Still Curious S1E10 - Kat Daley

Kat Daley00:00

To be curious is a privilege that comes with time and economic security. I don't think they realize how busy they are. Like they all work seven days. There's no weekends, there's no days off. There's no space to be curious, but that's normal to them. So I do wonder if they will actually ever get the space to be curious if it's so sort of ingrained in them to be at the grind 24 7.

Danu Poyner00:26

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner.

My guest today is Kat Daley, who was the Program Manager for the Bachelor of Youth Work and Youth Studies at RMIT University, which is the largest youth work degree in Australia.

Kat's research examines, young people and chronic disadvantage, youth policy, self-injury, gender, corrections and poverty. I met Kat nearly 10 years ago when I was a Teaching Assistant at RMIT. while she was doing her PhD and we taught a course on research methods together. In this episode, we discuss the realities of life on the margins.

Kat Daley00:59

If you spend a day in court, you just watched the haves tell the have-nots how to live their life

Danu Poyner01:03

And the kind of issues and people Kat encounters on a daily basis. We cover why youth studies matters.

Kat Daley01:09

What I always found really problematic was that all of the research on best practice for working with young people with drug issues was not applicable to the young people I was working with.

Danu Poyner01:20

Kat's pathway into the academy and where she got her drive for tackling systemic injustice.

Kat Daley01:24

She was like, you did the right thing. Do it again tomorrow, you know? You've got to stand up for other people. Don't worry about getting suspended from school.

Danu Poyner01:30

It's a powerful, personal and political discussion, but one in which Kat's sense of purpose and positivity ring clear throughout. Enjoy! It's Kat Daley coming up after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast


Part 1 - Meet Kat today

Kat. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. How are you?

Kat Daley02:11

Thanks. How are you?

Danu Poyner02:13

Oh really well thanks. So you're the program manager for the Bachelor of Youth Work and Youth Studies at RMIT University, which I understand is the largest youth work degree in Australia. And you describe your work as being about young people and chronic disadvantage, young people's pathways in and out of substance abuse and improving the wellbeing and opportunity of disadvantaged young people in the community.

That's really powerful. I guess what's the most important thing for someone to understand about what you're doing.

Kat Daley02:42

So we are the only degree that offer essentially a double major in youth studies and youth work. And the difference between the two put simply is youth studies is looking at the sociological understanding of young people, looking at how we as a society conceptualize and theorize, and can make sense of young people as a collective group of people, not to be worked with or worked on, but just how do we understand that?

We have a very strong policy bent in our degree in terms of looking at how policy is made in relation to young people, how they apply to young people and how are young people included or excluded in that policymaking process. And the reason that we feel that's really important for the future workforce to understand is because as a worker you are working with usually one client, one young person, and it's very easy to fall trap into this idea that it's an individual issue. That you're working with them, and for them it obviously is an individual issue and you do need to work them as an individual, but the pattern, like the experiences they are having, they might be part of a broader social pattern. And that as workers, we need to be aware of that, not just to be better workers, but to be better advocates for young people, because youth workers should be advocating for young people.

And if you are sort of siloed into this idea that everybody's problems are their own individual problems. It places responsibility at the feet of the individual, rather than the social or political dimensions that might come into it. So that's what we teach them. We teach them skills, we teach them youth work skills.

Students do a lot of placement. We do multiple placements at organizations. But in terms of that theoretical layering, that distinguishes a degree from a vocational program, but particularly the RMIT degree from other degrees, is that it's understanding the young person you work with belongs to a collective group of young people who have often a marginalized place in a social hierarchy and considering what that means.

And it's a really pertinent time to be in a role like this for two reasons. So one is, you know, in Victoria, in Australia, we've had several relevant Royal commissions into various human service related sort of topics, but all of them have had implications for workforce.

So some of those who've been on family violence or child protection. There was one interstate on young people in corrections facilities, but into all of these Royal commissions, there's obviously recommendations and these recommendations have always had relevance for, our workforce has been calling for specialist workers.

So people that are specialized in youth or specialized in family violence. So, to be leading a degree that is creating that workforce, it's a really timely thing to be in to be making sure that our students are able to fulfill those roles.

