Researchers: The Land of Those Far Removed or Agents Of Change?

After 25 years of experience as a grassroots social worker in community development and mental health, I admit the world of academia seemed a million miles away. My idea of researchers were quiet folk with little idea of reality beyond the protected walls of their offices and the myriad of textbooks on their bookshelves. Often, I avoided conference presentations by researchers as they tended to lull me into some sort of a semi-sleep state that made it difficult to keep up the “interested” façade.

Reading their articles in academic journals usually meant skimming through pages of previous study references, methodology implications and strange graphs with abbreviations I couldn’t understand – when all I wanted to know was how their research related to grassroots work and what their findings and recommendations were.

There was also this kind of snobbery, where academics were considered to think of themselves as more “worthy”, “all knowing” or “the experts” in the helping profession fields – more so than those working on the front line. In fairness, this culture may well have developed out of the fact that in most of our helping profession courses, the academics are the teachers – and therefore more “knowing” than the rest of us. This perception is maintained by use of academic jargon, particularly at conferences which invite a mix of grassroots workers and academics. There’s an “us and them” divide.

So, there you have it, my previous perception of what I used to cynically call “academia land”- the land of those far removed from reality, speaking their own language and credibility reliant on the number of published journals. Then there was me: on the ground, plain speak and published only in publications which don’t fit academic guidelines.

At this point, many of my colleagues will be heard saying “at last, someone is writing what I’ve been thinking and saying behind closed doors for years: ”what makes these researchers think they know more than we who are working with these individuals/groups/communities on a daily basis?”

Wait for it…today, I bow my head in shame at having believed these stereotypes for so many years. Instead, I stand and salute researchers for their passion, determination, tenacity and endless patience. I was wrong. And if you believe, like I once did, that researchers are snobby academia nerds, please read on.

My first hint that academics might actually do more than read and write was meeting Dr Jonathon Hutchinson. Jonathon was involved in a project called ABC Pool, a semi-experimental online site which was driven by user generated content and encouraged users to “mash” their creative works. I was one of the users. Art, photography, sound production, poetry and video were just some of the mediums used. The site was closed down in 2012, but interestingly many of the core participants remain connected, albeit informally, to this day. The ongoing connection is partly due to Jonathon’s ability to negotiate effectively between users and management. He translated corporate and academic language and rationale into “plain speak”.

More recently, my partner and I connected with a team of researchers at the Black Dog Institute in NSW Australia. We had been running a preventative mental health program for emergency services, and it needed to be evaluated. Thanks to a Kickstarter grant from Black Dog Institute and the support of Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia, a pilot evaluation was made possible.

Getting ready to meet the research team at the Black Dog Institute in NSW Australia, we didn’t really know what to expect. My partner, as a firefighter with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) utilising his lived experience as part of the program wasn’t used to dealing with academia world. So together we imagined beige suits and skirts.  And the beige conversation to match. How would these very serious statistics oriented people gain a true perspective of our target audience? First responders are people with diverse personalities who are no nonsense, down to earth and renowned for their cynicism of anyone known as an academic.

All we could do was hope that someone in there would at least have a sense of humour. And pray we would not have to endure one of those conference type sessions with loads of inexplicable numbers and facts. Dozing off would not be an option for this much smaller meeting space.

If you can imagine a movie you’ve been watching in silent black and white slowly changing to colour with the addition of a soundtrack, you’re experiencing the contrast between what we thought we’d encounter, to the reality. Sounds dramatic, but let’s face it, changes in belief systems can often feel that way.

First and foremost, the whole group was passionately interested. There was a palpable energy in the room. Notably, not one textbook was seen! The only beige was the table, there were no suits and any preconceived notions of snobbery were instantly dispelled by smiles, friendly handshakes and genuine enquiries about our work to date. Later in the meeting, they each explained some of the research projects they had worked on.

Dr Simon Rosenbaum, an exercise physiologist who had conducted a world first study into exercise and PTSD. To do this, he spent months with veterans diagnosed with chronic PTSD in a rehabilitation setting, having countless conversations with them as they exercised. The conversations are research oriented as opposed to therapeutic but engagement and maintaining rapport are part of the job. This is no textbook or office based work. This is on the ground, face to face work that has taken Dr Rosenbaum to countries around the world where he inspires other cultures to consider the benefits of exercise on mental health.

Professor Katherine Boydell is a world renowned qualitative researcher who uses the creative arts as a research method and an innovative way to display the results of studies.  A fascinating area of research which has led to interactive events such as a body mapping exhibition at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. No jargon here, it’s all about disseminating information in creative ways which the general public can understand and have the opportunity to engage with.

