Elevating ALL voices

Capire’s Sarah Roberts has over 12 years’ experience in community and stakeholder engagement specialising in diversity, inclusion and equity. Sarah led the codesign of Australia’s first regional gender service alongside trans and gender diverse community members and clinicians. Sarah grew up in regional Victoria and is dedicated to continuing to enable rural and regional communities to influence decisions that impact them.

What do you love about community engagement?

I love being about to elevate voices that may not usually be heard. I am particularly passionate about working with harder to reach communities. I have seen first hand how powerful it can be to be truly listened to and to be heard.

You have worked in diversity and inclusion for over ten years. What has changed in that time, and what hasn’t changed?

I think many things have changed. There is a much larger focus on diversity and inclusion across sectors, including private industries which is wonderful to see. I think what hasn’t changed is the strength and resilient of diverse communities. There has always been, and continues to be, incredible activists and advocates who continue to empower those around them and create incredible change so younger generations are able to be themselves.

Tell us about establishing the first Gender Service in regional Australia (Gateway Health Gender Service GHGS) for trans and gender diverse young people and their families? Was it hard to get funding for this? What challenges did you face?

This process was incredibly challenging and rewarding. The Gender Service was built from the ground using a process of codesign and based in community development methodologies. The work began with developing strong relationships with trans and gender diverse people and their families – these relationships were built on trust and mutual respect. The aim was to listen to community and really hear them and learn about the critical gaps in our region.

The main area of need was for medical and social services to support trans and gender diverse young people to affirm their gender, given the only Gender Service was based in Melbourne, 3.5 hours away and with a 12 month wait list. I then led a codesign process with community over three years to establish the service using a shared cared model with the Royal Children’s Hospital, along with local medical specialists. There was no funding for this work at the time so we created a model that could be sustainable on very little funding. The service has been running for five years now and has over 130 children/young people and their families receiving support ad care.

The GHGS was co-designed with trans and gender diverse community members. How important is Lived Experience in community engagement.

I think it is extremely important to engage people in decisions that affect them. In order for community engagement processes to be successful, people need to feel heard and included in determining outcomes and directions.

What’s your favourite community engagement project you have worked on?

The codesign process in developing Australia’s first regional gender service. I was able to make authentic, deep connections with trans and gender diverse people and their families to advocate together for the establishment of a critical service. There was a great level of trust built with community and other stakeholders which enabled us to achieve something truly lifesaving.

You have experience in the education industry and the health industry. How are the industries changing and moving forward in regard to gender, inclusion, and diversity?

Both the health and education sectors have seen a lot of change over the last few years, for example there is a much larger focus on intersectionality – the way in which multiple parts of ourselves can work to compound discrimination. This is an area of work I am very passionate about both due to my personal experiences and witnessing the power of considering all aspects of our identities.

While there is still work to be done, the education system is certainly embracing gender diversity more so now then ever before. In many cases, young people are feeling safer to affirm their gender at school. The health industry is also more aware of the absolute need to listen to the communities they serve and embed inclusion into their vision and strategic planning.

You grew up in regional Victoria. Did you see first had a lack of resources available for the LGBTQIA community and a general lack of engagement? What effect does this have on the community?

Yes the lack of visibility of LGBTIQA communities in regional Victoria really impacted me as a young person. I knew I was ‘different’ to many of my friends, but it took me much longer to work out what this ‘difference’ was about because I had no ‘examples’ of queer identities in my local area, or within my extended family. I think the impact this has on communities is that many people feel alone or isolated. Funding across regional Victoria for LGBTIQA young people has really helped to create safer more inclusive communities.

Do you think Australia still has a long way to go to protect the LGBTQIA community?
What do you think this discrimination is based on?

Victoria really has been leading the way in terms of LGBTIQIA inclusion which is wonderful to see. I think often homophobia, transphobia and other types of discrimination are based on fear and ignorance.

You are passionate about working closely with communities. What are some tips and tricks for reaching a wide and diverse range of people?

This really depends on the situation and the community/communities you are engaging with. I think often its time and relationship building that has made the biggest different in terms of engaging harder to reach communities. Many people from diverse backgrounds have a sense of feel over consulted, over promised and under delivered. So its really about taking time to listen and being authentic and realistic about what can be offered or produced. Transparent communication and enabling time to co-create inclusive spaces leads to better outcomes.

Based on your experience in the health industry, how has it changed since Covid-19.

In general, there is a lot of ‘burn out’ among the health workforce. The last few years have been disconnecting and challenging, especially for those providing mental health, family violence and other types of welfare based support. Communities have also suffered from feeling removed from their usual connections and activities. This has changed the way that consumers engage with services. On the positive side, the use of telehealth and online technologies have been maximised during Covid-19 outbreak. This has provided some benefits to rural and regional communities in terms of access to specialists and services they may have had to travel long distances for in the past.

How do you feel community engagement changed over the years? How have the barriers and drivers changed?

Community engagement has changed over the years, particularly in terms of hybrid engagement and use of online mechanisms. There are positives and negatives to this approach. From my experience, online engagement methods can be inaccessible to many diverse people. On the flip side, some may find the online opportunities to be inclusive and allow for more extensive engagement. I think the flexibility to provide both options when required is key to ensuring communities and stakeholders feel included.

What would you like to bring to Capire?

I would like to bring a diversity and inclusion lens to project work and provide strategic advice on engaging in the health sector and with harder to reach communities.

You can read more about Sarah here

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