Overcoming Otherness

Thanks to Amy’s love of art and The Art Book Fair at NGV, I’ve been introduced to the Assemble Papers (www.assemblepapers.com.au) a twice yearly publication and a regular e-letter, focusing on the exploration of small footprint living across art, design, architecture, urbanism, the environment and finance.

I’m already fascinated by two articles! The first explores the rise of collaborative consumption and the other, our national identity and the concept of otherness. The theme is explored through an exhibition called The Other Hemisphere, which took place last year in Ventura Lambrate. I’m drawn to the first article as it explores a community response to modern society. The second for its focus on the experience of being other.

The feeling of being other is closely linked with our experience of belonging. In Design by the Lucky Country (http://assemblepapers.com.au/2014/04/10/design-by-the-lucky-country/) author Henrietta Zeffert is an Australian expat living in London, she describes her sense of otherness being an antipodean abroad. “I am seen as other, as a foreigner and a non-citizen, and I am other in my own eyes as an immigrant from my native land. I have observed a similar discomfiture in friends who wrigglingly describe themselves as expats and emigres: words that flash-fires for self-identified otherness.”

The theme of other resonates deeply with me, and perhaps like you I remember times when I felt excluded, on the edge, sharing a perspective with others but not quite being on the same page, or simply not being part of the club. Even in ones own country and community these feelings of exclusion and otherness can quickly spiral to isolation and disconnection. A few years ago I attended a forum of social service workers and the facilitator asked us as table groups to name the single biggest issue we came across in our work. Without exception every table reported back that the biggest issue they encountered was people suffering the effects of isolation or you could say being other. Those effects include loneliness, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental and physical issues.

Of course otherness goes further as I become aware of those experiencing homelessness, those living in boarding houses, refugees and asylum seekers locked up in detention, indigenous men and women being forced off their land, those suffering the effects of terrible earthquakes in Nepal. A challenge for us as a community is will the other be on our radar or will we individually and as a society, simply push them to one side and go on to buy our Louis Vuitton or Armani.

I’ve attended a forum on imprisonment, naming the state of play around levels of incarceration, the causes and response. In the forum I came across the term circuits of exclusion. Many in the prison system come from histories of abuse, self-medication, low levels of education and so on. These things become their identity and then get translated to the next generation. We are now seeing third and fourth generations of families with members ending up in crime and in prison. The point being made by members of the panel was that prison has no hope of breaking this cycle of poverty and despair. The only thing that will make a difference is a change in attitude from all of us that says these people aren’t other. They are part of my community, my people. A member of the panel suggested that we need to create communities of care for ex-prisoners, helping them to own the belief that they have done their time and that they can move on to, with help discover and live a legitimate future.

The idea of the community working together against otherness, points to the second article in the Assemble Papers. Tim Riley writes on crowd funding and co-housing arguing that these trends are leading the way in the rise of collaborative consumption. Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers in their book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, have written on this trend. For them collaborative consumption is a model through which people can share resources without giving up ‘cherished personal freedoms, or sacrificing their lifestyle.’

Botsman and Rogers See that this trend is driven by people searching for more simplicity, transparency and participation in their lives. Old forms of collectives are being reinvented into ‘valuable forms of collaboration and community.’ At the centre of this movement is:

  • The internet and its ability to bring social networks together
  • A renewed belief in the importance of community
  • Pressing environmental concerns
  • Cost consciousness

Botsman and Rogers are hopeful seeing a trend that society is beginning to shift its focus from hyper-consumption, recognising the limitations of this and moving to a form of consumerism that encourages sharing, aggregation, openness and co-operation.

That all sounds good, but whilst a slightly more open approach is being advocated for, a desire for community beginning to be sought and actualised, will there be room for the other?

Central to the Christian faith is the concept of the other. Firstly that God is other, but yet seeks connection with people. I guess you could say he desires an aggregated life. Then throughout the bible there is the motif of embracing the stranger or the other, looking out for them and making sure that they can participate in the community socially and economically. As I read Riley and his article based on the work of Botsman and Rogers I can’t help but think of the description of the first ‘Followers of the Way’ in Acts. They held everything in common, sold their possessions, gave their money to the other, or the poor and experienced the joy of a common connection and bond of faith.

I don’t sense Botsman and Rogers advocating that we go that far, in fact they don’t see the need for us to give up our freedom, we can have it all, community and freedom. But I fear this is an exclusive community that will reinforce the circuit of exclusion. Our net gets slightly wider than me and my castle and those who reside in its walls. However for those outside the walls I suspect they will continue to be ‘other.’

Forcing us to Think Differently

As with most things that attract my attention lately, this is an incredibly deep and complex issue and in the space of this article I can hope only to scratch the surface.

My son has attended both Stop Force Closures rallies in the heart of Melbourne. He reports them to be peaceful events, using disruption as a way to gain people’s attention. Numbers estimate that 10,000 – 15,000 people turned out to the last rally. I haven’t seen many photos but one that sticks in my mind is an aerial photo that shows the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets completely blocked to traffic with people sitting around a central circle. I can’t help thinking that perhaps if we got together more like this, ie sitting in the round facing each other, prepared to work on positive solutions to the issues we face, we might be in a better place as a society. But I digress.

The core organisers for the Melbourne rally were a group known as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). On their Facebook page they describe themselves as a collective of young aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism – resistance and revival. (https://www.facebook.com/WARcollective/timeline)

 According to their press release in the lead up to the May 1 rally, WAR sees the closures in WA in clear defiance of the well expressed will of the people. They see these closures as another step towards the genocide of the Aboriginal people. WAR believes it is routine in the Australian colonial state for the government to degrade, discriminate and disrupt aboriginal people.(https://issuu.com/blacknationsrising/docs/warmediarelease1may2015?e=0)

Lets stop for a second, this group of young Aboriginals and I’m sure many others feel that the Australian government that is in place to protect them, include them, defend their human rights, work for their economic prosperity and the equality of their opportunity (as they are meant to work for all Australians) are in fact their enemy. That systematically, perhaps since white settlement the government has in fact worked against the Aboriginal people.

