00:00 Claire: Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that these episodes are hosted and recorded on the Stolen Lands of Ngunnawal country, Canberra. I would like to acknowledge elders past, present and emerging and I would like to acknowledge the long-standing history of activism and advocacy here and the fight and resistance against ongoing colonization. All activism and advocacy that occurs on this stolen land must center decolonization. Always in solidarity and this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.


Welcome to The Labeller Podcast, the place where we take back the label gun and talk about the labels inside, why they're there and how we feel about them. My name is Claire, I use they/them pronouns and I am your faithful host. This season we are looking at the label of "activist".


In this episode, we are joined by Lucy, a social work student who uses any and every height of chunky platforms to empower queer youth. We talk about how activism and social work play together, why it's okay to feel angry and the importance of smaller acts of activism.

Oh, this episode does contain explicit language. This is also a content warning for discussions of institutional harm. Please listen safely. So, buckle up and let's get labeling!


{upbeat intro music}


Hello! Welcome to the Labeller! Oh my God, this is exciting. Well, would you like to introduce yourself to faithful listeners, name, pronouns, whatever you like to get up to, if you study, what you study, you get me...


02:11 Lucy: Hi, my name is Lucy. My pronouns are she/her. I'm a queer social work student at the moment, not doing a whole lot of anything, but that's okay.


02:23 Claire: True, true, current climate, oh my God! So does that mean studying from home, still having to do all the Uni stuff at home?


02:32 Lucy: Yes, or attempting, attempting to.


02:36 Claire: Yeah, oh my God, online university sucks, first and foremost. So, thank you so much, Lucy, for coming and joining me on this episode about looking at the label of activism, I'm very excited to have this convo with you. Especially knowing that you do social work and seeing how activism plays out in social work spaces, like what's there, what's missing, all that kind of fun stuff.


But I guess before we get into that nitty-gritty, I have questions that I'm gonna be asking all of the people who join me in this season of The Labeller. And you know me, you know me in real life, so you know that I'm like this. I like to ask people what they think of different words and meanings and terms. So I guess my first question is, what does activism mean to you? How would you define activism?


03:25 Lucy: I was thinking about this and I hope it wasn't nerdy to take dot points, but I was thinking, in a real basic sense, I think of activism as challenging social injustice and oppression, in its most simple form, that's what it means to me, yeah.


03:47 Claire: Yeah, for sure, I like that a lot, actually. With that, what spaces do you normally find activism? When you think of activism, what comes to mind of like a space that you would see that type of work being done?


04:08 Lucy: I think the most cliché one that I thought of first is like a Uni campus. You tend to see a lot of people I guess first getting into activism at Uni. So, obviously public spaces, when you protest, out in the streets and I was also thinking, like at home. Because even on a sort of micro level, if you're having a conversation with someone that is challenging something, like I don't know, on a very minor level, like challenging your racist grandma on Christmas, in the kitchen... That's where activism can happen.


04:55 Claire: For sure. I totally resonate with that. I think especially, in every climate, we've always seen that sort of work done, but I guess especially right now, that's really where people are pushing for others to start doing the work of activism for different communities and sometimes I guess even activism for yourself, you know? Challenging oppression isn't just challenging oppression of others, but oppression of yourself I guess.


That sounds really conceited, but you know, when you're a part of community that is coping flack, you have to stick up for yourself also. But yeah, I guess like, who are your favorite activists? And for me, the important part of this is why?


06:02 Lucy: Well, I was thinking about this and I would hate to be like a gay cliché, but I wanted to say Silvia Rivera because I don't know... I feel like she embodies everything that queer activism should be, to me.


Because a lot of the time, she never apologized for being angry. I feel like a lot of the time activism sounds intimidating to people because they don't want to listen to angry people or specifically angry people from marginalized group. Like queer people and people of color and being both of those things, people are kind of like, "Oh my God!"


I can't focus on what you're trying to tell me, and that way that people sort of invalidate strong expressions of emotion in activism. When I think that the anger of oppressed people is really productive and like a driving force in making any change.


