Monthly Archives: May 2020

Year of activism #21

Blowing off steam, having a rant, debriefing … what ever you want to call it … sometimes you need to make space to let excess energy and anger, disappointment, fear, anxiety take shape and be expressed. I’ve noticed over the years these moments in the life of an individual activist can leave them depleted, and in the life of a movement can take people into dangerous even explosive situations. They are often the moments where self-destruction seems only a breath away. Finding ways to do this safely and constructively requires discipline. For an individual it requires having quality friends and places where this can be done out of harm’s way.  It is necessary, and with its intensity can bring new insights and invitations.

This week I have watched at a distance the horror of the death of black man killed by a police officer on the streets in the Minneapolis. The rising up of outrage all over the world is too little too late for the man killed. The canaries in the coalmine of racism and inequity are now writ large on the consciousness of a nation.  In my own country institutionalised colonialism results in the deaths of Aboriginal people every day and the the life expectancy gap between Indigenous males and Indigenous females is 4 years (compared with 3.2 years for Non-Indigenous males and females) The life expectancy gap between Indigenous males and non-Indigenous males is 8.6 years (compared with 7.8 years for females). And then there is the 1987 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody with around 300 recommendations, most of which are yet to be implemented. How we mourn, act in solidarity, educate, mobilise and how we don’t, causes our pain to seep out and take expression.

Very rarely in Australia are the non-white community so moved by injustice that they take to the streets.  This year is the 20th anniversary of walking across the bridges as part of National Reconciliation Week and I wonder how we might bring more of these actions into the public psyche by embedding them into our national calendar.  National Reconciliation Week ends with Mabo Day (June 3) and Bonita Mabo first called for making Mabo Day a public holiday after the death of her husband Eddie who took the action to the High Court that extinguished the falsehood of colonisation that Australia was uninhabited and with no laws over land and sea. Making public something that is invisible to many is one of the powerful ways we discover what is going on. The video footage of a man being murdered becomes grounds for a charge of murder, yet the institution and cultural context that breeds and fosters the behaviour of the individual or small group may not be held accountable or changed.  In Australia, no police officer or correctional services person has been charged over a death in custody.  There have been 400 deaths since the end of the Royal Commission in 1991. We are not descending into civil war on the streets, however the war of occupation continues and manifests itself in the diabetes clinics, in the lack of access to health and education, telecommunications, food supply chains, number of arrests and incarcerations.

I have always struggled with the flag. Seeing the Australian flag with the Union Jack in the corner is a constant reminder to me of our colonial story. I am living in a neighbourhood now that seems to have an abundance of flag poles and flags appear from time to time. I have a small Aboriginal flag in my office, which I have had for decades and it sits behind me, and has usually been up high to remind me I live and work under the sovereignty of a nation that has not had a treaty, on land that has never been ceded.  It’s National Reconciliation Week and I have been trying to figure out a way to pay my respects in a more public way. I have signed up for A Sign of Respect and  my sign arrived and I will organise to get it onto the front of my house.  It arrived with some guidance and gratitude. It also had a disclaimer on it about the social enterprise not being responsible for any damage that might happen to property where the sign was put up.  That stopped me in my tracks. It was a window into the meaning of solidarity.  It’s a small sign of respect and I live in a small street in a small seaside community.


ps I also want to reprise and remember the Deliberative Poll we did in Canberra in 2001 which brought together almost 300 randomly selected Australians to consider reconciliation and black and white relations in Australia. It was an emotionally charged extraordinary process that took the team to remote, regional and urban places. It culminated in a two day event at Old Parliament House. You can see the 3 minute trailer here. It changed lives forever. I had the privilege of being the lead facilitator, supporting recruitment and training the team of volunteer facilitators for the two-day piece of the process. co-designing and supporting Dr Pam Ryan with the initiative. I am forever grateful for the opportunity. 

