What is the Australian dream, and does it mean the same thing to us all?
Join us as cross-cultural consultant and author Tasneem Chopra OAM leads a thought-provoking discussion between writer and appearance activist Carly Findlay OAM, founder of YARN Australia Warren Roberts, and writer, gender equality and mental health advocate Tarang Chawla, on what the Australian Dream looks like for people from diverse cultural backgrounds and life experiences.
A selection of titles mentioned in the panel discussion are available through the National Library of Australia Bookshop.
Diversity Panel Audio
*Speakers: Tasneem Chopra (I), Warren Roberts (W), Carly Findlay (C), Tarang Chawla (T)
*Location: Zoom Meeting for the National Library of Australia
*Date: recorded on 26/6/2020
I: Good afternoon, this is Tasneem Chopra and I am delighted to be here to moderate conversation with three incredible Australians who were to share their perspectives and thoughts on a really broad analysis of what the Australian dream would look like if we realised what a fair go and an inclusive Australia was. So when we talk about what the ideal is of an Australia that is perfect and that is the dream fulfilled I think from person to person we’d all have a different take but there’ll definitely be some commonalities in those themes.
With me today before I really go on I do want to ask our first speaker, Warren Roberts, to start the session with a – acknowledgement to country. Warren, please.
W: I’d first like to acknowledge that we all gather on Aboriginal land and pay our respects to the elders both past, present and emerging. Thank you.
I: Thank you, Warren. So our first speaker in the session will be Warren and a little bit about Warren. Warren is a proud Thunghutti and Bundjalung man who found YARN in Australia in 2007. He’s got a long experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having worked for NGOs and universities as well as local, state and federal government. He's also worked alongside some esteemed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that have taught him to reflect on the value and contribution of cultural background. So Warren, welcome to this panel and when I talk to you about the Australian dream what do you understand that to mean in your perspective?
W: Again it is about an opportunity for us to come together and have a dialogue with each other, sharing our stories and finding ways in which we can work together as a people.
I: Do you think we’re any closer to reaching what that dream looks like or do you think there’s still a long way to go?
W: The way I look at it is we as Australian people is, we are very much in silos and we can work a little bit more intentionally together and the way that I believe that we could do that is through storytelling. As first peoples we are storytellers, we’ve been telling stories for generations. To build the relationships between the diversity of Australia I believe that’s through storytelling.
I: Beautiful. When you talk about the storytelling this is an initiative, and I want to talk about this a bit later as we get into the session, but when you position storytelling I guess as a vehicle towards inclusivity you’re using that as the way to bring everyone together to the table and share something that we have in common? Is that right?
W: Yes ‘cause through stories we build trust and understanding, we build connection. We learn from each other because it’s in that story, in your own story if we can start there, that you start to reflect on things, you start to realise a whole bunch of different experiences and the things that you’ve been going through. At that place is where we can have an understanding of each other.
I: Thank you. The next person I want to bring into this conversation is Carly. Carly Findlays, again a well known Australian to many of you who followed her work and her contribution on issues that are really pertinent to inclusive Australia. Carly is a – she’s a blogger, writer and speaker, she’s an appearance activist which I’ll get her to explain to us a little bit more about what that means. She challenges people’s thinking about what it’s like to be visibly different. She’s written for many publications including The Guardian, Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life, ABC, Mamma Mia, Frankie, list goes on, she’s extremely accomplished. She uses her blog to describe her condition, ichthyosis as well as promote causes such as Love His Sister and Donate Life. She really has an illustrious award-winning career and we really welcome Carly to the segment. Carly, welcome.
C: Thank you. Thank you Tasneem and hello, everybody.
I: How do you think we’re tracking on the fair go for all Australians in this country?
C: Well I guess as a disabled person, as a person in the media I think that we have a long way to go with the way disabled people are treated by wider society, by the government and also the media and as my bio said I really hope to change this. In the last month or so we’ve seen some horrific stories come out around disabled people, the torture and the deaths of them and these are the stories that are being told by the media but what about the stories that aren’t being told? What about those that we’re not hearing? The very people that have been entrusted to take care of them, parents and also the NDIS employees, they have not treated these people very well which has led to sickness, to malnourishment, to death. We’ve since found out with one case, with the woman in Adelaide who was tortured so much by having been left in her cane chair for a year with no proper nourishment or care, that people had stolen from her, stolen from her estate, wracked up fines on her car which she couldn’t drive.
