Managing the needs of diverse client groups

WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Section 10
Participatory decision-making and Indigenous
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous
Section overview
In previous sections we have looked at aspects of anti-oppressive social-work practice. In this
section, we will examine elements of participatory action among oppressed groups, with a
focus on Indigenous Australians. We will focus on participatory action in community
development contexts, highlighting Indigenous participation and decision-making in child
protection practices. The concepts of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice will be discussed
in depth, with a focus on non-discriminatory practice in working with Aboriginal Australians.
Lastly, we will look at the application of cultural knowledge in Indigenous community
Learning outcomes
Once you have successfully completed this section, you should be able to:
discuss participatory decision-making in community development contexts
identify contexts for Indigenous participatory decision-making in community
identify ways of reversing discriminatory and oppressive practice
explain elements of Indigenous cultural knowledge
understand applications of non-discriminatory practice with Indigenous Australians
Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice in social work
Anti-discrimination focused social workers recognise that many different people suffer a
variety of effects of discriminatory practice. Discrimination can be based on a number of
different factors, such as a person‟s perceived ethnicity and culture, sexual preference,
gender, age or disability. The effects of discrimination can be seen in such diverse areas as
self-perception, access to work opportunities and services, political representation and social
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
The objective of anti-discriminatory social-work practice is to identify and remedy
discriminatory policies and practice. This goal can be pursued at a personal, institutional or
structural level. One key aspect of anti-discriminatory practice is in understanding the needs
of particular individuals and groups. When addressing issues related to cultural diversity, it is
important to gain a thorough understanding of the specific cultural identity and needs of
Strongly related to anti-discriminatory practice is anti-oppressive practice. Anti-oppressive
practice can play an important role in achieving equity goals for improvement.Antioppressive practice in social work does not encapsulate an established mode of practice;
rather it is innovative and evolving. The practice acknowledges oppression of certain groups
in society, this based on ethnicity, class, gender, disability, sexuality, age, wealth and so
forth. In short, anti-oppressive practice is „about a process of change which leads (service
users) from feeling powerless to powerful‟ (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995). Anti-oppressive
practice acknowledges the influence on the lives of disadvantaged people of relations of
ruling in society; in this discourse, even social work practice can work inadvertently to
perpetuate the situation of oppressed people. To this end, service providers are actually in a
position of considerable power, particularly regarding decisions about service delivery and
interventions in people‟s lives. A primary focus of anti-oppressive practice is to empower
oppressed people, particularly those from marginalized groups, to take action to improve their
situation. This means working with representatives of these groups to engage them in solving
local problems. This section will consider participatory decision-making as a form of antioppressive practice and how this has been applied with Australian Indigenous communities.
When social workers engage with a community different to their own, it is important to
understand cultural knowledge of that community. The next section discusses cultural
knowledge and its application in Indigenous communities of Australia.
Reading 10.1
Read the following article, which is available via the learning portal.
Dominelli, L. 2002. Anti-oppressive practice in context. In: A. Adams, L. Dominelli & M.
Payne (eds), Social work: themes, issues and debates, Palgrave, UK, Chapter 1.
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Cultural knowledge of Indigenous Australians
Cultural knowledge can encompass meanings, values, customs, and aspects of spirituality,
relationships, philosophy and practical life knowledge. Acquiring cultural knowledge can be
a crucial aspect of effectively addressing clients‟ needs. We will revisit the use and
importance of cultural knowledge, as discussed in Reading 3.3, in which Quinn emphasises
that the risks of working with inadequate cultural knowledge are „cross-cultural collisions‟
and a breakdown of constructive working relationships. It is possible for cultural knowledge
to be incorrectly or inadequately understood when approached from an outside, or abstract,
perspective. For this reason it is important to allow members of different cultures to define
and explain aspects of their cultures themselves, and not risk appropriating or interpreting
them from the perspective of a different, or dominant, culture.
Aboriginal Australians have a rich culture with customs, values, norms and a spiritual
connection. Cultural knowledge relates strongly to obligation and responsibility to the land,
intimate knowledge of natural resources and ecosystems, developed through sustained local
contact. In short, Aboriginal cultural knowledge can be defined as:
“…accumulated knowledge which encompasses spiritual relationships, relationships with the
natural environment and the sustainable use of natural resources, and relationships between
people, which are reflected in language, narratives, social organization, values, beliefs, and
cultural laws and customs…”(Andrew 2006 et al. 2006).
Aboriginal cultural knowledge is best understood as the ways in which Aboriginal people act
out a relationship with lands, environments, people and ancestors. Like any culture,
Aboriginal cultural knowledge is changing as new information is adapted. Traditionally the
knowledge has been imparted to others orally through song, stories, art, words and dance;
cultural sites which house these stories may be seen as a sacred place.
Activity 10.1
Please refer to the Learning Portal for this activity.