Associate Professor Phil Ward, clinical neuroscientist and lecturer. Forget the suits, Phil has that peaceful energy reminiscent of the hippy era which belies his scientific genius and academic repertoire. His studies have taken him around the world where he is never content with mere observation, choosing instead to fully experience the culture within which the studies take place. Cooking porridge for children in Uganda is just one example of many which contradicts stereotypical beliefs about researchers.

Dr Andrea Fogarty has been involved in studying men’s mental health for years, a challenge for any woman, but moreso one labelled an “academic”. Venturing into some of the more male dominated realms such as sports and frontline emergency services, Andrea’s ability to engender trust and facilitate open conversations about mental health as the only female in a group of men is second to none. There’s no academic snobbery here, just down to earth, genuine care and a burning desire to find out what will improve the mental health of men.

Professor Zachary Steele, one of the key contributors to the Expert Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Emergency Service Workers could very well be dubbed a typical academic judging by his international acclaim for innovative work on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What people forget is that behind all this academic knowledge is more than 20 years of insight based on face to face practice with sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Real life, on the ground experience.  And his demeanour reflects that. A genuine, calming presence with the occasional twist of humour served to lighten the load of academic responsibility.

These are just some of the people we as “on the ground” practitioners all too often casually dismiss as academics who sit in their silo offices reading textbooks.  The responsibility these researchers have is enormous. We in the helping professions rely on them for vital objective evidence that strategies we use for our clients are safe and effective. The work they do is tedious, time consuming and often frustrating. Patience and precision are consistently required.

As a helping professional, you may have times when improved outcomes for your client are either unseen or frustratingly slow. In a world of repeated trials, peer reviewed journal articles and the enormous time lag between research and translation into action, spare a thought for those who are genuinely and actively working towards positive changes and solutions from a macro perspective. It is their work which will bring your clients’ needs to the attention of those in influence. They are as much advocates for change as you, the practitioner – they just do it from a different perspective.

So please – join me in discarding the old judgement of researchers being from the land of the far removed and embrace a generation of energetic, innovative researchers who genuinely connect with the real world.

Voluntourism – How to Find an Ethical Project?

“Voluntourism” is a portmanteau of “volunteer” and “tourism”, describing tourists that combine a trip abroad with volunteer work. The idea is often met with scepticism and has caused a lot of controversy. One reason for this is that researchers have found that some of the companies involved with voluntourism are misrepresenting their products, i.e. trying to make a profit out of volunteers that come to help. But with hundreds of opportunities offered by agencies, charities and grassroot projects, how does a potential volunteer know which organisations are ethically a good choice and which ones are unhelpful to the very communities they claim to help?

During my bachelor’s education, I considered volunteering abroad. However, I was overwhelmed and shocked by how difficult it seemed to find information on projects. Much of the international volunteer industry seemed ethically ambiguous to say the least. Most projects I found charged thousands of dollars which in the end discouraged me from joining any program at all. Nevertheless, there are many ethical options out there for everyone interested in volunteering, however finding them is tougher than it should be. It is the very nature of this dilemma that motivated me to join Team Social Work, a social enterprise dedicated to making the voluntourism market more transparent

Step One: Be realistic

Make sure you have realistic expectations about what to expect to experience on your trip and what you can accomplish

  • You came to help, keep that in mind throughout your stay. This does not just mean that first you have to think about the beneficiaries of your stay first and put the community needs ahead of yours, but also remember that your efforts are ultimately for the community you’re serving, despite the pivotal role you can play. Your ultimate goal should be to to assist them with their vision, whichEducationh ever part you may play in it.
  • Remember that change takes time. If you’re only going to be there for a short period, then the chances are that you won’t be there long enough to witness the impact your efforts will have on the community that you have elected to h
    elp. Nevertheless, consider the bigger picture to appreciate that your contribution has made a significant contribution and indeed a difference.
  • Last but not least – don’t underestimate the importance of a smile or other acts of kindness. They can have a bigger impact than you might realise.

Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering

A lot of volunteers have only a few weeks of their time to donate to a project and are worried that they can’t make a difference in such a short period. So how can you make short-term voluntourism worthwhile?