I really feel like we need to focus on better respecting disabled people, valuing them or valuing us in life as well as in death. Also the way the media reports on this is really othering or just this week there was an article about some children who lived in Perth, I believe. The journalist covered the story around a segregated home being closed down. I mean that’s another issue and we only have half an hour today but the way the journalist described these boys, they quoted their parents, they described them in such a dehumanising, derogatory way that if those boys were to read the article there’s no respect for them, there’s no respect for disabled people as a whole. So I really feel like we need to do better in showing respect and inclusion of better funding for disabled people.
I: Thank you and I think your voice as an appearance activist has been central to that. What do you think has been the main missing piece in progressing inclusivity or disabled voices?
C: I think not including disabled voices to start with. I mean in so many media articles around disability disabled people aren’t even spoken to. You’ll see many articles about the NDIS for example which doesn’t even include disabled people who are the very recipients of the NDIS. They’ll talk to NDIS providers, they’ll talk to service providers in the sector, they’ll talk to parents but they don’t talk to actually disabled people. So I think it’s that and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked in the media for about 10 years now and I feel very fortunate to do that but I feel we need more representation and we need better opportunities and equal pay and also not to just talk about disability stuff. I got asked to write an article on Savage Garden last year and that was my dream because I didn’t have to write about disability all the time, to show that we’re multifaceted people.
I: Well said. Look and I think your comments on representation and the lack of voice for it is a beautiful segue into our next speaker, Tarang. Now many of you might know Tarang from his incredible advocacy on gender-based violence issues in this country. He was the Young Australian of the Year, a finalist in 2017 and his inspirational story is a heart-warming tale of overcoming adversity and rising above personal mental health struggles by advocating for a better world following the horrific murder of his 23-year-old sister, Nikita. He advises state and national governments, businesses, organisations on efforts to end domestic and family violence in its multiple forms across different Ministerial committees. He’s an Ambassador for Victoria Against Violence, the newly reformed White Ribbon, Our Watch, inTouch Multicultural Centre against Family Violence and Safe Steps so that’s pretty much the full gamut on organisations that are contending with this issue.
He is very strong and passionate about working with young men to support them in their attitudes of masculinity and toxic masculinity as we’ve come to now associate that term. Tarang, welcome to the panel. How do you think we’re tracking on the elusive fair go for all in Australia?
T: I think we have this idea in Australia, and both of the other speakers have touched on it excellently, I think we have this idea that the fair go is fair, is equitable and is available to everybody but if we take first nations peoples, if we take disabled people, if we take people of colour, if we take the migrant community, if we take asylum seekers, if we start actually looking at society as fragments of a whole we’ll see that the opportunities and the concept of a fair go is applying to a very narrow section of the population. Those are the stories that are being told, those are the statues that have been historically erected, those are the faces that are seen in our media, those are the faces that are seen in our political spheres, in the corridors of power.
I think from my perspective it’s so crucial that we start to unpack what those signs say about where society currently is. I think that where we are now in terms of the context of this Australian dream is that it’s just that, a dream. I think that we’d benefit a lot from collectively waking up and actually going what’s it look like now? Let’s be honest about our history, whether that’s our history with first nations peoples, whether that’s the history of how European colonisation happened, whether that’s the history more recently of our treatment of asylum seekers, let’s start looking at different aspects of our history and unpacking it so that we can hopefully create a future that is more inclusive of the types of communities that the other panellists represent and in a deeply personal way a community that won’t result in the murder of women at the hands of a current or former partner, at least one a week.
I: Absolutely. I'm just wondering, based on everything that you said do you think right now, where we are in the world, we’ve just in recent weeks witnessed the murder of George Floyd in America and the outpouring of rage that has been subsequently harnessed globally with protests and a movement that is seeing statues topple down, institutions questioned, certain privileges and entitlements tested, do you feel here in Australia that we reached a point where we’re actually seeing some sizeable change? I ask this to all of you but I’ll start with you, Tarang, do you think a change is coming?
T: I think a change is not only just coming, I think change is happening. Change is often more organic and we might look back in hindsight and go oh wow, that was the seminal moment or that was the shift in zeitgeist but this has been happening for at least a couple of hundred years, particularly since colonisation. Let’s take George Floyd’s example of the Black Lives Matter protest is that we are living at the moment, we’re filming this way in a coronavirus pandemic world. So I think that the conditions across a whole gamut of factors were just right enough that yet another murder or yet another killing of a black man in police custody ‘though not in Australia was sufficient to garner enough public attention for Australians to start looking at what’s been happening in our backyard. I think that it’s very important that that continues, that we start to examine what it’s saying about our treatment of first nations peoples, what it’s saying about our treatment of women and everybody who historically and contemporaneously continues to be marginalised.
