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Sione’s story

YSAS Member  

Sometimes the best candidate for the job isn’t the person with the longest list of qualifications or the most technical experience – they’re the person with the most time spent at the coalface, who understands the task from personal experience, rather than a textbook.

By this definition, Sione Toangutu was easily the best candidate. A youth worker at YSAS, Sione noticed an opening for a researcher in Melbourne’s south, where he had recently moved. “I was hesitant to apply, because I had no expertise in the field,” he confesses. But after a colleague broke the role down, Sione changed his mind. “I thought, Well, it’s still talking to young people and helping them. Maybe it is my skill set.

Sione applied and, to his surprise, got the job. The goal was to find ways to prevent alcohol-related harm in Melbourne’s African communities. According to the design methodology, Sione would do this by asking young South Sudanese people on the streets to take part in an interview. Each participant would receive a cash payment in exchange for answering a few questions. The study looked good on paper. “But when we asked them, they weren’t into it,” Sione says. There was something off-putting about the approach. “So we had to go back to the drawing board.”

This is where the breadth of Sione’s experience came into its own. “I’m also a qualified barber, and I know how important hair is in the African community,” Sione says. “So I thought, Why don’t we offer them haircuts? The barbershop is such a safe space for these guys to open up and be vulnerable”. Behind the Cut, a pilot program to engage more African boys and men in the research project, was born, and before long people were lining up to take part.

To attract female respondents, he tried a different tack. “As a youth worker, I know that the car is one of the most therapeutic spaces for young people. You can talk and because you have the distraction of the road and you’re not looking directly at each other, people can open up. So we’d drive and I’d conduct the interview with a dash cam, like we were recording a podcast.”

After a few weeks, Sione had conducted enough interviews to begin trying to make sense of the data. “We wanted to understand what led people to start using drugs and alcohol,” he says; poring over their conversations, he was able to identify a series of recurring themes, which he has written up in a report. The goal now is to identify what interventions will work best to curb alcohol and drug use among young people from Africa.

“We’re still in the process of working out where to go,” Sione says, noting that his time on the project has come to an end. Today, Sione is back as a youth worker, and is transitioning into a team leader role. He says he looks back on his time as a researcher fondly. “It’s been really rewarding, and I’ve added so many different skills to my toolbag.” He also credits YSAS with encouraging him to make the leap. “YSAS is definitely supportive in terms of identifying your strengths and supporting you to step outside your comfort zone,” he says. “They make you realise, Oh yeah, I can do this.

Sione Toangutu

YSAS Dandenong Team Leader

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