Firm Foundations

For the past few years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to engage young people across Australia and the world at various conferences, workshops and events. I am often asked to share my story and what led me to the path that I have been so blessed to follow, but in doing so I never begin at my story because the path that I am on has been made strong by both my parents, their cultures and their faith. I have simply made decisions in my life that have always been informed by strong values and passions instilled in me from an early age.

My mother is Aboriginal. She was born in Bordertown, a very small town near the border of Victoria and South Australia. It is through her that my siblings and I are connected to the Wemba Wemba, Wergaia, Jardwadjali and Gunditmara Aboriginal nations of western Victoria. My mother grew up in a time of great division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Until she was 11 years old she was classed by the Australian Government as ‘fauna and flora’ and not classed as a citizen of Australia. It is very hard for people to understand the impact this has on someone’s identity, not only being ‘state-less’ but not even being considered human.

Mum and DadShe spent most of her formative years living in a tin shed with dirt floors in a paddock on the outskirts of Bordertown. The walls were made out of crushed kerosene tins, and most of their furniture and toys were collected from the local rubbish dump. It is true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Growing up in a time when it was government policy to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from families and place them in state schools and homes, my mother and her 8 siblings were fortunate to never be removed, but for my Grandmother it was a time of great worry, danger and suspicion. My Grandmother, who is turning 100 years old in September this year, remembers nights when my Grandfather was away shearing or on odd jobs, when she would have to open the door with one hand and a shotgun in the other.

My father is from New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. We don’t know how old he really is because he was born on a beach in New Hanover, so he got to pick a date for his birthday. Each year it changes depending on when he wants presents from us. His father was from Neikonomon, which is located in the mountains of West Lavongai, and his mother was from Lafu on the west coast of New Ireland. From an early age, my father always had a curious mind. He fondly recalls leaving school at a very young age and following his father around New Ireland, who was a medical practitioner. He speaks 5 dialects and would often disappear for weeks, sometimes months, walking and exploring different villages across the Province. I think this is why he is such a people person. My father came to Australia over 30 years ago to follow his calling to become a Minister.

Their stories and individual journeys still amaze and inspire me. They met in a very small rural town called Cootamundra, in New South Wales, where they both attended Bible College. The story of how they both came to Bible College is a novel in itself; filled with courage, faith and determination – which I hope to write one day.

Faith has always played a significant role in our lives, as well as being at the service of others in our communities. My father once told me that he didn’t like the term ‘a sense of responsibility’ because it means doing something because of an external requirement, but if service is your core, if having a servant’s heart is what forms the flesh on your bones then ‘a sense of responsibility’ is not required because helping others is just an extension of yourself. It has been this idea that has driven me in my life. It has brought me courage when pursuing opportunities or overcoming challenges, because there is an ultimate belief that my life has purpose.

This path has enabled me to work with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia to empower their voices on issues that impact them. Issues like climate change, mental health and suicide.

Below is a campaign called ‘unity in the community’. Our team of young people developed at the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy in 2014. We engaged 50 Indigenous young people from across Australia – provided the tools and skills to develop youth-led social action campaigns. Here is just an small insight into the talent and passion in our communities.

Shifting Sands

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I believe that grit is an undervalued element of life. Grit can mean the difference between standing strong or simply standing by. It can be the difference between pushing through or being pushed over. Grit even sounds like its a gritty word as it forms on the back of your tongue, rolls across the roof of your mouth before the decisive and abrupt end to the textured word.

We disguise or misrepresent the importance of grit by associating it with the annoyance in your shoe after a visit to the beach or the unwelcome crunch in your salad sandwich. This association of grit as dirty or annoying has led us to dismiss the true power of grit when we sense it in others. We say things like “here we go again” or “when will they be satisfied?” It is often accompanied with an eye-roll or a disapproving shake of the head. But, we need to rethink grit and its value in our society.

I don’t know where grit comes from, but I like to think that it has two key elements; courage and integrity. The origins of the words courage and integrity refer to whole of heart, innocence and blameless. To me, grit speaks to a dedication to justice.

In recent times, we have witnessed great social shifts in Australia. From our Government’s hardline approach to refugee and asylum seekers, discussion of privatising universities, which would impact the cost of and access to tertiary education, and dramatic budget cuts to the social services including organisations delivering programs to our most vulnerable and those most in need of support. This constant bombardment of regressive rhetoric and action creates a sense of ‘what can I really do’. This is creeping into the minds of the most steadfast human rights defenders, not to mention the everyday person who cares about issues, wants to be engaged but doesn’t feel like their voice matters. As these social shifts happen across Australia, cracks form and things we value fall through. Hopelessness grows, empathy diminishes and frustration peaks.