Whether you believe the above is true or not, I find it incredibly sad and disturbing that a group of people, feel this way. In Australia, the lucky country, that many see as so open and friendly, we find such a strong sense of disenfranchisement and from our own indigenous young people. Initially as I was reading some of this material, I’ll admit to feeling a little fearful, not sure where the white fella fits with this agenda and indeed the declaration of Aboriginal Nationality. (http://goo.gl/VNbHtr) However as I let the truth of their feelings sink in a profound sadness overtook my fear.

I contrast their feelings with what I perceive my son and his friends feel, they may be disillusioned with the current government or wish some of the conditions with which they live were different, ie aspects of school / Uni, home-life, social life or their part time job, but ultimately for most, I believe if they take the time to ponder would feel there are many opportunities before them and that in general the government and broader society are there to help them. Now please forgive me I am caricaturing and from years as a youth worker I know the journey for many young people is not simple and disenfranchisement can result. However it seems the disenfranchisement that indigenous young people feel is fuelling a new radicalism, which is spreading around the globe.

According to the Stop Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities in Australia Facebook page (https://goo.gl/X7u8c6) there were 96 gatherings globally standing together in solidarity with the Western Australian remote communities. They took place in every capital city in Australia, many smaller regions and country towns as well as diverse places like the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of the Western Sahara, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, Germany and the United Kingdom to name a few.

It seems this may have had a positive effect. With an audience of 12 million worldwide, providing the foundation for a good funding base sustainable solutions to power, water and maintenance are being explored for the remote communities.

Perhaps all this is heading in the right direction. As I became more aware of the forced closures I began to think about approaching the issue from a strength base, one that takes into account a form of research called appreciative inquiry (AI). This form of research starts with the strengths of a community. It asks what do you like about living here? What is working in this community? Where would you like the community to be in 5 years? From this basis an asset or strengths map of the community could be drawn up taking into account the skills of individuals, organisations, institutions as well as the power inherent in the connection with the land, dreaming and tradition. Both methods work together to highlight the aspirations of the community and provides for self-determination towards those aspirations.

I don’t for one moment believe this would solve all the issues or in some way right the wrongs that have been done in the name of the colonial government, that will take humility, reconciliation, forgiveness, restitution, recognition… we still have a long way to go till any of this is achieved.

However one thing that could begin to be reversed almost immediately is the effect of generations of welfare that we have forced on the indigenous people, robbing them of the right to live the way that is congruent with their culture. This welfare whilst seemingly well intentioned led to the stolen generation, sit down money and a plethora of other initiatives that were counter cultural to the Indigenous way of life, including of course the Northern Territory Intervention.

The process to any kind of meaningful restitution such as a treaty that recognises the nationhood of Aboriginal people or a change in the constitution is a long one, however on that necessary journey self-determination may be a conduit rather than an end.

The Mental Health of Our Nation

If Australia were an individual, how would you describe its psyche? What would you say about its mental health? With the diversity that our nation represents its almost impossible to answer those questions, however there are still some cultural myths that bind us together in a national identity. There may even be some common aspirations that can be unearthed.

Our responses to events give some clues to our psyche and even to the state of our mental health. And so we have a diverse response to the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are countless outpourings of love and support on Facebook social and mainstream media as people try to reconcile the terrible thing that has happened to two of our own. There is even anger and the desire for revenge. Then the opposite is also present with people saying they deserve what they get. Still others point to the understandable, but not justifiable inconsistencies as we pour ourselves out for these two reformed criminals, yet thousands are killed unjustly everyday without barely a whimper from our country.

Then the events on the weekend where close on 400,000 Australians braved capital city cold, chill and in some places rain to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC’s landing at Gallipoli. They came to honour not only that ill-fated landing but wherever Australian and New Zealand troops have served together.

Attendance at Dawn Services*

  • Perth – Around 70,000
  • Adelaide – 20,000 at the service
  • Canberra – 128,000
  • Melbourne – 85,000
  • Darwin – 10,000
  • Brisbane – tens of thousands
  • Hobart and Launceston – tens of thousands
  • ANZAC Cove – 10,000
  • If we could add up all the commemorations in country towns around the nation the number would be much higher

ABC News Website – http://goo.gl/UMTcHa

* Some of these figures may include attendance at marches after the dawn services

Whether you believe war is justifiable or like Philip Berrigan (American peace and social justice activist and former Catholic priest who used civil disobedience as a method of protest http://goo.gl/oB219N ) you are prepared to go to gaol for your stance against war, the sacrifice of those willing to lay down their lives for the ideal they held is worthy of honour.

I have always found it hard to connect with ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, I believe my Pop was involved with the airforce, but only on our shores and we never spoke about it. Others of course wear their relatives’ medals with pride and as they have gotten older and died, replaced them in the marches.

Triple J’s Hack Program used the lead up to the ANZAC Day commemorations as an opportunity to ask the question, ‘Who are we?’ It’s essentially a question of culture, national identity and what is important to us as a nation. Is what we believe to be true about ourselves, in fact true? I guess the question was spurred on by the fact that so many Australians would go out to dawn services and spend time honouring and remembering. It was even a topic of conversation down my very hipster street the night before the services.

Many would see that our involvement, particularly in World War 1 was when we began to form our national psyche or identity. Wartime became the source of so many stories and depictions of our mythic (cultural belief) character traits; our stickability, we would dig in and be there till the bitter end; ingenuity, making it work with whatever was at hand; camaraderie, that we would do anything for a mate particularly if he was in trouble; the larrikin, being in good humour almost despite the circumstances and our innate ability to party wherever we are; defying of authority, not liking rules for rules sake and believing we know better.

