Australia’s most progressive leaders, thinkers and community agitators have gathered in their hundreds – in person and online – to spur on practical solutions to society’s toughest problems.
Bringing together leaders from across the country’s 600,000 not-for-profits since 2003, Communities in Control this year had as its theme “Think Bigger: Fix Everything”.
While many delegates counted themselves lucky for having avoided any COVID-19 border closures, more than 600 turned out in person to Melbourne’s Moonee Valley Racecourse with another 250 tuning in online for Our Community’s first ever hybrid conference.
For first timers and conference diehards, the two-day event (May 17–18) delivered inspiration in spades, with the organisers’ vision tempered by their clear view of the mammoth tasks faced by community groups across all sectors.
For many delegates, the event was their first in-person conference for more than a year, and people embraced the chance to mingle freely.
The virtual contingent was also lively as delegates, their workmates, cats, kids and “hot” imaginary friends joined the online chatter. Gosford Regional Community Services chief Kathy Sokk told the virtual chat “there are 18 of us here today” and quipped that the politically instructive content should be “mandatory” for politicians.
First-time delegate Hailey Smith from Bendigo Senior Secondary College declared that the line-up of speakers was “amazing”, with the event far exceeding her expectations. Kudzi Maforimbo, from Mission Australia Housing in NSW, said the event was “incredible” and a great personal and professional “investment”.
Top talent proves inspiring to community sector
Theirs was a typical response from delegates who heard from the cream of Australia’s most progressive thinkers, including:
- Australian of the Year Grace Tame, a sexual assault survivor speaking out for change
- Senator Penny Wong, delivering the Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration
- Uncle Jack Charles, a Stolen Generations survivor, actor, activist and mentor
- Chart-topping Indigenous “voice of a generation” Mitch Tambo
- Investigative journalist Jess Hill addressing the domestic violence crisis
- NSW Ageing and Disability Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald, a veteran of more than 18 government-commissioned inquiries, on reform in the community sector
- Dr Helena Popovic with great tips on how to “boost your brain power”
- Hugh Mackay on the kindness revolution that’s needed in the wake of COVID-19
- Dr Ramona Vijeyarasa arguing for changes in the law to achieve gender equality
- Economist Dr Tim Thornton arguing inequality and injustice are unsustainable
- Philosopher Daniel Teitelbaum on the power of playful thinking
- Somalian-born slam poet Hani Abdile, who found her voice in detention
- Author Andrew Wear with solutions to the world’s biggest problems
- Renaissance woman Jess Scully, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, with an upbeat summary of how to harness technology and creativity to reshape the world
- Master storyteller Chris Helder, who draws together the power of communication, leadership and influence to show how change is possible.
Our Community managing director and conference organiser Denis Moriarty said the theme was unashamedly ambitious, but having seen homelessness and poverty vanish – if briefly – in response to the pandemic, he had wanted the conference to build on the possibilities.
“These past two days, we’ve done a lot of thinking, and now, with everything we have learned, it is time to go out and Fix Everything. The power is in your hands.”
The good news for Our Community members and conference delegates is that you can now catch some of the highlights of the event on the communitiesincontrol.com.au website. Alongside an extended video wrap of the event, selected podcasts, transcripts and presentations are available.
Complete videos of sessions are also being posted, with videos from previous conferences also available.
In the meantime, here are some of the event’s highlights for delegates and for people who missed this year’s event.
Australian of the Year Grace Tame sets bold example
Grace Tame stunned the audience with her no-holds-barred account of surviving sexual assault at the hands of a trusted teacher and her path to becoming a campaigner to help others.
The Australian of the Year told a truly chilling story of the transformation of a young and vulnerable girl paralysed by fear, to a powerful woman galvanised by a mission for change.
The tale was impossible to hear without being personally affected, but she had a message for those who had witnessed her break free from a Tasmanian gag order through her #LetHerTalk campaign.
“I like to remind people that no contribution is too small, especially in the process of creating change. Where people go wrong in the activism space is doubting the value of their single signature on a petition or that $5.00 donation here. And I remind people that it's not isolated your gesture, it's amongst a collective and trust in the power of the collective, that when you put your little donation in there, you put your little gesture in there, that together we will make a huge difference.”
Senator Penny Wong’s call to action in Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration
There was no mistaking Senator Penny Wong’s star power when she entered the room at the Moonee Valley Racecourse, as scores of delegates whipped out their phones for pictures. But it was her message for action during the annual Joan Kiner Social Justice Oration that focused people’s minds.