Year of activism #20

Celebrations are the result of something that has accumulated – maybe it is years like in birthdays, or profits like in an annual report, or effort like in a win in sport or opening night in the arts.  Celebrations are at the threshold of one stage coming to a completion and a new one about to begin. Just as a new baby being welcomed into a family, the addition of new person into a team or neighbour into a street, arrival is also the end of something else. In the life of the activist, celebrations are often few and far between, when we don’t stop to acknowledge the incremental achievements and completion of a set of tasks or moment in the journey to a longed for destination.

I remember Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) being asked a question by some college students about the changes she had seen in her lifetime and she recalled an earlier time in her career when she was playing gigs to segregated audiences on campuses and at the end of her career that was no longer the case. She was explaining that sometimes you have to look over time to see the big changes. The trio she was a part of never lost sight of their values and dreams and lived to see many of the civil rights they were the soundtrack for play out over their life times.  Making time to notice the small steps along the way is honouring all that has gone before and taking the moment to recognize that you have arrived at a new threshold. I don’t think enough activists pause to celebrate.

I am thinking every birthday party of activism. A pause to blow out the candles to say look how far we have come, what have we done this past year, who have we been, where have we travelled inside and out and then with a puff the candles are out and the new year begins.  I have never been a great one for birthday cakes but when I turned 60 in 2018, it came at the end of what had and will be a hard year to beat, for adversity and insatiable grief.  I had a cake and I blew out the candles and in a gust of acclamation that I had survived. I was not triumphant, I was relieved to have arrived at a new beginning and wondered what lay ahead, knowing because of what had been before I had built resilient muscle through a broken heart that would keep being broken again and again.

I think there are some lessons here for the activist.  We arrive to a new season and if we take the time to stop and blow out the candles we can gather up the lessons of the time that got us to this threshold and in the pause hold on to what has been built and notice what new point has landed. Then with a metaphorical deep breath, exhale into the new landing.   There will be bruises, wounds to tend and wholeheartedness has a chance to regroup – the celebratory moment can help with that. Sometimes there has been friendly fire, own goals and collateral damage very close to home.  This is the time to also ask for forgiveness, recognise that healing brings hope and like the new moon, the empty candles signify its time to cycle through another season. There is work to do and you are ready, once the bubbles have faded and the candles extinguished and you are fuelled and re-energized by the celebration.  The rhythm seems to be: do the work, stop, light the candles, turn off the lights, blow the candles out, turn on the lights, start again.

So here’s to the activist:

May you have candles to light and to blow out.  May you make the time to notice your wins along the way, acclaim who and what has brought you to the moment of celebration and may you joyfully and gently open to the new threshold waiting for you to arrive.


Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

PS Chooks SA the movement I started to close the gender investment gap turns 3 this week. It coincides with my appointment to the South Australian Entrepreneurship Advisory Board to the Chief Entrepreneur and State minister for Industry and Skills. I am going to remember to have candles and cake as the Hen House Co-op which is one of the initiatives of Chooks begins its next phase to find more women who are ready to start co-ops and their own social enterprises.


Year of activism #19

Having a morning stretch while still lying in bed is the forecast, what might be possible to get to the edges without having to move out of a comfort zone?  To get to the edges, do some unfurling and find the part where you end and the expanse of everything else around you brings an invitation to go (as John O’Donohue says) a bit beyond yourself.

What is that bit beyond your self? The self that contains all of us with our fears, our frustrations, our courage, our inspirations, our dreams. The self that creeps into new places that we don’t quite yet inhabit but edge towards or away from as we meet the expanse.  The self that glides through the world, taking for granted all the edges it meets along the way. What is that bit beyond your self?