One such social shift which has fuelled this frustration has been the planned closure of over 100 remote Aboriginal communities, which will impact thousands of Australians; men, women and children. It will signal, in many cases, a disconnection from traditional lands and traditional ways of life for a large number of Aboriginal people in Western Australia.

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

– Martin Luther King Jr

On Friday April 10, people from across Australia came together and in one voice denounced the planned closures of these remote communities. They disrupted streets, bystanders and public transport to exercise a democratic right to protest. Flinders Street in Melbourne became the meeting ground of up to 5,000 people who are passionate about equality, care about community and who possess grit. They were met with disapproving head shaking, the rhetoric of ‘here we go again’, the slander of being labeled ‘bleeding hearts’ and ‘lefties’. The newspaper headlines read ‘Selfish Rabble Shut City’ and the Lord Major called it ‘self-indulgent’.

But as the disapproving cries rang out from mainstream media, it was swiftly drowned out by those who possess the fundamental belief that we are our brothers keepers, we are our sisters keepers – the belief that one community being impacted by laws that undermine universal human rights, does not just impact that community, it impacts all of our communities.

When we stand by while people and communities suffer in our own backyard we allow gaps to appear in the fabric of our society and the things we treasure to fall through.When we allow the value of one person’s life to be measured over another person’s life, our society ultimately pays the price. When we dismiss grit as an annoyance, we dismiss the courage and integrity of those willing to show grit.

The message here, beyond the importance of possessing true grit, is that if you find yourself being labeled the rabble, think about who had been labeled the rabble before, and draw strength from their dedication to justice in the face of unjust laws, draw strength from the friction created through grit.

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Leading a resurgence of political participation in our generation.

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(Original Speech from TEDx Bond University 16th May 2014)

There is a beautiful story from where I grew up, on the lands of the Gomeroi people of NSW. It speaks of a cycle that has been weaving itself through humanity for thousands of years. It says that when we pass away our spirit returns to the Warumbal; the milky way, to sit in the smoke of the fires that our ancestors have lite for us. It is there that we reflect on our life, the connections we made, the late night philosophical conversations, the search for knowledge and the mark we left behind.

When it is time for us to return to continue this cycle, we come in the form of shooting stars and lay within the earth. When we are born, it is not the act of conception but rather our spirits choosing us and our time.

This story tells me that we are all here for a reason, that the problems we face are the problems we are meant to face and the small interactions we have with strangers, friends and family are exactly where we are meant to be.

And it is with this understanding of the significance of now, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, I would like to pay my respect to the Elders past, present and those who look down on us from the smoky shimmer of the night sky. It is this understanding that Welcome to Country’s weren’t tokenistic or just ceremonial practice but rather it is an acknowledgement that for our eyes to meet we are on a journey. We share the same short moment in life, and we seek nothing but the chance to live out our lives in purpose and in happiness.

We exist in interesting, challenging and exciting times. Our ability to connect globally to access news and current affairs at our fingertips has lead to a generation of agitators, questioners and the ability to mobilise across communities and national borders. It has sparked our curiosity and heightened our sense of contribution, legacy and impact.

I am not saying that this hasn’t occurred throughout Australian history, in fact our nation has a rich history of social movements that have been lead by those working in a system to change a system and those that work outside a system to effect positive change.

From the frontier wars led by warriors holding strong to their traditional lands against the tide of settlement, to leading the way for the women’s vote. From bark petitions that hang proudly in our nations capital to station walk-offs from Cumragundga to Wave Hill.

And social movements of more recent times that led to over 90% of Australia’s voted as one to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as citizens in our own nation, and national demonstrations calling on governments to take action on climate change and to end poverty in our lifetime.

But as more and more young people grow frustrated with the current state of politics, what would it take to lead a resurgence in political participation in our generation?

To amplify our skills, tools and networks to inspire, support and mobilise young people to stand-up and announce, our hopes, ideals and politics won’t be quarantined to the skate parks, street corners, or to our twitter feeds. That no longer will young people be the silent recipients of policy but rather the co-designers of the world we will inherent.

