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

hun-768x512

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.

selma-water-detroit-650px

Leading a resurgence of political participation in our generation.

10367168_10152264451104213_2482510364998933808_n

(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.

—————-

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…

There’s time enough, but none to spare…

There is a story from remote north-western Australia of an old Aboriginal man who was the last man to speak his traditional language fluently. For generations he’d lived on his traditional land, his skin as ragged and ruff as the land itself.

To avoid losing such an important and unique element of Australian life, a group of non-Indigenous scientists and linguists made the long trip north to meet the old man and record his language. In the warm early morning sun, they sat down in the red dirt over a cup of tea, brewed over an open flame on the side of the dirt road.

The conversation was translated through the old man’s daughter using a common dialect. The group would ask a question, the daughter would interpret in the common dialect before the old man would respond, first in his traditional language then repeat it by translating it into the common language before it would then be translated back into English. It was a slow process but one that was so important to the work of the scientists and linguists.

Overcome with curiosity, a linguist asked; “how old are you?” Going through the process of translation and understanding the old man replied via his daughter with the answer: “Ten Thousand”. Looking puzzled the group asked him to explain. After a long conversation between the man and his daughter, the daughter turned to the group and pointed to a giant boab tree while translating his words:

“See this tree, this is a part of my dreaming, my culture, these have been on this land, since the beginning of time. I have seen trees grow tall and strong, dry up and die. I have seen animals come through these lands, produce offspring, I have watched the offspring grow old and pass away. I have seen my own family, live, grow old and return to this earth. This tree stands strong and will continue to stand tall and strong long after my time in this life. But next to these trees, I have been the most constant on my land, so if next to these ancient trees I have been the most constant then I must be ten thousand.”

 

“The future is something that everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

– C. S. Lewis

 

Having reached the end of my three months based in New York as the Australian Youth Delegate, I once again find myself reflecting on the concept of time and the sense that my three months has come to an end too soon. I have been recounting, in my mind, all the events from the opening of the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly to the close of the 3rd Committee and the adoptions of both the resolution on ‘The Rights of the Child’ and the youth resolution on ‘the impacts of the financial and economic crisis on young people’ for which I had the responsibility of leading both negotiations for Australia.

The moment that stands out for me the most was that of delivering an address on the 4th October to the 3rd Committee in which I described key moments of my National Engagement Tour, a tour I undertook to gain a deeper understanding of Australian youth. The tour involved traveling over 38,000 kilometers across Australia, meeting some of the most inspiring young people and organisations who wanted to have a positive impact on Australia and the world. But it was also on this tour that I encountered some of the most heart breaking moments, moments such as hearing from a young boy who shared his fears of living in a town that had seen the suicides of four young people within three months, the most recent just two months before I had arrived. It was these interactions that made me so proud to represent Australian youth on the international stage, it was these moments that created a sense of understanding of who I was representing.

During October I was joined by 24 other youth delegates representing their respective nations, delegates from Germany, Sweden, the Dominican Republic and many others in between. This was the most amazing month of my life. Meeting likeminded people inspires, challenges and opens your eyes to different perspectives. I am immensely proud to call them all my friends and proud of all their efforts in New York. Together we pushed the youth agenda forward within the GA resolution on youth, meeting challenges with enthusiasm and meeting criticism with the knowledge that we were all here to represent our dynamic, audacious generation.

October saw the wonderfully successful side-event organized by the German youth delegates on ‘Youth and Education for Sustainable Development’. This event attracted strong participation from many UN entities and organisations in an interactive dialogue on the beyond 2015 and Rio +20 agendas and the role of youth in shaping these discussions.

On the back of the success of this event I organised and spoke on a discussion panel, themed ‘Indigenous Children Globally: The road to 2012’. The event was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Australia and Peru to the United Nations, guest panelists included the Director of Policy and Practice at UNICEF and a representative from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Division of Social Policy Development. The event was held within the United Nations and chaired by the Ambassadors from the co-sponsoring nations. The event was a forward leaning, forward thinking discussion on the 2012 ‘Rights of the Child’ negotiations which, thanks to the EU and GRULAC group (Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries), will have a strong focus on Indigenous children globally.

