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Episode 3 Full transcript


Tegan: Ok, I’m going to sit down waiting for my visit. And we’ve got to sit here on the P for prisoner.Yeah, the table is a bit taller than the seats, so you can’t hide anything, like slip something…yeah. There’s my daughter! Do you miss me? Oh, mummy went to sports today.


Child: Did you? What did you do?


Tegan: I went and played football.


Child: Why football?


Tegan: Yeah. I went and played football,


Child: Why can’t you play rugby?


Tegan: Me and mum have been working out.


Child: Wow


Tegan: Mum’s lost heaps of weight….


Jeni Whalan: The sounds of life inside jail, as recorded for the Bird’s Eye View podcast, co-created with women inside the Darwin Correctional Centre on the lands of the Larrakia, the traditional owners of the Darwin region. Incarceration as a punishment has been part of Australian society ever since Europeans arrived. At a time when we face so many challenges as a society, more jails are being built and more money is being spent on the business of administering justice and locking people up.


Glyn Davis: So it’s no surprise that most of those who go to prison have experienced disadvantage at some point in their lives. And for many, it’s a cycle that’s hard to break. In a disturbing trend, women are the fastest growing segment of Australia’s prison population.


Jeni Whalan: And it doesn’t only affect them, it also affects their families and their communities, and perhaps most critically, their children.


Glyn Davis: G’day and welcome to Life’s Lottery, a place where we try to think about new ways, new ideas to break the cycle of disadvantage. I’m Glyn Davis.


Jeni Whalan: And I’m Jeni Whalan. Today, we’re diving into one of the toughest questions of public policy, and also people’s lives: what’s the experience of being a mum in prison? And how might we work to make it better not just for mothers, but also for their kids, for the next generation?


Tegan: I went to welfare when I was a kid. It was only me and my sister that were together, and we went back to my mum and then she was really holy and went to church. Then when I was about 10 or 11, she started selling marijuana. And then when I was 13, I dropped out of school and then I started selling marijuana. Because I’d watch her, you know, and then I thought, ‘Oh, well, I don’t have to go to school or get a job. I can just do what my mum does and sell drugs.’ Have all these friends, live a good life. So I wanted a drug dealing boyfriend. It’s the life I wanted. I wanted to be like my mum. If my kid’s done that, oh my goodness, people would want to get out of my way because I would probably chain them to their bed. They would not be selling drugs or dropping out of school.


Tegan: Do you love me?




Tegan: Do you miss me?


Child: When are you coming home?


Tegan: I don’t know baby. Soon…ish


Child: These are the only pants I had.


Tegan: Yeah, I like, I don’t mind you wearing shorts like this, but it’s the skirts I don’t like.


Child: Yeah, I won’t wear the skirts then.


Tegan: Because they’re too short when you bend over. Don’t hit him. That’s naughty. What’s wrong with you? You can’t speak like that. Can I have one of them hair ties?

Can you let go please? Thank you? Yeah, we’re going to do Michelle Bridges, me and mum exercise really hard.


Tegan: But you look pretty. Are you going to school? Are you a tiger? You go to school?


Child: Yes.


Tegan: My oldest is a girl. She’s eight. Had her when I was 15. And then my boy is six. I had him when I was 17. My girl is three and I had her when I was 21.


Tegan: Can I tie your, can I do your hair, pretty? Are you six? Now you’re three. You can’t be six. Your brother’s six.


Child: No I am.


Child: I’m 12. Did you ever know I was 28


Tegan: I’m not even 28.


Child: Well guess what I am?


Tegan: How old am I?


Child: 21


Tegan: No!


Child: You’re 23. 24?


Tegan: Yes. 24. Can I have a kiss? Do you miss Mummy? Can mummy come home?


Tegan: I was a really good mum, I was. My partner, I was with him for like 11 years, 10 years. He was a good father, but then he hit the drugs and then he was very violent. I wish I could go back in time. And I wouldn’t have chosen him as a man, but then again, I would have because I got three beautiful kids. So we were in our own house at 15. We had everything. People were surprised that I was so young, but I think mother instincts kicked in on me really quickly.