There is a wonderful quote by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in which he said:

“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined non-conformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”

I believe that in every generation there are people who are born into the world that possess a keen eye for human error, injustice and oppression and that wield an ability to hold the mirror up to society and say something is not right. It is these people that devote their lives to the pursuit of positive change throughout the world.

It is these people who hold a vision that transcends class, economic status, race and religion to connect strangers, neighbors, friends and family in a mutual understand of what it is we should aspire to. These people are the disciplined non-conformists that I believe Dr King was referring too.

We need Disciplined Non-Conformists. We look to them and say things like “I am glad someone had the guts to say that” or “you said exactly what we are feeling” even “I am glad somebody is thinking like you.” We need them because they aren’t afraid to raise their hand in a room of ‘yes-men’ and say no, not this time.

Non-conforming is easy, you can be a brat, a punk, a heretic, break systems, dismantle and dismiss but to stand for something, create systems, build support, share an idea, inspire change, that takes discipline. It takes the right mix of ego and courage to believe you can succeed where others have failed or where others wish to stand in your way.

We need Disciplined Non-Conformists. We need you.

We stand at a significant point in our nations history in which we do not follow the patterns of previous generations. Young Australians are more likely to pursue higher education, more likely to travel and live overseas and more likely to start our own businesses then our parents’ generation.

But what happens when passionate, driven and socially aware young people meet a system that rewards conformity? What happens when Disciplined non-conformists meet a system that label them brats, punks, and heretics, excluding them from truly engaging a system? We switch off.

Over the past 10 years there has been a dramatic decline in political party membership and participation from young Australians. I am not a member of a political party; in fact I encourage swing voting if it is based on policy rather than personality.

In 2013, Roy Morgan Research ran a political poll in the lead up to the September Election Night. They asked voters which party would they vote for and why. The responses were mixed but here are some responses they received.

“The alternative, Tony Abbott, is a serious threat to democracy.” – Labor Supporter

“No faith in the Labor party, its people or its policies.” – Liberal Supporter

“The two parties are nasty, hypocritical people who flip flop on any issue.” – Greens Supporter

The sense of public frustration that plagues political parties is very real. This decline in political participation exists, I think because there is a disconnect between people, policy and a vision, we can subscribe too.

A system that rewards conformity and excludes thinkers, and those with the audacity to dream and create a vision, is a system that will not only limit itself but can limit a nation.

In 2013, I decided to run a bit of a social experiment. I called it The Visionarium: From a nation that hasn’t seen it all… The Visionarium was an online survey that ran for 6 weeks and engaged people through Twitter and Facebook. It was designed for 2 main reasons:

  1. To provide a platform for people to share their vision of the kind of future they want for Australia, and
  2. To remind myself that no matter how frustrated I was with the current state of politics, the shortsightedness and negative rhetoric, everyday Australians, like me, young and old, share common values, frustrations but also had their own visions of what change we hoped to see in our communities, nation and world.

In a month over 80 people responded to the call to action. Here is a word cloud of the key words that arose from the Visionarium.

Visionarium

  • Equality; this related to gender equality, marriage equality and social equality.
  • Fair; relating to a fair society, pay and access to services
  • Respect; how we treat our elders, each other and ourselves

But it was the words that were slightly less frequent, that stood out for me:

  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Inclusive

For me, I believe these values transcend race or religion, borders and boundaries. It is the fundamental belief that I am my brothers keeper, I am my sisters keeper.

That rolling back the Racial Discrimination Act in 74 of our most vulnerable communities in the Northern Territory doesn’t just impact those communities; it impacts all of our communities.

That one person, whose rights are denied in an immigration Detention Centre for seeking a better life, impacts all of our rights, it impacts all of our freedoms.

I’d like to share two quotes that came out of the Visionarium:

“I want a vibrant democracy where talking about politics isn’t taboo and people are engaged. I also want debate that is based on facts, science and research, rather than perceptions.” – Josh, 19, VIC

“My dream is to see a generation who are not only aware of what is happening in the world around them, but wanting to engage with it, whether that be socially, politically or in their careers. My vision is for the nation to be cleaner, smarter, safer and kinder than it has been, for it to have strong, intelligent leadership and for it to be highly regarded by all in the international community.” – Emma, 20, NSW

The Visionarium was a reminder that ours is a nation of Disciplined non-conformists, even if we don’t see ourselves as such. There is a quote by Thucydides in which he says:

‘The bravest are surely those with the clearest of vision of what lies ahead, glory and danger alike, yet not withstanding goes out to meet it.”

