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04 author

Dr Mareese Terare
University of Sydney, Australia

04 author

Dr Meaghan Katrak Harris
University of Sydney, Australia

Decolonising Social Work Education: Yarning our Way Home

In this article we will provide some early considerations of a larger research project exploring our approach in facilitating Aboriginal Social Work in a Qualifying Masters Social Work Degree. We will provide some historical context to social work and social work education with First Nations Peoples in Australia, and reflect on some of our learnings.

As academics, educators and social workers in our efforts to decolonise education and practice, we will be using the term First Nations people to define Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. At the time of the lie/myth of the declaration of Terra Nullius the term Aboriginal was used to define and identify all First Nations people in Australia. This generic term does not acknowledge, appreciate or honour that Australia consisted of many nations and not a homogenous group as the definition of Aboriginal implied. Each nation had their own worldview which is defined by their epistemology, ontology, and axiology. Acknowledging and honouring these facts are key to decolonising education and practice (Terare 2020).

Firstly, we will introduce ourselves, and provide information about our cultural location and connections. Connections and relatedness to country is the foundation as it relates worldviews and epistemologies - our ways of knowing, axiologies - significant component of First Nations protocol when introducing self, this then links with First Nations ontology - ways of being.

Dr Mareese Terare:

I teach, write and research as a Re-empowered Bundjalung, Goenpul (descendent of two slaves – from Tanna) to critique the powerful and insidious nature of colonisation, whilst reflecting and reclaiming my tribal epistemes and applying actions to relational responsibilities, that is to care, nurture and protect our Mother. The academic role broadens my scope to collaborate and develop meaningful and purposeful alliances to action social justice for Mother Earth, as expected by Ancestors.

Professionally I define myself as a human services/welfare worker. I have worked in the women's services sector congruency of personal and professional responsibilities regarding advocacy, social justice and empowerment became a reality. I was a frontline worker for 25 years, responding to women and children in crisis, as a counsellor, group worker and community development worker. The past 16 years I have worked in the education sector starting out in RTO and currently in higher education of academia. The bane of my professional existence directed me to explore Aboriginal worldviews and how to apply these, to social work and human services theory and practice – which ultimately led to my PhD.

Dr Meaghan Katrak Harris:

Home for me is Tati Tati, Mutti Mutti and Latji Latji Country, where I have strong family and community ties, while I live and work on unceded Durramarragul Country. My life as a family and community member, ally and social worker has always been informed by my commitment to working alongside communities: listening, learning and the responsibility of making what contribution I can. I have worked in community and social work for almost 35 years and lectured and researched for more than 15. It has been my great privilege to have spent a much of that time working and learning alongside First Nations Peoples.


Australian social work dates back to the 1930’s when workers started to organise themselves professionally. The first Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) was founded in 1946 and continues today (Lawrence 2016). Inarguably, since then social work has been an oppressive force in its engagement with First Nations Peoples in Australia, working within and often enforcing policies of oppression and assimilation (Bennett 2015; Katrak 2015). Social work was founded and has since operated in Australia from the centred position and intrinsic norm of ‘whiteness’. Morten-Robinson (2004) defines whiteness as ‘the invisible norm against which other races are judged in the construction of identity, representation, subjectivity, nationalism and the law’ (p.7). Walter, Taylor and Habibis (2011), discuss the invisibility white privilege gives to enable those to live unchallenged within societal formations. Given how First Nations Peoples are highly policed in this country, by both law enforcement and government departments (Incarceration Nation 2021), this has significant implications for social work and the continuing role we play in these systems.

As an extension of social work, it is unsurprising that social work education has developed from this centred world view of whiteness. Over recent decades social work in Australia has reached a reckoning; whereby the profession has had to acknowledge its past role as an oppressive tool of the State, and attempt to forge a new way forward working alongside First Nations Peoples (Katrak 2015). In 2004 the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) published a statement of acknowledgment to the Stolen Generations, those First Nations children and young people forcibly removed from their families and communities under policies of assimilation. In this apology the AASW acknowledged the role played by social workers in implementing these horrific policies (AASW 2022). Since this time the AASW has issued a range of policy positions aimed at strengthening this way forward. However, it could still be argued that many non-Indigenous social workers and mainstream systems are yet to find a meaningful will or way towards a decolonised future.

In considering social work education, we note that it wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditations Standards (ASWEAS) required that all qualifying degree programs include Indigenous content within the curricula (Fernando & Bennet 2019). These ASWEAS guidelines list the graduate attribute of knowledge “…of the history and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples” (AASW, 2021, p. 8). Significant work has been undertaken in embedding First Nations World views in the curricula, such as the Getting it Right project which aimed to centre social work education and align it with Indigenous values, principles, and knowledge (Young et al., 2013). Despite this, there is still limited understanding of how that may ‘look’ across social work degree programs nationwide.

The way forward requires a multidimensional approach. We know that there must be greater opportunity and real representation of First Nations Peoples within the academy. This huge structural inequity requires more than glib assertations such as this, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to do an analysis justice. We are reminded by Mukandi & Bond (2019) in their paper ‘Good in the Hood’ or ‘Burn It Down’? Reconciling Black Presence in the Academy, that the academy, like the colony, are not safe spaces for Black scholars, and we encourage readers to explore this important work further.