Child: What’s your favourite thing about mummy? What do you like about her? Is she funny? Is she kind?


Child: Funny. And Mummy’s…


Child: Sometimes she gets a tiny bit grumpy. Like one percent grumpy. But she never gets a hundred percent grumpy.


Tegan: They were with my mum, but now my mum’s in here with me. So they’re with my brother. My brother’s really good. The six of us, my brothers and sisters. Three of us were drug dealers. And three of us weren’t. My brother who passed away, he owned his own business, too, but he chose the drug life and he lost everything. I really do miss him. My little brother, he’s 15, and he’s been a little bit naughty lately, I think. So I try to tell him, you know, I made so many mistakes and it’s left me with a long jail sentence, you know, dropping out of school. That’s another regret. If I was to be released right now. I’d go straight to my babies. I miss my kids. Really, I really, really miss them. I miss being free, can do whatever I want. Take them wherever I want. So I guess in jail, the only thing you own is your name. Hmm. But I really miss my freedom and my babies. I think if I didn’t have kids, it would be a lot easier because I wouldn’t have any worries. But because I got kids, I worry about them all the time. I told them every day and I see them once a week.


Child: I miss my mum, all my heart.


Child:She’s cheeky when she’s asleep. You think she’s an angel when she’s awake you have to think again!


Child: Mum, my mum miss me and hug me.


Glyn Davis: Tegan and her children sharing part of a typical visit for mums at Darwin’s Correctional Centre.


Jeni Whalan: Let’s welcome our guest. Susan Dennison is professor of criminology at Griffith University in Queensland. She’s a leading researcher in the field of parental incarceration and the impact it has on children’s development and life outcomes when mum or dad goes to jail.


Glyn Davis: Susan’s current research project is about designing a new model of working with mothers and children to break down silos and encourage better service delivery and outcomes. She wants to reduce the chances of the children of prisoners ever entering the justice system.


Jeni Whalan: Most often in jail, women are just another inmate. They’re stripped of their parental identity, making it even harder to maintain quality relationships with those outside. Could a reframe that gives greater recognition to their maternal identity be a key to ensuring they can get their lives back on track and be better parents once they do their time?


Glyn Davis: Susan, you’ve taken on one of the most difficult policy areas imaginable. So why does it matter that we have evidence and research on prisons? Why this cohort? Why this time? What changes are possible?


Susan Dennison: For a long time we have understood that the criminal justice system isn’t working for people. We’ve seen the increase in the number of people leaving prison and returning to prison, especially over the last decade. And for me, I’ve looked at it through the lens of what does this mean for families of prisoners? What does this mean for the parents inside and the ability of parents to come outside of prison at the end of their sentence and engage in parenting again? And what do these sentences do to the children who are outside trying to make sense of the removal of their parent and trying to forge a life for themselves?  And it matters because the research has shown over the last two decades, really, as it’s been building up, that incarceration of parents but incarceration of all people really makes matters worse for people, it especially makes things worse for children.


Jeni Whalan: Susan, what do we know about how many kids there are in Australia with a parent in prison?


Susan Dennison: From research that’s been conducted in Western Australia, New South Wales and also here in Queensland we see around one in 20 children will experience the incarceration of a parent by the time they reach the age of 18. And that figure is so much higher for indigenous children, it’s a staggering one in five children will experience a parent go to prison during their childhood and adolescence.

When we talk to the mothers in prison about their experiences, they tell us that their mother was in prison, their dad was in prison, their sister was in prison. it’s really rife in terms of how many families have experienced that intergenerational incarceration


Jeni Whalan: Susan, it seems that when our systems look at incarceration, they look at an individual, and yet every time I hear you speak, the case is so blindingly obvious that particularly when that person is a parent, we should be considering the effects on families and on children. Why is it so hard for our system to see beyond the individual in front of them, particularly to our kids in our community?