I: Warren, I might bring you in here. The idea that this has been happening for ages and we spoke about this briefly yesterday, you said this is nothing new, we know what’s being going on. Having said that do you think there’s a catalyst for change in recent weeks and months that you haven’t noticed before or do you have a sense that this is déjà vu?
W: I think there’s a real opportunity at the moment, our nonaboriginal brothers and sisters who are open to being part of the dialogue of learning more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, learning about our past and reflecting on the history that has come to this point. The biggest thing is while ever there’s an opportunity to do that we should embrace it.
But my question is where is the spaces for this conversation to take place? Where is the place to build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? Beyond the television screen, beyond social media black boxes posts, beyond attending rallies. What I'm looking at is having more of an intentional dialogue for building relationships directly with Aboriginal people, hear the stories directly by us, hear the struggles directly by us, hear those things because it’s only when you hear it firsthand that you understand the complexity of the system that we’re living under.
I: Warren, what’s the mechanism to hear those stories? How do you envisage that’s going to look?
W: So what I set out to do on the 1st of May is inspire one million Australians to become intentional storytellers.
I: One million?
I: That’s no easy feat, okay. Kudos to you. Yes.
W: The way I do that is building relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and nonindigenous Australians and we’re doing this online, we’re doing it on Zoom and what’s happening is we’re engaging with over now 70 people who’ve come on board since the 1st of May to have that national dialogue on how do we build intentional relationships with our first peoples? How do we create spaces where we can hear the first nation voice? How do we create spaces where we can hear the complexities and the injustices that have been inflicted on Aboriginal people? Is through spaces.
The unique thing about these spaces is we have both young people and our older generation, we have mums and dads and grandfathers and brothers and sisters who are part of this national dialogue and this is once a month for two hours for 12 months. This is not a quick -
I: Sorry, I just want to ask you there, Warren, when you have one million voices participating to this incredible initiative how do you know how much listening is happening instead of just talking?
T: Because the way I look at it is once people build a relationship with each other they still have to find the synergy and ways to build change and make impact because if it’s not in the hearts and the minds individually how can we see change? Change cannot happen through the act of a Bill of Parliament or waiting for a referendum because it’s only until we have the relationships between each other as individuals that we can start to see the synergies and the opportunities to build more relationships. The way that we’ve done that is build relationships with public venues to create opportunities for people to come together and talk and celebrate the unique cultures of first peoples.
But at the same time as much as the Australian people want to know our story as first people we just as want to know your story as well. This is why we’ve set out to have this vision to create an opportunity for us to get together and talk about things because at the moment all I hear is what’s on the screen, it’s at arm’s length. What we need to do is we need to create spaces where we can come together and share because it’s only at that reality, individually that we can see what’s possible not only just for first peoples but for all people. That’s where the change will take place.
It's a real opportunity for us to get together and we have been getting together and people -
I: It’s quite a tremendous scope of people to get and so many voices which I’m sure are going to exceed an Australian intake as well. Carly, if I could throw to you now, I mean you're a writer. How has the vehicle and power of storytelling either liberated you or frustrated you?
C: I guess on a personal note too, often my stories are very much memoir-based, even for the media they’re very much based on personal experience and the measure of my success is when somebody writes to me to say that it’s because I’ve told my story about living with a rare skin condition that they feel less alone and more able to be public about their skin condition. Even if it’s just identifying to themselves that they have this skin condition, that’s a huge step. Also if people tell me that reading my work and changing the way they use language. There were so many disability slurs ingrained into our everyday vocabulary and so when somebody reads my work and says oh I never knew that, I’m going to change my language now, that really matters to me as well.
Overall though I think that storytelling is so, so important for disabled people because our stories are often not heard. I absolutely recognise my privilege but for many people who haven’t been in mainstream education or whose parents perhaps haven’t even let them know they’ve got a disability because disability is seen as so shameful or if they’re intellectually disabled and they’re in a group home, which isn’t great, or if the level of expectation for disabled people is so low that they’re not able to tell their stories then all these stories are being lost. So it is really important to use art, many forms of art like music, visual arts, performing arts and also writing to enable people to tell stories.
