Social change and equity

Social change and equity

Social inequality is driven by structural disadvantages such as race and gender, economic systems, climate change, and lack of access to basic resources.

Achieving social justice and equality requires long term and sustainable action to close the inequity gap.

La Trobe's research into Social change and Equity contributes to the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Selected impact stories

Leading Team: Dr Anne Southall

The role of teachers has evolved in recent years to incorporate responsibility for student mental health and wellbeing, in addition to academic instruction. This is particularly true in schools with a high proportion of students experiencing socio-economic disadvantage and/or childhood trauma. However, a lack of training and support for teachers themselves has resulted in secondary trauma, isolation, and burnout in teachers. The “Reflective Circles” model of peer supervision for teachers’ mental health was developed by Southall in 2019 and successfully improved emotional regulation and wellbeing for participants. Pivoting to online delivery during 2020 extended the program to regional and remote educational settings.

Online Reflective Circles facilitator training has now been delivered to teachers, psychologists and other school personnel who support teachers with the social and emotional aspects of their work. It has been implemented in ten mainstream and specialist schools across Victoria, with discussions about rolling it out in other states. A Reflective Circles community of practice has also been established to support early implementers of the model as they trial it in their own context. By preventing burnout in educators, Reflective Circles aims to improve teacher retention as well as classroom culture, ultimately making a positive contribution to learning outcomes for all students.

Read more about the research behind the impact

Leading Team: Dr Phuc Nguyen

For the last 30 years, Australia has undergone a series of reforms in its governance and approaches to delivering welfare-to-work, but adequately assisting the most disadvantaged has proved a persistent problem. In 2022, a dualized system was introduced in which approximately 40 percent of jobseekers ‘self-service’ online with the hope that resource savings made through digitalisation can be reinvested to provide more personalised support for jobseekers with more complex needs. However, the precise impacts on providers, frontline staff and those seeking support are yet to be determined. With funding from the Australian Research Council, Dr Phuc Nguyen and collaborators are analysing the implementation of the system in order to identify learnings and service design enhancements that can then be incorporated into how it operates. The project is the latest addition to the decades-long research agenda on welfare-to-work reforms in OECD and Global South countries (including the UK Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, New Zealand, Indonesia and Vietnam) of the Welfare and Work Lab housed at the University of Melbourne, of which Dr. Phuc Nguyen is a core member.

Research findings are shared with industry partners including employment services peak bodies such as the National Employment Services Association (NESA), Jobs Australia (JA) and Westgate Community Initiatives Group (WCIG), enabling a two-way knowledge transfer between the research team and welfare-to-work service providers. They are also shared directly with policy makers through workshops and presentations to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR). Nguyen’s research has been cited in employment and welfare related policy documents in Australia, the UK, Estonia, Sweden, and Spain as well as a discussion paper from the World Bank.

Read more about the Australian Welfare and Work lab

Leading team: Sallie Yea

Poverty is a key driver behind the exploitation of men and boys working as fishing crew in distant water (DW) fisheries and is a major human and labour rights issue across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in particular Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan. The voices of the victims – as with other exploitative practices – are often suppressed, limiting understandings of the experiences and issues which drive seafood slavery, and denying victims access to justice. With funding from Winrock International, Dr Sallie Yea, a Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellow at La Trobe University, has worked to advocate for these unheard voices, providing a platform for them to present their experiences and problems, to build the capacity of NGOs to support victims, and to increase understandings of exploitation in the fisheries sector. Yea has worked in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) - with support from the University of Auckland - as part of the ASEAN-ACT (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Australia Counter Trafficking Initiative), conducting legal reviews of human trafficking in fisheries cases in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines and identifying gaps in protection and access to remedies for victims. As the ASEAN-ACT website describes: ‘The information from the research has been summarised as country-specific fact sheets which include key recommendations to strengthen the justice response to trafficking in the fishing sector, and improve access to protection, services and remedies for victims’. Ultimately, the goal is to build the resilience of these victims, to strengthen their livelihoods, provide access to justice, compensation and remedies, and ameliorate issues of debt and poverty.

