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  • A tale of two webs: A strengths-based approach to place-based disadvantage

A tale of two webs: A strengths-based approach to place-based disadvantage


‘When you’re not given the same opportunities as everyone else and you’re told from an early age that because of where you’re from that you’re less of a person and you’re never going to amount to anything, then you don’t feel worthy of people’s attention.’ 

In her deeply personal contributions to the panel discussion at the launch of Jesuit Social Services report on place-based disadvantage, Dropping off the Edge 2021, my colleague Chandelle Wilson shared her reflections of being born and raised in pockets of entrenched disadvantage.

Some parts of Western Sydney, where Jesuit Social Services has worked alongside communities for more than a decade, remain deeply entrenched in disadvantage. The Statistical Area grouping of suburbs Bidwell, Hebersham and Emerton is one of the 10 most disadvantaged locations in New South Wales, and also ranked as highly disadvantaged in the 2007 and 2015 Dropping off the Edge reports. Mount Druitt and Whalan also ranked as highly disadvantaged in the last three reports.

In developing an understanding of place-based disadvantage, Chandelle explains that shame and stigma are transmitted between generations within the small number of communities we collectively fail. And yet no matter the number of indicators of place-based disadvantage, each community possesses some unique strengths. 

She describes this as a ‘tale of two webs’.

The first is the ‘web of disadvantage’, which includes environmental and lifetime disadvantage indicators, including heat stress, poor air quality, access to nature reserves, teenage pregnancies and children in homes where no parent is in paid work. These indicators demonstrate that the web of disadvantage is becoming ever more complex and gnarly, while the communities experiencing the most severe and entrenched disadvantage remain the same.

And yet despite the tangling threads of this web of disadvantage, Chandelle continues to live, give, work, and raise her family in her local community in Western Sydney. ‘It is a bright tapestry of amazing people from different backgrounds who get in and help each other when times are tough,’ Chandelle says. She describes this system of mutual support as the ‘web of strength’.


'Early successes allow us to imagine new ways of working towards a more socially just society for people in places like Willmot where place-based disadvantage can be addressed and overcome.'


Any new approaches to place-based work led by communities in partnership with government would do well to recognise these inherent strengths and resilience within the community and use them as a starting point.

For the first time, the 2021 DOTE report included focus groups and interviews in eight communities, including Willmot in Western Sydney which has a high number of indicators on which it is disadvantaged.

Willmot has a high proportion of children aged 0 to 14 and a low proportion of people aged 65+, a high proportion of residents who do not speak English well or in some cases at all. Rates of public housing are seven times higher than the NSW average. Prison admissions, juvenile convictions and family violence were more than 2.5 times the New South Wales average.

For the report, focus groups were asked a number of questions, including whether they feel safe walking at night. One focus group indicated they did not feel safe. ‘You just don’t know who’s going to come out of the trees at night,’ a respondent said. ‘You don’t know who’s shooting up around the corner and becoming aggressive ... You don’t know if it’s safe to cross that road with your children, or if there’s a hoon coming up on a motorbike without a helmet.’

However, highlighting how webs of strength can be mapped on to webs of disadvantage, one respondent who had lived in Willmot for several decades reported feeling safe in her local surrounds: ‘I do feel safe when I walk. We talk to each other. I have good neighbours and good surroundings. Not only my street but the surrounding [streets], they are all good neighbours.’

In Willmot, local community members identified the strengths of their areas and ways they wanted their communities to flourish. All wanted to be engaged in the process of change, to fortify their local communities in areas like building local leadership, improving social cohesion and creating an empowering, responsive and holistic service model.

A focus group participant from Willmot suggested: ‘Take responsibility for your own community. Start with the youth for a better community, something has to be done for the youth. The cycle needs to be broken.’

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. The Jesuit Social Services Centre for Just Places began life early this year and provides DOTE with a ‘home’ in the years between each edition. The Centre will lead research and advocacy on addressing the root causes of place-based inequities and injustice, collaborating with communities and partners across all sectors to create new place-based models of policy and practice.