Listening to the community of lorikeets in the flowering gum across the road each morning as I unfold with a stretch, I am reminded by their chatter, how we are all listening to conversations that happen in the sanctuary of a home. Their home is the tree that shelters, feeds, provides a place for communion, a chance to bring news from the outside in, a place where generations can nest and be nudged to flight.  The home is an extension of ourselves and a place to stretch. It is where activism is born.  The stretch in a comfort zone to give you the practice and opportunity for discipline for the kind of world you want to live in.  It might start with a goal to grow vegetables, or to not bring single use plastic into it, maybe more ambition like solar panels, and recycling grey water for those that own their homes. It might be that as you arrive and leave where you live you appreciate and take up your role as a health activist and make sure you wash your hands before you leave and before you come back.

Activism starts at home in a comfort zone and with a stretch.  It might not be a very big stretch, however if we got to the edges of the stretch where might that take us?  I am inspired by all the people around the world who are doing all they can with what they have to make a difference in climate change, but these individual efforts will never be enough. It has taken a virus, something small, something that can be found in any home to give us a wake up call. Yet not everyone is awake and with one in five people in UK nursing homes dying of the virus and places like the USA and Brazil still not flattening the curve it is becoming more and more clear I hope for the peoples of the world to learn the lesson between private pain and public policy.  This lesson is at the heart of social work, my chosen profession and it still what I stretch into each day. It is the soil in which my activism seeds were sewn and my Catholic social teaching and faith was the fertiliser that saw it grow over the years. I am always curious about where other people’s roots are and how deep they are, if they can stretch out far and wide or are held close to home. It helps me celebrate the contributions they are making and gives me insights and invitations to stretch as well.

I was listening to a concert last night where Paul Kelly talked about Archie Roach as a singer songwriter who could create a song so personal and so political better than anyone else he knew.  I think this is the essence of the activist, to bring as much of your whole self to the story, to the edges and this happens by stretching out into the void, to the extremities of your self to meet the shore of possibilities.

So have a stretch, in your comfort zone, and see where it takes you.


Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Year of activism #18

There is a lot to be said for working from an abundance over scarcity worldview. Where there is enough time, enough resources, enough opportunities, enough skills and energy to go around – this maybe the Pollyanna in me – but it does seem to help if I work from abundance. I was introduced to the book A Beautiful Constraint a couple of years ago when I was doing Seth Godin’s altMBA and it released inside of me the power of the constraint as a gift of abundance and since then I have railed against the idea of containment and conservation and embraced more of the radical around boundaries as gift and freedom. This seems to work for activism too as it taps into hope and possibilities and plumbs into improvised creativity, using what you have got rather than languishing for what is missing or in deficit.  In the work of community mobiliser and community developer Cormac Russell‘s work it turns up in his mantra – work with what’s strong not wrong.

Of course there are times when you have to go beyond yourself and into the dark edges of the unknown to get what is needed to make a change. I do however, continue to be inspired by seeing how much can be done with what is already there and in the stripping back getting more.  The pandemic has provided this opportunity more than once in democracies like Australia, where the flick of a pen has enabled the potential for universal basic income to be tasted and lets see how that starts to shape up in the public discourse.

Going to the end of our discomfort and then seeing what is there in that place is going to be a challenge for us all in places of privilege, what will we give up to unlock and unleash potential for others?  Travel? A bigger contribution to the public purse? Time to volunteer for things important for our planet? These are already with us and we don’t need to wait for legislation or a politician to tell us what to do. If you see inequity you can do something small in your own sphere of influence and then invite others to join you, or you can also keep quietly going about it in your own way and start noticing all the others around the world doing the same thing.  We are part of an invisible movement named by Paul Hawken as Blessed Unrest and everyone’s contribution how big or small is making a difference. I have found, feeling part of a movement can help with the feelings of isolation, insignificance and irrelevance.