Read more about La Trobe's Modern Slavery Research

Leading Team: Dr Nathaniel Swain

The 2023 NAPLAN results reveal that almost one third of children across Australia are failing to meet new proficiency standards for literacy and numeracy. PISA data illustrate a growing gap between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged students in Australia. The School of Education at La Trobe is engaged in a wide variety of projects which address both this under performance and inequity through the development of evidence based teaching practice that optimises learning opportunities for all students. Teacher and La Trobe researcher Dr Nathaniel Swain is leading the Momentum Schools Project. The project aims to promote the sharing and implementation of best practice between and within metropolitan and regional schools. Firstly, by identifying schools delivering best practice based on the science of learning which have made a demonstrable impact on teacher practice and student learning outcomes. And secondly, by developing the capacity of these schools to act as regional hubs, facilitating visits and exchanges from other schools so that teachers can visit, learn and take these learnings back to their schools for implementation. The project forms part of La Trobe’s broader science of learning program supported with funding from the Bertalli Foundation and led by Professor Tanya Serry. The impact of the project will be measured using before and after evaluations of school processes and teaching practice, as well as the assessment of data on student attainment, with initial data for the project to be generated towards the end of 2024.

Read more about the Bertalli Foundation’s support for children’s learning at La Trobe

Freely Accessible Remote Laboratories (FARLabs), which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2023, was founded by La Trobe University researchers Professor Brian Abbey and Dr David Hoxley. The goal of the government sponsored initiative is to provide a virtual laboratory network which allows school students to access the state-of-the-art facilities and world-class research of Australia’s Universities. In particular, FARLabs aims to engage schools and pupils from rural and regional communities, and those in low-socioeconomic status (SES) areas, where there are often increased barriers to hands on scientific and mathematical experimentation, including a lack of resources, equipment and expertise. FARLabs offers free, live, remote laboratory access to scientific equipment at La Trobe to enable students to complete scientific experiments based around the themes of Nuclear (students can measure radioactivity with Geiger counters), Structure (x-ray and 3D imaging), and Environment (water, weather and wind), and it remains the only program in Australia with an online interactive lab component. The FARLabs content is co-designed with teachers to ensure that it is curriculum aligned, and has achieved international reach with over 700 schools signed up across 20 different countries and numerous positive testimonials from teachers and pupils. With funding (2022 - 2023) from the Telematics Trust and the GHD foundation, the program has expanded to include the development of a space science e-virtual laboratory. Not only does this component allow regional and remote students in Australia to complete interactive lab experimentation through the FARLabs site, but – as a result of collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – it also allows them to interact with partner schools in Japan to collaboratively engage with the science, and to practice and develop their Japanese language skills.

10 years of inspiring students into science

Leading team: Associate Professor Leesa Hooker, Emeritus Professor Angela Taft, Dr Jess Ison & Dr Kirsty Forsdike

Sexual assault and harassment commonly occur on public transport. There is a spectrum of sexual assault and harassment that a wide diversity of women and girls experience daily in their journeys to, on board and from public transport to home. These journeys can generate fear and anxiety which means many women change their behaviours, the routes they take and the level of vigilance they enact. A collaborative research team from La Trobe University, Monash University, and RMIT University have conducted interviews and analysed available data from public transport providers and the police to identify improvements in data collection methods and how trends in women’s safety could be monitored; and undertook an extensive literature review to ascertain what initiatives, evaluations and evidence-based practices exist both nationally and internationally. The research team members organised a workshop that brought together women from diverse backgrounds, stakeholders and designers to discuss, imagine and create a vision for a safer public transport journey. In 2021, the project produced four award-winning toolkits focusing on prevention and early intervention, to improve the safety of women and girls on public transport. In 2022, the toolkits won the Victorian Premier’s Design Award Best in Category – Design Strategy.