Forward thinking, being able to look to the future, is a great ability and a great strength. It is something that involves selflessness, patience and a willingness to think beyond ourselves. I strongly believe that young people need to play a leading role, as catalysts for change in this forward thinking process. As I said in my panel address, “there is rarely a quick path to achieving positive change. Developing and delivering successful programs and shifting the mindsets of institutions and governments are processes that take time and dedication.” That is the challenge for our generation.

Time is conceptual, subjective and relevant to our surrounds. In the city that ‘never sleeps’ days become weeks and weeks suddenly become ‘how long is it since I’ve spoken to family?’. But it is this understanding that time is conceptual and subjective that creates the sense that age has no relevance to creating change, age has no bearing on what is achievable; it only presents a challenge of how you are going to make an impact. For the time is now.

Address to the 3rd Committee of the United Nations

Orginal speech delivered by Benson Saulo on the 4th Oct 2011.

Mr. Chair and fellow delegates,

I am delighted to address the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly as the Australian Youth Ambassador. As the world’s gaze is fixed on the impact that young people continue to have on societies around the globe, it is a privilege to represent the optimistic views and aspirations of Australian Youth.

My journey from growing up in the country town of Tamworth, New South Wales, attending a government school, to standing before you on the world stage as the first Aboriginal Australian to be appointed as Youth Ambassador is a testament to the opportunities available in Australia, an Australia that invests in human potential, an Australia that supports individual growth and community development.

I represent a generation that strongly believes that our future is not defined by borders or boundaries, race or religion but by our sense of responsibility to each other, an inherent sense of a global community which is premised on relationships and accountability.

Mr. Chair,

In May this year I began my National Engagement Tour, a tour that is undertaken to gain a deeper understanding of issues affecting young people at a local, national and international level. I themed my tour ‘Towards a Unified Australia’. It was inspired by a 2010 speech by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, in which he discussed the steps taken, and journey still to go, for Australia to become a reconciled nation.

I have had the amazing opportunity to travel throughout Australia, over 38,000kms across our diverse and ancient landscape, visiting every State and Territory. I engaged over 10,000 people face-to-face and through social media. This opportunity continues to impact me not only as the Youth Ambassador but as a young Australian.

I have witnessed the challenges that continue to face families and young people living with disabilities, their teachers’ real concern for their student’s transition into further education and supported work, their family’s ongoing struggle for affordable carers. I have felt the weight of hopelessness in our most fragile communities, struggling with the intergenerational impacts of drugs, alcohol and cultural degradation. I have heard the concerns of the widening social gaps between generations and the growing trend of looking inward rather than looking outward.

While these concerns are very real, I am also filled with a sense of hope and optimism in the progress being made to address these issues. Knowledge that our commitment to our community still exists and our commitment to promote an equal and inclusive society is the core aspiration of enthusiastic and audacious young Australians.

Over the past 6 months I have had a particular focus on health, education, human rights and Indigenous affairs. My journey has provided an insight into each of these areas and has also highlighted the underlying common thread binding these areas; Education.

I am proud to say that the youth of Australia and the Australian government share a common vision, which is reflected in the commitments laid out in our National Strategy for Young Australians: “That all young people grow up safe, healthy, happy and resilient, and have the opportunities and skills they need to learn, work and engage in community life, and influence decisions that affect them.”

In the recent ‘Listen to Children’ report produced by the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, a coalition of 100 organizations, including UNICEF working with over 750 young people, identified that;

“There are specific groups of children who are not always afforded the same educational opportunities as other students, denying capacity to fulfill their potential. These groups include: Aboriginal children, children from refugee and newly arrived backgrounds and children with disabilities.”

Mr. Chair,

Education is the basis for the development of our future leaders, leaders in business, leaders in innovation and ultimately leaders in our society. We as a nation believe to truly build capacity and equip, not only these identified groups but wider society, with the tools to fulfill their potential – we must rethink education; we must rethink its delivery and its role in the development and engagement of young people.

It is with this conviction that we have taken positive steps to support diverse learning styles including formal, informal, alternative and bilingual modes of education because we believe in the vital importance of engaging all of our multicultural, multifaceted communities.