And then the other part of the role is kind of my research . And that my area of interest is looking at young people who you know, very broadly sort of in quotation marks on the margins for whatever reasons. And that's normally through multiple reasons which is where I refer to it as sort of chronic disadvantage, where there's been a bunch of things that have happened along the way through no fault of a young person's themselves that limit or curtail their access to opportunity

Danu Poyner06:05

There's a lot there. And we'll come back to as some of the research work that you're doing a little later on, but I guess it'd be good moment to dig into that idea of chronic disadvantage a little more. And I always ask people on the podcast, how would you explain in this case, chronic disadvantage to a ten-year-old or someone who has not had to know about it?

Kat Daley06:23

So, if you've got a friend that goes to school and they came into the school at a different year level, like they didn't start in prep. they got moved to another school, maybe in grade two grade three, and sometimes they get dropped off late. And maybe the parents have split up and often they're hungry and the teacher always calls them naughty, and sometimes maybe they're naughty because they're hungry and maybe they were hungry because they were dropped off late and missed breakfast. And maybe the reason they were dropped off late was because it's just mum and dad's not around. So, call the kid Tommy Tommy's had a bit of a patchy ride and he doesn't have friends the same way the other people have. And that's because everyone was doing their best, but it's hard.

It's kind of struggling to catch up because he's changed schools a few times and each time he's changed, they've been learning about different things. He's come to the school later and maybe he's not on the local sports team because of shifting suburbs as well. So he doesn't have a broader network of friends outside of the school. And these things make school a bit harder for Tommy because he feels a bit behind and he doesn't have friends and just doesn't really feel like he belongs and maybe there's some stuff happening at home. And then maybe mom's really struggling to make ends meet and she's under pressure and maybe dad's in the picture or in and out of the picture or completely out of the picture and these are all things that have happened to Tommy that Tommy had no control over, but that are impacting how well Tommy can make friends and engage with school and participate in sport. That makes getting to grade five and grade six and year seven harder for Tommy than it is for the ten-year-old I'm explaining it to who presumably hasn't had all of these disadvantages. I'd explain it in that sort of way and obviously, in the bigger picture, we're looking at housing instability or child protection issues, or economic stress where single parents are often having to move houses a lot and children moving school and the flow on effects.

Danu Poyner08:24

I think that's a really powerful image and I wonder how many Tommys are there out there in this kind of situation of chronic disadvantage?

Kat Daley08:36

A lot. I mean, it hasn't been enumerated and I guess it would be difficult, as to what counts. It's like, are we just looking at the single parents who are under various kinds of stresses, or are we looking at instances where there's that and a bit more, maybe some child protection contact or other red flags. We know that there's some red flags for it, intergenerational patterns are really common, obviously not through biology, but through inherited poverty to put simply, and in some suburbs it's a lot more prevalent than in other suburbs. Essentially it's a poverty issue and there's different scales and and there's other sort of non material things that can make a difference.

So, if Tommy's mom is educated herself, that protects Tommy a little bit more than if Tommy's mom had had to leave school at year seven. So there's other factors that come in play in the longer term pattern, but the numbers are very significant for our department, our first world nation.

Danu Poyner09:30

I'm really struck by the way that you bring in all the different complexity of social and economic factors to what goes into that and how we understand it. And I guess that's part of the lens that you bring to understanding the field. I noticed this in your work an idea of something called situated choice that comes up a fair bit, which is maybe familiar to people who know a bit of sociology, but probably not familiar to everyone.

So my kind of understanding of situated choice is that we make individual choices, but the circumstances in which we make those choices are not always of our choosing, is that a fair

Kat Daley10:07

That's a perfect description. So essentially all of us are making choices all at the time, but the choices that we have available to us at different.

It gets used a lot in sociology because we, when we look at, I guess a common one is like the, just say no approach to drugs and then drug users should just say no, Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't. But the real question to me is in what circumstances are people in where drugs might be more appealing than to other people? So, you know, like what, what's the environment that is driving people's choices.

Danu Poyner10:38

And Tommy, you mentioned a lot of these things are happening through no fault of his own. And so what are some examples of where and why situated choice is important to understanding chronic disadvantage in the areas that you're working in?

