Many years ago, I worked as a community worker in a drop-in centre. One day, a wonderful young man – who struggled physically and mentally in life – collapsed. A violent incident had shattered his fragile sense of peace and security in the world. Two female colleagues and I went to tell his parents he was hospitalised and offer some support. One parent was too inebriated to talk and the other offered that their son should toughen up and be a real man. We sat in my car outside our workplace for five hours talking wildly about the state of the world. We made ridiculous jokes, laughed hysterically, cried unselfconsciously and exhausted ourselves so we could eventually go home and forget the torn, worn linoleum with dark red stains in the entrance to his parent’s home.

This story came to mind because it is about our shared need for solidarity, expression, acknowledgement, support, care and love. It’s a reminder how desperately bleak and unfair life is when these are absent.

I think I learned many things that night sitting in the car. I learned that people who feel injustice deeply and who can laugh to remember optimism are great support. I learned how much I wanted our workplace to be a safe and belonging place for this young man and others who needed a safe haven.

I wanted government organisations to do more to welcome him with his ways and not tell him to conform to their official regime. I wanted more places that would respect him and provide connections, safe housing and health support that would work specifically for him. Instead, the years have seen many of the most creative, inclusive and flexible support services lose their funding.

Despite this, workers in the community-based not-for-profit sector continue to apply their skills in refuges, counselling services, disability services, community centres and within creative projects developing choirs, performance and film.

As well as providing practical supports and facilitating communal talent, there is an often unrecognised and undervalued part of community work. It involves community workers showing respect and building a meaningful connection with those they work with and on behalf of.

Community workers are often required to tick boxes, meet quotas and do unit-costings as part of assisting a person who may struggle to think, breathe, eat, walk or cope in the world. This can be a tough job when resources are limited. What makes it harder is that these workers are often discouraged from doing other things that could also help make a difference in the lives of those they seek to assist.

Yet despite time and funding pressures, many community workers regularly try to do more useful work. They organise special social outings, try to make the work space comfortable, allow extra time to assist people to feel at ease and listen when people are feeling overwhelmed. They take time to show respect.

They often take the time to build a relationship and hear the entire story as that can meaningfully benefit a person or a whole community. They recognise that a significant relationship at a crucial time could be far-reaching for the lifetime of everyone, including the worker.

To obtain further funding, these workers report on the cost efficiencies of their tasks, but they rarely get to report on how they try to bring respect, acknowledgement, a sense of belonging and care into their work practices.

In this time of recorded messages, complex phone menus and an abundance of ‘experts at the flick’, it’s little wonder folk look perplexed as well as relieved when someone invites them to tell their story.

If the pollies and bureaucrats would put away their calculators when considering social policy and ask ‘are we measuring what matters?’, then the ledger would have more than numbers to tell the whole story.

It’s at a grassroots level that we see the value that comes from the ways we connect to each other. The ‘social’ of everyday community work is important and continues to shape useful interactions a long way down the track.

My friend and colleague Lynne has recently been considering what some local community workers know, intuitively, through their daily activities and how the knowledge they have gained has guided their work practices.

'Practising social justice'She weaves a crucial thread to how we understand social justice and think about belonging, respect and taking risks as part of making genuine connections.

Lynne sees how many who are active participants in progressive social movements approach all their life activities through a prism where justice is a diverse and continual effort by and for everyone. Many have a history of advocating for the rights of marginalised groups and the right to live in a peaceful and environmentally friendly world.

Thinking about this accumulated and interactive awareness, I recalled when my first male boss pushed a coffee cup my way and said ‘white and two sugars’. The reason I pushed it back saying ‘I don’t drink coffee’ was because I had just been working on a women’s liberation newsletter and I was headed to a union meeting that night. My boss’s actions just didn’t fit in that picture and it took me a moment to even get what he was doing.

Over time I have gained a sense of solidarity, deeper awareness about injustice and the value of mutual support from experienced advocates in political campaigns. That sense of ‘we are all in this together’ is a powerful and empowering feeling.

Australian Services Union Equal Pay rally –By Brami-Jegin

When the news of the first Gulf War filtered out, I went to the centre of town as if a gathering had been called. A handful of other campaigners instinctively did the same. A senior lifelong peace activist whispered my way, ‘I suppose we just needed to do something and be around friends after hearing the devastating news.’

Whether in community work or a community campaign, the struggles against racism, sexism, economic rationalism, violence and so many injustices feel relentless. It makes sense then to think about how we build resilience, personally and collectively.

While there are so many things that probably keep us going, mutual respect and a sense of belonging must be high on the list. I would also include sharing time being creative and having fun together as part of belonging and what creates social justice.

