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.
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.
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.