One of the most heroic pictures coming out of Gallipoli is the myth of self- sacrifice around Simpson and his donkey. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick served in the 3rd Field Ambulance of the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served from the time of the landing April 25 – May 19. He worked as a stretcher- bearer, using one of the donkeys brought for transporting water, he took wounded men day and night from the fighting to the beach. He did this through deadly sniper and the most furious shrapnel fire. He was killed by machine gun whilst carrying two wounded men and was buried on the beach at Hell Spit. http://goo.gl/fjpMP2

So what of these things are true for today’s Australia? What of these characteristics and others are enduring? What of these things might be part of our self-perception, but not seen by other nations? When we look in the cultural mirror what do we see? And of what we see, is important to us?

With the average attender at ANZAC Cove in Turkey being a female backpacker in her 20’s, it would appear that the meaning of ANZAC day is not lost, but according to a Hack report which included an interview with young people on the streets of Brisbane there are some very mixed responses. There is a sense of we should commemorate, some even say celebrate. Others seem to value the day off more than any recognition.

However in the midst of this there is a call to identify the values that hold true rather than wearing ANZAC day as a cultural flag. How can we translate what we saw in the diggers into values that can be embraced by all Aussies? I found it interesting, hearing the responses of the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities to ANZAC Day. Many are afraid to get involved because of fear that they will be targeted in racist responses. And so the call for a more inclusive story that represents who we are needs to be heard.

One of the guests on Hack (Mon 20/4) saw the possibility of ANZAC Day becoming the world’s largest peace rally where we stop and consider the cost of war, and where we make sure we don’t go to war again. Pausing for a national day of reflection and confirming of our values sounds good to me!

So what are some things that we can take with us as in various forms we continue the conversation of our national identity, our psyche, our mental health?

Felicity Ward an Australian comedian living in London on return to Australia confirms we are so friendly, so warm, so laid back. We support the underdog and perhaps see ourselves as an underdog.

Peter Garret – former front man for Midnight Oil and former Labor politician sees that we have incredible potential to be a really good place to live. He believes that we are not as egalitarian as we were and that we need to keep an eye on that. He sees we need to embrace tolerance, respect particularly for our indigenous culture and for the planet.

Dick Smith – entrepreneur and philanthropist sees us as a fortunate, wealthy country, helpfully isolated, and with wonderful freedoms. He sees our country towns as unique to anywhere in the world.

I wonder what you would say if you had to describe our psyche or reflect on our mental health. We’ve really only just scratched the surface and already we have uncovered values such as, self sacrifice, fair go, tolerance, egalitarian, comradeship, self sacrifice, anti authority, stickability, ingenuity, laid back, larrikinism.

However, how do we go at telling these values to ourselves, what stories apart from the ANZAC story builds our myth and invites everyone to participate, including recognising the significant history of our indigenous peoples before white settlement? Are there events that lead to stories that we can experience today so that we renew our values? And if we think about how we are perceived on a world stage, as we consider the human rights atrocities we are complicit in, and our black-flip on issues relating to climate, there still seems like a lot of work to do.

But in all this please don’t despair, please don’t think the only answer is a padded cell in some asylum, when it comes to our nation’s mental health. That creating a positive national psyche or identity is impossible, because if we throw our hands up in the air, we’re just adding to the problem.

Evil prospers when good men (and women) do nothing

John Philpot Curran

A Nation of Captives

I hate feeling any kind of restriction. From being told I can’t do something that I want to, to physically being trapped. When I was seven I spent two hours in a lift with a whole bunch of other people as we waited to be rescued. It has only been in recent years that I can travel in a lift without my heart rate increasing. Good thing that, seeing as we live on the 7th floor of an apartment building. I even hate it when my head or arm gets caught in the awkward act of getting dressed, particularly when multiple layers are involved.

Extrapolate that feeling of restriction to someone who has been cuffed with their hands firmly behind their back. Been put in the rear of what is essentially a panel van with barely any light and held on remand until a significant portion of their life is sentenced away. Suddenly their ability to walk down the street to buy milk has been taken away from them, they are unable to call a mate for a chat, connect with a caring support worker or hug their loved ones. Suddenly their time is not their own, and over so many layers freedom has been removed.

The experience of incarceration is becoming all too common in our country. Nationwide we have close to 35,000 (186 / 100,000 of the population) men and women in our prisons, which represents a 400% increase in the last three decades. We spend on average $80,000 per prisoner per year. I’ll leave you to do the math, but relatively speaking we are rushing headlong down the path of our US counterparts where the community is haemorrhaging under an annual prison bill of $60 Billion.

So why have we got such high numbers in our prisons? Mirko Bagaric http://goo.gl/FNgBF8 writing in The Conversation says, in many cases, imprisonment is just the wanton infliction of gratuitous punishment by an unthinking legislature and a reflexive judiciary. In his book Seeking Peace, Johann Christoph Arnold believes that much of the politics of law and order has more to do with violence and fear than with peace. It’s true isn’t we all want a peaceful society where we can get on with living life the way we want to. There seems to be a growing perception that one way to achieve this nirvana is to lock up people who commit crimes, no matter what that crime was. We also ignore significant research that says incarceration, whilst removing someone from society for a time is more likely to cause recidivism than a suspended sentence or a more innovative approach to rehabilitation. Being in prison enmeshes someone in a criminal learning environment it also labels and stigmatises. To the extent that when people come out of prison quite often they are unable to find suitable housing, enter into education or find an employer willing to give an ex-con a go.

In turn there is a wider impact on the prisoners family and broader society. The family, already likely to be suffering disadvantage, tends to enter further into the poverty cycle, which lasts for generations and is incredibly hard to break. These factors tend to set the ex-con and potentially others in the family on a path toward violent crime. I was also staggered to read in a Smart Justice fact sheet http://goo.gl/Pt1ln1 that 42% of men and 33% of women in prison have an acquired brain injury with a possible intellectual disability and that 42% of the prison population are under a psychiatric risk warning. 87% of women prisoners have experienced abuse. 45.3% of women were unemployed and 63.7% of men at the time of incarceration, with only 14.1% of females and 5.6% of male prisoners finishing secondary school, having a trade or finishing tertiary education. And before I bore you with too many statistics 58% of inmates in Australian prisons have been there before.

A quote from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health in 2005 sums it up well at least for a significant percentage of the prison population.

