93. Nartarsha Napanagka Bamblett

25 Jul

Proud Yorta Yorta, Kurnai, Warlpiri and Wiradjuri woman, Nartarsha Napanagka Bamblett, has dedicated her career to helping people learn, heal, and grow their understanding of First Nation cultures. As a young entrepreneur, mother, former VFL player and former member of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, she has achieved a great deal for both for herself and the communities she represents in very little time.

Nartarsha conducts her cultural awareness outreach via Queen Acknowledgements on Instagram. In her words, “Queen Acknowledgments is about connection to self, culture and Country, and creating a space of healing for all.” She also provides in-person workshops and performances where she facilitates that healing space. In doing so, she invites all people to gather, connect and learn about the responsibilities of living on and caring for Country.

Recently, Nartarsha worked with Cultural Colleges, Yongal teachers and Elders, and other First Nations facilitators from the Melbourne/Victorian region to create an educational event for Melbourne Girls’ Grammar. I asked her how she goes about preparing for events like this, where she is offering to open herself up and tell her story.

“Preparation is sitting with myself. Cleansing, keeping my mind, body, and spirit really clear and strong and grounded. So, that’s going to sit on the Earth or listen to music that kind of creates a feeling inside of me or speaks to me […] I think a part of the preparation is trusting in surrendering to your environment—your physical environment of where you are. I was out on Country and I allowed myself to trust in the elements of the Country, of what it provided as also a teacher for me, to guide me in what I was to facilitate.”

In the workshops and events she designs, Nartarsha’s goal is to move participants through a passage of discovery.

“It’s always a journey of every workshop that I do, whether it’s thirty minutes to three hours, I want to take them on a journey of feeling and expression. And going to places that allows them to feel, because when we feel, we heal.”

It can be a confronting process for participants but leaning into the turbulence of emotions is all part of the experience, says Nartarsha.

“On the journey we go through, [they might notice] feelings of separation, disconnection, shame and guilt, privilege, stereotypes that we all see and experience. And we talk about closing the gap, but I think we need to first understand what the gap is, then journey beyond the gap together to make the difference. And we can all stand on common ground as one to understand our roles and the individual parts we play in it, and how we can make impact to make a difference.” As their journey together ends, she aims for a feeling of “celebration to finish them off.”

What she is doing through all this is an act of storytelling, which is fundamental to the mission of Queen Acknowledgements.

“I’ve found it to be really healing, when I tell people my story. I can see the way it hits them, with their face with their, their reflections within their tears, or their smiles. I get to let go of the load […] the heaviness, the trauma that I’ve ever experienced. And I get to embrace healing in my heart every time I do that.”

While she places great importance on the oral tradition of storytelling, Nartarsha often uses dance and performance as part of her storytelling method, sharing it both on her digital platform and in workshop spaces. She describes her style it by quoting one of her Brothers, Balaneba, also a dancer.

“I think [his explanation] does it justice: cultural, contemporary, lyrical hip-hop. I feel the words, or the music that I listened to; I interpret that in my own way,”

She began as a 14-year-old, learning routines to Missy Elliot songs, and demonstrated her natural skill and potential to members of the music and arts industry. This ignited a passion she wanted to pursue professionally. Once she turned eighteen, Nartarsha toured with a company until she became pregnant and had her son at nineteen, in Shepparton. Having realised dance was vital to her self-expression, she soon contacted her birth brother and began a group in called Individual Spirits.

“I said, Bruz, why don’t we do something? While we’re here [in Shepparton]? Me and my brother had, like, brang [sic] together some young Indigenous boys and girls into our garage. And we just started sharing.”

From humble beginnings, the group went on to perform at Ash Fest and during NAIDOC Week, and even had Nartarsha travelling around Australia. Her goal was to help give the local kids of the community who might have turned to drugs and alcohol, or who were escaping domestic violence in their homes, a safe space to talk, dance, eat, have fun and take pride in who they were. “It gave them something positive and deadly to do.”

Given that Nartarsha is a powerhouse for ideas and has an aptitude for creating connections with people and communities, it seems only natural that she was the youngest member elected to the First People’s Assembly of Victoria in 2019 and held the appointment for two years. But she says she nearly fell off her chair at the news.

“I was very humbled by it, from being elected from my community […] And it was a bit scary. I was really scared, because we’re creating and pioneering in something that hasn’t been done in Australia before. When we talk about treaties, it’s been 230 years of missed opportunity. We were in a position to, I guess, help right some wrongs that could really have a big impact in the way we’re governed.”

Nartarsha makes a note that the Assembly was also the first of its kind, so standing in Parliament was a big moment. “Like that will be a moment that I’ll never forget. I had my dad there. It was just quite emotional with the people that were in the audience and also, the members I shared the space with at the time, you know, very respected leaders in the community. Like Brothers and Sisters, Aunties and Uncles, Elders of the communities. Yeah, it was really beautiful to feel such a strong sense of having pride in culture and also a passion for change.”

But despite her eagerness to move the State towards Treaty, Nartarsha does not believe this process should be hasty.