07:18 Claire: Right? Yeah, for sure. I resonate with that a lot. Especially when you're a woman or when you present femininely, you know, when you identify strongly with femininity, and you're angry, it's such a cop out. Hey, it's so easy for people to just like invalidate how you feel because of the misogynistic view that women or femininity is inherently emotional and "not logical", when really the anger is very logical. It totally makes sense!


08:01 Lucy: Exactly. And that's the thing. I think one thing is that obviously if you're pursuing any type of activism, you must be angry about something. And there's plenty of stuff to get angry about. And I just really look up to the way that she sort of harnessed that anger and wasn't trying to be polite or into straight society or anything like that. She was like, "No, you will give me my rights now, we're people and we deserve them."


Not like, "Please, will you accept queer people?" Like, no. With our rights now, we're not asking nicely. And I love that.


08:48 Claire: Yeah. Listening to those qualities or what you think... How you see activism, do you see qualities of your favorite activists in yourself and what are those qualities? Because I feel like everyone, I feel like we all have it in us, right? And I want to know what qualities you see in yourself and also I guess what qualities you wish you had more of?


09:30 Lucy: Well, I've definitely been described as angry by men usually. I think that indicates that I'm doing something right. I think I have that frustration and I have that anger that I can't seem to ignore, but I think what I would like to have is more of the confidence to use that. I'm definitely angry, that's definitely there. I definitely care, yeah, having the confidence to take advantage of that is what I have trouble with.


10:01 Claire: Yeah, I guess when you see activists, really amazing activists do their work, knowing that you have the emotion and the power to do that work, but I guess it's like knowing full well where that energy is going sometimes, you know what I mean? That's what I think of as well. Like knowing where you're channeling your anger in a way that's really pointed, you know what I mean?


When I think confidence and activism, that's what I also think of, is like how you channel that anger, that care, that passion. Like, funneling it in a way that's going to get people's attention long enough for them to reconsider their position I suppose.


10:51 Lucy: Yeah, definitely.


10:51 Claire: Yeah, like a question I was just thinking now when you were describing Silvia Rivera, was queer activism in particular. And I wanted to ask, what does queer activism look like for you?  What does it look like, how does it feel I suppose?


11:12 Lucy: Well, obviously the type of queer activism that I'm thinking of, that I would do now is quite different to the people that I look up to. Obviously, fortunately. I think to me, queer activism is a whole lot of trying to not become completely emotionally exhausted by educating the people around you and also, lately I've been thinking being visible.


The power of being visible as a queer person because I thought about the fact that when I was younger, I never really met any queer people. And so I didn't know what that was supposed to look like or how I was supposed to be or anything like that.


And I think people can often underestimate the power of just being a visible queer person, just being visible and being okay with yourself and how powerful that can be for younger queer people especially, and for homophobes who then have to deal with me being there. And it forces them to get used to it.


12:30 Claire: Sure. I remember when I grew up, I didn't get to see a lot of queer people IRL or different types of queer people or different expressions of queerness in particular. Because, when I had moved to university, getting to see the different ways that people can express themselves and I remember that really changed something in me, in the way that I can express myself.


And comparing how I looked like when I first got here, when I came to Australia, to now, it's so different. Maybe to some people, that's like a quieter form, there's still such power in that form of activism and I think that also has a level of confidence that doesn't always get acknowledged because there's an element of risk.


You know what I mean, to be able to be visible, some people don't get the choice, but being a visible queer in many spaces that aren't visibly queer. Or accept queerness, but only to their level of comfort.


13:51 Lucy: Yes, I think it was such a great moment when I realized that it's okay to be queer and look queer. I know there isn't one concept of what do queer people look like obviously. But I remember being younger, people would say, "Oh you know, it's fine if you're gay, I just don't want to hear about it, or why do you lesbians look like that?"


And realizing that if I want to look completely ridiculous, that's also fine. And hopefully, more encouraging to the next 13-year-old queer weirdo who's thinking, "Oh my God, how am I ever gonna be able to express myself in the way that I feel comfortable?"


