 2007) and permitted the colonial domination of nations
considered less civilised through the imposition of Western ways (Ife 2001). In
order to challenge ongoing colonialism, social workers need to shed their position
of seeing the world through a dominant lens (McLeod 2000) and cease to promote
the values they espouse on those with whom they work (Ife 2001).
A third construct, closely related to the two above, which social workers
need to consider in formulating theory and practice responses is that of racism,
and particularly the manner in which this is enacted in policy and practice in
organisations where social workers are employed. Racism is a tenet not often
acknowledged by practitioners, but it still un~erpins the way people are dealt with,
including the way Australia treats its First Peoples. Although former constructions
of race based on biological and social Darwinist assumptions have thankfully
disappeared from the Australian landscape, the 'new racisms' that emerge, like
constructs of whiteness and colonialism, mask social work practice. Broadly, racism
can be defined as beliefs, statements and acts that render certain groups inferior on
the basis that they do not belong to the culture of origin of the dominant ethnic
group within the state apparatus (Hollinsworth 1997).
How this applies to social work practice with Indigenous peoples does not
necessarily manifest in overt acts that we often associate with, for example, sporting
fixtures and racist taunts; rather, it is the embedding of racism, often so subtle
that it may be unrecognised; in policy and in organisational practices (Brislanan
2007). In this, the language is often deceptive, as it is enshrined in notions of
inclusivity and equality as opposed to recognition and acclamation of diversity in
all its manifestations. This pits groups against each other, as underlying the policy
dictates can lurk notions of inferiority underpinned by assimilation constructs that
endeavour to 'elevate' Aboriginal p~ople to Western paradigms of being and fail
to acknowledge the strengths of their own society. This was particularly evident
in the policies and practices of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their
families (see, for example, HREOC 1997; Briskman 2003a) and has re-emerged in
the federal government's 'emergency intervention' in the Northern Territory, which
we will be discussing in this chapter.

Beyond closing the gap

Understanding the gap in wellbeing between Indigenous and other Australians is an
important starting point for critical social workers. Alongside this, it is important


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to understand the premises that government calls on in its endeavours to bridge

the divide. This Closing the Gap policy example highlights the dilemmas that face
social workers in working with imperfect policy constructions.
Solution-finding is filled with contradictions. Indigenous communities are
beset with problems which black and white Australia aspire to rectify. These include
remaining at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, including dire health status,
serious alcohol and substance abuse, over-representation in the criminal justice
system and under-representation in the employment market (Brislll1an 2008).
For Indigenous academicJudy Atkinson (2008), societal systems have functioned
abusively and, in the main, as colonising tools.
Within the context of ongoing disadvantage in every socio-economic sphere, it
is hard to dispute the desire to enhance Indigenous wellbeing. However, there exists
a number of fundamental assumptions that require challenging, and the Close the
Gap campaign enables a consideration of the assumptions and alternatives.
The 'close the g~p' thrust emerged following concerns about Aboriginal life
chances that were expressed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people throughout
the country. In its Social Justice report of 2005, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, called for Australian governments
to commit to achieving Aboriginal and Islander health and life expectation equality
within 25 years.
The goals of the campaign are seemingly sound, as they highlight the fact that
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a life expectancy that is up to twenty
years less than that of other Australians (Neill 2002), a national scandal..Among the
methods advocated are increasing Indigenous Australians' access to health services,
addressing issues such as poor housing, nutrition and education, and building
Indigenous control and participation in the delivery of health and other services.
Reminiscent of the policy of practical reconciliation of the Howard government,
Close the Gap focuses on specific areas of 'dysfunction' such as health, housing and
education, as opposed to a rights-based approach. Such measures are conceptually
premised on a paradigm of liberal individualism and feed into the prejudices of
those who focus on micro-issues as opposed to simultaneously advocating for land
justice, sovereignty and self-determination. It harnesses the views of those Indigenous
and non-Indigenous spokespersons who advocate dealing with problem areas in
their own right, with a perhaps unintended consequence of shifting the blame to
communities, which are then asked to provide their own solutions with minimal
resources, rather than examining underlying causal factors that have created them
in the first place. There is a legacy of similar failed attempts over many decades and
across different political regimes.