Susan Dennison: I think that there are some, I suppose, some moral issues that surround the idea of people offending. I think that there’s maybe a sense of deservedness in relation to how we think about people in prison and that they are somehow different to everybody else and that maybe they don’t deserve to continue to engage in parenting from prison, that somehow those families are bad to the core, I  suppose, is how some people might think about them. And I think that, you know, we don’t think widely enough about how these rising incarceration rates, these impacts on children, on families, on communities actually impact all of us. We know from research worldwide that where you have inequality in a society, that society is worse off. You have higher mortality rates, poorer health.


Glyn Davis: So can you tell us something about who goes to prison in Australia and their background and the pathways that see them transition into the criminal justice system?


Susan Dennison: People who go to prison are our most disadvantaged and our most vulnerable. So in terms of those people who end up in the adult criminal justice system, they’re generally people who have also moved through the youth justice system as well. And the people that end up in the youth justice system are those who have grown up with family instability, family violence, poor parental supervision.We know that child maltreatment is one of the highest risk factors for offending in adolescents and in adulthood alongside parental incarceration, those people who end up in the criminal justice system tend to have lower educational attainment. They’re less likely to have been employed before they come into prison. For women, they’re more often than not, the victims of domestic violence. Somewhere around 80 percent of women coming into prisons have experienced domestic violence.


Jeni Whalan: It’s a staggering figure, isn’t it? About 80 percent of women in prison have experienced domestic and family violence – it is just shocking. You’ve spent a lot of time talking to these women. Can you tell us what it’s like to be a mum in prison?



Susan Dennison: I would say that for most of the mothers, it’s a heart wrenching experience. One of the challenges of being a mum in prison is that generally your maternal identity isn’t recognised. So the fact that you are a mum isn’t really on the radar and to the point where it’s not even officially recorded in any of our statistics, how many mothers are in prison. There’s surveys that have been done that have calculated estimates, but we don’t record it as a matter of practice. Having said that, there’s a number of people who work within Corrective Services, you know, around Australia who are doing work to try and support mothers in prison. But it is an almost impossible task. And that’s because it’s so hard to reach out of prison when you’re in there, to connect with people. And it’s impossible for people to reach in. Children can’t call their mums when they need to talk to them. And so it’s really relying on mums having money to make phone calls to connect with their children. And that requires them to either have a job in prison or to have people on the outside who can send in money. And women are less likely to have that than men, actually. So when a man goes to prison, they’re more likely to have family members on the outside that put money into their account so that they can make phone calls and so on. And women have less opportunities to work inside prison. So they may only be able to afford a couple of phone calls a week, seven minute phone calls, ten minute phone calls in some centres. That’s a really difficult way for mothers to stay connected with their children. And we also know that mothers have far fewer visits in prison than what men do as well. And that’s generally because there’s no one to bring those children into prison. Visit centres are not pleasant places. They’re not child friendly. And so for some mothers who could have their children come to visit, they choose not to because they don’t want their children exposed to that environment. And so it is very difficult. You know, I was speaking to a mother just last month who said that she’s really, really worried about her teenage daughter, who she doesn’t think is doing so well and she doesn’t think she’s going to school anymore. She’s staying with family members. But those family members aren’t really communicating to the mother what’s happening with the daughter because she thinks that they’re trying to protect her from knowing how bad things are spiralling out of control while she’s inside. And so there’s that sense of not really knowing what’s going on, of people protecting you from the worst of it, but knowing that when you get out, you’re going to have to somehow try and pick up those pieces, not just for yourself, and that’s a huge task for for women to pick up the pieces when they leave prison, but to somehow be in there and supporting their children. And, you know, she said, I’m going to have to go to the school. I’m going to have to talk to the teachers and the principal and find out what’s happening. How can I get my daughter back in school? I’m sure she’s not going, she said, but I don’t even know how to talk to the teachers and the principal. School’s an uncomfortable place for me. And I know I’ve got to do this for the sake of my daughter, but I don’t know where to even begin. I wish I could start now. So why don’t we allow parents inside prison to talk to teachers, to talk to their child’s teacher? Why don’t we allow them to do, you know, parent teacher interviews? We have video conferencing facilities now in prisons that would facilitate those kinds of things.