14:43 Claire: Yeah, for sure. I'm so grateful to be able to be in a position where I can express myself and express my queerness in a way that feels good to me and not like, comfortable for others.


Yeah, earlier you were saying, when we were talking about where we find activism, talking about how university is typically a place where people first start dabbling in activist work. And you mentioned earlier, you're currently studying social work. I guess, what led you to pursue social work at Uni?


15:31 Lucy: Initially, I had gone to Uni to study creative writing. Because I thought, that's fine, this is definitely what I want to do, let's go and get a degree in that, everything will be fine. But the same year I started doing volunteer work with a queer org. And I said ages ago that it would be really cool if I could sort of be a counselor or something like that, but specifically for younger queer people.


Because it would have really benefited me to speak to someone who understands, in the sense of having that lived experience, not just like, "I'm fine with gay people, come talk to me." That's nice, but it isn't always the same, unfortunately.


But people around me have sort of said, "I think that's too specific, I don't know if that's a thing." But then I started doing volunteer work with people who were doing that and I was like, "Oh, okay, everyone lied to me, this is a thing, and this is a thing that I can do." So, yeah, I decided to change degrees and do social work so that I can hopefully help some of my community.


16:56 Claire: Right. Do you think that there are elements of activism within social work?


17:05 Lucy: I think activism is definitely part of social work if you're doing it right. That's what I was thinking. I think it's surprising that throughout the degree it doesn't get talked about as much as you would assume, which is interesting. There's a lot of focus on things like remaining critical, critical social work.


The degree that I do, there's a massive focus on reflecting on the work that you do and how it affects other people and learning how to do your job in a way that will not harm anybody. But not a whole lot about activism specifically I feel, which is interesting. But I do encourage, it's sort of expected I suppose, if there's a protest happening, they'll sort of assume that the social work students will be there, and often they are.


But beyond that, it's not discussed a whole lot throughout classes or assessments or anything like that. It's sort of something that they expect you to be doing, but we're not talking about it a whole lot which is strange. But definitely, I think activism is part of social work particularly if you want to work with marginalized people, which is a lot of what social work involves. Yeah, if you want to do that type of work, you should be trying to participate in activism as well.


18:34 Claire: Before, you had mentioned the right way of social work. What do you mean by that? I feel like that's such an important conversation to have when we're talking about space and the history of social work, the potential future of social work.


18:51 Lucy: Well I'm certainly, not enough already on the correct way. Or I'd hate to be the representative for that. But I think if it's something you're not super-familiar with, I think people don't always realize how much power they have, if they are a social worker and by that I mean a lot of people that want to pursue it and go to study it.


Obviously, a lot of people would be aware of the fact that social workers have a lot of power to make quite a significant impact on people's lives and unfortunately sometimes that doesn't happen in the way that it should. Power gets abused and people don't sort of acknowledge their privilege within the relationship, which is something that gets talked about a lot.


When you start working with someone, you need to like, you need to explain to them what your role is and what powers you have. Yeah, so doing social work in the right way is acknowledging your privilege in the relationship and also why social workers sort of take time to reflect on the power that they have and unfortunately, that's led to a bunch of people being harmed in really devastating ways.


So definitely staying self-aware. Taking the time to, not just, like, "Was I helpful in this session today with this person?" But like, "What power do I have socially and how does that complicate this?" That's really important to look at, I think.


20:47 Claire: Yeah. Because it's all part of a similar system, but there are different types of power that we're talking about. There's the power of the role in itself of social work and then the power that you have in terms of your social capital and not in like a clout sort of way, but like a social capital way of where do you sit as a person existing in this space-time continuum and how are you rewarded for the way that you exist.


Whether it's being a white person or being a cisgender person or being like a straight person, or being someone from generational wealth. All of that comes into play of having this role as a social worker.


And thinking of the ways, like you were saying, how activism does play out in social work spaces and in your learning, even if it's kind of like implied, as opposed to learned. It's implied. Did you actually have to engage in doing activist work while studying for this degree and what was that experience like?