This quote speaks of the audacity to step into the unknown and trust your intent. It speaks of the balance between courage and ego to believe you process something that will enable you to whether the storm of criticism, to overcome barriers and to be relentless in your pursuit of the change you wish to see in the world.

As we stand on the precipice of our time, looking across the path of history that has brought us to this point. We can see that the frustration frequently lies in the tension between an established system that rewards conformity and a society that aspires to provide greater education opportunities, to achieve greater social impact, that understands our role as a global citizen and the importance of a strong and growing economy.

What would it take to lead a resurgence in political participation in our generation?

It would take a political party that greater reflects our generation, that believes a nations greatest resource is its people, a party that rewards curiosity, consultation and participation. It would take a political movement of Disciplined Non-conformists.

It is this idea that behooves us to remember, change is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice, it is not something to be waited for, it is something to be achieved.

They say ‘decisions are made by those that show up’. It is our time to show up.

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The TEDx Clip will be posted soon…

Follow Benson on Twitter

Check out previous blogs: The Visionarium and The Disciplined Non-Conformist 

 

 

Curiosity: First step to changing the world

Unleashed

In my blog ‘The Disciplined Non-Conformist’ I stated that ‘In every generation there are people who are born into the world that possess a keen eye for human error, injustice and oppression and wield an ability to hold the mirror up to society and say something is not right.’ In the past I often found myself wrestling with the question; is leadership an intrinsic attribute that you are born with or is it something that is taught or learnt and gained through experiences and practice.

Over the past few years I feel that I have come to an understanding that it is in fact both. The ability to lead is the same for everyone, no matter who your parents are, and where you are from or what your economic status may be however circumstance and opportunity does limit or amplify your capacity to lead. I believe that everyone is born with the innate ability to question the world and it is through experience and lessons learnt that we are able to refine the process of questioning and for some, to develop the ability to turn these questions into ways to better understand and change their world.

In the process of developing the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, I have been able to draw on my experiences and engage brilliant minds that have enabled me to set off on a trail of exploration and discovery. Through this journey we have developed our philosophy of leadership, our unique approach and vision for the future of young people in communities. It hasn’t been easy trying to break a mold of programs that have come before or preconceptions of what the Indigenous space ‘needs’ but over the past 2 years we have begun to develop and establish ourselves as leaders in a busy space.

We have set out on an ambitious journey to build a generation of changemakers by providing the opportunity and experiences for Indigenous young people to gain the skills, build their national networks and discover a shared purpose to lead positive change in communities across Australia.

Value Tree

One thing that I highly value in a young person (well, people in general) is curiosity and I believe it is the foundation of leadership. Having an inquisitive mind, I think, is something that everyone is born with. It is part of our DNA. Curiosity is like the childlike version of inquiry; it is fun, quirky, eccentric, profound but it is often overlooked or undervalued in schools. A curious person is a tinkerer, always poking and prodding for an answer to a question that often begins with ‘why’ or ‘how’.

We believe a Changemaker begins with a curious mind. It is identified through the questions they ask, how they view themselves in relation to their community and their own ability to contribute to society. For the young people we have the privilege of working with, having a curious mind is the young person trying to understand how their world works and what is their role in it.

This is where curiosity meets purpose…

Purpose will be discussed in my next pieces. To ensure you don’t miss out on the next blog, make sure that you subscribe or follow my blog! You can also follow me and NIYLA on:

 

Theory of Change: A Work in Progress

follow_through_smallIn 2011, I was fortunate to undertake a unique opportunity to represent the views and aspirations of young Australians as the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations. It wasn’t so much as a life changing experience than a life affirming experience, as it provided the platform to build a strong network, challenge my thoughts and continue to establish beliefs I hold today.

 These fundamental beliefs include:

  • I am my brothers’ keeper and I am my sisters’ keeper; an understanding that we are intrinsically connected to each others future, purpose and happiness;
  • We need disciplined non-conformists; the importance of people working outside a system to hold the system accountable, reflective of the people it serves, fair and accessible. We need disciplined non-conformists, whistleblowers and active citizens;
  • The most valuable resource to a nation is its people; investing the future of a nation means investing in education, science, the social fabric of communities and the care of our most vulnerable; and
  • Building, inventing and creating is part of us; given the space, opportunity and guidance, we are explorers, curious by nature and pioneers.

