When one of my students asked me this question, I puzzled over it for a very long time until I realised that the question does not reflect, or tap into, the trajectory of my professional life, nor into the way I think about my work. But first, some scene setting (in 25 words or less!):
I was born deaf at a time, in 1955, when many parents of deaf children were discouraged from having anything more than low or, at best, modest expectations for their deaf son or daughter. Their deaf son could perhaps aspire to be a carpenter; their deaf daughter could aspire to marriage. My parents—in particular, my mother—was not having any of this. My parents wanted all their three children (my two siblings are hearing) to achieve equally to the very best of their potential.
Thus, the bar was set high for me right from the ready-set-go. My parents’ aspirations for me (along with my siblings) included having the best education. They joined a small group of parents who worked hard, lobbying and fund-raising to establish the first oral-deaf pre-school in Queensland. I was in the first intake of little deaf children at this new pre-school in 1958.
Cutting to the chase … I am now a Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University. What’s the significance of this potted history in the context of the set-piece question?
The significance is this: my parents had a vision for me and they strove towards it on my behalf. Their values became my values, and this intergenerational transfer of wisdom—of doing the right thing, of jumping over hurdles—has informed my life and still informs my life.
So, when I am asked, “which came first research or activism?”, I find myself answering “My parents’ example came first”. When I contemplate my professional life, the binary proposition of “research vs activism” implodes for me. Let me explain.
When I began full-time work in the late 1970s, my pre-eminent ambition was to be useful. I kid you not. I simply wanted my work to matter; to be helpful; to improve someone’s circumstance. I also hoped that it would be interesting. I did not think about my work as silos of “research”, “activism”, or whatever. I did not even think about where I might work. I merely wondered, “How can I be useful? What’s my best skill?”
There are very many skills: having an engaging personality (good for early morning television presenters!), social skills, creativity, strategizing, organising, numeracy, literacy, mediating, advocating, conciliating, and so the very long list goes on. My skills happen to be writing and thinking.
I have spent most of my professional life deploying those two skills towards:
- the advancement of social justice,
- working towards the improved circumstances for people who are at a low ebb or marginalised or vulnerable in some way, and
- seeking better ways of understanding and remediating entrenched social policy problems.
I have done this by:
- writing two memoirs (one on bereavement, the other on being deaf), many journal articles (on topics as diverse as the representation of deaf people’s experiences in fiction and memoir, bereavement, and the value of on-line teaching and learning),
- researching for, preparing, and writing policy submissions on housing, homelessness, disability, health, arts; briefing papers and strategy documents on a similarly diverse range of issues, because most of my professional life has been in the area of social policy as an advisor, manager or director prior to my current life as an academic, and
- leading teams—either by inspiring or urging them— into finding creative but achievable ways to respond to entrenched social policy problems.
The partnership of research and activism
When I review my professional life, I see that research and activism go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. Let me give you a simple case-study example from the very beginning of my social work career:
Within weeks of taking up my first social worker appointment in 1981 as “The Social Worker for the Visually Handicapped In Queensland (and yes, I agree that this is a ludicrously inflated position title), I realised that the biggest need, the biggest gap, was information.
People who were newly blind or visually impaired either as a result of trauma, illness, injury or ageing had no way of learning what supports were available to them. I happily took on the task of preparing the first “Resources Handbook for People who are Visually Impaired” in Queensland. Remember, this was before computers, the internet, social media, Google or Yahoo. It was even before fax machines! This resources handbook was reprinted each year for several years.
I was impassioned about compiling this resources book. I drove from place to place interviewing doctors, teachers, braille-readers, support groups, agencies which provided aids and equipment, allied health workers and even other social workers. In this joyfully simple task of compiling a resources directory and handbook, I combined my skills of writing and thinking.
Or perhaps you might reframe this differently, ie I undertook research to achieve an activist goal of informing people of their rights, services and supports. This has continued to be my modus operandi throughout my professional life. Information begets individual optimism and opportunity to improve one’s circumstances, even if in the smallest of ways.
Don’t be disdainful of small gains. Don’t be blinded by your ego for the big award winning evening or media-garnering limelight or career-ladder-climbing promotion. After all, if you can let someone know that she is eligible for income support such as an allowance or a pension so that she can pay her bills and stay in her home, or if you can organise for someone to get a particular aid, appliance or equipment so that she can get a better paid job, then that person is already one momentous step ahead of where she was before you came into her life.
The creativity of activism
The biggest threat towards activism for everyone is poverty of time. Being an academic has not restricted my activism, but it has certainly made me think more creatively about what activism might look like given the corrosive imposts of work obligations into my time.
For example, I am now turning to my third skill area, hitherto unexplored since my adolescence. This is my skill in (and joy of) drawing and painting. Because I write so much for work purposes, I shudder at the prospect of writing outside of work hours or work responsibilities. I have lost the joy of it. But in that particular loss, I have discovered the joy of drawing. So much so, that this is developing into a new vehicle for activism.
The moral of this little digressive anecdote is that activism can be fun. It also doesn’t have to be huge; from little things big things grow. Activism can look like taking to the streets, storming the barricades … or it can look like slipping a subversive idea into a quiet conversation with friends over a glass of wine, or doing an unusual drawing of a pretty girl with a wheelchair and displaying it on your website. Activism doesn’t have to be noisy or heroic. It just has to be authentic and informed.