Working in Community services is different to other industries. Our achievements are not tallied in number of sales, accounts won or clients accumulated but by the very broad hope of the difference we make to people’s lives. This is often abstract and hard to measure. It is marked by doubts of the impact we are making as well as the glimmers of joy and hope when that difference is evident. We deal in words like resilience, confidence, connectedness, inclusion.
We operate in the work of human beings which has everything to do with the world in which we live and the present we are building. It can be immensely difficult to quantify this kind of difference. Community work is filled with people whose resourcefulness, compassion and resilience are reason enough to believe that the world is in good hands. Yet community work is filled more populously by those who are frustrated, doubtful, overworked and underpaid, and those many weary, jaded workers who have lost hope. When you stake your life, or at least your job, on making a difference it is shattering to the soul to discover just how marred with opposition, pit-falls, set-backs and imperfection that process is.
There is always so much that we have to learn. There is always so much that we already know.
On the day that it became clear Trump was to be the president-elect of the United States of America, on a night where the rain drizzled the streets of Town hall in an almost romantic way, hundreds of sombre people gathered in a airy recital hall to listen to a talk called ‘To Change Everything We Need Everyone’. Author and activist Naomi Klein was in Sydney to accept the Sydney Peace Prize for her work to advocate for action on Climate Change. Joining her on stage were two women fighting for their countries and peoples survival.
Maria was a soft-spoken lady from the tiny pacific-island of Kiribati. She welcomed us in the language of Kiribati and spoken in an english of the even-paced gravitas particular to island people all over the world. She showed the hundreds of mostly Australian people in the room how her people made houses out of palm-fronds, how they dug holes for fresh water. She showed a picture of a sand-bank about to be engulfed by the monstrous jaws of the ocean’s waves. Please, she asked, we have always thought of Australia as a big brother or big sister and we are asking for your help before our people and our country disappears.
Then there was Murrawah, a young, bare-footed, curly-haired Aboriginal girl who began her testimony with a kind of performance piece. She was asked months ago if she could provide a testimony to what it feels like to be on the front-lines fighting the world’s largest new proposed coal mine Adani in Queensland.
She stepped up to the podium, the soles of her feet on the hard wood floors and let her words flutter from the mic uncertainly and float out into the empty air of the hall. She spoke about how her grandfather was held at gunpoint and forced into a cattle truck and off his land. Her words were punctured with the truth of colonialism and dispossession. They had been resisting and fighting for hundreds of years. Her poem was a plea for connection – for us to see how the longest sustainable civilisation on earth continues to be the one that fights to protect our earth. Her poem was full of pain and anger and the kinds of emotion you would expect from generations of oppression and trauma.
What surprised me most was their steady hope, their unwavering steps forward. Neither of them surrendered to despair. They only spoke of their struggles in way of a call to action, for support and to shine a light through the dark on the path they were taking. They did not refused to disengage, to give up any power or hope they had to effect change.
Responding to a long-winded question where an audience member seemed overwhelmed with how to act as an individual and use the privilege they knew to have in the world, young Murrawah responded with words:
It’s not about you.
We too often begin with I, and fall so deeply into that black hole of existential crisis that we cannot move then to We, to Us, to think of ourselves as part of a collective. We think too often of our own despair, our own failure, our own hesitation and our own crisis. In the Community Services field I see this too often. The change and difference we aim to make seems to us too blocked by a lack of funding, changes to government policy, an absence of public support for social services. It is easy to look at each other and say, this is too hard, this is not working.
It’s not about you is a whisper that frees you from the danger of disengagement and a push into the world of activism. It’s not about you is a call to connect to what It is about and Who it is about and What there is to do about it. It’s not about you is way for people everywhere, whether they are working in the community services work or taking part in activism for social justice in any measure, to get on with the work that needs to be done.
That night, where I was initially most excited to hear from famous names I knew most – Naomi Klein and Get Up’s Human rights activist Shen – Murrawah and Maria humbled me. Listening to their strong, clear call for support and action you could hear in their voices the strength built from resistance and the truth of change in their breaths. Here they were, fighting for survival without tears or spears or hysteria – there is simply no time and no room for despair. It is only hope that moves us into action, it is only hope that will get us there. As Rebecca Solnit so eloquently puts it, ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit down on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky…Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.’
It is those that are most vulnerable that suffer first, it is also those that are fighting hardest. Who are we to lose hope? Those who lose hope are those that can afford to. Or that think they can afford to. Murrawah went more the point, ‘Have you been listening? Have you heard what we’ve been doing? Eighteen months ago we were just little black people nobody paid attention to. People supported us and we’ve convinced some of the world’s largest banks not to fund Adani. People need to learn to be led. There is already so much that people are doing already. You have to support what people are already doing and not think about how this can be your opportunity to shine.’
All of us who ache for changes, whose emotions drive us to madness or stillness or withdrawal – we need to get our of our own way so that the work can be done. There is much work to be done, there are reasons to hope. The world has always been dark, this is nothing new. There has also always been hope, there have always been people who have chosen to hope that things can be different, that change can be effected, that the world could be better. It is Murrawah and Maria who make the difference.
If we can connect with each other and learn to have honest conversations, to listen to the struggles, to support the champions of change, to sustain ourselves in the life-long, history-long, forever fight for life – than we have a chance. Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays Hope in The Dark explores more fully some of the ideas expressed in this post. One of my favourite passages illustrates and clarifies the kind of hope we need:
‘An extraordinary imaginative power to reinvent ourselves is at large in the world, though it is hard to say how it will counteract the dead weight of neoliberalism, fundamentalists, environmental destructions, and well-market mindlessness. But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles – not when and where to expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act. I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.’
Last week I was working on a program with about 25 newly arrived refugee kids. The workshops were designed to build confidence and resilience through a series of drama workshops. The drama facilitator appendix burst that morning and she was in hospital meaning I suddenly found myself in charge of running the second workshop myself. Wanting to role-model and normalise the (very real) sense of fear and dread I felt at having to do something I wasn’t sure I could (my heart was beating out of my chest) I started by the telling the children, You know, I’m scared – I’ve never done this before. And that’s okay. Has anyone else been scared like this? One of the quiet, soft-spoken Syrian girls sitting directly to my left said, Scared? Why Scared miss?
She is right. This 11-year old refugee girl who had to leave her country due to war was asking me what there was to be scared of. So I got out of my own way and on with the work to be done. There is so much hope in this darkness.
There is so much that we have to learn. There is so much that we already know.