Kat Daley10:54


So I guess where it's really impactful to consider is in situations where a person is having to take liability for something that's occurred. The immediate thing that springs to mind is like the justice system , somebody committed a crime or alleged to have committed a crime and is everybody equally responsible would be the overarching premise here.

So in Australia, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 , so you can be legally tried for murder at age 10, and obviously 10 is very young and 10 is, it's not consistent with the responsibilities. We give young people because if we are accepting that they are of sufficient mind to be held fully criminally responsible.

Something at 10 then why don't we give them a driver's license at 10 and why can't they vote at 10? And why can't they access their own health records at 10? And that's because other government departments have deemed them, not yet sufficiently developed to make these decisions and parents to make decisions for them.

And so when does accountability begin? I mean, I would presume that most people would say that 10 is too young. I can't imagine it would take much persuading for me to sort of say to people, well, if 10 year olds committing serious offending, we probably should be looking at what's going on at home.

Danu Poyner12:11


Kat Daley12:11

So then it's like, that begins this continuum of when is somebody responsible and when was it their choice, to break the law. And, particularly in the level level courts in Australia, the magistrate's court someone once described it to me is if you spend a day in court, you just watched the haves tell the have-nots how to live their life. And it's to entirely accurate assessment because, largely the people that find themselves in the magistrates' court are poor people. And to people that are making judgments on their lives are very rich people. And there's a lot of complexity into how that situation has come to unfold.

And I've also sat in court with someone who's been a victim of sex offenses and the perpetrator was an academic. So you know, PhD educated, employed at a university and came from a family of, I think the brother was one brother was a lawyer. The other brother was a doctor, you know, that very sort of archetypal rich well-to-do upper-class and family and the perpetrator was found guilty.

But what was really interesting in sentencing was that in the period between being found guilty and sentencing, a judge has to make a decision as to what happens to the person who's being found. And what you would usually see particularly for serious crimes like sex offenses. And it was child's expenses would be that the person is held in remand, because they're definitely going to get a custodial sentence, you know, that you can't you don't get to skip jail when you're found guilty of child's expenses.

So, but the, the question is likely know how long is the person going to be in detention for? And you know, between the time of the child had reported it to the time that the person had been found guilty, several years have passed because it's a lengthy process. And in all of these years, this person, the perpetrator had been free in the community and they lived across the road from a primary school and potentially continued offending.

And they've still got their six figure salary and their high profile life. So they've had a lot of freedoms that the victim hasn't had, but the point that I'm coming to is that the judge determined that because of this person's life experience, jail is going to be incredibly difficult for them.

Therefore, they can be released into the community until sentencing. And I was in the court at the time. I found that very jarring to hear because the assumption was that if the person's life experiences hadn't been so privileged, then jail would be a walk in the park and they'd be held on remand.

And there was actually a line made by the judge that it's not like he's dealing drugs. As though the offending would, I don't know, it was just bizarre because obviously we know that childhood sexual offending is not a one-off crime and that by the time he found guilty, there's probably being previous victims and there's likely to be more but I found it really interesting because. I think most of us hold the view that the more privileged your life has been, the more access to education, the more access to money, the more access to friends in high places is the more you should understand your responsibilities as to what's right, and what's wrong. And the more you should be held accountable for these actions.

And this person was actually getting more leniency because of their privileged life. And I bring that in because we often hear the opposite. We often hear, oh, they're getting out of things because they had a bad childhood, but it actually also works the other way. People get out of things because they had an incredibly privileged childhood that the incredibly privileged judge or magistrate can connect with rather than be disconnected from the poor person which they are making a judgment on.

So. This is a very long convoluted answer, but how do we get to, you know, situated choices? How do we consider how much influence somebody environments have over the decisions they make? So if a young girl has been moved around the child protection system, is sexually exploited while she's under the care of the state,

the older boyfriend who sexually exploiting her starts to pimping her out, offering her drugs, then she's drug dependent. She's 13, 14. Was this her choice? Like, should she have just said no. And then what if she gets charged for sex work. Did she choose, did she choose that?

