Why do we need a diverse violence prevention workforce?

BIlingual

Image via www.tes.com

It’s a well-known statistic by now: nearly half (46.8%) of the Victorian population and almost a quarter of Victorians speak a language other than English (ABS 2011). The reality today is that cultural diversity is closer to mainstream than marginal. Logically, you would expect that our institutions, family violence policies and programs would be representative of this demographic picture. Sadly, logic can sometimes lose out to inaction. And as we near the date for the release of the findings of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, we wonder whether the recommendations that will be made about improvements needed to the family violence workforce will reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Victorian community. Will we see adequate acknowledgement of the benefits brought to the community by bilingual and bicultural workers?

Bilingual, bicultural workers do an amazing job. They are an integral part of their communities and of the service system, and are in a unique position to link their communities with mainstream and specialist services. However, even when programs can be seen to greatly benefit from the use of a bilingual workforce, limited resources are often cited as a drawback to their inclusion. Bilingual, bicultural workers have long been undervalued, largely because there is an entrenched lack of understanding of what they actually do, and what an important role they play in service provision.  Often confused with interpreters, bilingual, bicultural workers provide support by working alongside clients and the community by drawing on their cultural skills and knowledge to negotiate and advocate across a wide range of issues. Bilingual work is not just about language: bilingual workers work together with immigrant and refugee women to facilitate informed decisions about their rights, health and well-being.

We’ve mentioned before that in order to prevent violence against all women, we need to place the diversity of women’s experience at the centre of analysis. And of course this principle extends to those working in family violence prevention and response: a diverse family violence workforce must be placed at the core of all programs.

The violence prevention workforce is still in the early stages of development, but at this important Royal Commission moment, it’s timely to think about what strategies will be truly effective in the context of multiculturalism, and what inclusive strategies might entail. If we can agree that increasing women’s leadership in the community is a gender equitable goal, there’s no better place to start than with harnessing and building bilingual and bicultural immigrant and refugee women’s skills and ensuring that they are properly resourced and supported to do their indispensable work with women.

Beyond the ‘Whanel’

Tokenism

Learning new words can be so gratifying, especially when the word puts a name to a phenomenon that you regularly experience but haven’t quite articulated as a ‘thing’.
The new word that crossed our desks this month was ‘manel’, the name for an all-male panel. In this modern world of ostensible gender balance it’s strange to think that this phenomenon still exists but our research suggests that it is more common than we would expect. And then there is the ‘manel + 1’, the all-male panel with the token woman, very popular with sports commentating and other serious issues.

Following the trend, here at MCWH we have made up another related word: the ‘whanel’, the all-white panel in which organisers aim to address key issues of concern for immigrant and refugee women, but they forget to put actual immigrant or refugee women in.

And of course, there is the more common ‘whanel + 1’, the all-white panel with the token immigrant woman.  We certainly know all about it. You open your inbox and there it is, that request to be the immigrant woman member on a discussion panel. Of course it is great to be invited. But you wouldn’t mind some company on the panel, an opportunity to sit with one or even two of your migrant sisters, to debate the wider range of issues relevant to the topic, rather than to put forward what can become the same repeated message in response to the same repeated exclusions.

Tokenism in the public sphere goes beyond the panel or conference of course and we see it across our community; in the media, in books, public policy, workplaces, anywhere in fact where structural race and gendered disadvantage operate.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence public hearings provided a prominent example of tokenism this month, with its ‘Diversity of Experience’ day, the day that was scheduled to hear the issues affecting immigrant and refugee women, the LGBTIQ community, and women with disabilities. We were so pleased to hear that these issues would be separately considered, but astonished that one day across twenty was allocated to hear about all of the complex cultural and structural issues that combine to make women from these marginalised groups more vulnerable to family violence, and less able to access services. For immigrant and refugee women’s issues, one hour was allocated. Among the approximately 170 witnesses, it was rare to see an immigrant or refugee woman speaking, and there was almost no mention of the ways in which the important issues raised throughout impacted specifically on immigrant and refugee women. As a result, there was no opportunity to hear the breadth and complexity of issues affecting immigrant and refugee women and their communities.

The final recommendations of the Royal Commission next year will combine the findings of the submissions, consultations and roundtable discussions as well as public hearings. So we are hoping that the final outcome for immigrant and refugee women, and all the other marginalised groups that gathered on diversity day, will go beyond the ‘whanel’ approach that we have seen in the public hearings, with issues and solutions incorporated into the whole. These women and their communities need to be more than tokens in this important process. For our part, we are looking forward to making up another new word; one that means ‘comprehensive change to our systems that are meaningful and inclusive for all women affected by family violence’.

Let’s hear it for diversity!

George A Spiva Centre for the Arts Diversity MaskGeorge A. Spiva Art Centre/ Diversity Mask

Let’s face it, diversity is a good-news story. Diversity in our workplaces or government policies and frameworks not only brightens the day, but it actually means quite a lot for people who have often been marginalised, to be included. For immigrant and refugee women, diversity in the labour force can translate into enjoyable and productive working lives. Diversity in publishing and the media can mean that readers have access to wonderfully important stories, and immigrant and refugee women have a voice. Diversity in education can mean that learning becomes both accessible and more meaningful for students from immigrant and refugee communities. Culinarily speaking, diversity adds to general enjoyment in life. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the monotonous days of white-bread, cheddar cheese and lettuce sandwiches for lunch. These days we revel in the diverse gourmet choices we have, from sushi to quinoa, and everything in between.

But (even good-news stories can come with a reluctant ‘but’) diversity can have a down-side. Diversity, and the happy story that goes with it, as the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has shown, can sometimes be understood as existing outside of the broader context of power relations. Diversity can be interpreted as a benign, horizontal difference which, while promoting the wonderful aspects of inclusion and acceptance, is not necessarily accompanied by any effective mechanisms for positive change. In the absence of real transformative initiatives within organisations that improve conditions for marginalised people, the very focus on ‘diversity’, can have the effect of cutting off diversity from other strategies that challenge inequities more directly, and in fact, may even take the place of such programs.

Diversity and structural change can end up as two sides of a coin. You can’t see both sides at once. Smiling colourful faces on organisational websites don’t always mean that organisations are ensuring that migrants and refugees are getting a fair go. In fact, such a public image may mask the reality that these same organisations tend for example, to reserve management positions to the usual white (and/or) male suspects, while promoting ‘diversity’ among the rank and file.

So we celebrate diversity, and will always promote its happy story. But next time you come across a diversity policy or statement, try flipping the coin over to see whether that diversity is supported by structural change initiatives. Do workplace policies include equal opportunity or affirmative action initiatives? Are there programs in place to value the skills and capabilities of immigrant and refugee women, and to facilitate their promotion and advancement in the workforce? Is funding equally allocated to government policy initiatives to address diverse needs and address structural inequities? If the answer is a resounding yes, now that is a good news story.