22:08 Lucy: I definitely started attending protests a lot more often after I started going to uni. In my own way, like I was describing before, that a sort of smaller form of activism is being visible, and as a reassurance to younger queer people who are quite vulnerable which I found myself doing when I was on my placement for my degree.


And I was in a space where, it wasn't ideal, it wasn't the safest environment for a queer person. And so as an adult, it became important to me to sort of be visible for the younger queer people in that environment, as a way of just saying like, "It can be okay." You can make it through the terrible experience of being queer in high school.


23:14 Claire: Yeah, yeah.


23:15 Lucy: You know, it doesn't make it any less awful, but in a minor way resisting the homophobia of that environment just by being there.


23:30 Claire: Yeah, knowing that it's important because is the message the same, right? If someone who was invisibly queer was in that space, and I think that way of kind of like shaking the system a little bit, you know what I mean? In being a visible queer person in a space that is still trying to grapple with queerness, gayness maybe even, you know what I mean?


Trying to battle with those ideas and having someone really be like, "Well, now what, what are we gonna do now?" I think that's amazing. And firstly, I'm so sorry, that whole experience was rough, rough ducks in a row. You're saying you're the adult in the situation. The responsibility and the pressure to help disrupt the space in a way to prevent further harm from occurring.


Like you were talking about before, how you're currently being taught at social work, thinking about being a critical social worker, but there's something about it that's really intriguing to me. Because I guess it feels very individual. It's like how do you as a person, how are you going to affect the situation as opposed to thinking about the ways that you as a person will affect this, but also the things around you that affect that situation too, that are outside the people that you are working with. You know what I mean? Yeah.


25:24 Lucy: I think it was, subconsciously, I think I took on the responsibility of being a really visible queer person in a religious environment that wasn't welcoming to us. And I think I did that from the onset, I went in to acquire a placement and I had like all of my queer volunteer stuff on my resume just to straight up be like, "Here it is, this is me, and if it's not okay, then let me know right now."


But, here's everything, just so you're aware. Because it was sort of like, I can't impact massive change on Catholic environments, being violent towards queer people, but at least I can exist unapologetically in that space. At the very least I can do that.


26:27 Claire: Yeah, so true. Like that in and of itself is a disruption, that in and of itself is... Like you were saying before, challenging the oppression. Really, you know, showing up and being upfront. But it's so interesting, you did all of that and they were still trash, you know?


26:53 Lucy: Yeah, I guess it was kind of like a warning I suppose. Like, hey, if you're gonna be homophobic, know that you are talking about me and that I will get mad about it. I'm not gonna calmly take it.


27:06 Claire: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's amazing. I'm reflecting on your answer prior about the qualities of activists that you see in yourself and I think that, doing that does require a level of confidence, a level of anger, a level of care for sure. Anger a little bit, but really care and the care coming through kind of like fire, you know what I mean?


That's power in and of itself. In a way I guess you can't be taught. But in a way that I guess it's really important in the work that you do. I guess, what are the lines between activism and social work? Where does one start and where does one stop? Does that even exist? Are there even lines, can there be lines, you know?


28:10 Lucy: I think they're obviously interrelated. And I think that social work without the activism aspect is probably social work done for the wrong reasons. There's people that would sort of go in to study social work with the pure intentions of just wanting to help people, but at the same time not being super-interested in taking part in any kind of activism to support marginalized people. Which to me is kind of alarming. That's such an important part of social work, ideally, is to provide support to vulnerable people.


29:03 Claire: Yeah, and I guess also with the way that the system works, that's who you get in contact with. Because that's how systemic oppression works, you know what I mean? Yeah, I totally hear you. Signing up for something and not actually understanding the work that you're gonna have to put in and the things that you're gonna have to unpack if you get to that point.


29:27 Lucy: Yeah, and I think that could probably be enough to surprise someone who's not interested in any of that and then going to the uni degree and talking about things like decolonization and feminism and you know, oppression on the basis of things like gender, sexuality, race, ability. And there are people who I think would maybe prefer to learn about social work in a way that isn't political.