We also espouse, as noted by Duthie (2018) that it is every social work educator’s responsibility to embed core Indigenous curriculum. This takes commitment and the cultural humility for non-Indigenous educators to authentically attempt to de-centre and step outside a westernised world view and a be guided and informed by First Nations Worldviews.

How do we do this?

Transforming Classrooms- Socio Political and Historical Contexts

“to educate as a practice of freedom is a way teaching that anyone can learn” bell hooks

In developing cultural safety, we must consider and honour the profound difference in realities created by politics of race and class in the learning environment. This is essential in both First nations and non-Indigenous students (Terare 2019, citing hooks 1994)

In examining how we, as social work educators, undertake this, we can begin by reflecting on our own motivations. What are we hoping to achieve? For meaningful outcomes, we must look beyond merely ‘ticking the box’ or reaching minimum standards.

We begin by considering the very foundation of how we come together. Honouring Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing as foundational to the curriculum but also, equally importantly, as the pedagogical approach. This cannot be an add on, a token to the usual westernised approach that has been the foundation of social work education.

Students are emersed in the reality that First Nations Worldviews encompass a unique set of values and beliefs system, creating a theoretical location of First Nations people and culture that highlight that Creation stories were well established in Australian First Nations lives before 1788 (Terare 2020).

The practice of working from worldviews is the way the students are reconnecting, reclaiming and maintaining an ongoing process of decolonising western ways. Inclusive to this is a process of teaching and learning together for social justice. We are here for a shared purpose. We are working together to decolonise this social work unit. Participants, (in this case students) are part of the process, driven by social justice and community development philosophies, where by participation is aimed as an empowering experience (Rawsthorne & Howard, 2011). Given this opportunity many students embrace the responsibility we all share to make this a safe and secure learning space.

Not a deficit Approach

Protection polices grounded in deficit discourse, structural racism and lack of truth telling of past injustices all continue to shape policy and impact on the health and well-being of First Nations Peoples (Dudgeon et al 2022). When Aboriginal social work is ‘taught’ from a western standpoint, this will continue to be the outcome, shape the world view of graduate social workers, impact on the wellbeing of First Nations students and scholars, and inform the social work practice. Rather, the approach taken is one of recognising resistance, resilience and strength despite the ongoing impacts of colonisation, as articulated in the powerful quote by Dr (Aunty) Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (Q&A 2014).

"I am not an Aboriginal, or indeed indigenous, I am ... (a) First Nation’s person. A sovereign person from this country. I speak my language, and I practise my cultural essence of me. Don’t try and suppress me, and don’t call me a problem, I am not the problem.“

Yarning Circles, Reciprocity and Responsibility

Our tutorials are Yarning Circles. The philosophy of Yarning informs our engagement and our learnings. Atkinson, Baird, and Adams (2021) describe Yarning as essentially the sharing of stories which is grounded as an Aboriginal culturally specified process. They describe the creating of a collaborative space where both voices in the yarn are important. Yarning is the practice of deep listening, reciprocal sharing and retelling, allowing for the new understandings to emerge (Bessarab & Ng’andu, 2010; Kovach, 2009; Rigney 2001; Smith, 2021).

Geia, Hayes and Usher (2013) espouse the importance of Indigenous research and Indigenous method(ology), inclusive of the process of knowledge creation within collaborative respectful partnerships with non-Indigenous researchers. Similarly, we can apply this to the relationship between First Nations and non-Indigenous educators and students.

Terare and Rawsthorne (2021) advocate that for genuine Yarning social workers and educators to relinquish expert status, to take a position of deep listening and quiet stillness-Dadirri- where your heart speaks to you (citing Fernando and Bennet 2019). Dadirri is a term from Aunty Miriam Rose Ungunmerr from Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri language of the First Nations peoples of the Daly River region Northern Territory. Deep listening is demonstrating ongoing cultural humility commitment to practice the principle of lifelong learning and professional development.

Yarning allows social work educators and students alike to sit with discomfort, to learn and share, to value and learn from our lived experience. Historical and contemporary experience of First Nations Peoples are considered, not as lineal or unrelated events, but rather within the context of ongoing colonialism. It is these processes that may enable genuine collaboration, address power imbalances and (re)connect ways of knowing to Country (Lowitja Institute, 2018; Fernando and Bennett, 2019).

What works in the Room or on the Zoom?

Many of the structures and systems we are bound by within in the academy work against First Nations Worldviews. Timetabling, attendance and assessment requirements, despite our best creative responses, can be limiting. One thing we have found that has made a significant impact on the experience students have in our Unit of study is time. By conducting our Yarning Circles in intensive or semi-block mode (3-4 hours consecutively per week or fortnight) allows for Yarning to develop deep connections.

Students form smaller Yarning Circles (or working groups) and are encouraged to approach this from a First Nations Worldview. We invite students to consider their responsibly to the group, what they can contribute and how they can support and encourage their fellow group members. Again, time is a factor. Students are given time to participate in these smaller Yarning circles and then encouraged to bring back to the bigger group their learnings, questions and challenges (as in many social work group activities). What we have found however, is a shift in dynamics. Students show they seriously consider and value their place in the group from a First Nations perspective. They take shared responsibility and reciprocity seriously. Non-Indigenous students have shown they welcome the opportunity and ‘permission’ to step outside a westernised world view and First Nations students have reported feeling validated and valued, without pressure to ‘perform’ or have ‘all the answers’.

We look forward to undertaking a broader research analysis to really explore, learn from and share the learnings from these experiences.


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