It's very important that the ways that we do this is disability-led because so much of the time we’re expected to be palatable for the non-disabled gaze or palatable for people to feel comfortable. I know when I write about discrimination for example I get a lot of devil’s advocates telling me oh maybe they were having a bad day, maybe you heard it wrong or maybe you were having a bad day and you were underestimating them. So I feel like we are the experts in our own experience and the experience is very varied and we need to see those experiences.
One thing I would say though is disability representation in Australia, across the world is very, very white and I think we have to change that because we’re not hearing from enough people of colour, we’re not hearing from enough Aboriginal disabled people, we’re not hearing from enough people in developing countries. So it’s very, very important to invite them to have their stories censored. One of the things I’m personally doing is sharing lots of different stories from disabled people of colour, people of colour with ichthyosis on my Instagram and I know that is a pretty safe space for them to take part because I regularly promote different people, amplify voices.
It is very important that when you as a white person, so the audience members out here as white people, when you do share the mike, when you have the good intentions to amplify voices of marginalised people, it’s very important that you create a safe space for them to do so. So if this is the first time that you’re doing it, if you’ve never mentioned the importance of amplifying Black Lives Matter or black businesses or issues it’s very important that you ensure that there is cultural safety within your space when you talk about these issues so that the people whose voices you are amplifying feel safe.
I: That’s a very good point. I'm just thinking, Tarang, once upon a time, I mean growing up in Australia say 20, 30 years ago, negotiating identity as a person of colour then versus now has been an evolution of sorts. What do you know now that you would have told maybe your 12-year-old self back when you were 12 in Australia that would maybe help you endure the tough moments?
T: How much time do we have? I think Carly raised some beautiful points as did Warren but the one thing I would say to myself as a young boy, really, not even yet a man at say 12 years old, I would say brown is beautiful. That’s it because I grew up having an Australian accent, I grew up as a third culture kid. So many of my other friends did and we had to make a choice which side of the so-called fence do we sit on?
I: Do we still have to make that choice?
T: I think we still have to make that choice but I think now we know that at least that binary is put to us like -
I: I’m saying this and I’m just going to interject now ‘cause I’ve just got these ideas. Do you think we make the choice or do you think others make the choice for us and decide what lane and what box we’re all going to be in, whether it’s Warren or Carly or you or me? Do people and the system and policies and rhetoric, do they decide the lane and box or do we?
T: I think that in much like the Foucauldian’s network of power structure it exists on both sides but I think that the power that is vested in the person with the lived experience, that is always trumped by whichever person, entity or structure has the power to make decisions. So for example I could decide as a person of colour whether that particular day I'm wearing traditional Indian dress or I’m wearing western clothing but whatever choice I make there will be somebody else to tell me whether it fits into the correct lane. I think now that’s where we’re at. Previously I think we were at a stage, particularly in the South Asian community of where I’ve got instances of my childhood where I’d feel embarrassed going out in public with members of my own family when they were wearing Indian clothing and I would ask them to wear something else. Because I knew that if I got seen at the shopping centre on the weekend, come Monday morning in Year 7, Year 8 I would get teased because somebody saw me with my Indian auntie.
So we internalise the shame around our sense of identity that we never should. We are different but that’s okay and we should never have to feel othered because of that.
I: These are the stories that Warren talks about, the stories shifting perception. You hear something like that and straight away there’s a resonance and I’m reminded – I guess I’ll share – my little quirk is when my oldest daughter was in primary school after 9/11 I remember her telling me the week after 9/11 happened and she was at school and I was going to pick her up, she said Mum, when you pick me up can you please wear jeans so that people don’t know that you’re Muslim? Now I was wearing a scarf. Somehow she associated the jeans would somehow nullify anything that was ethnic and therefore definitely be my undercover garb. I said sure, I’ll wear the jeans ‘cause it mattered to her for me not to be perceived as the other, for her to feel safe. I think it speaks to the same idea, how we try to appease others to look like them.
I mean Warren, with all the stories that you’ve been amassing with your initiative is there anything in the recent collection that really stands out to you as really powerful and potentially shifting people’s perceptions?