Glyn Davis: Mothers of very young children in some cases are allowed to have their children with them, but only up to a certain age. And they’re pretty tough rules around all this. Can you just give us a sense of the experience for say, a younger mother who’s been incarcerated?


Susan Dennison: In Queensland where I am, mothers can have their children in prison with them up until the age of five. In practice, children don’t stay in prison that long. They generally try to move them out while they’re still toddlers, it’s not a great environment for children to be in, but it’s so important that mothers have the opportunity to bond with their children. So if a woman comes into prison and she’s pregnant or has recently given birth, she would generally be prioritised to be able to have her child in prison with her. And having said that, there’s only an opportunity for about eight mothers and babies, mothers and toddlers, to be together in any given centre. For those children that are, they are contained, just the way a mother is contained. They have kind of minimal, I suppose, developmental opportunities.


Susan Dennison: They don’t have backyards that they can go out and play in and they don’t have friends that they can play with unless there are other children in the centre at the same age as them. As to how much you can mother in prison, you know, you can’t give your child a Panadol if they’ve got a headache or a sore throat or anything like that, you know, that has to be administered by somebody else. You know, we see them learning how to line up for muster and things like that. And they’re not experiences that you want for the children.

So they’re really torn between this idea of should they, you know, continue to be building this bond with their child. Is it selfish to have the child in prison with them? You know, is that more for them than the child? You know, would the child be better off outside with another family member? The other challenge for the mums is if there’s other siblings, you know, one child gets to be with them, the other children don’t get to be with them. Is this making the siblings on the outside feel somehow less loved because they don’t get to be inside with mum as long as well? The mums wrestle with it. There’s no clear answer as to what’s best. But certainly we know that, you know, mothers having the opportunity to bond with their children, to continue to breastfeed their children while they’re young, to have that relationship and hopefully be released from prison at the same time with their children really sets a path for them to be able to continue to engage in that role as a mother. I think that we could think about how we could do those mother and baby units a lot better though.


Jeni Whalan: What you’ve laid out is just a series of impossible choices for a mother. What are the alternatives to the current approach?



Susan Dennison: Well, there’s a number of alternatives. I think one alternative is do we really need to have these women in prison? So that’s the first kind of big question. You know, why do we have so many women coming into prison? And they’re the fastest growing prison population, and the sharp rise in that is also the increase in indigenous women being sentenced to prison as well. And so the first thing is, do we need these women in prison? Are there other alternatives? Why aren’t we looking at community based options as the first option for mothers? Then the second issue is, OK, if we deal with the situation as it currently stands, then what can we do better in prison? We could do a lot better in terms of creating family friendly environments for those mothers who are raising their children in prison, many more developmental opportunities for their children. But in terms of the way we think about this – you don’t need a million toys for kids, but you do need some good skills in terms of how to keep your children busy and occupied and growing. And I would say at the moment, it’s not a stimulating environment for them


Glyn Davis: You’ve just talked about the rise in the number of Indigenous women who are being imprisoned. And of course, this is part of a larger pattern where Indigenous Australians are massively overrepresented in our prison population. Can you take us a bit through the reasons we’re seeing the rise in incarceration and the consequences, particularly for families of just so many young people, but also so many parents in jail?