Ignored, mismanaged, released unprepared, rapidly reoffending and returning to prison. This is all too often the story of the mentally ill offender, repeated and repeated.

So what is going to make a difference? What is going to move us towards the peaceful society we all long for? The Smart Justice organisation believes that as a society we need to;

  • Tackle the underlying factors such as poverty, poor levels of education, the effects of disadvantage, including income inequality. They see we need to invest in child protection, family support, housing, employment, education, mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
  • Expand court programs that address the causes for example Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre which brings court proceedings and supporting agencies closer together.
  • Provide intensive support to prisoners pre and post release, particularly around housing, education and employment
  • Promote appropriate alternatives to prison such as community based orders and suspended sentences.

Whilst all of these are good systemic responses, I can’t help feeling its not enough. Our attitudes also need reforming. I live in inner city Melbourne and at times it can be interesting to say the least as a desperate scream rises from the street or a distressed child cries for love. Whilst, as much as I would like to rescue everyone, I can’t! In the words of Bart Campolo, ‘some people’s ticket has already been punched’ meaning their way of life is so ingrained or their capacity is such that they can’t make significant changes.

I guess at that point we can go one of two paths, the first path is the one ruled by fear and the desire to remove the one/s that make us uncomfortable including the one who commits crime. And I resonate with that, unstable people, people who are abusing alcohol and drugs, ones likely to commit crimes for whatever reason, scare me.

The second path is hard, terribly hard. A radical example of this path is the communities started by Jackie Puillinger now in many of the world’s drug hot spots. Her philosophy is that someone involved in drugs etc missed a stage in their childhood where they should have been the centre of attention. So when someone comes into the community they are not expected to take part in community life and as they detox they have someone by their side 24hr a day, to get them food, clean them, play games, walk with them, pray for them, whatever is needed. Jackie believes this is the beginning of healing.

Most of us will not be able to embrace the prisoner or drug addict to this extent however when I had the privilege to visit a Pullinger community for a morning I saw some principles that perhaps we can employ as we think about prisons and the society we all want to be a part of. Principles such as seeing through the eyes of love or working to build relationship, being prepared to invite the stranger into our circles. Creating opportunities for connection and for meaningful work and in the midst of this listening to their aspirations and hope for the future. Helping them to see that they have gifts, skills, abilities and perspectives that are valuable. This may not shave off all the rough edges and thankfully it wont recreate them in our image, but it just might see a reduction in prison numbers and more open and accepting climate created within our communities and beyond. Perhaps government resources could be put into creating this type of community rather than preparing for more prison communities.

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

 I’ve lifted the title for this blog from a placard featuring the same words. The placard is being held by a teenage girl who is part of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). The photo features in an article written for The Conversation by Philippa Collin. (http://goo.gl/EfTdPM) Collin is concerned about the lack of engagement of young people with policy making. Many might lament about the apathy of this generation, but Collin argues this isn’t the case. Stating in fact young people are very active politically however the mechanisms that allowed them a voice in policy making have been drastically reduced, mainly due to government discontinuing or defunding programs.

I was going to write this week’s blog about the alarming rate of incarceration in Australia and particularly in Victoria as we run headlong down the path America has blazed for us. And I will pick up on this in the near future. However reading the article this morning, it being youth week, me being a past youth worker and the father of an almost sixteen year old, I thought the opportunity too good to let go past without comment.

It was my forty-first birthday on Sunday. I don’t tell you that to get more happy birthdays or some kind of warped sympathy, but to say this period of my life has been one of reflection. Am I the person I dreamed I would be when I was young? Living the life I thought I would? Have I made the impact I wanted to make as I was inspired towards a picture of what the world could be in my twenties? Did I have goals as I went through school? Have I achieved those? What has been the result of achieving or not achieving those goals? As a collective what did my generation hope for the world? As we come into leadership positions how have we gone at implementing those hopes and dreams or have we simply succumbed to the status quo?

Some of those questions are hard to answer. I didn’t become a doctor, although I’m hoping to start work on a PhD in the near future? I’m not sure I had burning ambitions for the world at school, although I did in my twenties and thirties. I’ve never really had any financial goals, but life has been full of various communities, connections, long and short-term friends. When I caught up with a school friend a couple of years ago, she informed me that I was doing exactly what I said I would in school, helping people. Well that was nice of her to say, and I certainly hope I have. And maybe the world is a little different because of it. Now, apart from casual connections with neighbours my helping people is more about training, teaching, writing, consulting. It’s different but its good. And there still is a desire to change the world, although it doesn’t get airplay as often as it used to.

However, what of the aspirations of my son’s generation? When I was at school I remember talk of youth parliament and various other connections to policy bodies, but I was not aware enough to know if they were taken seriously and what the outcome of such conversations between young people and policy makers was. In her article, Collin quotes Stephen Coleman a communications scholar who says that young people are often treated like apprentice citizens, with a managed citizenship approach. Essentially initiatives are designed for them which tell them how they are to engage with government and on what issues.

Typically this sort of approach does not engender genuine engagement, where young people are encouraged to think through an issue close to them and work towards a genuinely held policy position. Last year my son got the opportunity to go away for a whole term to a leadership school. Part of the school was linked back to the various local communities of the young people. In teams they had to design and implement a project that was meaningful to them and addressed a need in their community. Whilst this activity may not have been linked with policy makers it was an opportunity for them to think through an issue and come up with some kind of intervention.

Likewise a couple of years ago the organization I was then heading up partnered with some other not-for-profits to run a series of conversations on youth suicide and the social environment for young people. The biggest conversation was a world café event that brought together sixty people including school teachers, youth workers, local councilors, social service workers, police, chaplains and young people. The playing field was leveled and the young people were the stars of the day as they kept the rest of us honest about what the issues really were and what would make a difference. Again the upper levels of government may not have been present but young people contributed and there was the opportunity for the thinking of many workers to be challenged and shifted.