Such examples of policy demonstrate the need for social workers to avoid
populist discourses and to examine the legacy of past and continuing policy
impositions, drawing on their knowledge of theory, practice and community.
Alongside this is the need to consider how measures to bring about change are
implemented, by asking questions about participation, resourcing, punitive
impositions and outcomes.
This may be best understood by considering the question of education, for
at the centre of the Closing the Gap initiative of the Australian government is
education for Indigenous children. There is no doubt that education plays an
important role in the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
and will impact on the social determinants of health. However, there must be a
recognition of the importance of two-way education that will continue to affirm
the Aboriginality of the children, or these children will have entered a fast track
to assimilation. This will create another generation of Aboriginal children who
have lost their connection to their homelands, law and culture. These factors have
been identified as being important to the development of identity, resilience, selfesteem and the capacity to wallc safely in two worlds, which is the expectation that
is being placed on these children.

The importance of two-way education:

Christine Fejo-King explains
I first became aware of the writings of Freire (1972) as a young social work student
in the 1970s, while attending the South Australian Institute of TechnologyAboriginal Task Force.
The works of Freire and Saul Alinsky (1971) became the 'Bible' that many of
us studied and internalised. This was the basis of practice that saw the birth of
Aboriginal organisations such as the National Aboriginal Community Controlled
Health Organisation, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child
Care, the Aboriginal and Islander child-care agencies and the Indigenous Social
Workers Association. This learning was instrumental in the development of the
Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (later changed to incorporate Torres Strait
Islander people), and the call for an investigation into the Stolen Generations that
led to the Bringing Them Home report, and ultimately the recent apology to the
Stolen Generations by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (2008).
The importance of the internalisation of the teachings of these two writer.s
was foundational to the progression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social .
activism and critical social work practice. However, I believe that the time has


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come to challenge Freire's teaching and the way that Western knowledge has been
privileged over Indigenous knowledge, ways of knowing and being in Australia. It
is time for a shift to privilege two-way knowledge-sharing.
This is a concept that recognises that both parties in an exchange of knowledge
have valued information to share and that both parties can learn from one another;
it does not privilege one set of knowledge above another. This is not a new concept;
however, it does go some way to illustrating the work of Freire (1972) as being a
two-edged sword for Indigenous social workers. On the one hand, Freire's (1972)
teaching about 'changing the consciousness of the oppressed' (1972: 47) was an
important step forward. However, speaking from experience as an Indigenous
social worker, I know that once you become aware of your oppression, you seek to
emancipate and empower yourself, your family and your people. This was where
the work of Saul Alinsky became prominent in my mind and in the mind of others,
as it offered a way forward.
For Freire, the importance of education in emancipation was fundamental,
and by developing the skills to read and write, the peasants of South America were
able to 'develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world
with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as
a static reality but as a reality in process of transformation' (Macedo 2000). This
should be the vision of critical social work and of education rather.than as a tool of
colonisation and genocide of the mind (Hill 200 3) which is the ultimate result that
occurs when young people learn to accept, internalise, privilege and own Western
knowledge. Our languages could be lost, or spirituality and connection to land
eradicated, and the loss would be too great to bear in the long run. Those with the
vision to see this possibility in the future must take action to ensure that this does
not occur.
Critical social work practice must be visionary, and learn from those practitioners who have gone full circle in their embracing of Freire's teachings to
naming them as deeply Western and undermining, 'the forms of intergenerational
knowledge that are the basis of the diverse approaches to sustaining local commons
as sites of resistance to economic and technological globalization' (Bowers 2005:
viii). Positive intergenerational lmowledge is the foundation of good mental health
and self-esteem, and is the buffer that prevents many of the issues Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples are combating today.
Ethical practice demands that the social workers of Australia critically reflect on
their practice and the way that they embrace and support government policies with
which other nations have experimented, who in turn warn us of the consequences
good intentions gone wrong.


