Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Melbourne, Day 3: Women with Disabilities in Community

I started the day off by meeting up a friend of a friend named Emma for breakfast at the basement cafe. Emma had been recommended by an ASL interpreter friend back in the US as a good person to know, and we did have a very nice breakfast discussing Emma’s thesis work and upcoming holiday to Asia, as well as my work here in Melbourne, particularly the Werribee trip the next day.

I then spent some time catching up on emails and a little blog work before collecting my things to head over to Victorian Women with Disabilities Network (VWDN). Here’s a slice of Melbourne life in the Central Business District (CBD): at lunch, thousands of people throng the many restaurants and small joints.

For lunch, you can have sushi, Indian food, Chinese food (especially in Chinatown, which has gates and all), burgers (at Hungry Jack’s, which is the Aussie name for Burger King), Thai food, Italian, just about anything you can name. I ended up eating at a very small Bangladeshi place (“two veg and rice!”) just down the block from VWDN. Spicy! Ordering food here for me is a combination of a few small stresses. For one thing, I’m still memorizing the money denominations---not hard, but the coins are very different. For another, lots of people are from another place than Australia and then I think the old and new country accents get combined and make it pretty tough to lipread. And finally, you are asked at the end whether the food is for here or “take away” and I keep forgetting that this is the same phrase as “to go” in the US. However I’m getting used to it!

Anyway, after lunch I went up to VWDN’s office, took a few pictures and met up with Keran and her staff to prepare for the showing of the Fe Fe film. The VWDN people really are just nice, nice women and they were so enthusiastic about the showing.

For the meeting itself, I learned a few things about community meetings here that are different from the US. For one thing, we started off with tea and biscuits (cookies) and fruit while waiting for everyone to arrive. Very casual, but this is definitely “Tea” as opposed to snacks or refreshments in the US. Also, Keran started off the meeting with a thanks to the traditional owners of Australia, the Aboriginal peoples. Frankly I thought this was a terrific way to build multicultural solidarity while being upfront about historical issues of colonization and oppression.

Keran then had everyone introduce herself---we had about 25 women eventually show overall, all ages and occupations. VWDN did a wonderful job with outreach. We had women with physical disabilities and psychiatric disabilities and five Deaf women and I forget who else, but it was a nice mix and for many it was their first time at VWDN. We did have two sign language interpreters, one for Auslan and one for ASL. I applaud both of these interpreters for somehow keeping up with all of us---especially the ASL interpreter as it was a bit of a refresher course!

I spoke briefly about my work and then my connection with the Empowered Fe Fes. I’d like to say right here on this blog that my peer mentorship with the Fe Fes is what tipped me into wanting to advocate on women’s disability and Deaf issues. Right around the time I began working at Access Living as the youth leadership coordinator, I was asked if I would like to serve as a peer mentor for the Fe Fes. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into (half the time I never know what I am getting into with disability or Deaf work!), but as a peer mentor I’d say I learned the following:

...how to assist with agenda development in a collaborative, non-hierachical way
...how to pay attention to the girls’ expressed interests and think of ways they could pursue learning about those interests
...how to take risks as a peer mentor by showing my own creativeness or interests or silliness---you never know whether anyone is paying attention, but being yourself is a good rule of thumb
...how to serve as a mentor with a group, as opposed to one on one, and discovering benefits of group mentoring, such as having everyone help each other, learn from each other, take action together
...how to pay attention to young women and listen to where they feel confident and where they feel not confident (and this you often have to learn by paying attention to what is not being said, or what is being avoided)
...how to function in a cross-disability and cross-diversity group---Diversity Lesson 101: Acknowledge everybody and take time to learn about each other!

After a few words about some of this, we showed the movie. I should point out that the vast majority of the girls in the film are people of color, and the vast majority of the women viewing the film were---I presume---white Australians (with, it turns out, several New Zealand-born women as well). And the girls in the film are LOUD and outspoken and screamy and giggly, but often talk about very serious issues as well. So I was definitely wondering what the audience would think---particularly the Deaf women as well since only one Deaf person makes an appearance in the film.

When the film ended, I said a few more words and we opened up the discussion to see what women thought. (Know that my reporting is from memory and may not be 100% Initially, the reaction was much as I have heard other audiences react to the Fe Fes:”Those girls have a lot of the same issues we do!” The street interview portions of the film were much enjoyed, as were the girls’ solo testimonies. Interestingly, the issue of public transportation resonated with the audience---Melbourne has one of the most well developed public transit systems in the world, and yet it still has major access problems, such as new accessible tram platforms, but a dearth of new trams that are at the same height as the platforms (!).

The diversity issue did pop up, as in why there were few white girls in the film. I explained that Chicago is majority people of color and that Access Living serves a majority of people of color (African American, Latino, etc). It is a factor of class and race breakdown in a large city in the Northern US. Here in Australia, I’ve also witnessed incredible diversity especially of people from Asian countries. In contrast, Access Living serves few people with an Asian background.

We also talked about advocacy and how it seems that sometimes government systems force a person to advocate alone rather than as individuals. The Disability Discrimination Act here has people file complaints as individuals as a rule, rather than what we have seen in the US where a few people will file a class action lawsuit.

I believe we also talked about Deaf women’s issues vs. disability issues, and I pointed out that Deaf women in the Deaf community seem to have more options to socialize with other Deaf women, as opposed to women with disabilities socializing with other women with disabilities in a disability-specific context. Socializing with others with a similar experience helps a lot with resource sharing and sisterhood/support.

As I recall, we also touched on employment and other topics and in general women seemed to leave with a positive outlook. Many are advocates themselves and hopefully the discussion gave a few people new ideas. I spoke with several women afterwards, and ended up hanging out with the Deaf women’s crowd afterwards (learning my first pieces of Auslan---thank you!).

All in all this was a successful community event where new perspectives and ideas were exchanged in a respectful fashion, and many thanks to Keran and all at VWDN again for their fabulous job in organizing it all.

5 comments:

Kat said...

We actually have both Hungry Jacks and Burger King here, although Burger King has been closing down...There aren't very many left, if any! Apparently they wanted to bring Burger King to Australia but trouble with copyrighting so... they changed the name, but then Burger King was permitted and you'd be able to see both on the same street, competing. Kind of insane, really. But each franchise to their own. :)

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