Beyond our shores, Australia is focused on supporting education programs throughout Asia, the pacific and the world. In Indonesia, Australia is helping to build over 4000 schools, enabling 650,000 children from the poorest families to receive a decent education. In Pakistan we are supporting the enrollment of 46,000 girls in rural primary schools. Enabling young people with disabilities to have access to education is a large component of the support Australia provides within the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia provides support for the transition from primary to secondary school for children with hearing impairment and intellectual disabilities in Samoa and we are supporting the Papua New Guinean Department of Education to produce disability inclusive infrastructure guidelines for schools.

Mr. Chair,

I am a firm believer that instilling a sense of social responsibility begins with the individual through exposure to and awareness of social issues. This awareness is also being supported through the rapid expansion of access to the internet and social media – empowering all generations to be connected and engaged in domestic and international dialogue, sharing and change.

My vision for the future of society lies in the fundamental belief that I am my brothers’ keeper; I am my sisters’ keeper. Understanding, that the lack of meaningful consultation at a grass-roots level prior to implementing unprecedented measures affecting these same communities; has an impact on all of our voices, in all of our communities. That 8 million displaced young people due to conflict, famine and environmental emergencies; has an impact on all of our abilities to ensure a secure future for humanity.

These are the impacts that we as a nation, we as a global community, must realize are not diminished by geographical and cultural divide because in a world that is becoming ever more technologically interconnected, as a global citizen, I believe, so to must our way of thinking.

Mr. Chair,

I support the Australian Child Rights Taskforce recommendation to establish an independent National Children’s Commissioner. A Commissioner with the key responsibility of: establishing the strategic direction for youth based policy development and monitoring the extent to which Australian children are realizing their rights under the United Nation’s Convention of the Rights of the Child which Australia ratified in 1991.

The creation of National Children Commissioners, not only in Australia but abroad, would be an important step for youth throughout the world, to ensure that their voices are heard and respected and to ensure that youth services are adequately resourced, implemented and supported through strong governmental frameworks.

Mr. Chair,

While there are many challenges and obstacles that face young people in Australia, and indeed globally, the sense of optimism in the future is evident. It is the young boy in the small town of Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, who wants to become a police officer so he can keep his community safe, it is the Noongah language teachers from Bunbury, Western Australia who believe culture is as relevant in our society today as ever, it is the vision shared by the young African refugee in Darwin with her goal to study medicine in Melbourne, Victoria.

These young people bare witness to the hope burning in our nation for a bright future for all, regardless of race, religion or gender. Through a continued focus on education, social responsibility and support for young people’s voices we can and must provide the opportunities that all young people deserve and that their rights specify under the convention. I have great faith that positive change through social development is attainable in our communities, in our institutions and indeed in our generation.

Thank you.

The urgency of now: youth leadership

It is with great pleasure that in a few weeks I will be addressing the One Young World Conference in Zurich Switzerland, not only as the 2011 Australian Youth Ambassador to the United Nations but as a global citizen, as someone who believes that our future is not defined by borders and boundaries, race or religion but rather the fundamental belief that I am my brothers keeper,  that I am my sisters keeper.

The belief that our lives are as connected as the tops of the trees to the roots in the soil. In 1966 Robert Kennedy, addressing the youth of south Africa said:

“we can perhaps remember that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek as we do nothing but the chance, to live out their lives in purpose and happiness.”

It is this sense of responsibility to our fellow man that brings together over 1000 delegates to the One Young World Conference. We seek this purpose and happiness, not for ourselves but for our family, our friends and future generations.

This is the social footprint we hope to leave behind as we continue to kick down the doors that remain closed to young people throughout the world. These impacts create vibrations that shake the foundations of institutions moored in time, not to break but to build. Build better structures supporting young people.

I often quote Pericles – a Greek General from 500 – 400BC who stated:

“What we leave behind is not what is carved into stone monuments but what is woven in the hearts of others.”

While this quote is over two thousand years old it still rings true today. It is this common thread that binds us at every interaction, it is a rich tapestry of hope, passion and the sense of urgency.

A motif that I have witnessed on my travels throughout Australia, traveling over 32,000kms, engaging over 10,000 people face-to-face and through social media.