“Well, I love the title and the attitude of this conference. ‘Communities in Control: Think bigger, Fix everything’. It’s ambitious, it’s determined and it’s courageous just like Joan. Joan understood, as do you, that change requires us to be all of these things. We often hear these days that there is an abounding sense of disempowerment, a sense that political engagement is pointless, but despair is a luxury those most vulnerable cannot afford and cynicism only ever serves the status quo. You see, it’s only ever been up to us to make the world a better place.”
In a powerful address that coolly dismantled her political opponents and those who would hold back a tide of change, Senator Wong stressed that it was community organisations that needed to take back their power.
“When Joan Kirner got involved in a school parents club, she didn’t do it to become Education Minister or eventually Premier. She, and these other women, and so many more, remind us that we cannot treat progress as only the work of great figures in history. It’s never been up to a venerated few to make our world better. It is up to all of us.”
Robert Fitzgerald: Not-for-profit thinker’s push for sector reform
One of the greatest minds to have applied themselves to the thorny problems that face the sector is the man who led the Productivity Commission review into the sector a decade ago, Robert Fitzgerald AM.
In a speech that was both forensic and passionate, Mr Fitzgerald laid out a case for widespread community sector reform that adapted lessons from COVID-19 to transform society for the better.
“I think the agenda is well beyond what reforms we wish to seek but rather, whether or not we wish to use the very essence of what being community is to create a new future.”
He said that notion should underline any strategies for change, but that communities themselves must insert themselves into the heart of the debate.
“This sector is strong, it is robust, it is innovative, it is passionate, it is committed and more often than not it is compassionate. But it has to rearticulate the value that it has to society in every forum, and governments and other leaders of our community have to reappreciate this importance.”
After his speech, he said that the community sector must raise its ambitions.
“If you only think small and act small, then that's all you'll achieve. What the community sector does is that it thinks big, it thinks about the way societies shape themselves, it thinks about service systems. And yes, it acts in a small way and a local level. So, what I'm encouraging the sector to do is to continue to think big, continue to think about its role within society, and the economy, and the way in which we as a nation are operating. But at the end of the day, acting small really matters.”
Indigenous leaders kick off conference
Earlier, Stolen Generations survivor and actor-turned-activist Uncle Jack Charles gave the Welcome to Country before a performance by one of Australia’s best new Aboriginal musical talents, Mitch Tambo.
Rocking a hot pink puffer vest, black plastic pants and a feather head dress Tambo transformed the function room into a nightclub with his version of You’re the Voice in his Gamilaraay language. After a spine-tingling rendition of With Love, Tambo displayed none of the diva behaviour one might expect from a home-grown star, but instead was humble when telling Our Community about his part in the event.
“My mantra is that if you impact one person you’ve done your job. So, if one person goes away from today and feels impacted or inspired to go and learn a bit more about the local mob here, the Wurrundjeri people or the local mob where they’ve come from. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Uncle Jack Charles displayed his theatrical powers as he charmed the crowd with a rambling fireside-style yarn.
Uncle Jack regaled the audience with his Stolen Generation heritage, his career in theatre, his work as an elder fighting for justice, and the possibility that he is Prince Philip’s love child or Jesus Christ, (“brown like the original”) all with his trademark cheek and charisma.
Yet his light-hearted tone belied a fire in his belly over the treatment of Aborigines in Australia, particularly the lack of help for youth at risk of landing in prison, and he told Our Community after his talk: “We’ve got quite a few years to go before acknowledgment of indigenous people is genuine. It’s disingenuous at best at the moment to disregard our gift to the nation.”
Ramona Vijeyarasa: The law must change to protect women
Law lecturer and gender equity campaigner Dr Ramona Vijeyarasa said Australia had plummeted down the international rankings when it comes to gender equality, arguing that it is time for laws that measure up to her “gender legislative index”.
Taking aim at the kind of culture in Canberra that brought alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins to prominence alongside historical assault claims against Christian Porter, Ms Vijeyarasa said that Australia had slumped from 15th place in the Global Gender Gap Report to 50th in 2021.
While she was hopeful of achieving gender equality “in a generation”, the current rate of progress meant the country was “well over a century away from achieving parity … 135.6 years, to be precise”.
She outlined seven questions community organisations could ask to assess their level of gender equity, and also said more women must be represented politically for change to occur.
Ms Vijeyerasa certainly struck a chord, with one delegate asking in question time: “Where do I sign up? Where do I stand? What do I do now?”.
Yet despite her sometimes bleak assessment, after her presentation Ms Vijeyerasa was optimistic that things could change.