Did she grow up choosing to be drug dependent, pimped out by an older boyfriend who might've been the only person that she's ever felt cared for. Obviously, care it's not the way that you or I might conceptualize it, but she might have felt cared for. And now she's before a magistrate for sex work or trying to obtain drugs or petty theft, did she really choose that in the sense that you or I would actively have to go and make the choice to be in such an environment where this would even be in our possibilities?

So that's what situated choice looking at in what environments are people making choices and how much does that environment influence what choice they can make?

Danu Poyner17:08

Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that. That's a great, answer It takes something to hold the individual and the social pattern together and be able to see both that's definitely important kind of ethical imagination that I think I hear coming into that as well. So that's, that's a really important, are the people doing the program kind of from privileged backgrounds or non privileged backgrounds or is it a mix?

Kat Daley17:35

They come from diverse backgrounds, but not from the large majority, wouldn't come from privileged backgrounds in that tradition. You know, most of my students are not coming from, you know, the top grammar schools.

And I think part of that reflects vocational degrees. There's, there's very significant sort of social class based distinctions on who studies what at universities and working class students. And I'm certain I'm speaking very broadly here. I tend to be much more present in degrees that are attached to a distinct job at the.

And distinct path of employment compared to say like an arts degree where it's not saying you'd be unemployed with an arts degree, but it's not immediately obvious as to what that what's the job at end is and particularly if you're a first in family student, like what's an arts degree painting, you know, like you don't, it's, it's a different world.

my students They might've had a mixed sort of educational experience. They're much more likely to bring with it some some lived experience of, of the sector. They might've been a young person in the sector or been close to it that, that, that group of students in my degree tend to be able to really offer significant amount of wisdom in the classroom.

street street wisdom, I guess, is probably the lay term for it. And then you get, you know, people that have come direct from year 12 that are probably a bit green around some of the rougher sides of life that maybe imagining themselves working in a school or YMCA . So it'd be more upstream type setting. So there's still quite a lot of diversity within the cohort.

Danu Poyner19:20

Yeah, thank you. Yeah, that's a really useful illuminating explanation,

Part 2: Kat's personal journey

I think maybe if we zoom out for a moment, then I'd like to ask you, how did you come into be in this line of work

Kat Daley19:32

I mean, always raised in like a very socioeconomically deprived area. And I went to school in an environment that I've since learned is far from normal, but you know, at the time I had no idea it was far from normal and. teachers sleeping with students or assaulting students was not like, it was kind of like, ah, a bit of sort of lunchtime gossip and it wasn't like never occurred to anybody to report any of these things.

And there's also poverty issues. When you grow up in poverty issues, you understand things differently. Like you understand why people who experience extreme poverty, forgive each other for stealing each other's things. And that's because they both understand desperation and they don't see it as, you chose to steal from me and that's disrespectful and I'm going to cut you off for life.

It's like, I know what it's like to have been that desperate, you know? And so there's a to the external world, it can be like, how can you forgive the unforgivable? But it's not unforgivable when you've been in the situation yourself. not disrespect that drives these things. You know, I was raised by a single mom who struggled.

I didn't have, like, I went to a school where a lot of people whose parents were first generation migrants and like they started school and couldn't speak English, you know, which is a different set of barriers. And so in a lot of ways I had, you know, what's sort of called the protective factors that enabled, I guess me to have a different pathway to most but like lots of, particularly the boys, lots of the boys I went to school with are either dead or in jail.

And when you know these people from kindie, you know that they weren't all evil. And so that really drove me as to liking it and they never made the papers. I just, as a teenager, I used to go to a dance school on the other side of town. And a girl that I had been to my dance school she'd been murdered and

. So this was like front page story. It became a movie. It was big news and it should've been, but I'd also witnessed boys from my school who had died at the hands of injustice and their name wouldn't come up in a Google search because poor young men were not somebody that the broader community could connect with or empathize with.