Policy exemplar: Northern Territory emergency response (NTER)

The question arises of how does critical social work assist in understanding,
critiquing and influencing policy? By way of a further example, we turn to the
Commonwealth government's 'emergency response' intervention in the Northern
Territory. There is a pressing need to engage in robust debates about such policy
developments in order to recognise that the imposition of discriminatory measures,
shrouded in 'good intentions', demonstrates the ongoing inability to recognise the
power of dominant groups in society, an ongoing form of colonialist practice and
covert institutional racism that singles out specific groups for policies that are not
meted out to others in the society. Support for the human rights of Indigenous
peoples is limited. There is at least a rhetoric of affording the First Peoples the
rights of other citizens, such as the right to good health. However, there is a negation
of the collective rights_ that Indigenous people hold in high regard. Moreover,
social workers may be charged with implementing policies that are inconsistent
with Indigenous cultural values and with the values and ethics of the social work
With the introduction of .the NTER, the paradox is that there was general
consensus within the Aboriginal community of the Northern Territory that action
needed to be taken to assist families and communities to address the issues that
they were facing. However, there is debate around the quasi-military (Ife 2008b)
response by the Howard government which has remained in place under the current
Rudd government. In this whole response, what is missing is the historical context
and the questions of how the Aboriginal communities found themselves in the
situation that brought about the 'emergency response' and the role of power, and
government disengagement (Dillon & Westbury 2007).
As social workers, we are very aware of how power may be maintained by
providing only a subsistence existence to the people to be controlled. On reflection,
this theory can be seen in practice by government against Aboriginal peoples for
generations. The land, the most valuable economic resource, was removed, then the
children were taken away through the Stolen Generations. International trade and
internal trade routes that extended as far as the Northern Territory to Victoria were
blocked off with the appropriation of the land by non-Indigenous peoples who
put up fences. Control of the movements and interactions of Aboriginal people
occurred through the power of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Over the years,
there was disengagement of government and the non-recognition of Aboriginal
law. When the nations, communities and families became dysfunctional, the blame
for the situation that the people found themselves in, with the clashing of the two

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cultures and the disempowerment of the very blocks that kept Aboriginal society
intact, the 'great disremembering' of the strength ot' Aboriginal society became
the norm. The 'blame' for the dysfunctional results of the disempowerment of
Aboriginal peoples was and is placed at the feet of the Aboriginal peoples, rather
than at the feet of those who instigated this disempowerment, who controlled and
manipulated and who did not have the skills or the political will to mal(e real and
meaningful change and to re-empower the people they had subjugated.
For years, Aboriginal peoples in remote communities have been ignored or
identified as an economic drain in neo-liberal thinking in Australia, where the
economic bottom line is all important and where individual ideology is privileged
over the group ideology that is an intricate part of the Aboriginal world-view.
The substantial role that Aboriginal peoples have played with regard to border
security in this time of international security concerns around terrorism, drug
running and people smuggling, and the care of the land and animals through
Indigenous knowledge (Dillon & Westbury 2007), have become a: 'part of the
"cult of forgetfulness" and the "cwt of disremembering" in mainstream Australian
society' (Stanner 1969: 25, 35, cited in Dillon & Westbury 2007: 1).
A part of the unseen impact of the 'emergency response' has been the view that
child sexual abuse is an Aboriginal issue, which those working in child protection
know not to be true. This perception, however, has had the effect of demonising
Aboriginal men and families within the eyes of the wider Australian community. It
has resulted in the dumping of child sexual abuse upon the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples with a huge negative psychological, emotional and social
toll. The NTER can be and is viewed by many as cultural abuse, which has been
defined as:
when the culture of a people is ignored, denigrated, or worse, intentionally attacked.
It is abuse because it strikes at the very identity and soul of the people it is aimed
at; it attacks their sense of stilf-esteem, it attacks their connectedness to their family
and community (Bamblett 2007).