I fear that talking about social justice in this way risks it being seen as about goodness or some kind of self-validating mantra that is uncritical and easy to achieve.

In reality, people who seek a fairer way, and believe — irrespective of who we are individually — that we all deserve care and respect, perform their work where risks abound and are rarely acknowledged.

It’s not only about understanding the vulnerability to risk that all of us could face when circumstances strip away our safeguards. It’s also about the risks that loom when so many who experience injustice deeply, and sometimes with rage, are required to trust someone to act decently around them.

In grassroots groups where workers hold the view that everyone has entitlements, they work in a way that can dissolve cultural prejudices, chauvinism and intolerance for difference.

It can be the case that a worker who shows respect can help establish a social support group where some of the participants have long been told to distrust and consider an enemy another group member because of their respective countries of birth. It can be the case that juvenile offenders hang out with cops. Drug addicts share a meal with a teetotaller. Men who’ve never cried can sit and chat unafraid to use the tissues if necessary because someone made the space they are in a place for everyone.

As a worker or activist it’s not without risks to trust that your decency or an act of goodwill will overcome another’s past experiences of cruelty, discrimination or distrust.

Without much experience of compassion in his life, Fred, who was part of a men’s group, told how the kind support he experienced when things got rough shaped his desire to care for others. What he deliberately pointed out was: ‘now I know how to do it.’

It feels a little old-fashioned to want to talk about belonging, respect, acknowledgement, care and solidarity. But it is still necessary to counter the official rhetoric that talks about social justice as if it can be achieved during a political term.

The ‘social’ in ‘social justice’ is a lifelong project so I will adopt my friend’s term of struggle over social justice rather than for, knowing there will be tears and laughter in other car parks sometime along the way.

Sharon Callaghan

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Hi Sharon, I really like the passion and commitment to social justice and all that means in this thread. I also love the anecdote about the new boss and the coffee.

    I’ve worked in the community non-profit sector and met many people who work very hard for change for a number of the marginalised groups you’ve mentioned in your thread. But I’ve also seen, especially at the most senior levels, people wanting to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be, often to maintain the piddly amount of funding the organisation receives but also to ensure their own career paths.

    The issue of funding is particularly pertinent. Community organisations, initially set up to be independent voices, have become little more than another (poorly funded) arm of government. In other words, they have been captured by government agendas and their dissent has been silenced.

    It’s very neat really: no demands or threats are made, just a fear, whether justified or not, that to speak up might mean funding is decreased or will disappear altogether.

    The time, effort and money put in to applying for tiny sums of money is also absurd. I’ve seen amounts of $5000 put into producing brochures that sit in boxes in store-rooms, used for re-branding or producing a poster. Often a funded project duplicates ten other equally useless projects but it ticks a box on the strategic plan or on other planning documents required by government.

    I wonder if community organisations wouldn’t better serve their communities by rejecting very loudly and publicly the funding models state and federal governments impose on them. Why not join together and demand ongoing and adequate levels of funding that enable desperately needed services to be delivered. This would also encourage organisations to be less fearful about criticising government and/or government policy.

    I just don’t think it’s good enough that workers in community organisations have to work extraordinarily hard for very poor remuneration to provide the absolute bare minimum of desperately needed services.

    So while I totally agree with you about the wonderful work many do and the rewards that come with that, it seems to me that the non-profit sector is broke and one of the ways to fix it, is to fund it properly.

  2. Thanks Georgia There are some inspiring groups out there and thankfully they continue to meet and talk about advocacy and communities.

    Thanks for your comments and insights on this Trish. I agree and think that government services could benefit so much more from the independent critical thinking and creativity of the community sector. Instead there has been an emphasis on competitive tendering, restrictive funding contracts and short term funding that entails an enormous amount of grassroots effort. This has meant the loss of really good services, workers and projects because they didn’t fit with the bureaucratic system.

    An active group of community workers in our local area come together as one voice on shared concerns and have done precisely as you suggest. They are refusing short-term grants asking for an authentic discussion with decision-makers and seeking appropriate funds to do the work that would actually benefit a community that is doing it very tough.

    Many years ago I joined a large group of community workers, families and young people as part of an official political consultation on heart felt welfare issues that many in the community hoped would change their life. The half-day policy-shaping event lost its momentum for most in the room when the media arrived half way through and the politician announced the policy changes. We thought we were having a real conversation and it turned out we were merely part of an elaborate official photo opportunity.

    I agree wholeheartedly that a properly funded sector and workforce is essential and it needs to be accompanied by a genuine respect for communities and understanding of their needs.

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