Is that the wrong word? But I do get the sense that there are people who are maybe a bit confronted by that and maybe weren't prepared to be called out and forced to check their privilege. Because it definitely asks you to do that, almost everything that you study is kind of like a reminder of where do you sit, what is your social capital, how do your actions affect other people?


30:28 Claire: It does make me think about what you were saying before, again, critical social work, but critical in what way? Being more explicit in the critical thinking and the self-awareness. Not just how I am gonna cause harm to others, but I guess the systems in place which inevitably will take part in you causing harm to someone else. You know what I mean?


It's like this thing in theory, it's what you need, you need people to stand up for you, stick up for you, listen to you, hold space for you, all that sort of stuff. But then there are definitely times in practice, that doesn't always get followed through.


Looking at the history of social work and the whiteness of social work and the way that social work has a history, especially here, of perpetuating racism, classism, etc, etc, right? Yeah, in the intersection or the way that activism and social work work together, what do you reckon the gaps are and what do you reckon needs to happen to rectify that? From your experience of learning and I guess even in practice, can be better or what needs to be better?


32:03 Lucy: I think from the onset, obviously as I've said, this does already happen. But I think from the onset, anyone looking to pursuit social work and if you're going to get an education focused on that, I would have appreciated if we had conversations about privilege sooner.


We do have a lot of conversations about it. But I feel like it was probably towards the ends of the second year where I explicitly remember having conversations about the removal of aboriginal children and why social workers have perpetuated that. That's not something that I was super-aware of before going into that space.


And I think when you talk about the legacy of social work in Australia in particular, you can't ignore that. That's you know, that's a large part of the conversation. So I think a lot more focus on that. We do talk about it. But I think probably some education on this specific history of that and quickly.


From the outset, so that people can understand where they're coming from and understand the seriousness of, I think probably a lot of people would think like, "Oh I wouldn't do that." I would never unfairly remove someone's children from them. And yet how does it happen so so often.


I bet none of those people think that they're terrible at their jobs probably either. So I think it would definitely benefit people to talk about that in a lot more depth.


34:00 Claire: Yeah, almost kind of like an accountability process of acknowledging histories and acknowledging the real life stuff, you know? It's so easy to be caught up in theory and caught up in talking about practice as opposed to actually seeing how these practices play out in real life, with real people.


Yeah, for sure. That's so wild, I didn't know that. Why would I know that? But to think that it would take you to the end of second year, there are already people who have tried this degree and have floated away and not had that knowledge. How do you not teach that? I also wonder when did they start teaching that as part of the curriculum? 


34:58 Lucy: Yeah, I do get the idea that a lot of the course now seems to be trying to take accountability for some of the harm that social workers have done. Because I think that a lot of people going into the degree think that we're above that, I think. People are kind of surprised to hear that social workers can abuse their power like anybody else.


And we don't, I don't think to outsiders, maybe people don't see social workers as dangerous; I'm not calling social workers as a group dangerous, but they can be. And I think to bridge the gap between activism and social work, I think there needs to be a whole lot more focus on what can go wrong, but in the specifics.


Because we talk a whole lot about critical reflections and writing thousands and thousands of words reflecting on your practice and things like that. But is that reflection really useful if that's not being done with that base knowledge of the harm that the social work has already done?


36:10 Claire: So true! I guess that's the thing, right? A part of activism is like acknowledging history and acknowledging past harm and knowing where to go from there and where is it going to further cause harm. In a way I guess that almost decenters yourself. How often do you get taught to decenter you as a person as opposed to... You know what I mean?


Because I feel like, especially when you're marginalized folk advocating for other marginalized folk or fellow marginalized folk, you can get really wrapped up in that, your personhood almost melds in with your role, you know what I mean?


And how do you take accountability properly, how do you decenter yourself from that work? I don't know if it's possible. You know what I mean? It may not be possible, but then how do you go around that? Like you were saying about people thinking that they can be above systemic harm, which makes no sense.


37:29 Lucy: No, but there are people who think that by virtue of being a social worker, they assume that makes them a good person and how could I possibly ever harm anybody. So I think that some people can really convince themselves that they can't do harm, but everyone is capable of it and I think that everyone needs to be aware.