An important question to ask is where is the evidence of this 'cultural abuse'?

The National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Workers
Association (NCATSISWA) has received reports from around the country of
Aboriginal children, especially the boys, telling their parents that they didn't want
to be Aboriginal a~ymore, as they fear they will grow up to be an Aboriginal man
and 'Abbriginal men do bad things to their children and beat up their wives' and
they then turn to their fathers and ask, 'Dad, are you going to hurt us?' The pain and


anguish of the grandfathers? fathers, brothers and uncles have gone to the very heart
of Aboriginal men, attacking their very being. Social workers of Australia, how will
you respond, and how are you responding to this human crisis?
In the first year of the 'emergency response', children all over the Northern
Territory did not receive presents for birthdays and Christmas as their parents
were not able to access their funds. This may seem a trivial matter; however, the
psychological impact on both the parents and children should not be underestimated.
With a view to rectifying this situation, the National ~oalition of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Workers, in partnership with a number of Aboriginal
communities across the, Northern Territory, the Rotary Clubs of South Australia
and the Northern Territory and the Northern Territory Registrars Association, have
been working to address this issue. They have gathered presents for children up to
the age of sixteen that wW be delivered across the Northern Territory over' the next
holiday season.
At the time of writing, a review of the 'emergency response' had taken place
with the Labor government announcing that it would maintain the core features of
the pre".'ious policy.

Social work education

The questio:Q that must be asked of social work educators and curriculum developers
is simply this: How are you preparing upcoming social workers of Australia? An
analogy that is often used is that of a person going to see a medical practitioner. If
you are ill, would you go to see a medical practitioner who is sensitive and aware of
medical practice or would you go to see someone who is a capable and competent
practitioner? Of course you would go to someone who is capable and competent,
and yet critical, capable and competent social work practice with Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples is not the current standard or the baseline to
be achieved prior to enabling practice with this population group in a range of
human services areas. Where does the capacity to undertake this form of critical
social work practice begin? It must begin in the Schools of Social Work where
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander competency in practice must be an integral
part of the curricula. This must be supported through placements that enable social
work students and educators to interact, build capacity, and gain experience and
understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing.
For number of years, the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Workers Association has been calling for the Partnerships and
Community Empowerment (PACE) initiative to be implemented by Schools of


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Social Work and the Australian Association of Social Workers in partnership with
it. Now the Australian government, in an effort to close the gap in life expectancy
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in a generation, is calling for
exactly this kind of practice. Partner~hip and empowerment have been identified
by the World Health Organization as being the most productive and successful way
of achieving this goal (WHO 2008a).
The Australian government is so committed to this goal that Reconciliation
Australia has been funded to assist corporate Australia, the education sector, peak
bodies, and any other Australian organisation which supports positive practice
and win-win situations, to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) that will
assist them, through relationships of respect, to identify and develop opportunities
to rectify the gulf in the socio-economic conditions between Indigenous and
non -Indigenous Australians. There is certainly an opportunity for Australian
social workers and other professional groups to take up this opportunity and show
leadership within their spheres of influence.

The future
Although a somewhat bleak picture has been presented in this chapter, there
has been progress in the last decade in the social work respo~se to Indigenous
theorising and to practice improvements. The invisibility of Indigenous Australians
in social work curricula is slowly being redressed, and social workers are gaining
critical awareness through relationships with Indigenous organisations, through
the burgeoning Indigenous writing on social work, and through film, music and
other forms of artistic representation by Indigenous Australians. From a basis of
understanding and critical reflection, social workers can adopt a role as policy
advocates and critical practitioners.
As outlined in this chapter, there are some basic elements for the advancement
of a critical social work approach, including a critical understanding of history, the
application of relevant theoretical constructs, an awareness of policy and its impact,
and a revamping of social work education.