“I came here to talk about gender equality in a generation, and it’s an absolute must. We need to be positive that change is in the air. The last few months have shown us that Australian women – and men – can mobilise towards gender equality. We can mobilise and call for change. Women have courageously spoken up about situations of violence, harassment and inequality. We have a government that is being forced to answer. That potential is there.”
Jess Hill spells out solutions to domestic abuse scourge
Investigative journalist turned anti-violence campaigner Jess Hill spoke to delegates even as a multi-part series aired on SBS based on her shocking written exposé of Australia’s massive abuse issue, See What You Made Me Do.
For more than an hour, Ms Hill revealed case after case of horrific failures by authorities to prevent and act on domestic abuse. Yet despite the personal cost, which had seen her close to “nervous breakdown” on the eve of the television documentary airing, Ms Hill was adamant and undeterred in her campaign, calling on community groups to do their bit.
“These are the people I fight for, these are the people we need to radically change our approach for. We need to take control of this crisis at a community level, so that no victim, survivor, or family ever needs to feel this kind of helplessness again. We can solve this, in fact we must solve this, but it will take all of us to turn this around,” she told delegates, minutes before Grace Tame took to the stage.
Hani Abdile: Refugee’s poetic words ring true
Somali-born refugee Hani Abdile, who found her voice in the Christmas Island detention centre, needed just a handful of words to leave a lasting impact.
As she walked the stage in an expressive “slam” style, Abdile spoke from the heart of her experience and her hope for the future.
Eyes glistened in the audience as she declared: “If poems were rains, I would burst this country with my words.”
Speaking to Our Community after her performance, Ms Abdile brightly expressed her view that “poetry can set people free” and explained a philosophy that stemmed from her original home and language.
“If you have two hands together you can make a difference. Individuality can kill our humanity. In Somalia we say: “Together we can make a difference. Individuals, we can’t make a difference, which is why we’ve got to stay connected. This coming together, we can make change together.”
Hugh Mackay’s mission for kindness at all costs
In a keynote speech with an overwhelmingly positive message, social researcher and author Hugh Mackay pulled together decades of observations about the human condition to conclude that kindness is key.
“The good deeds in any human society always outnumber the bad, and that's because the tendency to behave kindly is an inherent part of human nature. We often overlook that spectacular fact. We are, after all, a social species. We are built to connect – that's who we are, that's in our nature. We are designed to cooperate with each other. We're utterly dependant on families, neighbourhoods, groups, communities, workplaces, schools, and organisations of every kind to sustain us and nurture us and provide the emotional security that comes from that all-important sense of belonging.”
He urged community organisations to learn from the “new normal” that had been created by the pandemic and said it would be “pathetic if we forgot all those lessons and just went back to the way things had been before”.
Jess Scully: Time to shake things up
Jess Scully is Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor, an art curator, author and creative industries expert who is bursting with ideas that could make Australia a better place. She leapt at the theme of Communities in Control with both feet.
“Think bigger, fix everything – one of the best directives I've ever received. Yes, I don't mind if I do, actually.”
“And I have to say that, because these are the chapter headings in my book Glimpses of Utopia. When I started writing the book, I realised I couldn't just talk about politics, I couldn't just talk about finance – I had to talk about land, I had to talk about care, I had to talk about all of these interconnected issues. And that's because … we have a world of solutions out there, but what we lack is, it seems, a political imagination.”
She pointed to new forms of financing, taxation, democracy, land ownership, and measuring economic “success” already used elsewhere, which could build a better world.
She said it was partly the role of the community sector to “step up and model the future and demand the future that we could have”.
Afterwards, she told Our Community that the community sector was a crucial part of a successful society.
“It will be a long time before robots take the jobs of the community sector. But it is also the work that has the lightest environmental footprint and the greatest human dividend. It pays us back in healthy communities, people who have more skills and social connections and feel more able to contribute back to the community. It leads to human flourishing. The twin economy of the creative and the caring economy is the kind of Australia I want to work on for the future.”
Andrew Wear: Solutions are closer than we think
Policymaker, public servant and author Andrew Wear – in an address that proved a powerful complement to that of Jess Scully – said his hunt for solutions was motivated by being “sick of problems”. He had spoken to experts around the world to discover those countries that had best tackled social and environmental problems such as inequality, climate change, healthcare and education with “superstar interventions”.
He drew on case studies such as Singapore’s transition from third-world poverty to a world-beating economy, mostly as a result of an incredible education system built from scratch over two generations. There were similar stories about Denmark’s environmental credentials and Norway’s large strides for gender equality.