It is the urgency that formed the words of the Honduras Minister for Youth at the recent United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth when he said “We must vanquish that age-old cliche that the future belongs to the youth, for it is the present that belongs to the youth.” It is the passion the Foreign Minister for Tunisia showed when, referring to us as the Dot-Com Generation, he stated “we are counting on their strength to fulfill the promises of the revolution”. It is the hope shared by a school principal in Remote Northern Australia when he told me no one had graduated grade 12 in seven years but pointing out 4 students said these 4 students have the potential to be the first in their family, in their community to graduate and break the cycle of disadvantage that has gripped their town.

The 12th August 2011 brought to a close the International Year of Youth, themed Dialogue and Mutual Understanding. A wonderful and thoughtful theme that I believe should not be limited to the 12 month International Year of Youth but rather something we should continue to strive for at a local, national and international level.

I call on political leaders in Australia and throughout the world at all levels of Government to empower, support and develop young people in the decision making process with transparent and strong framework accessible to young people.

Support and develop youth leadership, not as tokenistic, short term project but as a meaningful investment into youthful enthusiasm, into the inherent sense of a global community in which responsibility and accountability is supported through transparent and tangible governmental framework.

Strengthening relations, bridging generational divide, enabling young people to have a voice in the direction of the country through participation, this must serve as youth engagement policy.

Young people are the most valuable human resource in the world but this resource remains unrealised throughout the world. I call on Governments to support the next generation of leaders, not only at a local level but on the world stage with clear, accessible channels to voice their concerns and hopes with tangible outcomes.

—————-

Follow me on twitter – here

Facebook me – here

Statement at the High Level Meeting on Youth

Statement delivered on the 26th July 2011 at the United Nations General Assembly – High Level Meeting on Youth

As the 2011 Australian Youth Representative it gives me great pleasure to represent the views, hopes and optimism of Australian youth in today’s discussion.

I am the first Aboriginal Australian to be appointed to the youth representative position since it began in 1999. It is not only a great honour but a wonderful reflection on the young people of Australia who promote and support an inclusive and equal society.

It has been a privilege meeting with and listening to Australia’s youth share their hopes and aspirations for the future of our nation.

I am proud to say that the youth of Australia and the Australian government share a common vision, which is reflected in the commitments laid out in our National Strategy for Young Australians:

“That all young people grow up safe, healthy, happy and resilient, and have the opportunities and skills they need to learn, work and engage in community life, and influence decisions that affect them.”

Our National Strategy identifies eight key priorities including Health, Education and empowering young people to have a voice and be active in their communities.

I am a firm believer that access to relevant, formal, informal and alternate education is key to address areas that continue to affect Australian youth in all areas of society from overcoming disadvantage to influencing the current and future direction of our nation.

In the recent ‘Listen to Children’ report produced by UNICEF it noted that;

“There are specific groups of children who are not always afforded the same educational opportunities as other students, denying capacity to fulfill their potential. These groups include: Aboriginal children, children from refugee and newly arrived backgrounds and children with disabilities.”

During my National Tour, I attending a school in a small remote town in Northern Territory, a part of Australia that has had particular focus on ‘Closing the Gap’ between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians within the Key Indicators of Life Expectancy, Employment and Educational outcomes. The Principal walked me around the school advising that no student has graduated high school in this town for the past seven years. As we continued, he then pointed out three young girls and one young boy, only in grade eight. He said ‘these four students have the potential to be the first in their family and community to graduate high school and break the cycle of disadvantage within this town.”

Beyond our shores, Australia is focussed on supporting education programs throughout Asia, the pacific and the world.

In Indonesia, Australia is helping to build over 4000 schools, enabling 650,000 children from the poorest families to receive a decent education. In Pakistan we are supporting the enrollment of 46,000 girls in rural primary schools. The empowerment of young girls in Laos through education is being realised with the increase of primary education completion rates from 60 per cent in 2005 to 72 per cent in 2008, with a ratio of 84 girls enrolled for every 100 boys.

Enabling young people with disabilities to have access to education is a large component of the support Australia provides within the AsiaPacific region. Australia provides support for the transition from primary to secondary school for children with hearing impairment and intellectual disabilities in Samoa. We are supporting the Papua New Guinean Department of Education to produce disability inclusive infrastructure guidelines for schools.

One of the reports key recommendations was for;

Australia to establish an independent National Children’s Commissioner with the specific tasked responsibility of: establishing the strategic direction for youth based policy development.”