All around me, I see young people taking up the fight for climate change and while I want to see more of them and more of my generation, they are there and I want to surround myself with that knowledge and ask my peers to join in. I see the retro suburbia movement growing every day, and fun and joy being spread by people dressing up to put out their waste (surely a sign that the next wave will be about waste management?). I see the power of song and dance and creativity on line in times of isolation where people can’t help but continue to share their gifts. I also see the wrath of neglect and power of leaders who refuse to let go of their machismo and I grieve for Brazil and the USA in particular here. This is juxtaposed though by the leadership of amazing women in democracies who are showing what is possible and translating compassion, play and indeed beautiful constraints into public policy. Jacinda Adern posting a message this week from a home made children’s fort to her nation via Facebook was not lost on me as a powerful message of the child at the centre of decision-making, unleashing the wisdom of the inner child and holding strong in the flimsy and impermanence of cardboard creations.

As one of the group who joined me this week in my weekly Happy Hour on line said now that the parks are open – if you see a swing, get on it! Play your way to the future you want to shape. Unleash your inner child to lead your activism.


Year of activism #17

The relationship between action and reflection has already been mentioned this year and I want to revisit in the context of creativity. Our reflection may unsettle us, we may wriggle around in our discomfort until we unearth what response is being called for, and how we might use our time and talents to respond. There is always the pitch and the catch, the call and response. Reflecting is not enough and nor acting enough – this is a two-step process that is a continuous and virtuous circle. Sometimes we might be called to rest, to lie fallow, but as we all experience, it is in these spaces creativity stirs and new responses are born.

Using a theory in a practical way, of finding there is a theory to describe what you have been doing all along, was the relief I got when I first learnt about systems theory in my social work studies and then more deeply in my introduction to Salvador Minuchin‘s work back in 1980. All of a sudden everything made sense and I had a framework to see and do, what I was already seeing and doing. This is at the heart of praxis and it is revealed in the learning moment as it is plumbed and aligned with practice and theory. His description of what he called mutual accommodation seemed to me to embody at a personal level what I yearned for politically and culturally. My aversion for doing one on one counselling as a practitioner finally had found voice.  I took this approach to my parenting, my presence in the world as a social worker and it developed over time with more learning and experience, growing particularly through the influence of the early days of narrative therapy. While was called to continue to pursue that direction it is still my bedrock.

“I describe family values as responsibility towards others, increase of tolerance, compromise, support, flexibility. And essentially the things I call the silent song of life -the continuous process of mutual accommodation without which life is impossible.”  Salvador Minuchin   

One of the things I learnt and applied, learnt and applied, learnt and applied, was the interconnectedness of all things, and that is one part of the system changes then other parts of the system are called to adapt to that change.  This too had strong foundations in Piagetian developmental cognitive psychology which was already familiar to me by the time I came across Minuchin’s work.  I am referencing their work and influence to bring to mind how theory doesn’t always come first, and how it might though give language, an ability to transfer ideas in short-hand and add layers of learning to the experience. It is an example of the the reflection – action – reflection cycle.

Activism has its developmental steps too and as we go along the way, we deepen our creativity. It may get more sophisticated, and it may get more generous and precise. It is the practice that matters, as activists are no different to meditators, each time we start, we begin as if it is for the first time, and having a regular practice, maybe only ten minutes a day.  Imagine what you can do in ten minutes though!  As in meditation, relaxing into the practice before doing it and then coming out of it slowly and resetting your optic nerve to the light, after your eyes have been closed.; so too making time to relax, reset and reflect will improve your activist practice.  But you can’t have one without the other or expect that by doing just one, you are doing it all. Your activism need not be laying in front of a bulldozer or going to gaol, it might need to be having the hard conversation with a loved one about the changes you are making to your purchasing, your diet or how you are spending your time. These sometimes might make the bulldozer an easier alternative!

The creativity kicks in with humour, delight and shows up to help shift, teach and invite others to join you. This creativity can be a policy innovation, a cleverly worded slogan, a new way of doing something that historically worked, an alliance bringing together new parties to share the load. Creativity translates imagination and brings visibility to ideas for change. No more silent songs from the past for me though, the queer, black woman, slam poet is saying it best. Thank you Sonya Renee Taylor

And my question is: What kind of garment are you going to stitch?