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Participatory decision-making is seen as a crucial part of the process of undoing racism. It
involves including the community of interest, the target group in developing community
based interventions and initiatives. This allows the community to have a real voice in the way
initiatives and interventions are implemented in community development. Adopting a
community participatory plan of action can often increase the chance of an intervention from
a one off project to a fully-fledged community program to succeed. Simply, a participatory
approach is one where every stakeholder has a voice, or a say in the roll out of the
intervention. Typically, the community representatives will comprise members of the target
group, organizational staff, agency and government representatives and representatives from
other community groups. The process should not be dominated by the agenda of a particular
group; rather each group should respect the other group‟s perspective. To this end, the word
„participatory‟ implies that each participant becomes equally important to the planning
Of course the process is not without its tensions, one must expect challenges and it is not
uncommon for arguments to emerge as the participants decide on the best strategy to pursue.
The important point is to respect everyone‟s point of view, and not to defer to participants
with higher education or more authoritative positions of power. The other flaw in the
participatory process is the tendency of some government, community workers and higher
education officers to treat low income, ethnic minority participants with „reverse
condescension‟; that is, treating everything said by minority group members as true and
profound. A truly participatory process involves everyone considering all ideas with equal
merit, and discussing all ideas with veracity. For members of minority groups with less status
and education, this process can be daunting. Often minority group members need extra
support, or to be guided through the process of participatory decision-making.
Read about the advantages and disadvantages of community development planning at the
„Community Toolbox‟ weblink:
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Activity 10.2
Please refer to the Learning Portal for this activity.
Indigenous participation in child protection decision-making: a
case study
Australian law and policy now recognizes Indigenous participation in decision-making at all
levels of policy. The „National Indigenous Reform Agreement‟ (NIRA) commits Australian
governments to addressing disadvantage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities. This agreement includes a commitment to the principle of Indigenous
engagement sand empowerment in the design and delivery of services. The National
Framework for Protecting Australia‟s Children 2009-2020 (see SNAICC report, 2013 p.15)
requires that children from Indigenous families are „supported and safe in their families and
communities‟ and that to achieve this, requires participatory strategies which involve
Indigenous people in decision-making around out of home care and placement of Indigenous
The 2013 SNAICC report „Whose Voice Counts’ reviews the levels of engagement and
empowerment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in participatory decisionmaking in child protection. For organizations like SNAICC the participation of Indigenous
people in child protection is seen as critical to ensuring child protection measures represent
„an alternative cultural lens that reflects the importance of family, culture and community to
the well-being of children‟ (p.3) As we have seen earlier in this section, the consequences of
European intervention in Indigenous child protection have been devastating; these forced
interventions have neglected to involve Aboriginal people in decisions to remove children
from families, infact, European policies have ostensibly contributed to the abuse problems in
some Aboriginal families. The SNAICC report claims that child protection systems need to
empower Aboriginal people to participate in decision-making around child protection, these
decisions must be driven by advocacy of Indigenous peoples and underpinned by human
rights laws. To aid this endeavour, cultural advice and support services have been set up to
involve independent Indigenous community run organizations in child protection.
Reading 10.3
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Read the SNAICC 2013 report „Whose Voice Counts‟, which is available at the Australian
Association of Social Workers website:
SNAICC reports that participation-focused cultural advice services are providing
opportunities for direct family participation in child protection processes, are providing
support for „cultural translation‟ between families and government services and are enabling
more understanding of the „cultural strengths, needs and risks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children and families‟ (p.3). However SNAICC also found an absence of final
decision-making authority for Indigenous peoples and a lack of transparency in government
services as to how Indigenous advice and support is actually used. The report concludes that
„at their worst, these services present as a tokenistic aside; an optional extra for decisionmakers that choose to use them, with low capacity to do so and an absence of the shared
process and responsibility that could make them work‟ (p.3).
Activity 10.3
Please refer to the Learning Portal for this activity.
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
Additional online resources
The Australian Association of Social Workers web site has links to readings, articles and
websites on anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice with Indigenous and ethnic
minority groups.
SNAICC 2013 report „Whose Voice Counts‟ is available at the Australian Association of
Social Workers website:
This website looks at racism in Australia and the effects it can have on its victims.
The Australian Government Closing the Gap Clearinghouse provides important research and
evaluation evidence to support closing the gap programs and initiatives.
This site provides information on ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation); a
non-Indigenous national advocacy organisation that aims to remedy the inequities
experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Additional resources
Andrews G, Daylight C, Hunt J. et al 2006, Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape mapping
of coastal NSW, prepared for the Comprehensive Coastal Assessment by the NSW
Department of Natural Resources, Sydney, NSW.
Looking as we have done at participatory decision-making in Indigenous community
development context will help to understand how to apply a framework for culturally and
ethnically inclusive practice in social work. The final chapter provides a way forward for
WEL201A Managing the needs of diverse client groups
Section 10: Participatory decision-making and Indigenous Australians
anti-oppressive and inclusive social work practice for working with culturally and ethnically
diverse communities.
Now that you have completed this section, visit the learning portal to participate in the latest
discussion forum and check on your progress by completing the self-check questions.

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