Collin points out in her article that Australian young people have lots to say, with two of Australia’s largest membership based organisations (AYCC and Oaktree Foundation) being youth led. Other youth organisations such as Reachout.com, Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre and Foundation for Young Australians work with young people in a whole range of capacities from innovative policy solutions to social enterprises in areas such as mental health, education and sustainable futures.

As well as these informal approaches and countless other connections on social media, Collin suggests a broader based approach is needed. She points to the British Youth Council as a co-funded model that brings young people and policy makers together. I can see many benefits of this through intergenerational connections and the sense for young people that they can make a difference.

All of this requires an investment in young people on a number of levels. In training I do with local councils and service providers I point out that it is no surprise that young people are disenfranchised with the community and associated political process. They are bombarded almost everyday with messages that they are no good, they cause trouble, that they are lazy and so on. A number of years ago when I was working in Pakenham a group of us sort to bring a different message and engaged a small number of young people in some arts projects in the community. The local paper reported on this and the community began to see a different side to the young people so many regarded with disdain.

Asset Based Community development says that everyone in the community has something to offer, a perspective to bring, a skill to use or teach, something of value. This is akin to the ancient Hebrew concept of Shalom part of which encourages the valuing of young and old and the contribution each can make to the whole.

So as we come to Youth Week 2015 and as I think about my son’s aspirations for himself and the world around him, the challenge for me is will I take this opportunity to deeply listen, not only to him, but to his friends and other young people I come in contact with. To let them know that I value them, I love their dreams for a better world and that I will do all I can to empower them to see those dreams become a reality.



It will probably come as no surprise that this week’s blog has an Easter theme. For many years I was part of a movement known as Reclaim Easter or the Awakening Movement. We also organized marches but unlike the 16 that took place around the country on Saturday, organized by Reclaim Australia, the marches we organized were not motivated by fear of a lifestyle that some see is in danger of disappearing.

Our marches called Christians and indeed the country to a new vision, new possibilities hallmarked by peace, colour, joy connectedness, by everyone finding their place to contribute. All made possible because of the resurrection of Jesus, and the beginning of the creation made new that this event heralded.

Whilst they were hard work at the time, and I remember the cold Easter mornings blowing up balloons, setting out the march route, setting up for the festival afterwards, they were great reminders of a possible world, a glimpse of a redeemed society. Not a society redeemed for a religious dogma, but a society become alive to its possibilities, its potential.

Some will recall that my blog included reference to a march last week, I promise this won’t become a habit, however it seems many people are willing to take to the streets to make their views known. Since the start of the Abbott government there have been many such protests, again predominantly from a negative standpoint. That is in opposition to something, not a positive statement about a potential future.

Motivators such as fear can never produce a hoped or longed for future. Its like when someone goes to a politician to complain that something is wrong in their community. I always wonder what they expect the politician to do about it. Sure I agree our elected representatives are there to listen and help where they can. In fact political leaders in ancient Israel were exhorted to be at the city gates and be prepared to listen to the needs of the people, entering into dialogue with them. However I think today that when many approach out leaders its with a ‘you need to fix this mentality.’ It’s like they have divested themselves of any responsibility and expect the politician to come up with a solution.

So back to the marches on the weekend, there seemed to be a sentiment of hate coming through, despite the organisers and speakers saying it wasn’t that they hated Muslims but that they didn’t want to live under Sharia law and opposed the teachings of Islam. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-05/bill-shorten-condemns-reclaim-australia-fears-as-exaggerated/6371506 For many who took part in the marches I can’t help thinking that their involvement was motivated by fear. And fear is generally based on ignorance. Pastor Brad Chilcott of Welcome to Australia called for those who marched and those who were part of counter marches to put the banners down and come to the table to get to know each other and for dialogue.

Like the unhappy constituent meeting with the politician, a better way to approach a political leader is to have in mind a preferred future and present the issue and a potential way forward. At this point the politician can also begin to think creatively and together a workable solution may just be happened upon.

Unfortunately I can imagine that for many who marched with Reclaim Australia coming to the table would be the last thing they would want to do. Their solution to the issue seems to be at least in simplicity that the people they think want to promote sharia law should go home. It’s like they have divested themselves of the responsibility of finding a workable solution for our country. A solution that would ultimately see Australia becoming a place that we can all call home.

Easter is a time of hope and new possibilities, as referred to in an Easter message at Collins St Baptist, where Carolyn Francis juxtaposed the light and dark that is evidenced in our world. And I’m sure we can all think of examples where darkness coexists next to light, in our families where one moment there is harmony, the next arguments. In our communities where there is beauty like the birth of babies and the darkness of crime and isolation. In our cities where there are amazing opportunities and hope and the darkness of unmediated commercial greed.

But in all of this Easter reminds us that the door to possibility, hope and a new beginning has been opened. Ross Gittens, economic writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, quoting Tomas Sedlacek a Czech economist reminds us that Easter is primarily about forgiveness both for us as individuals and the possibility of redemption for us as a society.

http://www.theage.com.au/business/comment-and-analysis/jesus-the-great-debteliminator-20150406-1mdkxq.html We don’t have to put our hands in the air and say its all too hard. We don’t have to resign to fear of a future not of our own design. Easter is a sign of hope an ultimate eternal hope, but also a present one. I guess the challenge is will we hear the call to hope, to possibility, to new life and if we do hear the call will we respond and enter into the journey with others towards creating a new world full of possibility and potential for all.

Cities a Place of Human Flourishing

Can cities be places where people flourish? Before we can answer this question we need to define what we understand by human flourishing. The UN predict that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population (around 6.4 billion people with the world’s population at approximately 9.6 billion) will be living in cities. The majority of the growth will take place in Asia and Africa. Currently there are 28 mega cities with over 10 million people, by 2050 there will be 41 with Tokyo having the largest population.

But what will the quality of life be for those 6.4 billion? Of which, if I’m still alive I’ll most likely be one. By 2050 I’ll be 76. So I wonder what will Melbourne be like? What will all the services be offering? Will there be any cars in the CBD? Will there be a CBD? What will shopping, healthcare, education, the media be like? What will technology have given us? Where will the gathering places be? How will community be formed?