Short-term voluntourism isn’t necessarily bad. It really depends on the project that you want to volunteer for. As a general rule of thumb, you should always ask yourself whether or not your position at the project is effected by a personal relationship. E.g. within a conservation project, your duration of stay will have limited impact on the animals or biodiversity; often these projects need an extra hand, so it won’t make so much difference if you are only there for a short period. If you want to volunteer with a project that involves community development or working with children, carefully evaluate whether your short term stay will be useful to them or if you will do more harm than good. You might help to build a school in a few weeks, but you won’t become a counsellor for traumatised children. In any case, be sure that you are matched according to your skills.

Step Three: Ask the Right Questions

To ensure that you are joining an ethically sound volunteering project, the organisation should be able to provide you with answers to your questions. But what are the right questions to ask?

Before getting in touch with someone at the organisation, think about the following:

  • Many projects will provide you with a great vision of what they are trying to achieve, but only genuine projects will be able to provide you with details of how to get there. Ask whether or not there has been a needs assessment establishing exactly what help is required. Only projects that plan ahead will be able to make a lasting difference, so be sure to enquire about specific goals and why these are of importance in advance.
  • Take careful consideration over how the communities and projects are talked about by their relevant organisations. If they are degrading the locals they claim to be helping and belting their situation, then this should be sending you warning signs – taking advantage of their poverty to market the volunteering project in question is not respectful in the slightest.
  • Furthermore, every project should break down where the money you pay will go, and how the money from past volunteers has made a difference to the community they are working in. If they don’t, I recommend reconsidering your choice.

Get in touch with someone who has volunteered there beforehand: 

  • We live in the age of social media, so make sure you use it to your advantage. Sincere organisations should provide links to their social media sites. Use them to get in touch with former volunteers of the projects and ask them for their personal experience.
  • Make sure to ask what the exact nature of their volunteer work was, and what level of volunteer support they experienced. If the program description doesn’t match what former volunteers describe, you should be cautious and ask the project why this was the case.

Have you been on a volunteer holiday? Share your views and experiences in the comments below.

What is Thunderclap and How can It Help Grassroots Organizing?

by Madeline Anderson, SCSJ Communications Intern

Thunderclap logoThunderclap is a free crowd-speaking platform that allows a message to be seen by a multitude of people on a variety of different social media sites at the same time. The purpose is to help maximize the chance of your message going viral by coordinating a multi-media strike alongside your loyal supporters. Thunderclap sends a message to each supporter’s preferred social media outlet such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr which automatically posts your message on their page at the same time. This technique could possibly expand your message and reach to thousands and even hundreds of thousands people at the same time creating a viral message.

So, how exactly does it work? In order to “thunderclap” a message, select a mission/message that you wish to broadcast widely over social media. Create a catchy tag line, add an image that illustrates your goal, and insert this information into the Thunderclap website. To avoid spammers, the message will go through an online approval process. For a message to go into effective “thunderclap state,” you must get a certain number of supporters to participate by a certain date which is set by you, the organizer. The default setting is 100 supporters within a week.  However, you may adjust the time and the number of supporters to best fit your needs.  The more supporters you have the greater the social media reach of your message.

When you create your Thunderclap, you share it via any social media sites which can include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Personal webpage, Tumblr or by e-mail in order to get your supporters to participate. When you have the amount of support you need, the Thunderclap message will be sent out on the date and time you specified. For example, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice set up a Thunderclap to remind North Carolinians to register to vote by the October 11, 2013 deadline, and we are seeking 100 supporters. When we reach this number, Thunderclap will arrange for our reminder message to be posted to the social media pages of each supporter at the same time on the same day. This will increase our chances of creating awareness on this important matter.

What about the supporters? What are they signing up for and what are their options? Supporters are allowing Thunderclap to share this one message on their behalf.  It will post on their feed ONCE at the time/date they agree to, and it will not be sent out as spam (i.e. a message sent to all their friends). Facebook and Twitter only store the information through a secure connection to spread this message so there is no personal information shared (i.e. passwords). Supporters are also able to opt out of the project at any time if they change their minds.

Thunderclap and grassroots campaigning In terms of increasing the scope of your grassroots message, this tool is phenomenal. IF you were to get 250 supporters for your Thunderclap message, the total social media reach could be well into the millions. The goal is to hone a strong, simple message and make it viral. Given the amount of media shared every day, trying to get a message noticed can seem daunting. With a Thunderclap coordinating a multitude of voices discussing your message at the same time, your message will be mass pushed to the forefront of all of your supporters’ feeds. Want to give it a try? Check out SCSJ’s Thunderclap – and please support it!

Watch the Thunderclap how-to video:

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