Susan Dennison: Well, firstly, I would say it’s a national disgrace how many Indigenous people that we have in prison. In terms of the rise in indigenous women coming into prison, it is, you know, again, steeped in a long history of the impact of the Stolen Generations on the entire Indigenous population, but many, many women who grew up without understanding their culture, their connection to their community, who grew up without being parented themselves. The biggest thing, though, I would say, that we see with women going to prison is that they’re not able to get bail. They’re held on remand. And most of those reasons why they’re not able to get bail is because they don’t have adequate housing, they don’t have an address to put down. They’re either in a position of going back to a violent home or being homeless. And so at that point in time, they’re going to be held on remand. And that means that we see these numbers are largely driven by more women being held on remand and not being able to get bail. So what this means for Indigenous women is they are removed thousands of kilometres away from their families with no hope of having contact with their children or their communities. And that pain of separation is very intense for these women. That loss that, you know, they talk like their heart has been ripped from them. And, you know, it’s also very difficult for them to imagine what this is going to look like for them when they go back, especially when for many of them, they’ve experienced their children being taken by child safety and put under orders. And many of those orders can quite quickly be turned into long term orders where those women have no hope of ever getting custody of their children again.


Glyn Davis: Susan, the current Raise The Age campaign calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be lifted from just 10 to 14 to bring it in line with most other jurisdictions in the world. Would this be an important change?


Susan Dennison: I believe this would be a really critical change for the way that we see young people’s pathways entering into the criminal justice system. If a young person is acting out and coming to the attention of police under the age of 14, they are doing it because there’s a number of challenges in their lives that could be picked up in a number of other ways. We could see that already happening at school much earlier than that. You know, some of these young people, they have learning difficulties, they have speech difficulties. We also see that with people moving into the youth justice system is the high degree of learning difficulties and speech and communication difficulties. So actually, you know, we can achieve a lot by raising the age of criminal responsibility and thinking about young people as needing that level, higher level of support that they don’t have doors closed on them at the age of, you know, 10, 11, 12. If you’re in the criminal justice system before you’re 14 years of age, you’re more likely to become a chronic offender.  And I think here in Queensland, we calculated it as only about four per cent of young people become chronic offenders, but they account for about 45 per cent of all offending and of criminal justice system costs by the time that they are adults. That’s an enormous impact that we could have by coming in early and actually providing support for young people rather than criminalizing them. We cannot continue to keep building more prisons, which is really what’s happening all around Australia in every state and we continue to fill  them very quickly. Here in Queensland, a couple of years ago, they opened another women’s prison to deal with the fact that they were over capacity, it was 300 beds, and it’s already filled, already over capacity. Again, just down the road from that, they’re building another thousand bed facility for men. Around 600 million dollars it costs to build a prison. You know, when we think about what we could save by redirecting those funds into early prevention.



Glyn Davis: So what does good look like? When you look around for examples of what works, what could be better, where do you look and how do you translate your research into policy advocacy?


Susan Dennison: We actually started with asking mothers in prison what would good look like. You know, we literally went to them and said, what do you need? What do you need while you’re in prison? What do you need when you’re leaving prison? What would a better life look like for you? And I think that’s a really important starting point, is that, you know, as researchers, politicians, you know, policy makers, whoever it is, unless we have that experience, unless we’ve walked that path, we can draw on as much research as we like to, to say this is what should be done, because we know that, you know, in these quite strict studies that have been performed, these were the outcomes. But actually finding out from people what matters to them, what they worry about when they leave prison, what’s bringing them back in those first few weeks, those first few months back into prison. So housing really matters. For a start, we would provide people with housing and not just short term housing. We would provide them with, you know, 12 months, two years of stable housing so they can really get back on their feet. This is so important, especially for women, because they’re faced with that choice of going back to violent households or being homeless. And then we need to deal with the trauma that many of these women have experienced before they come into prison. That doesn’t go away. And it clouds everything. It clouds every interaction that they have. It clouds their ability to communicate effectively with people. It clouds their ability to engage with employers and engage with education. It clouds the way that they engage with their own children. And it certainly places them at risk of using substances again. So we think about prison as being an opportunity for us to connect and think about how then we can connect with them and work with them once they’re released for long term support. We want them to feel that they’ve got a safe place to come home to. That’s what good would look like.


Jeni Whalan: I just want to pause on something you just said and let us reflect on it for a second. You said we see prison as an opportunity to connect, and that’s such a powerful reframe for me. You’ve said that we don’t tell enough success stories in this work. Why does that matter?