What are the guiding principles that will not only ensure sustainability, but lead the way for human flourishing?

Cities are often seen as negative places, devoid of natural environment, without a soul and so forth. I don’t buy it! I see incredible potential for cities to be places of light, hope, of new beginnings and endless possibilities. However we need to ensure they are places where EVERYBODY can experience those things. This will involve some major re-thinking about how our cities develop and what we see as important as we experience growth. Perhaps even the economic agenda needs to be displaced from its position of privilege and replaced with the relational or community agenda as the central guiding principle. If this is achieved, the door is open for a sustainable economic future that we can all participate in.

In a step towards this, last year the City of Melbourne put on a conference called Beyond the Safe City. Internationally Melbourne has been recognized as a safe city, but they wanted to go further to look at places and spaces for human flourishing. The input from professionals in their field was outstanding. We were able to explore the benefits of social entrepreneurialism, explore what event theory had to offer CBD hotspots and look at cities, Melbourne in particular from a number of different angles. The desire of the conference was for everyone to feel safe in the heart of Melbourne. One of the standout examples was the hospitality (creating space for the stranger) shown by Urban Seed and the care they take with building relationships with people who frequent their laneway. There was encouragement for people who live in other laneways to offer similar hospitality rather than shunning those who are different in some way.

On Sunday Melbourne had another opportunity to show hospitality and its willingness to make space for everyone to flourish. It was the Palm Sunday March for Refugees. Over 10,000 people turned out in force with banners waiving showing their support for refugees, pleading for children to be let out of offshore detention, showing their dissatisfaction with current government policy and demonstrating that all are welcome in our city. One of the things that struck me was the diversity of people in the crowd. Many arms of the church were present as was the Humanist Society, medical professionals and countless local refugee groups. It seems that this kind of issue around human flourishing transcend the usual sacred / secular divides. Can we celebrate the thousands that turned out to the march that stretched from LaTrobe Street all the way Flinders St Station? More can we celebrate the spirit in which they turned out? The welcome they offered? And I believe the sacrifices that many of them would be willing to make to bring their statements about refugees into actuality. This is the kind of spirit of openness we need to display to each other in order for Melbourne to be a place where everyone can flourish.

Everyone is Welcome
Everyone is Welcome
Children advocating for children
Children advocating for children
A popular cry
A popular cry
A letter to the PM
A letter to the PM

The UN fact sheet on population from August 2014 states that sustainable urbanization requires cities to generate better income and employment opportunities; access to clean water and sanitation through the expansion of the necessary infrastructure; transportation; information and communications; equal access to services; reduction in the number of people living in slums and the preservation of natural assets.

However, is sustainable urbanization enough to ensure human flourishing?

I have a suspicion that human flourishing has to do with belonging and meaning or purpose. If someone feels they belong to a place or a people this opens the door for them to explore more of who they are and to begin to discover and live out their purpose. Sadly with isolation in Melbourne increasing many do not get to experience either. The United Nations’ list of what constitutes a sustainable urban environment is important, yet how these things are developed in concert with a sense of belonging, individual and community empowerment and a lived out purpose becomes crucial to human flourishing.

In the past cities tended to be developed in silos. The silo mentality is still alive and well in many of our institutions. Through working alongside local councils I have discovered that quite often it is difficult to get the planning department to talk to the community department and vice versa. Yet these types of conversations and the relationships behind them are vital if municipalities and cities are to be developed well. These relationships need to be formed not only within the institution of local government but across the different spheres of a city.

For example what would it mean for the development of a city if there were vibrant relationships between the spheres of politics, health, education, sport and recreation, business, community service organisations (not for profit), media, Arts, Justice and Law?[1] What creativity and innovation could be released through this sort of cross profession and multi-disciplinary conversations?

[1] The drivers of society borrowed from Dr David Wilson, developed through his work withSophiaThink Tank http://goo.gl/tNHjjl

In Search of Simplicity

Payments To and From the Vulnerable

It’s been revealed by the ABC via a Credit Suisse report that $90 million of Radio Rental’s $197 million in revenue has come directly from the Federal Department of Human Services. But no the offices aren’t being decked out with rented desks, computers and white goods, or flat screen TV’s and sound systems. This money is coming from Centrelink customers’ benefits via the Centrepay system.

For the uninitiated Centrepay is a Federal government payment system that allows people on benefits to have their bills deducted directly from their entitlements. It has been operating for a number of years and overall it seems to be a good system and is totally in the control of the customer. This is unlike the benefit card which has been rolled out in some of the most needy communities around Australia. This card enforces a budget direction, ie a proportion of the customers Centrelink income is put on the card and can only be used for groceries, rent, some bills etc, thus disempowering once again the most vulnerable. This was used extensively in the Howard government’s intervention.

Centrepay has become central to one of the projects I’m involved in concerning rooming houses in the City of Greater Dandenong. I recently facilitated a conversation between police, council, rooming house operators, regulators and a person with a lived experience of homelessness. One of the plethora of issues that was discussed were concerns about Centrepay. The issue was raised by an operator who was lamenting about residents who come to the rooming house, sign all the documents and rent begins to be deducted from their benefit. Then if something goes wrong or even on a whim the resident contacts Centrelink and stops the direct debit. In this particular case the person refused to leave the boarding house and as legal proceedings trod their course proceeded to trash his room. So when he was eventually evicted the owner hadn’t had rent for about 6 weeks or so and had to spend money fixing the room.

Now this becomes a wider issue than Centrepay and reflects a lack of understanding of the sector and the difficulties faced by operators on the part of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). There is a feeling that they tend to favour the resident. Which on face value sounds like a good thing, but when rooms are being trashed, I guess questions need to be asked.

As with the majority of issues surrounding vulnerable people, it is never straightforward and there are many forces at play. These include mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, extremely low self-esteem and a lack of a sense of worth, quite often acute isolation and disconnection particularly from significant supports such as family. People who find themselves in this kind of vulnerability also in many cases (though certainly not always) lack education, a sense of purpose or direction, essentially hope that anything will ever be any different. So when issues come along the survival mechanism is all too easily triggered, often with devastating results for themselves and those around them.

