Thursday, September 29, 2011

FB Group: WHOF

This is a good group on FB I've been supporting. More than 100k followers, which is a good start. The really impressive thing is that the followers seem to be very diverse and include people of all sexualities, including heterosexual. The internet is a place where opinions are expressed freely, which is great. Often people express hatred and discrimination and when that happens, they really need to be challenged. Groups like this can help a lot because knowing that you have the support of large numbers of people online makes it a lot easier to challenge discriminatory views and people in groups like this can share information and ideas that can help in promoting a less discriminatory culture. It can be really distressing for some people seeing discriminatory views expressed online, but at least each time those views are expressed there is an opportunity to reply with compelling arguments that may bring about change. 

Babies in prison

Can't believe parents and their babies are being locked up like criminals. Of course they should have the right to live in normal accommodation and be cared for by the community.

Glad to see a reasonable article like this in The Age. The other papers have been publishing absolute rubbish on this issue, playing to fears based on some kind of mass ignorance with which they form some kind of festering symbiosis. Reading the Australian or the Herald Sun you'd get the impression that asylum seekers are not human beings and are not acting within their rights, which of course isn't the case. Everyone has the right to flee from war and persecution. Everyone has the right to a life 'befitting of human dignity' (to borrow a phrase from Ikeda).

Peer mentoring

By sharing each other's skills, resources and ideas, we can achieve great things. It's really refreshing to see this happening at Victoria University, where some unique programs are being put in place to help students help each other. I've been participating in a group of programs called SSSL (Students Supporting Students Learning), which involves the university taking on senior students as employees to help other students in a number of ways. My involvement has been with the Rover program, in which senior students wear special uniforms and look around the libraries and learning commons for students who look confused or anxious and make themselves available to help them, sometimes offering help directly, sometimes just standing nearby or saying hello. In this way, the Rovers help to solve thousands of problems faced by students every year, ranging from basics like using a computer, to complex inquiries about writing and research. The Rovers work as a team and when one Rover doesn't know the answer, they consult other Rovers or refer to specialists within the university. The program has been running for a number of years now and continues to be a huge success.

When I first started at the university as an undergraduate back in 2002, the Rover program had not yet been introduced. I remember feeling quite lost and confused. University life is very different to school and I didn't know about a lot of the social activities, clubs, societies, leadership opportunities and ways to get involved and meet people. I was lucky though, in that I noticed another student who was also sitting by herself apparently trying to work out how to fill out subject selection forms and so I sat down beside her, offered to help and we have been good friends ever since. Together, we shared everything we learned, both in the subjects we studied together and in our efforts to find our way around the university and its services. Together we gained confidence and got the hang of being students. This was peer mentoring in it's purest form. Sometimes just having someone with you can make trying new things and asking questions seem much less daunting.

I think if I was back there, being a young first year student, straight out of high school, I would probably be a lot more likely to talk to a Rover than to a librarian or a teacher, especially about the kind of trivial every day problem that so many people let get in the way of their studies. The fact that the Rovers are pro active and actually look out for you must also help a lot.

The biggest barriers must be faced by those students who come from non English speaking countries. For them, simple tasks like asking for directions can be really hard work and trying to understand the argumentative style favored in academic essay writing can be absolutely baffling for some. Often I get to sit with these students and have very interesting discussions about the relationship between culture and language and the way writing is used in their cultures. The kind of engagement and interaction that can develop is profound and I learn at least as much from them as they learn from me. I've learned several Asian languages, but it's not until one discusses the fundamentals of how knowledge is constructed within a culture that the structure of the language begins to make sense.

I wonder how students in other universities, without SSSL programs, learn to engage with each other. I suppose the lucky students who meet a good friend like I did will always have a peer mentor. There may also be those who miss out. Ultimately anything universities do to promote peer mentoring can only help them. The more students succeed, the more funding and recognition the university can obtain and the more students will go on to further study after their finish their bachelor's degrees. Since postgraduate students often have to work to support their student lifestyles, employing them as mentors makes a lot of sense and is something more universities should consider.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Communities: who is helping who?

Just been discussing communities with a colleague of refugee background. He has himself participated in a diasporic community and had been looking at an study by Jack Rothman  back in the 1960 (Which you can download here) which brings to light some of the challenges and dilemmas faced not only by refugees but by any migrant living in contact with those of similar background.