It is a strange experience starting a new job during a COVID lockdown. As I slowly connect with and learn about our communities and their priorities, I am grateful to have Dropping off the Edge 2021 on hand. It provides the data to make the case for significant, long-term investment in building community capacity, preventative approaches and new place-based ways of working.

The work of building community is time-intensive. But early successes allow us to imagine new ways of working towards a more socially just society for people in places like Willmot where place-based disadvantage can be addressed and overcome.


Sally Cowling is the General Manager, Centre for Just Places, for Jesuit Social Services, NSW.

Main image:  Young man and woman standing on top of white maze. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Sally Cowling, disadvantage, Jesuit Social Services



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Existing comments

‘‘web of disadvantage’…teenage pregnancies and children in homes where no parent is in paid work.’

‘Web of disadvantage’ is caused by people who don’t know how to live functionally. Hinduism and Buddhism, stuck in societies which were economically ineffective, told their adherents to get by by being ascetic, and tried to fool them by saying that life is an illusion, unlike Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness who said that London was no illusion and if you didn’t look out, it would smash you.

But, they were partly right. A mental framework containing elements of ascetism works. People who don’t know how to live functionally tend to be sybaritic for their limited means. Teenage pregnancies keep the underclass going if they are associated with lifestyles sybaritic for their circumstances. Associated with a mental framework containing some elements of ascetism, they become a sociological flash in the pan, working poor today, kids with functional adult lives tomorrow.

A good start is to break from the everyday miasma and start living inside a 2000 year old institution that is art gallery and cinema of past, present and future human history by immigrating into the local parish.

roy chen yee | 14 December 2021  

Encouraging to hear that JSS Centre has the goal of addressing the causes of place-based inequities and injustices. Hopefully, the Centre will not depend entirely on the premise that those who make up place-based communities are entirely blameless and governments and the 'haves' of society are singularly the cause - a blind and invalid position which has dominated social justice thinking for too many years.

john frawley | 14 December 2021  

Indeed, a tale of two webs. As roy points out, the sybaritic lifestyles are generally unsustainable for lower socio-economic groups; ritzy urban areas have the rich tapestry but generally the affluent occupiers have restricted disposable income through debt, whereas suburban zones tend to have ethnic or cultural enclaves, lower income but higher disposable/discretionary spending. If you sit down and do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) with various groups the results of how they interpret the answers will be very different. Home owners might be threatened by higher interest rates or see their debt as a weakness whereas someone from a high crime area might view that the local crime rate keeps their rent low and it's easy to score without the risk of traveling. There's a ripple effect of suburbs changing status with time; inner city slum becomes executive townhouse and the adjacent suburbs increase in value and displaced cultural charm. Willmot currently is the most "affordable" suburb in Sydney; the price tag might displace renters to owner-occupiers and thus the ripple advances... and disadvantage relocates accordingly.

ray | 14 December 2021  

Having worked at the now defunct CES in Mt Druitt for six and a half years, I have seen for myself the disadvantage you speak of. Mt Druitt has the largest urban Aboriginal population in Sydney, often descendants of the local Darug people. Many of these people, like most of Mt Druitt, are in gainful employment. They are not all 'hopeless' alcoholics or druggies by a long shot. There are serious drug, alcohol and youth problems in the area though. Blacktown, further down the railway line to Sydney, is a more upmarket area comparatively. I had friends who lived there. They were eminently respectable people. One of the ladies was a graduate of Sydney University. If you are a prosperous Cranbrook and Cambridge educated stockbroker et sim living in Woollaharra you might sneer at those who live out West. You would be repeating the sneering mindset of the British aristocracy and mercantile classes who enriched themselves on the backs of black slaves and sent out people to Botany Bay for poaching to feed a starving family. Many wealthy Australian families are descended from convicts who made good. Surely their descendants, who are often quite high up in the political and economic system, can remember their ancestors and give the battlers of the West a chance?

Edward Fido | 26 December 2021  

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