My response to ‘Engaging head, heart and hands’

Earlier today I was on a panel for a social justice conference for a Catholic group. I did not end up reading out what I wrote because the brief and audience were a bit different to what I expected, so I thought I would chuck it up here. I have written a few different reflective things recently, my supervisor asked me to write a reflective piece too. Writing this piece really struck me how much my way of being in the world has really shaped my research project question and methodology. I hope the fit is a positive thing.

The other month I came across a rather inspiring lecture on politics in the world today which challenged us to look at decisions and not ask can we afford it, is it efficient, is it going to win votes, but rather we should ask, ‘Is it right?’ Of course whether or not we come to see if something is right will include factors such as what will it stop us from being able to do, is there a better way to do it, and what does it look like from different perspectives, but the question of what is right includes not only things that economists can measure but also what we feel in our hearts.

I am not somebody who works from the basis of a personal faith and I am probably very much on what some in the church would call the slippery slope to relativism, which means that before we can make judgements about right and wrong I believe we have to have a deep understanding of the context. I have lived a very privileged life and have been protected from adversity.

In high school I was never a leader, but I got involved in whatever fund raising, refugee tutoring and other activities I could. Perhaps most meaningful for me was getting involved in some youth advisory groups and a freezer group outside of school, which let me work in a team with other young people with very different backgrounds and life stories to my own.

I decided to take a year off after finishing school, in which I worked in a dry cleaners and then headed off to Ghana in West Africa to stay with a family and do a placement in a school. I knew before I left that I would not be saving the world and I hoped that I would learn something while I was away that would help me to give back to the world a bit more when I returned. The hospitality I encountered, the challenge of having to understand how to do life differently and the confidence that came from being able to negotiate through all the layers of difference to be able to have some very genuine encounters has certainly spurred me on for all these years since.

Back in Australia I got stuck into soup vans, kids camps, and volunteer work with a homeless service. I was lucky enough to live in the Olympic Village Exodus Community’s Young Adult Community for a year and then I went straight from that into a year of lead tenanting, where I lived in a house with up to two boys who had been through the juvenile justice system. In my volunteer work I have had a lot of fun, heard touching stories, and found a real sense of belonging. Through working in teams I have met friends and even dates, but something I really value is that sometimes I will be walking through the city or down Brunswick Street lost in my own world and someone will call out my name. Often it will be someone I know through Soup Van just wanting to say ‘hi’ to pass a few moments of what might be a long day for them of being treated as almost invisible. For me it means being a part of a community.

In my volunteer work I have met a lot of angry people, I have met people who have done some rather violent things. When you get down into the nuts and bolts of life for many people it is tough, alcohol and other substance abuse does break down peoples brains so they cannot think in the same way. There are times when you want to do something but you know that you cannot because you need to be able to keep going the next day and the day after that. Not everything can be fixed with a friendly word and whatever situation you are in you have to be aware that there is a point where you will have to simply go home to bed or meet up with a like minded friend for a drink and a laugh.

I used to say to people that getting involved is my thing to do, and everybody will do their own thing in their own way. I still believe we all do our own things in our own way, but now I am willing to take the risk of offending people by saying that everybody should go out and do something in the world. Whether you help out with an arts festival, you are part of some one-off projects over a summer, you do something locally or you head overseas. I believe that it is in the experience of engaging with others in a hands on way that we can learn about how to work towards what is right.

Volunteering in programs that I believe in has meant giving up other things. I have missed out on many of a night at the pub, weekends away and nights in front of the TV. Sometimes I have not done such a great job at striking a balance. However, many of my most enjoyable experiences do not come from nights out or trips away, but from the unexpected fun you have when you are a part of something you care about and open to the experience of meeting others. Sure standing around, in the freezing cold talking to lonely people in Fitzroy seems a lot less romantic than my memories of playing with children in Africa, but there is just as much I can gain from that encounter.

Perhaps I am extra biased about the value of getting in there and being a part of something. My volunteer work opened doors to many interesting and challenging paid jobs I have had including working in homelessness, the non-clinical side of mental health and managing projects. My experiences have also helped me out at university where I studied anthropology, which looks at the variety and unity in human experience. These days anthropology generally seeks to understanding groups of people largely on their own terms through learning and experiencing how their world works.

Now I am back at uni, doing a PhD which means three years of working on my own project. I am looking at the Melbourne suburb of Port Melbourne to see what the same place is like for different people who live there. I plan to find this out through talking with people but also through getting involved in the community. The relationship between what you know and feel to be right in relation to what you do runs both ways. If you are open to the experience, it can be a great way to learn and understand.

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6 Responses to “My response to ‘Engaging head, heart and hands’”

  1. Janet Bolitho Says:

    it has been interesting to learn more about your history and how your thinking has been shaped both by your outlook and your experiences

  2. Giri Says:

    That’s very interesting, Tracey. It’s good to learn about the context behind your own research interests. Definitely agree that it’s important to “go out and do something in the world” whatever it is.

    And yay!, first blog comment on your little online corner 🙂

    • Tracey Says:

      Thanks for the comment Giri. I really did not think that this post said anything that people would not already know, but I guess it is so easy to get caught up in what is going on, and what we think about it, that we do not spend as much time thinking why those are the things we notice.

      On reflection I am not so sure about my line saying that ‘everybody should go out and do something in the world’ as I think it ignores a lot of other ways of valuing life, but perhaps too much reflection is not such a good thing 😉

  3. Bryonny G-H Says:

    As the Blessed George Marcus of Rice once said, “When I meet any anthropologist, I presume there is such a motivating well of feelings in him or her somewhere, and those feelings are not too far from what he or she does as a researcher and scholar”.

    • Tracey Says:

      What a great quote! I like the title, but I am quite sure in the Catholic tradition the person needs to be dead quite a while before they can be declared Blessed.

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