Tram-Lab toolkits

Image: Professor Clare Wright with Dhunggala Mununggurr, sole surviving signatory of the Bark Petitions

Leading team: Professor Clare Wright

In 1963, the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land petitioned federal Parliament for an inquiry into proposed bauxite mining on their lands before leases were issued by the Menzies government. This represented the historic first step in the Aboriginal land rights movement now culminating in the call for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Four typed originals of the petition were fixed to bark painted with traditional designs. Two are in Parliament House, (previously exhibited beside Australia’s copy of the Magna Carta, now on permanent display in the Members’ Hall). One resides in the vaults of the National Museum of Australia. The whereabouts of the fourth “Bark Petition” were unknown to the people of Yirrkala – and its very existence uncertain – until now. Research by Professor Wright traced its path to Derby, WA, where it hung in obscurity on the wall of ninety-year-old Mrs Joan McKie. Mrs McKie’s first husband, then Secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, had been gifted it by MP Gordon Bryant in 1963. Wright then notified the Yolngu elders, who described the missing petition as “our lost treasure”, that she had located it and negotiated for its return to Yirrkala. Following a ceremonial handover in Derby in November 2022, involving descendants of the original artists and signatories, the object was transported to South Australia Museum in Adelaide where it is being conserved by ArtLab. (Director of ArtLab described the work as a “national treasure … as valuable as any Picasso”.) Following conservation work, the ‘missing petition’ will be ceremonially repatriated to Country later in 2023 and will be permanently displayed in Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre. Acclaimed academic and director Professor Larissa Berendt is making a documentary feature film following the repatriation, focussing on Wright’s research and community engagement.

Read more about the Yirrkala Bark Petition

Leading team: Associate Professor Leesa Hooker, Dr Jessica Ison, Dr Kirsty ForsdikeMs Felicity YoungEmeritus Professor Angela Taft, Associate Professor Christopher Fisher, Grant O'Sullivan

‘Sexual violence’ is an umbrella term used to describe violence of a sexual nature, carried out against a person’s will. Sexual violence and harassment (SVH) exist on a spectrum of violence against women and girls. SVH can be a single instance, or it can be experienced in various ways across a woman’s life, and the perpetrator is most often known to the woman. The threat of SVH over a woman’s life impacts her mobility and how she navigates within the community, the workplace, and in the family and relationships. SVH is prevalent, yet preventable. Associate Professor Hooker leads research to identify effective primary prevention SVH interventions at all levels of the ecological model. Her team developed a Theory of Change to guide the future National research agenda on the primary prevention of women. The Theory of Change report has been submitted to the Minister for Women, was released at the 2021 National Women’s Safety Summit and informed the recent National Action Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032.

Final Report and Theory of Change

Image: Diane Kirby with Rae Frances (Left: President of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History) and Paddy Crumlin (Right: National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia MUA and President of the International Transport Workers' Federation ITF)

Leading team: Professor Diane Kirkby

The Maritime Union of Australia has a long history of campaigning for workers’ rights aboard ships and on the waterfront. To assist in current challenges such as establishing a nationalised cargo fleet and protecting international workers from exploitation, the Union draws on historical precedents for successful strategy and mobilisation. In 2008, Professor Kirkby was commissioned to provide a history of Maritime Union activity between the 1970s and 1990s. The usefulness of this material for training organisers and officials prompted the Maritime Union to participate in an ARC Linkage partnership with Kirkby which places Australian unionism in a wider context of global activism for maritime labour rights.

The Union regard the historical knowledge and long-range perspective uncovered by Kirkby’s work as integral to shaping their identity and informing their campaigns. For National Secretary Paddy Crumlin, Kirkby’s Maritime Men of the Asia-Pacific provides a “road-map”, showing how the same struggles have repeatedly faced the Maritime Union and its antecedents, and why progressive internationalism – “the key to survival” – must therefore be embraced as the fundamental principle for future action.

Maritime Men of the Asia-Pacific

Leading team: Dr Tim Jones, Dr Jennifer Power, Mr Nathan Despott, Dr Joel Anderson, & Mx Percy Gurtler

Since 2016, researchers at La Trobe University in partnership with the Brave Network, the Australian LGBTIQ+ Multicultural Council and the Victorian Government, have been investigating practices that attempt to change or suppress the sexuality or gender identity of LGBTQA+ people. The 2018 report entitled Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: responding to LGBT Conversion Therapy in Australia drew on the testimony of survivors to demonstrate that conversion practices remained active in Australia.  It was communicated to the Attorneys General of all jurisdictions. Three jurisdictions have now passed legislation banning conversion practices (Qld, Vic, ACT), and three more have commenced reform processes (Tas, SA, WA). The Act suppressing conversion practices in all settings came into effect in Victoria in February 2022.