This will be the next big step for Australia and will ensure young peoples voices are heard and youth services are adequately resourced and implemented. A national children’s commissioner  will also complement the youth peak bodies and youth forums currently engaging young people and advocating on their behalf.

While there are many challenges and obstacles that face young people in Australia and indeed globally, the sense of optimism in the future is evident throughout communities, thanks to the open and frank dialogue we have been engaged in over the past few days.

Thank you.

—————————

It was a enormous honour to address the general assembly. With time restraints of 3.5mins a lot of the areas I wished to highlight weren’t possible however working with the Australian Permanent Mission the areas of focus within this statement will lead very well into my final statement at the 66th Session of the General Assembly in September.

For all nations that made a statement (over 105 registered speakers) there were only 5 representatives of youth. The other speakers were made up of Heads of State, Ministers, Ambassadors and Representatives of NGO’s.

I feel it was important to highlight the benefits of implementing an Independent National Children and Young Peoples Commission as the commissioner will not only add value to the positive areas within the youth sector and services but will identify areas that need improvement in all areas of the Youth landscape.

Education was a common theme throughout the 2day High Level Meeting. It was very promising to see that governments from around the world understood the challenges they currently face and shared ways to overcome these challenges. It was also very promising to see a large number of young people who are passionate about making positive change in their nations and the world.

—————————–

Watch the Webcast of my statement – here

View photos of the presentation on Facebook – here

Follow me on twitter – here

Sparking Change: freedom fighters to fire starters

I have had the amazing pleasure of traveling across Australia, attending schools, youth conferences and universities engaging young people along the way. It has been a great opportunity to meet people that share the same passions, frustrations and drive as me.

On reflection of my past 3months of travel I realised it has also been the unexpected encounters that have made my journey so memorable and special.

It has been in conversations with older generations that have had the most impact on my journey, not only as the Australian Youth Representative but as a young man. Whether it be sitting around a table in Tennant Creek listening to the local police officers share their frustrations with the growing sense of institutional mentality in the communities or their ability to list 6-10 young people who have great potential but lack the direction and drive to break the strong pull of the negative cycles. Or whether it be sitting in a mens talking circle at the Native Title Conference listening to elders discuss the growing concern of the disconnection of young people with culture and feeling at a lose of how to rekindle the spark of pride in the next generations.

These are the moments that I will remember for years after my role is completed. These are the moments I’ve sat quietly listening to the tone of disappointment, waining hope and frustration spoken by people who desperately want this generation to take up the flag and fly it for the future of Australia. This frustration is real, this sense of disappointment is real.

I recently spoke at the closing address of the 2011 National Native Title Conference in Brisbane I spoke on the need for older generations to ignite the fire in young people through history, sharing struggles, victories and loses. If you understand where you come from, who you are, you have a sense of pride and worth. This is where the fire starts.

I’ve listened to old Aboriginal men and women speak of the pride they felt when they cast their vote for the first time, how they dressed up in their best and walked down to the ballot boxes as a family to finally have a say in the direction of their country. Tears surface but the warmth from their smiles express that the tears come from a place of pride and a sense of accomplishment. We marched, we fought, we waited and finally we voted.

These are the stories that offer me strength when faced with challenges and adversity. They provide me with fortitude, knowing that amongst the struggles and disappointments there is hope and the fire that drives this hope is alive and it flickers under the surface, under the social strains, under the layers of age and time.

I’ve seen and felt it time and time again. Walking into a community, a building, a conversation where the air is so thick that you feel pressure on your chest and each step is an effort. It is in these situations that the unexpected happens, you feel the warmth of the fire, see it in the eyes of someone or feel the force of their very words moving through you.

This is where the fire starts and I believe the older generations need to drive this and be that spark in our communities, breathing life into the hearts and minds of our generation, creating the understanding that the job isn’t done, progress has happened but we still have many miles to travel on this journey.

It is true that my generation has not lived through the struggles of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and our living memory is that of the NT Intervention and the 2008 Apology but this does not limit our ability to become the torchbearers for our generation and cause, this does not stop our ability to take up the flag and fly it for an equal, just and unified Australia.

—-

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Checkout the videos and interviews I’ve filmed over my Engagement Tour: