Why our communities need the power of a voice

By Babak Dadvand and Jo Lampert

The referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is a pivotal moment in Australia’s history of engagement with its Indigenous peoples. Amidst the ongoing, at times polarising, debates about The Voice, we gathered at La Trobe School of Education for a one-day workshop focused on fostering social justice through the frame of community engagement. 

Community engagement is about voice, and can be a powerful catalyst for equity and justice. It is grounded in the recognition of voice as a political project that hinges on not only the ability to speak but also to be heard. 

While the discussions that emerged in our workshop did not directly address the question of an Indigenous Voice, there were some uncanny parallels that we aim to tease out in this article. These include, among others, recognising that:

  • community engagement requires asking courageous questions.
  • community engagement is slow and persistent work.
  • community engagement requires adequate resourcing.
  • community engagement tackles deficit assumptions.
  • community engagement starts from those problems that matter.  
  • community engagement can ensure quality.

Community engagement requires asking courageous questions.

Community engagement for social justice and equity requires us to ask courageous questions about the oppressive conditions (past and present) that perpetuate marginalisation. This can amount to ‘truth-telling’. 

During his online keynote address, Tyrone Howard, from UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies, emphasised that equity requires us to repair the historical harm. It also needs us to promote inclusion by examining our ‘blind spots’ that might prevent us from seeing the suffering of others, and how we might be implicated in them.

The education field is political. Thus, as Tyrone Howard noted, teachers must be equipped with the necessary tools and awareness to confront these blind spots. By preparing educators to navigate contemporary issues with a keen eye for (in)justice, we can foster more equitable educational spaces that represent and celebrate our diversity.

Community engagement is slow and persistent work.

Community engagement demands unwavering commitment and perseverance driven by a clear sense of purpose. Jo Lampert from Monash University raised concerns about the taken-for-granted use of the term ‘community engagement’ and its insufficient integration into initial teacher education programs. 

To rectify this, one must take a deliberate approach to work with vulnerable communities. This approach centres on co-design, shared decision-making and partnerships that prioritise their lived experiences and voices of those on the margins. 

The call for community engagement in pursuit of equity and justice is cognisant of the political dimensions of this work, particularly power dynamics and representation. This makes representation an essential aspect of a justice project. Without adequate representation, it is difficult to make claims for more just policies. 

Community engagement requires adequate resourcing. 

Equipping teachers with community knowledge and awareness requires strong partnership models within initial teacher education. One initiative that aims to prepare community-engaged pre-service teachers is La Trobe University’s NEXUS program

Bernadette Walker-Gibbs and Steve Murphy, from La Trobe School of Education, work at the cutting edge of  innovative university-school partnership frameworks that focus on capacity building for community-engagement among pre-service teachers. 

It should be noted though that building community engagement is a resource-intensive undertaking. To foster strong university-school partnerships, funding is needed to enable meaningful – rather than tokenistic – approaches to engagement and co-design.

Community engagement tackles deficit assumptions.

Tokenistic engagement can result in deficit views and lowered expectations. There is also a tension between recognising differences and deficit assumptions. This is called ‘the dilemma of difference’, which arises from concerns about effectively addressing differences without stigmatising individuals whose differences have been brought to light. Kitty te Riele from the University of Tasmania’s Peter Underwood Centre tackled these issues head-on, offering insights from working with disenfranchised youth.

Challenging the prevailing myth of low educational aspirations needs us to re-evaluate pre-conceived notions and explore the true aspirations of young people and their families. This requires a shift in perspective that embraces the diverse aspirations of young people in the context of social and material disadvantage against convenient myths and stereotypes.

Community engagement starts from those problems that matter.  

At the heart of community engagement lies the crucial task of tackling the issues that hold significance for marginalised individuals and communities. 

Lew Zipin and Marie Brennan from the University of South Australia shed light on the vital role of addressing real-world problems in education. This requires an inclusive approach to co-design that effectively incorporates local knowledge. 

Bridging the gap between educational institutions and the realities of marginalised young people requires recognising students as proactive mediators between life-based and school-based knowledge. Such recognition has transformative potential, leading to a contextualised, community-aware approach to teaching and learning.

Community engagement can ensure quality.

In recent education reforms, the discourse surrounding quality education has shifted towards a human capital perspective.

Sue Grieshaber and Elise Hunkin from La Trobe’s School of Education examined the nexus of quality and equity in early childhood education, highlighting concerns about the potential ramifications of market-driven approaches to education on equity.

There is an urgent need to broaden our definition of quality education beyond market values to incorporate relationships with families and communities.  

Overall, these insights from the workshop highlight the importance of co-design, teacher preparation, dispelling myths, curriculum design, and re-framing what is meant by ‘quality’. It showed how genuine community engagement for equity and social justice address power relations, challenge deficit narratives, and incorporate community voices. 

Australia is approaching another historical moment in its relationship with its Indigenous peoples, a moment that will shape the moral sentiment of the nation for decades to come. In the lead up to the referendum, our discussions about community engagement was a timely reminder of the power of voice as a vehicle for impactful participation in the decisions that matter and that affect the most disenfranchised. 

Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer in Pedagogy, Professional Practice and Teacher Education at La Trobe School of Education. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. Babak’s current research is focused on the challenges that teachers face and the types of support that they need stay in the profession, especially in the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. Twitter: @DadvandBabak

Jo Lampert is Professor of Teacher Education for Social Transformation at Monash University. She has led alternative pathways into teaching in hard-to-staff schools for over 15 years, most recently as Director of the Commonwealth and State supported Nexus M. Teach in Victoria, a social justice, employment-based pathway whereby preservice teachers work as Education Support Staff prior to gaining employment as paraprofessionals (Nexus). She tweets at @jolampert

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