Alongside legislative reform, this research has informed the development of a world-leading civil response scheme in the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to better support survivors and educate the public about the harmful effects of conversion practices. LTU also collaborated on developing survivor support training for mental health professionals, piloted at Queerspace in 2021 and accredited by the Australian Psychological Association.

Victorian government LGBTQ+ Change and Suppression Practices Fact Sheet

Leading team: Associate Professor Jennifer Power & Professor Adam Bourne

HIV Futures is a study of quality of life among people living with HIV (PLHIV) in Australia. The study has been running since 1997 and involves a survey of PLHIV that is repeated periodically (every 2-3 years). The 10th iteration of the survey was conducted in 2022. HIV Futures was initiated by community advocates, in conjunction with researchers, who saw the need for research about how PLHIV were coping socially, emotionally, and financially following the introduction of highly active combination antiretroviral therapy in 1996 (which transformed HIV from a terminal illness to a long-term, manageable condition). Today, the study is funded by the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care to collect data to inform progress against indicators in the Australian National HIV Strategy related to quality of life. Findings are also used by community organisations to inform advocacy and clinical and community service provision. HIV Futures findings have been cited in government policy and strategy documents, community advocacy submissions and the strategic plans of community-based organisations as well as in academic publications. HIV Futures is led by researchers at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. However, the team also involves co-investigators from the National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA), the national peak body representing PLHIV organisations. The research team works closely with NAPWHA members and a range of other organisations to revise each iteration of the survey to ensure it reflects recent events, issues and areas of concern for the community. Community organisations are also asked to provide input and commentary on study reports and community investigators are routinely invited to co-author the report and academic papers. In all aspects of the design and delivery of HIV Futures, the research team are committed to the meaningful involvement of PLHIV.

Read more about HIV Futures

Leading team: Associate Professor Kayli Wild, Mrs Guilhermina de Araujo, Emeritus Professor Angela Taft, Associate Professor Leesa Hooker

La Trobe University researchers have conducted primary research with women survivors of violence and first responders, and led the adaptation and piloting of the World Health Organisation's first curriculum for health providers to support women experiencing violence. The studies took place in Timor-Leste where it is estimated that 58% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partner. Led by post-doctoral researcher, Dr Wild (ARC DE17010454), the curriculum was adapted as a pre-service University course, incorporating videos created with survivors of violence and was contextualised to include children and people with disability, and how to safely respond to perpetrators of abuse. The pilots showed significant improvements in knowledge, attitudes and confidence of nursing and midwifery students after the training, with changes sustained at follow-up. Responding to targeted workshops, policy briefs and advocacy, the Ministry of Higher Education has now made responding to gender-based violence (GBV) a compulsory subject for all midwifery degrees in Timor-Leste. The curriculum was further strengthened through development of a dual language (Tetun/English) open-access La Trobe published textbook, Gender-Based Violence and Healthcare in Timor-Leste. Six Universities are implementing the new course, with the researchers providing ongoing training and mentoring to lecturers and Ministry of Health trainers. The textbook has been distributed to University libraries and the curriculum, training videos and underpinning research are housed in a resource hub in the local language. This work has led to a new joint venture with UNFPA and the Ministry of Health to develop a national in-service curriculum and implement training, research and ongoing support for health providers to address GBV on a National scale.

