A Reflection on SHCY's 2019 Conference: Encounters and Exchanges
By: Emily Vine
The 2019 SHCY conference, entitled ‘Encounters and Exchanges’, took place at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney from 26-28 June. This was the first time the conference has been held in the southern hemisphere. The members of my panel had travelled from London, while many other delegates had journeyed from all over Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia, as well as from across Australia and New Zealand. For many, like myself, it was our first visit to Australia. ‘Encounters and Exchanges’ seemed a fitting premise for our meeting.
Throughout the conference emphasis was placed on acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which the conference was being held. The conference opened with Naomi Wolfe giving an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ that recognised that we were gathering on the land of the Gurringai people, traditional custodians of North Sydney, and many of the panels opened with this reiterated acknowledgement, and the paying of respect to Elders past and present. The welcome reception in the evening was centred around a more formal ‘Welcome to Country’, which welcomed participants to an area whose land and waterways have traditionally been cared for by the Gurringai people.
The location of the conference, with its complex history, was a firm reminder of the importance of studying the nuances of people and place, and of being conscientious in our approaches to identity and citizenship. One thread which kept emerging throughout our three days of discussion was the integral place of children within concepts of nationhood and state formation. During Friday’s plenary session, ‘Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)’, Dr. Isabelle Barrett Meyering reiterated that the question of sovereignty is intricately connected to issues relating to childhood, acknowledging a theme that had resurfaced in many panels throughout the conference.
The conference opened with Lynelle Long’s plenary discussion of her personal experience of inter-country adoption, and her establishment of a network to bring together those who had experienced inter-country adoption. Much of Long’s work encourages dialogue between researchers who study or create policy relating to inter-country adoption, and those who have lived experience of it. It was suggested that academia is, in many ways, still catching up with the complexities of inter-country adoption and the impact upon those affected by it. This was a valuable reminder to a room full of historians of the need to work with those with personal experience of the human issues we research. This opening plenary set the scene for the several papers across the conference which focused on historical child adoption. Many of these papers, such as Naomi Wolfe’s, reminded us that modern Australia, like other states with a history of colonial atrocities, has been built on the control and removal of indigenous children from their families. These are events that are continuing to have a very real impact upon modern Australian society.
Dr. Sacha Davis and Dr. Johanna Perheentupa’s innovative research made comparisons between the forced removal of Romani children in the Habsurg Empire, and the forced removal of indigenous children in Australia. They suggested that in both cases this was an attempt to make targeted populations disappear, or to turn them into productive citizens. Professor Shurlee Swain offered an in-depth comparative and international survey of the politics of adoption. Swain offered four political categories of adoption: racial, economic, ideological, and moral. ‘Racial’ adoption, for example, could include processes in Australia, New Zealand, Canada whereby indigenous children were removed from their own families and adopted into white families. ‘Moral’ adoption would include the removal of babies from unmarried mothers in Ireland from the 1940s, and being put up for adoption in the US. In all of these categories, a new family is created as a result of the destruction of another. There are clear similarities between regimes of forced child removal or inter-country adoption which have taken place across the world at different times. A key feature is that the child’s family are either presented as non-existent or as neglectful – they are often presented as orphans - with the new adoptive parents often presented as ‘rescuing’ or ‘saving’ this child. Professor Joy Damousi identified similar features of transnational adoption narratives relating to Japanese-Australian children following the second world war, again emphasising the idea that an ideal, happy family could be created following the ‘altruistic’ actions of ‘rescuing’ adoptive families. Seeing these papers alongside each other highlights the great benefits that can come from international conferences such as SHCY. The comparative survey of Swain worked well in dialogue with the more specific case studies of Davis and Perheentupa, as well as with Dr. Anna Krawzac’s excellent paper on recent international adoption policy in Poland. It was fascinating to see different approaches to historical child adoption (in all its contexts) alongside each other, and these panels accordingly offered an insightful overview of the field as it currently stands.
For me the most powerful moments of the conference came from the two plenary sessions which involved Dr. Sana Nakata of Melbourne university. Dr. Nakata discussed ideas of citizenship and childhood, and the limited extent to which Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have been viewed as Australian citizens (with the limited effects of official recognition since 1967). Dr. Nakata suggested that childhood is the most intensively governed section of human existence, and that indigenous children are the most governed in Australia. In Friday morning’s plenary Dr. Nakata suggested that while children are rarely allowed a political voice - regardless of their behaviour - adults can and do behave poorly and continue to be allowed political participation: ‘adults get to be immature, they still get to vote, they still get to be president of the United States’ – a remark which received an instant and hugely positive response from the audience.
The Friday morning plenary also included Nanette Louchart-Fletcher from the Museum of Australian Democracy and Megan Mitchell, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, who were asked to offer suggestions for what historians should be doing to better uncover and centre children’s voices. This plenary mirrored Lynelle Long’s opening talk on the Wednesday, maintaining an important theme of the conference, of the interaction between scholars and those involved in policy making, or with lived experience of some of the topics that were being researched. This had become distressingly evident during the course of the conference, when the news emerged of the death of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, and his two-year-old daughter Angie Valeria, who had drowned in the Rio Grande River whilst attempting to reach the United States. The importance of studying childhood, and particularly its close relationship with concepts of citizenship, national identity and state formation, had become all too apparent. Rarely have I attended a historical conference where many of the key themes were so pertinent and powerful, both in their connection to current affairs, and in their connection to the land on which the conference was held. I’ve come away from SHCY with an acute sense of the duties that historians have to peoples past and present, but also with the hope that, by working sensitively with people with lived experience, and those involved in policy making or charitable work, real positive contributions can be made not just to child history but to the lives of children in future generations.
About the Author
Emily Vine is an AHRC collaborative doctoral award student co-supervised by Queen Mary University of London and the Geffrye Museum of the Home. She is an Institute of Historical Research Thornley Fellow for the academic year 2018/ 19. Her thesis is entitled ‘Birth, Death, and Domestic Religion in London, 1600–1800’, and is a comparative study of domestic life-cycle rituals as practised by different religious groups. She received her BA in History from Exeter in 2014 and stayed at Exeter for an MA in Medical History, fully funded by the Wellcome Trust, which was awarded in 2015.
This feature is part of the SHCY Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.