37:48 Claire: For sure. You are not a passive being in that.


37:53 Lucy: Exactly.


37:52 Claire: It's a role that at its core is meant to help other people. But I guess it always depends on who you're helping and the purpose of this help and who has mandated or asked for the help. Yeah, what does accountability look like in this process and I guess as part of a system that isn't know for being accountable. I suppose that you end up doing a lot of advocacy work, as well as activism work. I guess this question is like, is there a difference between the two in this space of social work?


38:35 Lucy: I always kind of thought of, I think maybe it's just the association that I have with the words. I feel like advocacy is more formal maybe, and more polite sort of way of asking for something or expressing your support for something. Whereas, activism seems much more to me about resistance and deconstructing the systems around you when they're not working.


Not that advocacy can't be that either, but I suppose that's how I always thought about it and I think also if you're and advocate for something, that often implies that you're speaking on behalf of a group of people. Which I think I had people tell me when I was in high school, like you'd be a great advocate.


To me, it seems like more gate-keeping of the term "advocate", like it seems more formal, more polite. Advocacy is politely saying, "I advocate for queer people to have rights." And then activism is more like, "We're queer and we want rights, give it to us now."


39:51 Claire: I don't know how I personally relate to either of those words necessarily.


39:58 Lucy: I'm not even really sure why I think of it that way. But that just seems to be what I think of.


40:02 Claire: Yeah, 'cause I've also seen advocate-activist be like almost interchangeable in the way that some people use them. And I've never really thought too hard about why that was or if they are different because I think they occupy a similar space of challenging the status quo I suppose. I could never really grasp how they sat in that space.


40:35 Lucy: I get the impression that advocacy is working more within a system, and activism is a lot more about uprooting the system entirely. This may be not a proper definition of either of those things, but I suppose...


40:50 Claire: I mean, right, this isn't necessarily also right about proper definitions or whatever, it's how you relate to these words, because the way that we relate to them can affect the way that we enact these definitions that we have for these terms, you know what I mean?


If that's how you see a word, then that's how you're going to use or live or act that word in question. Because sometimes dictionary definitions feel very clinical and don't always allow for the nuance that comes with language. You know what I mean? And language changes all the time, so definitions change all the time.


41:43 Lucy: Totally. Sometimes the proper definition of a  word can be completely disconnected to how real people actually use it and understand it.


41:55 Claire: For sure. But I guess as we talk about advocacy and activists, or activism, leads me to my final wrap up question: are you an activist?


42:06 Lucy: I suppose by my own logic I have to say yes. I think I get a little bit uncomfortable because I think to myself, "Oh, am I an activist, have I done enough things, have I been active enough?" But yes, in the way that I have described it, I would say that yes, I am. Because it can be so many different things and it doesn't have to be hugely significant to be activism.


42:29 Claire: This isn't about prescribing labels to people. It's more just looking at why these labels exist and how do we relate to them. And if we vibe with them too. So thank you so much for having this conversations with me. Is there anything that you would like to plug, is there anywhere else that you would like people to find you?


42:53 Lucy: I'm femgothgf on Instagram and TikTok, if you're gay, go follow me on TikTok, where's my gay TikTok following?


43:03 Claire: Yes, oh my God, I love that, I love that so much!


Thank you again Lucy for having these conversations with me. As always, let us know what you think over on our Instagram, voicefest.thedrum. For any links mentioned or to learn more about Lucy and this episode, visit our website at thedrum.org.au/thelabellerpodcast.


Next episode we talk to Lati, who's a mentor over at Strong Brother Strong Sister. A First Nations organization that aims to nurture First Nations' youth. And we'll be talking about community activism. All righty, that's enough from me. This has been The Labeller podcast, I'm Claire and I'll see you later. Stay safe. Bye!


The Labeller Podcast is supported by the Freeza Grant Program, Drummond Street Services and the Drum Youth Program. For more information, please visit thedrum.org.au/thelabellerpodcast.