More information

Image: Professor Fiona Kelly

Leading team: Professor Fiona Kelly

Hundreds of thousands of people globally, including ~60,000 Australians, have been conceived with donated sperm, ova or embryos, most when donations were anonymous. Donor linking, a process whereby donor-conceived people, donors and recipient parents access each other’s identity, is a recent and controversial legislative and policy response to concerns about the wellbeing of these children and adults. Australia is a world leader in providing statutory donor linking services, with three states allowing prospective donor linking and Victoria providing for retrospective access to donor identities. Following recent Parliamentary inquiries, several other states have committed to introducing legislation that would permit both prospective and retrospective access. However, donor linking is already moving beyond law’s reach. Non-statutory linking - where individuals use online registers, social media, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, and direct approaches to fertility clinic staff - is increasingly common even where statutory linking is available. Professor Kelly’s submissions to Parliamentary and independent reviews in Victoria and Queensland contributed to recommendations which have translated into legislative reform. She has also been invited to appear before state Parliamentary inquiries into donor conception practices and provide expert advice on this subject. She was quoted in the final reports of Inquiries in Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania over the past five years, paving the way for donor linking law reforms.

Kelly has been a VARTA Board member (Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority) since 2018. Board members are nominated by the Minister for Health. Her 2023 edited collection Donor-Linked Families in the Digital Age was funded by an ARC Discovery Project (DP180100188) "Families of Strangers: The socio-legal implications of donor linking".

Donor-linked families in the digital age

Leading team: Dr Chris Maylea

Involuntary mental health treatment, including the use of seclusion and restraint, is disempowering and traumatic. Research by Dr Maylea showed that distress can be significantly reduced by the presence of a non-legal advocate who represents the interests of the person and can assist them to understand their rights, negotiate with medical staff, access appropriate care, and make informed decisions.

Citing this research, the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System (2019-2021) found that compulsory treatment constituted a breach of human rights which could be mitigated by access to an advocate.  In 2022, the Victorian Department of Health then commissioned Maylea to develop a new service model for mental health advocacy. Maylea was also appointed to the expert advisory group drafting the Victorian Mental Health and Wellbeing Act 2022, which has established that anyone subjected to involuntary mental health treatment must now by law be offered access to an independent advocate.

In 2023 the Queensland government announced that, in response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation, it will be funding non-legal mental health advocacy for $11.5m p/a recurring. Dr Maylea was the winner of the 2023 Engagement Australia Excellence Awards: Outstanding Leadership in Engagement.

Read more about Chris Maylea's work

Leading team: Professor James Leibold

Minority nationalities in China’s Xinjiang region, in particular the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, have been subjected to human rights abuses including mass extrajudicial internment, forced labour, and reproductive coercion. Analysis conducted by Professor Leibold for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Xinjiang Data Project has brought this systematic persecution into public view. The project website, which includes an interactive map identifying sites of Uyghur detention and cultural destruction, has received nearly one million visitors since its launch in 2021. Drawing on its findings, the UN Human Rights Council, among other bodies, have determined China may be committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

The project’s research, including its 2020 report Uyghurs for Sale, influenced the passage of two bills through the United States Senate (the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act), although an equivalent bill failed to pass in Australia despite Leibold’s contribution to the Senate inquiry. Media coverage, including the Four Corners Tell the World report (2019) and op-eds in major news outlets like The New York Times, has fulfilled the project’s objective of placing Xinjiang in a global spotlight.

The Xinjiang Data Project

Leading team: Dr Makiko Nishitani and Professor Helen Lee

Young Pacific Islander adults are caught in an intergenerational spiral of racism, isolation, and disengagement. Testimonials express an overwhelming need for accessible careers information and role models from a similar cultural background. In 2014, the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC) began collaborating with Professor Lee and Dr Nishitani from La Trobe University in a five-year project aimed at investigating the experiences of Pacific people living in Mildura and Robinvale (northwest Victoria). Over 150 Pacific people in the area participated in the research to share their experiences. Stories gathered during the study were presented at the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Starting in 2019, work began on developing the Pacific Islander Network website to provide resources that will bring positive impacts to Pacific people. The website contains video statements by Pacific people who grew up in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, representing a wide range of careers and diverse routes to realising professional success. Providing a platform to challenge damaging stereotypes, it demystifies career development and gives access to relatable role models who can mentor the next generation. Inspired by the website, Microsoft are now offering free training in IT skills to a cohort of young Pacific people in regional Victoria.

The Pacific Islander Network