Each of these countries, while imperfect, was taking on the world’s biggest challenges and making things better for its citizens, and he said there was no reason Australia couldn’t adopt at least some of their innovations.
“If we want to fix everything, we clearly need to think about creating the conditions that get the best out of each and every one of us in society,” he said.
Dr Helena Popovic: How to boost your brain and body
In a high-energy tour de force, Dr Helena Popovic burst on stage to shower the audience with ideas for improving their health, brains and relationships.
Dr Popovic brought a “can-do” attitude to the stage, with the knowledge that the highly elastic brain should be activated with “hows” not “can’ts”.
She rattled off more than 20 different techniques to ensure the brain was firing on all cylinders, such as eating vegetables, bursts of training, standing more than sitting, and getting enough sleep.
But nobody was nodding off in her session. In fact, at one point, Dr Popovic left hundreds literally breathless after urging the audience to sprint hard for 20 seconds.
Minutes later, Dr Popovic had the audience meditating silently for a short moment of “clarity” and calmness.
The session may have been practical, but the philosophy and science driving Dr Popovic’s apparent pop wisdom was more sophisticated than it first appeared.
After her session and just before jetting away from Melbourne, Dr Popovic left us with a final piece of advice.
“I want you to remember the words of Michelangelo: The greatest risk a person can take is not to aim too high and miss; it's to aim too low and hit. And if we aim high and ask ‘how?’ our brain loves curiosity, it really turns on our brain cells. So, every time you feel like saying something can't be done, turn it into a question. ‘How can this be done?’ You’re subconsciously giving yourself the message that this can be done, I just have to find a way.”
Chris Helder: another positive influence
Professional motivator Chris Helder strode onto the main stage as a fast-talking wise-cracking speaker with an overflowing bag of ideas to rev up delegates, to tamp down the negativity, and to remind community groups how much they had to offer.
There was more laughing in Helder’s session than any other, as he poked holes in stereotypes and made fun of the “self-abuse” we dish out to ourselves “before you even look in the mirror” in the morning.
“The most important things we say are those things we say to ourselves when we’re alone.”
His key piece of advice, and one that’s now sparking chatter in the kitchens of not-for-profits nationally, was his concept of “useful belief”, which he said was better than “just being positive”.
“Just being positive, by itself, doesn’t work.”
“If you’re at ground zero, being told to ‘be positive’ won’t help. But to get from zero to two, what’s the most useful action you can take?”
Saying for instance “This is the best time in the world to be a dad” can help you be a better dad.
That view is probably why he ended his slick spiel with this nugget: “This room is the best room to launch the start of the rest of your life.”
Daniel Teitelbaum’s playful philosophy
Philosopher Daniel Teitelbaum is deadly serious about play, because he knows that it can crack open difficult problems at work or in the home, with tricky relationships or with stuck strategies.
Not surprisingly, his presentation was an entertaining romp across almost every aspect of human life. In memorable moments of audience participation, delegates were forced to consider whether they were “trees” or “rivers”, or to stick their fingers into someone else’s imaginary meal.
But it was all in serious fun, aimed at showing that a playful mindset, properly applied, could help people find commonalities, differences and meaningful interactions. And, perhaps more significantly, playful activities using structured games are often the catalyst for a safe exploration for solutions.
“Play is deeply intertwined with human life. It helps us find and create meaning, it opens us up to ethical self-expression and it can guide us to create compassionate and connected communities,” Mr Teitelbaum explained.
Political economist Dr Tim Thornton, in another address proposing practical, positive steps for organisations seeking a better Australia, declared there were many opportunities for positive change. "The solutions are there."
Dr Thornton said that part of the answer was to “democratise economic knowledge”, suggesting that “everyone here consider themselves as an emerging economist … who might understand more than they realise”.
He said few ideas influenced people’s lives as much as economics, yet “economic processes are often seen, and often presented, as being mysterious, highly technical and beyond the reach of the average person”.
In fact, he argued, society could change quickly when necessary – a point proven during the pandemic.
He promoted a “political economy view of the world” to suggest that “the future is more wide open and fundamentally uncertain than most people think”.
We simply don’t know what will happen, but we know we will have some individual and collective agency to shape what happens. He suggested a useful way to approach that future was to be neither optimistic or pessimistic, but opportunistic, “which is all about action, creativity, learning, utilising the opportunities that are there and then seeking to create other opportunities”.
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty said the event delivered everything he’d hoped.
“We set out to Think Bigger: Fix Everything. These past two days, we’ve done a lot of thinking, and now, with everything we have learned, it is time to go out and Fix Everything.
“Go change the world.”
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