Social Work: Lucy Burnett

In her role at Jesuit Social Services, Lucy Burnett (Master of Social Work 2016) works with the ReConnect Program, a program designed to support people with high rates of recidivism to reintegrate into the community after release from prison.

What led you to study at the University of Melbourne?

I have worked in Communications at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne since 2014. While I love academic life (I am still working at CHE) I wanted to be doing work that was community-based. After settling on a Masters in Social Work, the University of Melbourne seemed the obvious choice. I attended a public lecture on resilience by Lou Harms, Deputy Director of the Department of Social Work, and was sold!

What motivated you at University?

Coming to social work through history, I draw a great deal of strength from the people who pioneered the profession in the 1800s and worked to address the complex problems that grew out of industrialisation, immigration and social inequality from a radical, creative, revolutionary place. A number of Professors from the Department of Social Work do work I really respect, and operate within that legacy. That certainly pushed and inspired me.

I also feel incredibly lucky to have had a really exceptional cohort of students come through the Masters of Social Work with me. I was consistently inspired by the work and vision of my colleges.  A few of us created a Social Work student association SWAGS to advocate for students and provide professional development opportunities, which is still going strong. We got a great response from the teaching team at Melbourne, which made a huge difference to the sustainability of the group.

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

I came to social work by way of a history degree at The University of Washington, where I worked on civil rights and peoples movements. I then worked in Washington DC as Assistant Director of Provisions Library, a small, social justice and arts non-profit library based out of George Mason University.

I came to understand both American and Australian prison systems while working in arts and academic settings. The who, how, and why of incarceration resulted in a lot of productive, motivating anger for me. I think this is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our day. I am passionate about both public education around issues of imprisonment, and front-line service delivery to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

With the prison system, you have a really 'wicked problem' of sustained, intergenerational disadvantage, institutionalism and cycles of violence. From a practice perspective, you have the opportunity to engage with a wide range clients with experiences of poor mental health, disability, and trauma, but who also demonstrate incredible resilience. As a profession, social work has a focus on human rights that I think is critical to bring to bear on a lot of current carceral practices like solitary confinement and strip-searches that are largely unregulated, out of sight and out of mind.

What motivates you now?

I'm motivated by a strong sense of justice, and a belief that change, both in terms of individual lives and broad structural realities, is possible.

I'm motivated by possibility, particularly in the prison industry in Australia, to see real, meaningful change occur. Coming from an American context, where 2.5 million people are incarcerated, to an Australian context, where we have around 35,000 people in prison offers a really different perspective—at this scale, I think you can make and see change across the span of a career.

What is good health to you?

To me, good health is about balance.  One of the reasons I was drawn to social work as a profession is the way in which people are understood to exist within broader contexts that impact on their health and wellbeing, and the significant policy implications of this way of thinking.  Health is something so often conceptualised as occurring within the person, but I see it as a complex relationship between person and environment, nature and nurture. As we consider disease burdens and chronic illness in the context of social inequality, it is critical to better understand and address social determinants of health as part of the equation for both care and policy.

What does a normal day at work look like for you?

My role at Jesuit Social Services is on The ReConnect Program, a Corrections Victoria funded case-management program designed to support people with high rates of residivism after release to reintegrate into the community over a period of 6-12 months.  All women, serious and violent offenders, sex offenders and Aboriginal and Torres Straight islanders released from prison in Victoria are eligible for the program, which means that there is an incredible diversity of experience and service needs among the people I work with.

This is an outreach-based role that takes services to clients all around metro Melbourne. I visit someone in custody twice before they are released, then am often the person they are released to in the community. A lot of what I do is what I consider 'stealth counselling' as we drive around together and attend appointments. It is a role that has allowed me to understand a broad range of services, from health to housing. Most of my clients are released to homelessness or highly unstable housing, and so a lot of the work centres around trying to source appropriate accommodation. Typical of social work, I've got a huge amount of reporting (both internally and to Corrections Victoria) and have a caseload of around 15-20 high needs clients.

What is the best advice you've ever been given?

Figure out what you want to be doing with your life (both professionally and personally), and work backward to get the qualifications, job experience, life skills and resources you need to be the best candidate for the life you want to be living.

What advice would you give to current students?

And along the way, try and remember that what people you work with will remember most is the feeling of being seen and heard—be as present as you can in the hectic world you inhabit. Find the joy in the work!

Make sure your work/education experience suits your needs and goals—be fierce in advocating for yourself—this is your education!

What do you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment so far?

While I've worked for over a decade, I'm quite new to social work, having graduated from the University of Melbourne last year. So far, the work I'm proudest of has been the development of a free, interdisciplinary community school in Washington DC.

Knowledge Commons DC was a project designed to empower people to build community through knowledge exchange, whilst tackling issues of gentrification and segregation. Six years later, it's still going strong, completely volunteer run, and continues to grow.

Currently, a few colleagues and I are in the design phase of a program that will target young people on parole exiting the Adult Justice system. This is a cohort with complex needs and trauma histories, and one that too often slips through the cracks—they're too old for youth justice services, but present as quite vulnerable in service settings utilised by older people with experiences of incarceration. Many young people are often ineligible for parole due to lack of appropriate housing. I'm thrilled to be integrating theory, program planning skills and practice knowledge to work on an issue close to my heart.

What excites you about the future?

I'm excited to keep learning and pushing my practice. I'm excited for change in public perceptions about what makes communities safe, and more humane and effective responses to those behaviours which society deems unsafe. More broadly, I'm excited for more integrated, interdisciplinary understandings of how 'health' and 'justice' intersect in ways that benefit our communities as broadly as possible.