These beliefs underpinned my Youth Representative Final Report to the Government (Download); which included the following key recommendations:

  • Promote schools as community builders;
  • In school Human Rights education;
  • National Indigenous Youth Advocacy Body; and
  • Develop and promote initiatives supporting young changemakers.

Following my 12 month tenure as Youth Representative to the United Nations, I came to the understanding that reports are great, but many reports tend to sit on bookshelves or find themselves under a pile of other unread and rarely acted upon reports.

My report may not have had an impact on policymakers but it has provided me with a measure of what we should strive for into the future. The National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy is a product of my fundamental beliefs, report recommendations and the life affirming experience. We engage Indigenous young people from communities and schools across Australia to lead positive change through social action campaigns on issues they are passionate about. In May 2014, we will bring 50 Indigenous young people together to develop 5 youth-led campaigns on:

  • Education; Lifelong Learning
  • Health; Healthy lifestyles
  • Mental Health; Ending the stigma
  • GBLTI Young People; Safe and Happy Communities
  • Juvenile Justice; Breaking the Cycle.

It has been sometime since I have been inspired by Australian politics. It is the combination of shortsightedness, bitterness and the lack of accountability that sends chills down my spine whenever I open a newspaper. It concerns me that, we as a nation have grown tired of broken promises, cloak and dagger politics that we are simply switching off and tuning out. It is the time we should be switching on, asking questions and expecting more.

“It was character that got us out of bed, commitment that moved us into action, and discipline that enabled us to follow through.” Zig Zigar

My theory of change is simple; Australia’s most valuable resource is its people, our most valuable investment in accessible formal and non-formal education and our most valuable commitment we can make to achieve these is our ability to advocate and participate in the public and political discourse at all levels.

How we achieve this is still a work in progress but watch this space…

The Shape of Politics

Parliament House

Addressing the nation as the Prime Minister elect The Hon. Tony Abbott MP (video of address) declared, as he looked out over an audience of Liberal Party faithfuls.

“I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically, sets about delivering on our commitments to you the Australian people.”

Raising his voice above the audience ecstatic from a victory over their Labor Party rivals, Prime Minister Abbott continued by making a statement that we hold to be true but is often conveniently forgotten in the period between election nights.

“Today the people of Australia have declared that the right to govern this country does not belong to Mr Rudd or to me or to his party or to ours, but it belongs to you, the people of Australia.”

It is important to acknowledge two key points:

  1. Prime Minister Abbott was democratically elected; and
  2. Free and democratic elections are a privilege that people fight and die to achieve and defend in their nations.

It is important to acknowledge these points, because this blog is not about attacking Liberal, Labor, Democracy or Political Leaders, it is about having a voice and making a choice. It is about the choice to support a political party that reflects your beliefs, values and vision for the future of our Nation and having the voice to shape politics to better reflect a society we can aspire to be.

I personally encourage swing voting because in a nation of compulsory voting one of our greatest voting assets is our ability to hold governments accountable to their commitments. We can do this by being unpredictable, judging on actions, deciding on policy and not aligning with the blue, red or green tie, pendent or banner. This also relies on citizens to be aware and engaged in the political process – which not all are.

Having a voice does not always mean taking to the streets to march on Canberra but it does mean speaking up on issues you care about and issues that impact others. Social media has changed the landscape of politics, traditional media and interactions; it does enable the wider population to discuss issues they care about and for their message to reach a greater audience, but if you want to be heard and really make a difference it is less about the tweeting, commenting and sharing and more about meaningful participation.

Voice, Choice and Participation. Seems like a slogan in itself, and maybe it is, because I want to hear from you. I want to gain a deeper understanding of what you want in our Nation’s leaders. Not Liberal, not Labor but from our government and our leaders.

Please take 10 minutes to complete ‘The Shape of Politics’ Questionnaire.

It has been a longtime hope of mine to one-day make the leap into politics, but current political parties do not reflect my beliefs, values or vision for our nation and I want to know if they reflect yours.

So please complete ‘The Shape of Politics’ Questionnaire.

Please note:

  • This information will be used for my own understanding of political will in Australia;
  • This questionnaire is not on behalf of, aligned with or for any current political party or organisation;
  • No identifying or contact information is being captured or stored; and
  • The information is not and will not be used by a third party.