And it was kind of, you know, they must've deserved that fate. And that really I guess from very young, I had read that that sense of injustice really bothered me. At school I was suspended a lot for, you know, one time I was suspended because there's two disabled girls in my class and we were in class and there was two other. There's one on the guilt, particularly who was just, she was just very, she was just a very cruel girl, but she would throw things at this girl who's like physically disabled. She's in a wheelchair. Couldn't speak properly. Like literally couldn't speak up for herself. And the teacher wasn't back turned or something. And so I intervened like this really bothered me like this sense of somebody who had more, you know, physical capability and power exerting that over somebody simply because they were powerless. You know, I intervened and it sort of got a bit loud and vocal but anyway I ended up getting suspended for this y'know disrupting the class.

I think I swore at the teacher for not doing a job, but you know, in the school were like, you know, I can't remember the details, but they were to sort of, you know, shame me into, how's your mother gonna. I feel about this being suspended, but I had this deep sense that my mum was gonna have my back and I was like, my mommy's going to be like, you did the right thing. Do it again tomorrow, you know? And I, and that's exactly what happened.

I went home and told her what happened and it didn't like she didn't for a second think that I was lying. And, you know, she was like, you did the right thing. You've got to stand up for other people. Don't worry about getting suspended from school. So a lot of it, I must have learned from her, you know, like that was the person that she was.

And I think if you're raised by a person that stops to give food to the homeless or to, you know, and she didn't have much to give, but she always did good. So I think part of that is that that sense of, you know, that there's, you have a duty as a, as a citizen, you have a duty to help people particularly people who, you know, have less, you know, materially or capacity. So I think that, you know, you're raised in that environment. And then I really think that I learned a lot from living in poverty, you know, like not just in an environment where you're exposed to kind of, you know, violence or kids being in and out of child protection or friends with family violence issues at home.

And I'm not suggesting that this is like way that everybody should go and learn. And, but you know, it definitely had a hugely significant impact on who I became.

Danu Poyner24:13

Was, was being an academic, always plan A for you? What, what can you tell me about

Kat Daley24:18

No. I mean, no, I wasn't planning on being an academic, not, I can't tell you the by accident in short is how all of this came to be. when I finished school, I was going to be a dancer and then I wasn't gonna be a dancer. But anyway, I did essentially, I didn't know what I wanted to do. In terms of long-term and I started a science degree which I didn't really have any interested in I didn't stick around for long and then I just went and worked for a while. And then I, it was sort of got to a point in time where I knew I needed a career and had this belief that if I wanted to have a career as a woman, then I needed to go to university because any job that I got without a degree probably wasn't going to have a significant amount of career progression and economic security was having that in my life was very important to me.

So so just kind of had this, well, I have to go to uni, what am I going to do? So I didn't know what I was going to do and you get to put down eight preferences and my eight were very disparate like that. You know, there wasn't a pattern. But long story short is I thought my first preference was a science degree with a major in psychology.

So I was quite surprised when I got an offer for a social science degree, with a major in psychology. And it turns out there was one digit difference in the course code number. And I mistyped it which was very unfortunate because actually hated humanities and the social sciences. And so was not particularly thrilled about the situation that I found myself to be in.

However, there was one logistical convenience, and that was that the social science degree was based in the CBD. Whereas the science degree was based out in a suburb, nowhere near me. , and the psychology major was exactly the same in both. So I kind of thought I'll just, you know, start this and then move over.

And anyway, for reasons which kind of work, I didn't revive her, I didn't particularly enjoy the social science part of the degree. Until my second till about halfway through, but then particularly in the third year I really started to engage with it a lot more. And by this point I'd sort of, I hadn't lost interest in psychology like I did as a study.

And I certainly don't critique it as a discipline, the way many social science scientists partial to, but I knew that I didn't want to be a psychologist anymore. looking back, I think that my, my concern with it was the individualist approach, and what I did want to do and what I always had a passion for was working with disadvantaged young people.

And so after school, I used to do some, like, you don't have high school and they're doing some tutoring of some young disengaged people. So it, it always been something that interests me. So I always thought, okay, well, I'll go on. Teaching. And like in Australia we call them community schools. And essentially they're a school for young people who are disengaging or disengaged from mainstream schools.

And it's a way to kind of keep them connected in an alternative education setting. But I was really committed to wanting to be a good teacher because there was lots of average teachers. I think the, the plan was to do an honors year and then do a master's of teaching and then go and do teaching.

And the reason I