Coming back to Radio Rentals and their income from Centrepay. The customers using their benefits to purchase household items etc are more likely to be families that are either on low income or where a partner has become unemployed. Although this is not always the case, the ABC article http://goo.gl/IZdics tells the story of Norma a grandmother on a pension who on a whim decided to purchase a vacuum cleaner from Radio Rentals over 3 years, paying a very high interest rate on the loan (on average the consumer ends up paying 3x the retail value of the product). According to the ABC report there has been an increase in Centrepay being used to buy flat screen televisions and sound systems. This use of money is seen as discretionary spending and together with Norma’s story is perhaps where our society needs to take some of the blame.

Here in Australia, even without us knowing it, when it comes to marketing, consumerism and the like we are part of the postmodern junket. Jean Baudrillard a postmodern philosopher sees that consumerism has past through a number of crucial stages and is now a sophisticated coded system of meaning dominated by the value of the sign. So advertising of all sorts is focusing less on the products and more to what they signify. This plays into our aspirations and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. It creates a whole new system of codes and meaning (Greene and Robinson, 2008). The Coca Cola ads are classic examples where the focus is often on the group of friends having fun as opposed to the ‘brilliance’ of the product. “Buy coke, you’ll belong and it will be fun,” is the subtle message communicated.

Like for all of us, this plays into the desires of the most vulnerable, with money going straight into the pockets of organisations like Radio Rentals. Adam Mooney from the not for profit lender Good Shepherd says there is an alternative for household items. Good Shepherd provide no interest loans for fridges and other household items. Their service alleviates some of the stress for the needs, but what about the wants, how are we as a society to deal with our wants?

We tend to think that the accumulation of stuff is part of what it means to live a fulfilled life. But we forget about the law of diminishing returns and continual lure of the next purchase with its promise of everlasting happiness. We tend to think that as long as our family is ok and we are continuing to build our castle and all who reside within its walls, life will be good. But we forget there are many of our fellow human beings with hopes, dreams, gifts, skills, potentials for whom the light slowly dies. And we forget that it is better to give than receive. We tend to think that as long as we look out for number one the wealth will filter down and everyone will be ok. We forget that for the decades this thinking has been predominant it has not been the case.

So how do we address our wants and the inequality that takes root in society when those who can, pursue them? And those who can’t try to keep up? Simplicity is an ancient concept that talks of a singleness of heart and an uncomplicated life. Have you seen the stories of those that leave the busyness and complexities of everyday life for a sea-change or a tree-change, if its told well the stories can make you breathe that deep breath and leaves you almost being able to taste the sea salt air or smell the eucalyptus. I was at the Cardiologist the other day and asked him about stress and how it contributes to high blood pressure. He was somewhat on the fence, but did mention a patient who changed her lifestyle to a more laid back approach to life and suddenly her blood pressure dropped to a more acceptable level. So simplicity involves a letting go of all the clutter that we think we need, but really only pollutes our space.

Richard Foster an author and teacher suggests a few hints to help on the journey towards simplicity. This is an extract from his book, Celebration of Discipline;

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you
  • Develop a habit of giving things away
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (apple is exceptionally good at propaganda he says writing from his Mac Air, checking his iphone for messages)
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes (like those offered by Radio Rentals)
  • Speak plainly and honestly
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
  • (Richard comes from a Christian perspective and so includes the following) Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God

Strange language, I grant you. But essentially its what this blog is about, seeking a more simple world, where people are recognized for the inherent value they possess rather than for what they own or how they look. We may not be able to change the whole world, but in choosing a life characterized by greater simplicity we may just change our world and the worlds of those around us.

To Stand in Solidarity

Dictionary.reference.com defines solidarity as a union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples. Whether it’s implied in the definition or not, I’ve always associated solidarity with a fierce loyalty, the romantic image of freedom fighters standing together against a common oppressor. Of course in recent days the romance has been totally removed with the sad news of Melbourne teenager, Jake Bilardi’s http://goo.gl/41Mjkq suspected involvement in a suicide bombing in Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. The radicalisaton of Jake and others like him is a powerful reminder of what the promise of identity, purpose and belonging can do for someone who lacks it. Jake’s situation is sad with neighbours saying he had become more aloof and disconnected since his mother’s death in 2012.

It seems vulnerability led him to the internet where he was befriended by a propagandist from the Islamic State, which led to his eventual journey to Iraq via Turkey. My point in all of this is that perhaps Jake was looking for someone to stand with him in solidarity. Not to join him on his eventual quest, but to be close enough to him to hear his pain, to point him to meaning outside of his eventual choice towards violence and death. To help him sift through his beliefs and determine which ones were life giving and which ones would lead to death, his and others. Various politicians, includingGreens deputy leader and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt are calling for money to be given for on the ground responses, so that people in Jake’s situation are not radicalized. These issues are always so multi-faceted, whilst there may be the need for specialist programs, there is also an urgent need for communities to be strengthened so people like Jake don’t fly under the radar, so others who are experiencing pain and heart ache don’t turn to substance abuse, crime or worse.

However, our approach needs to be different. Quite often, in the past when money has gone into community strengthening, it has been used for bandaid measures, a picking up of individuals from the bottom of the cliff. Whilst necessary at times it is not a long term, sustainable approach to caring for and strengthening communities. Linked to this there is currently a lot of debate around the funding of welfare services and payments to people experiencing unemployment, disability etc. Australia has become known as the welfare state, a justifiable title, but have we really had people’s long-term interest at heart?

In days gone by the nuclear and extended family were seen as the main support for the individual experiencing difficulty. With an increase in mobility, family breakdown and estrangement, sadly for many this is no longer the case. Some would wistfully look back to those days and say we need to recapture our sense of extended family. They might be onto something as there is some evidence of an increase in 3 generation households. However for many they will never have that sense of family and here the community needs to play a part. I don’t think there would be much argument to the perception that as a nation we have generally become quite individualistic and our sense of community beyond our house and our interests is generally fairly limited.