Our conversation took place before I had read the study. I put it to my colleague, based on my own experiences of contact with Chinese and Korean diaspora here in Melbourne, that communities develop power structures and that those power structures are often far less fair and democratic than those of the wider society in which they are located. My colleague wholeheartedly agreed, telling me something of his own experiences and research. Through our discussion, a number of insights emerged.

The problem faced by many young migrants, especially refugees, is that the problems of every day life, particularly the challenge of obtaining employment, are made all the more daunting by language difficulties and uncertainties regarding culture and communication styles. The communities that form among people sharing a common country of birth offer those recently arrived the opportunity to seek employment and other opportunities through word of mouth in their own language.

Jobs within the community can be obtained without the need to overcome any discrimination that may exist among employers outside the community. Also, competition is limited because the jobs are not advertised or are advertised in the community language. This is a problem because most of the jobs are obtained through referrals and favors. Members of the community who have employers as friends associates have a vested interest, not so much in helping newly arrived community members to obtain work, but more in helping the employers, who may be in a position to bestow favors on them in return.

How do referrals help employers more than those they employ? Well, apparently, all to often, the employment arrangements that they make are informal and operate outside the laws and systems of their adopted country. This means that pay is often below the minimum wage, important benefits such as superannuation, sick pay, penalty rates and minimum working conditions are omitted and employers can terminate employees on a whim. The businesses are able to become ever more profitable on the back of this cheap labor, while the employees struggle along, trying to convince themselves they were lucky to be given the job as a favor, or genuinely believing it is good in comparison to poor conditions in their country of origin. The exploitation that occurs can lead to people, especially young people, feeling hostile toward their community or to society in general, which is understandable. It is a credit to the determination and perseverance of young migrants that most are able to overcome this issue and go on to achieve their life goals.

The crucial thing that must be done in countries such as Australia, which depend on migrants, is to remove the barriers that hinder newly arrived people seeking work. We need to ensure that there is no discrimination and that everyone is given the help and training they need in order to understand the employment system and obtain work successfully. There are already some good services, but there need to be more and they need to be offered in a way that ensures universal participation. Education opportunities for refugees need a lot of work. Young people in Australia are currently allocated to a school year level based on their age after only two school terms of specialised English language tuition. Tuition hours provided with most visa classes are grossly insufficient and many miss out completely, often due to lack of knowledge of what is on offer. Creating a helpful and supportive society is everyone's responsibility. However, our government clearly need to play a bigger part and do a lot more to help and encourage us.

Gloomy day

I like the storm we're having now. The wind and lightning and rain are exhilarating and make me feel alive and want to do something dangerous. 

Earlier though, the whether was just dark and grey and there wasn't enough light. Then I felt sad. I thought about it and realised I had no good reason to, but that wasn't enough to snap me out of it. The storm did that. 

Perhaps its only when there is nobody else there that the whether can have such a profound effect on how I feel. Maybe for people who are along all the time, this is the way life always is, with long months of winter spent moping about feeling sorry for one's self and lacking motivation. I hope people don't have to spend their lives at the mercy of the weather in that way. That would be a pity. 

I think every one of us is responsible for loneliness. Sure, everyone is entitled to their privacy and can be along if they like to. However, there are plenty of people who would rather not be and when you don't feel very confident or outgoing, that can be a real problem. What is needed is someone who is able to take the first step and communicate. That can make a real difference. Confidence can be nurtured. 

Of course the lonely don't have to be dependent on the confident. Not for long, anyway. That would be a worrying state of affairs. The point is that by starting to communicate we overcome barriers and humanise people. The action can be emulated by its recipient as they gain confidence. This would be a cultural change. Perhaps it is one that her already taken place in some communities. Not enough though. It needs help. 

Fire in the library

This Monday a small fire was started at a Victoria University library when someone thought it would be fun to ignite the paper hand towel in toilet. Fortunately another library patron was able to smother the blaze, minimising damage.

Storm in Melbourne

Nice drive to work. Glad I left the motorbike at home. Hope everyone is remembering to look out for people who are on bikes though. Racing through puddles and dousing them with muddy water is bad manners.

Cheesy nuggets

Cheesy nuggets should be held in high esteem throughout the global fast food industry. They are cheap to produce, immediately satisfying and make people salivate even before they've tried them.