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Diverse gathering

Embracing difference as a gift, Major Jenny Begent

A moving welcome to country ceremony and the symbolic giving of eucalyptus gum leaves, the playing of engaging and appropriately diverse music, and the speaking of honest, inspiring words were the highlights of the first Diversity conference event; a dinner held at Melbourne Project 614 at 69 Bourke Street in Melbourne on Wednesday evening, 25 October.

‘There are interesting times ahead for The Salvation Army,’ Australia Southern chief secretary in charge Colonel Graeme Rigley said to the 70 diners gathered, adding that ‘the context is always about mission… preaching the good news about Jesus Christ and meeting human need without discrimination’.

 
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The Report

Major Jenny Begent with Victorian Gender & Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen at the Embracing Difference Conference Melbourne 614
Major Jenny Begent with Victorian Gender & Sexuality Commissioner Rowena Allen, at the Embracing Difference Conference Melbourne 614

 

‘The Salvation Army believes passionately in the integrity and value of all people, and the sense of being different, and embracing difference, is significant as we move forward into an increasingly diverse world.

‘These mission values of integrity, compassion, respect, diversity and collaboration, must be embedded in all of our work. The people we care for achieve better outcomes when they are embraced and supported in their context.’

Guest speaker Celeste Liddle, of the central Australian Arrernte people, shared the complex web of connections through her life and the lives of her family, and noted that The Salvation Army provided community to her mother while her father was away working, and was ‘one of the few groups that reached out to Vietnam vets like my uncle’.

The national Indigenous organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union, who also serves on their women’s action committee, Ms Liddle discussed the conference theme of ‘intersectionality’*. This is the understanding that individuals and groups are treated in certain ways because of interconnected social categorisations like age, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, physical characteristics, class, etc.

Those ‘intersections’ where a person’s heritage, nature and personal experiences coalesce can be the points where they are then discriminated against; the points where they encounter systemic disadvantage.

‘Dedicated to God’ (the equivalent of being baptised in the Salvos), Celeste was subsequently a member of Sunday school and junior soldiers and played volleyball on a salvo team, describing The Salvation Army as ‘an accepting group that valued my skills’ and helped her ‘in an era or racism and sexism’.  

‘Society is “rungs on a ladder”,’ Ms Liddell said, ‘and recognising intersectionality means recognising that people who are categorised end up being victimised.’

Conference organiser Major Jenny Begent said that ‘intersections are essential aspects that make up who we are, and how we are treated; they shape our worldview.’ It is increasingly important, she added, to initiate conversations that help us understand those around us, so that we can go beyond tolerance and inclusion to more full and mature relationships.

Throughout the following two days, 150 people – Salvation Army practitioners and officers, and social workers and members of other non-government organisations, faith-based organisations and churches, attended conference sessions featuring researchers and guest speakers. These included Victoria’s gender and sexuality commissioner, Rowena Allen, associate professor Paul Ramacharan, professor Adele Murdolo, professor Karen Farquharson, and State Social Command (Victoria) commander Major Michael Coleman.

Reflecting on the event, conference organiser Major Jenny Begent said that holding the conference was an achievement in itself, as ‘it was really important, as people have to feel that they can trust people before they can share their history and their story safely’.

‘We hope the learning from this conference will flow up the line and we will begin to look at our suite of policies and procedures. Our guest speakers blew us away, and they addressed real practice issues/ we need to continually review and hone our practice, to keep us on the front foot of service delivery.

‘There have been and are internal and external debates about who is welcome in our communities and who is not…this was a great conference, where people were empowered to question and think about the service we provide to people who are different from us. It was a great reminder that there is nothing wrong about being different.’

The major said that examining how intersectionality might play out in practice starts with the simple visual appearances and methods of extending welcome to clients and visitors at Salvation Army centres.
* The term intersectionality was termed by US academic and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, in relation to US discrimination legislation.