A few years ago a friend and I tried to get a pilot program going called Spare Room. We were seeking to encourage people of faith who might have had a spare room to open their house and lives to a person experiencing homelessness. We worked hard to combat the stereotype of homeless people all being alcoholics and incredibly desperate and needy, we were offering support and training but to very little fruit. It is difficult for people to consider welcoming the stranger, offering hospitality with no strings attached.

But if we are to recognize our common humanity and to stand in solidarity with others, particularly those who are suffering, perhaps that is the response we need. We have become too reliant on the professionalization of care, seeing those hurting in our community pseudo cared for by workers that could never hope to replace the therapeutic value of a loving, embracing community, based on relationships of mutuality, concern and empathy.

If we are to go down this path, what will this cost us? Financially a lot less as a nation and as taxpayers, even if the cost of some of our caring was subsidized. As individuals, yep there would be a cost, a sacrifice, a giving up of something, but I wonder what the return would be. We know the accumulation of stuff and the pursuit of wealth are not a guarantee of happiness. We lament the loneliness and pain that at times we all feel, if we were to open our lives up to the stranger perhaps in some way that would be lessened and in helping we may even be helped.

Looking broader than our community, Alain de Botton writes on the news in his latest book (http://goo.gl/kK0Xef), raising questions about why some news stories grab us and others often leave us cold, including conflict and disasters from overseas. Aid agencies are well aware of compassion fatigue as the number of worthy causes around the world escalates. The challenge if we are to stand in solidarity is not to stare blankly at the screen and feel nothing when we see pictures of devastation, not to let $1.2billion be slashed from the Overseas Aid budget without batting an eyelid. Rather to let the pain of the world sink into the very depths of our being, not to become overwhelmed and to shut down, but to be touched at our core and in that way connect and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. If we can do this perhaps we will have more empathy for those around us, those we are connected with who are doing it tough. And maybe then we will take part in the building of the community that we all need to thrive and flourish as human beings.

A Measure of the Future

I was reading an article on Friday that stated a question like, what type of Australia do we want to live in? I thought great an article about values, human rights charter, creating the nation that we can all call home, inclusion, hope for the marginalised. To my initial chargrin the article referred to the impending release of the 4th Intergenerational Report (IGR) http://goo.gl/XUW3yg These reports have taken place on average every 3 – 5 years, starting in 2002 and seek to project our economy 40 years into the future. They are essentially a treasury report focusing on whether we can expect to be financially better or worse off in the future, based on current Government policy projections.

Key issues relate to the 3 P’s of population, participation in the work force and productivity. Population obviously refers to the amount of people living in the country, their ages as well as their relative needs. Of course one of the key concerns raised in the report is the amount of ageing Australians vs the amount of people in the work force to pay for their pensions and increased health bills due to longer life expectancy. Participation refers to the number of people in the workforce between the ages of 15-64. Productivity refers to our ability to work more efficiently or produce better quality goods and services with the same level of resources.

The report shows how each of these factors play into what the future will be like in 2055. By then the population is estimated to be at 37.9 million, with 2 million Australians aged 85 or over, we currently have only 80,000 in that demographic bracket. The report predicts that in 2055 the participation rates for people over 15 will fall slightly, however the rate of people aged over 65 in the workforce will increase to 17.3%. This, according to the IGR will give us the opportunity to learn from the wisdom and experience of the older generation. Couple of issues here, one we’ve got to want to learn and two, the older generation has to want to teach. I see plenty of reluctance on both ends of the scale.

According to an article in the Conversation, http://goo.gl/rsrHMD whilst focusing on the contribution of the older generation, the report lacks a focus on the younger, which is where the future of work is really headed. It states that unemployment of young people with tertiary qualifications is up, whilst those without yr 12 are doing slightly better comparatively. Authors, Churchill and Denny conclude that this suggests education – workforce transition is more complex than originally thought. According to Brotherhood St Laurence CEO Tony Nicholson, youth unemployment is a key intergenerational issue and needs to be addressed in order to secure future economic prosperity.

However is future economic prosperity the benchmark or sign of a healthy nation? Or could it be the by-product or outworking of a set of values that we adopt and live by as a nation. A set of values that inform policy at all levels of government, helps structure business, provides a guideline for media reporting, sets an agenda for social services, incorporates the highest good of religion and promotes human flourishing?

Can you imagine an Australia with a values statement? A statement that incorporates the best of who we are. Not a statement that is then enshrined in law, but something that’s aspirational, that gives freedom for people to grow and flex. A statement that is open to interpretation but is geared towards the common good.

Richard Eckersley an Australian sociologist and researcher into youth issues believes that young people are the canary in the mine shaft for a nation. For those not familiar with the metaphor, in Britain in the early days of coal mining the miners would send a canary into the shaft. If it survived they believed there was enough oxygen in the shaft for the miners to survive. Similar if young people are able to thrive and flourish in a nation it is doing ok. Eckersley sees that reports like the IGR and for the most part the wellbeing indicators look at the economic health of the country, whilst there are concerning aspects, for the most part that comes out ok. But if you look at indicators like youth suicide, young people’s sense of the future, their sense of wellbeing, the lack of relationship with significant adults, connection to meaning and purpose, then there is room for concern.

One thing the IGR does is help to lift the political gaze beyond the news cycle and even the next election, but does it help politicians focus on what’s really important for our nation? If we look at young people as part of those who are vulnerable in our communities then we can include them in the ancient adage that says a test of a nation is how it cares for the orphan, the widow and the stranger. How would we go on that scorecard?

Could we establish a set of values that guides us as a nation to create a truly great place for generations to come to call home? If we can then there is work for all of us to do. Are you prepared to dream a little, move outside the box of the expected economic norms and begin to live as if there is another way. Australia was seen as the place of the fair go for the battler, could we recapture that for today’s battler, today’s vulnerable and include them in the conversation towards creating an even better community.