W: I think the powerful of it is is we’re telling the stories together. At the moment where are those spaces where we can hear those stories? What the uniqueness of it is we have Australians from all over the country sharing their stories from all different walks of life. Where is that space where you can have that conversation and what’s so deadly about it is we’re having the conversation together ‘cause when we come back together monthly and have a yarn we’re reflecting on some of the things that we talked about and all these things that you see on social media and what’s happening in the world. When we come back and we talk about it we go hey you know what? When we talked about that story before, the stories that we were talking about, how it impacted on us between those times and we started to reflect.
Storytelling is great if it’s a practice of reflection because if you look at our history, our history is lived experience, it’s not a bunch of dates you’re going to forget, it’s a whole bunch of people’s experiences. What I’m trying to do is just create an opportunity for people to come together, share their story, be heard, be understood, continue to learn more. Some people go I don’t really have a story and I'm like that’s the story, let's not get complicated about what the story is, let’s just embrace the practice of storytelling and that’s a reflection. When somebody comes to me and go oh what do you teach and yarn? I said well we don’t teach anybody anything, what we do is accept what truth means to you because it’s not about right and wrong because your story is what it is.
When I was a kid, young fella, and going to a school and being bullied or racism and things like that I went home to my grandmother and she said to me let me tell you something. One grandmother said be proud of who you are and your black skin and another grandmother said let me tell you something, no matter what anyone may say about you, only you know your own story. So when I walk through that school and people were calling me different things or people were shifting because of who I am as an Aboriginal man, all I knew was you know what? That gave me strength that I already knew what my story is. So I don’t need to worry about other people’s perceptions or assumptions of who I am -
I: That’s a good point.
W: - story, anything’s possible.
I: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there and I think Carly touched on something similar. When you see yourself represented in stories that you hear and that you read it gives you a great sense of validation and safety. When you see a speaker, when you see a presenter on Play School and whether you see a song on MTV or whatever it is but if you see yourself reflected, if you hear yourself, voice and if you read about yourself in another format it can be a very empowering experience.
Carly, I just want to ask you now as we wind up here, if the great Australian dream were realised in a final iteration what would that look like to you?
C: That’s a very big question. I feel that it would be that everybody looks after each other, looks out for each other, accept people as they are. I think that’s a really idealised way to think because I know as a – arts worker, leftie, appearance activist, disability activist, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t agree with and probably won’t listen to that goes against my own values. But I think that it’s really important to look outside of our own experience and our own bubble. I was very, very shocked when the Liberal Party got voted in, for example, again because the people that I associate with, many, many of them were not Liberal Party voters so I realised that my own echo chamber really showed how naïve I was around that. So I think it’s important to listen to other sides and also consume media that perhaps you wouldn’t ordinarily agree with and as a writer I often take part in media that I don’t agree with because those are the people that I need to influence and also they pay quite well.
I: That’s important. Tarang, what about you yourself? If you were to realise an Australian dream that we haven’t quite gotten to what would that look like?
T: It would look like cultural safety in practice, in action. I think that a lot of our issues as a nation stem from cultural ignorance, cultural miseducation and I’m not speaking simply about ethnocultural migrant backgrounds, I’m talking about the general kind of culture. We create culturally safe space, whether it’s to share the stories of first nations peoples like some of the work that I do, putting names and faces to the nameless victims of men’s violence. It would be about elevating and amplifying the marginalised.
I: Beautifully said. Warren, what would a perfect Australian dream realised look like to you?
W: When we can create a space that reflects the national identity of this country through the unique cultures of first peoples because we are all standing on Aboriginal land, we are all on first nations country. Let’s see that as a – opportunity to reflect, continue the stories that we’ve always been telling. We’ve been telling stories for generations. Let’s continue that unique culture and tradition with all peoples of this country.
Imee: Beautiful. Look, it’s been great having these beautiful perspectives, definitely nuanced and well informed based on your individual skillsets and backgrounds and just appreciating the value of communication and conversation, be it through storytelling or writing books or giving presentations but using communication as the vehicle for change. I think there’s some enormous learnings there which if we harness them maybe we will get closer to realising a fair go and inclusivity for all. I mean my take aways, and I’ve written a few down, include that yarning is deadly, brown is beautiful and that Carly can write about Savage Garden which is something I’d really like to take up offline with you both. But please thank you all, give yourselves a little clap. Warren Roberts, Carly Findlay and Tarang Chawla, thank you so much for participating in this session and understanding what a fair go and an inclusive Australia could look like if we got it right. Thank you.
C: Thank you, Tasneem.
T: Thank you.
End of recording