Susan Dennison: The message that most people hear when they’re in prison is that they’re no good, that they’re no good at anything. I think the general assumption is that they are criminals and that that’s what they do, not that the system is actually making things difficult for them. If we could see and tell those stories to say, you know what, that person had a really tough life and they made some mistakes, they, you know, did go to prison. But look what they’ve done since then. Look at how they contribute to society. There are some amazing people here in Australia who are giving back to society in a whole range of ways. They’re doing really, really important work. We need to change the general public’s view on what it means to have a criminal record and the idea of having second, third chances in life. We all want the opportunity to have another chance when we make a mistake. Why wouldn’t we give those opportunities to everybody?


Jeni Whalan: So we heard from Charlie Leadbeater last episode about the need for more possibility thinking in our public work, and Glyn, I don’t know whether I can think of a more apt example of possibility thinking than the reimagination of prison as an opportunity. And that’s what we hear from Susan Dennison.


Glyn Davis: That’s right Jeni. And Susan, of course, fits into a long intellectual tradition of thinking about prisons that goes back to Jeremy Bentham. She gives us, I think, an important provocation when you, as you’ve just done, you link it with Charlie Leadbeater’s thinking about possibilities because we’ve got people put away for 24 hours a day in this case with their children, potentially. And we’ve got a poor record of what happens when they come out, poor social services, poor support and a high level of recidivism. If any system cried out for rethinking what we’re trying to do here and what the results are, it must be this one.


Jeni Whalan: And those poor outcomes come at a huge cost, not just to those individuals and families, but fiscally the the cost of keeping people in prison is dramatic when we look at what some of the alternatives could be.


Glyn Davis: That’s right, and if you want to see the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage in full force, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful example of disadvantage being handed from parent to child and so on. And at what cost? At what personal cost, at what social cost and what economic cost?


Jeni Whalan: The moral case is there. The financial case is there to break that intergenerational cycle, not by waiting 10 or 20 years, but immediately. Can we mobilise enough imagination and courage to actually put it into practise?


Glyn Davis: And the politics of this are so toxic, the fact that the easiest way to attack any government is to accuse them of being soft on crime and sympathetic to criminals rather than to the community. And that’s such a powerful message that every government feels vulnerable to that. And so there’s almost a relentless ratcheting up of traditional solutions because that’s how you signal to the electorate that really you’re on their side and not on the criminal side. The effect of that is to produce a one dimensional debate and to produce no real insight for anybody about what the alternatives might look like.


Jeni Whalan: We know a couple of things. We know that there’s a huge evidence gap right now, so government’s have to be willing to take a big risk. And it’s really hard for government to take a risk where they don’t have good evidence about something being able to work. So it also needs some folks to put up risk capital to build that evidence. And that’s certainty, that confidence that there is a way to do things better.


Glyn Davis: I think the people you have to praise are the community leaders and the politicians who are willing to step outside that cycle and say, let’s think again. And the work that Susan Dennison is doing with her institute at Griffith is a lovely example of trying to change the conversation by putting the evidence in front of people that shows there are alternatives.



Jeni Whalan: Thanks to Susan Dennison for her determination to gather the evidence to help us do things better. Susan is professor of criminology at Griffith University in Queensland. Her project, Transforming Corrections to Transform Lives, is about to enter its next phase.


Glyn Davis: As always, we welcome your feedback. Go to to continue the conversation. You’ve been listening to Life’s Lottery from the Paul Ramsay Foundation in collaboration with UTS Impact Studios. This podcast is made on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I’m Glyn Davis.


Jeni Whalan: And I’m Jeni Whalan. If you enjoyed this podcast, help us spread the word. If you know someone who might be interested, let them know about us. In our next episode, we take a look at driving social change via Collective Impact. How can many stakeholders and sector partners collaborate for maximum benefit? How can they pool resources and holistically address social problems from the ground up? And is it too good to be true? Join us next time to find out.



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