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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Border protection - creating 'good enough' psychic and physical workspace in a refugee support organisation

This paper describes, analyses and draws upon the experiences of a consulting pair working on a change project with the senior management team in a leading Australian nongovernment refugee support organisation - 'Beacon'. This successful organisation had experienced significant internal conflict and trauma in the preceding six months, in the context of high demand, rapid organisational growth and broader community turbulence around the status and treatment of refugees by the Australian government. This is an exploration of the impact of the psychic and physical work spaces and the extent to which they enable the organisation's work to occur in 'good enough' ways. That is, spaces which support the organisational purpose, contain anxiety, encourage learning and reduce the impact of direct and vicarious trauma on all the participants: refugees, paid and unpaid staff. The paper proposes hypotheses about the impact of systemic forces emerging in the organisational relationships, the challenges involved in creating adequate psychic and physical workspace, the effects of dependency, challenged leadership and the relationships with asylum seeking. In addition, it examines important contributing aspects of the organisational culture, including the impact of holding environments, unclear role boundaries and accountabilities between paid staff and volunteers, including the experiences within the consulting dyad. It uses a psychoanalytic framework to analyse some dimensions of the challenges inherent in: (a.) creating adequate containment to meet the organisation's purposes (b.) the organisation using a technical response (a new grievance procedure) to respond to the impact of internal trauma and cultural challenges which demanded deeper treatment (c.) identifying systemic influences of the refugee policy and practices in Australia and how these impact on the organisation (d.) clarifying the roles of leaders, other paid staff and volunteers.