Robyn Szechtman has spent more than 30 years working with disadvantaged members of our community trying to tackle some of our society’s most complex issues including homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness and social isolation.
A shining light in this challenging environment has been the development of the program Voices of the South Side. The program’s focus on developing forms of self-expression including public speaking, advocacy, dance and storytelling for residents of social and public housing has helped nurture a stronger community.
Robyn shares some insights from her community development experiences working in and around St Kilda and Port Melbourne.
‘So then they stop case managing you now that you are housed and you’re at the beginning really —okay now I’m on my feet but that’s all I’ve got. And that’s the other thing — what do you do with your time? Once you’ve spent your whole life dealing, scoring, running, looking for somewhere to sleep, looking for food— you’re so busy all the time. What am I going to do to fill my mind and fill my time so that I’m not thinking about drugs …’(Mich, Homelessness Focus Group, 2012).
Belonging. It’s what we all crave—to connect with another person, community or even a pet. Years of working with people living on the margins has taught me the importance of connecting to a community and feeling like you are making a contribution to others. This is not so easily achieved if you have experienced issues such as homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness. There is a lot of stigma and shame to overcome and many barriers exist in the form of isolation, lack of social and communication skills, lack of confidence and trust.
How do you break the cycle?
For many people it’s about finding their voice and developing the confidence to use it. People who have experienced disadvantage in their lives can be amazingly resilient. We can learn from their experience. Often they just need to be supported to see themselves in a different, more positive light.
I have been involved in a course called Speaking Out co-facilitated with Deb McIntosh. It teaches people communication skills, public speaking and working as a team. The aim is to increase people’s participation in community life by connecting them to activities, volunteering, employment and courses. But the most important thing it seems to provide is the opportunity to meet other like-minded people who want to make changes to their lives.
‘I feel more confident in myself, and I feel that I’m able to do things or express myself more clearly and with confidence, and it makes me excited and it makes me want to join and do other things. So this has been such a great base, a jumping board you know to springboard from …’ (Speaking out Graduate).
We have discovered that once people bond as a group, they continue to do other activities together. A new community has been created and this has gradually widened as new graduates have join in during the past four years. As a group we attend exhibitions, are the first people up to the dance floor and volunteer at local events. There is always someone to lend a helping hand if one of our graduates ends up in hospital or is going through a hard time.
After all, that’s what belonging is all about.