“When we talk about treaty, I feel like it’s very delayed, it should have happened a long time ago. But with the work that’s been done, I know everyone in the seats and behind the scenes are working so hard to get communities voices heard, and to get change happening within every aspect of the system and society we live in today. And having everyone acknowledged. I think that’s the biggest part, it’s like we want to acknowledge the true talent, we want to acknowledge the Stolen Generation, we want to acknowledge the education system and the future of the impacts of what we’re teaching our kids and how we’re teaching our kids. And I know that’s going to take a long time. That’s going to take a lot more people than just the people sitting in the seats. That’s why it is [up to] not just Indigenous Community, but all of all of the nation to support the intention of what this Treaty here is trying to create. And I believe that we should take our time. We’ve waited this long for it to happen. And we should take our time and be really precise in what it is we’re wanting to do and to achieve.”

Though she is no longer on the Assembly, Nartarsha still has a number of projects on the horizon which live up to its ethos. She will be creating more workshops through Queen Acknowledgements and is further cementing her entrepreneurial lifestyle by networking and building her platform — she recently appeared on popular finance podcast She’s on the Money. Nartarsha is planning to create immersive camps for families and individuals to spend time on Country with her. She also hopes to action a larger scale concept present on her platform called Cuppa Yarns, where she speaks to First Nations people of varying backgrounds and has them share their experiences.

If you would like to support Nartarsha, you can visit her on Instagram (@queenacknowledgements) and find out more about the projects she runs.

This interview was conducted via Zoom on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the sovereignty which was never ceded. The author also wishes to acknowledge their positionality as a non-Indigenous person.

Writer: Sarah Dornseiff

Image: Chloe Smith

92. Zaynab Farah

3 Jun

Change may be scary for some, but for Zaynab Farah, it’s what drives her every day.

The 22 year-old is a spoken word artist, who uses her platform to draw attention to issues close to home like racism, discrimination and stereotyping.

She described spoken word poetry as “storytelling with a fusion of words” that you convey “using your voice and body”.

And she’s kind of a big deal in the Victorian industry.

In 2018, Zaynab participated in her first spoken poetry competition, where she made it to the state finals. Then, not only did she make it to the state finals, but she won, and was one of two Victorians to represent the state at the national finals – the Australian Poetry Slam in 2019 – held at the Sydney Opera House. She didn’t win but was grateful for the opportunity.

The poem she won the state championships with was called ‘She Is Light’, a piece that was dedicated to her mother.

“[It was about] all of the racism and discrimination my mother faces as a Muslim woman. People walk up to her and say ‘go back to your country’. These are just based on appearances, they don’t know who she is or what she’s like. So I thought I’d do a piece to go against that and say ‘hey, this is what you assume, these are the biases that you’ve got, but this is who she is, this is what she’s like’,” Zaynab said.

At the national finals, she performed a piece titled ‘Black Woman’.

“It was about black women and the multiple roles they play and how they’re teachers, mothers, daughters, and how a lot of the time because of the double standards they have to work extra hard to prove their worth,” she said.

Zaynab said she stumbled into spoken poetry through rap.

Having rapped from a young age, she was approached by someone after a performance who asked if she’d heard of spoken word poetry.

“I started watching videos of a spoken word artist and I really liked how the story flew, it just had me engaged throughout the entire piece and I said ‘I wish I could do something like that’, and I just started slowly writing my own things and performing and I just became a spoken word artist,” she said.

Zaynab said she finds spoken poetry therapeutic in a way.

“It actually helps me break things down, like if I have something on my mind, writing about it helps me understand it better or understand how I feel about it better,” she said.

And the issues she breaks down in her poetry are very personal and what she’s passionate about.

“A lot of my pieces are centred around discrimination and racism and how I sort of tackle them on my own. And a lot of it’s about identity, and misrepresentation in the media, and how when I enter a room or a conversation, it feels like people have an idea of who I am and what I’m like,” she said.

She said spoken poetry allows her to take ownership of her own story.

“It’s my way of presenting my version of who I am and what’s important to me,” she said.

Zaynab said inspiration for a poem can come anywhere at anytime, like when she’s driving.

“I’ll be driving and I’ll be thinking about a piece or a word and how it can evolve. In my notes [section on my phone], I’ll have a random sentence and if it’s something I want to expand on, then I have that as a starting point,” she said.

Writing a poem can take anywhere from an hour to a whole day or longer.

Getting up on a stage isn’t something that frightens Zaynab but she admits to getting nervous just before her performances.

“I’ve never been the person to shy away from public speaking or talking in front of crowds no matter the number. But a lot of the time, when I’m performing, because it’s so personal and a lot of the time the people in the crowd are strangers, I don’t know how they’re going to take my pieces. At first I’m a little bit nervous, but as soon as I start I’m no longer there, it’s like there’s nobody in the crowd, it’s just me and my story,” she said.

In addition to her poetry, Zaynab is a prominent leader in her local Somali community. In the past she’s helped organise events and fundraisers, and even mentorship programs which match high school students with university students so they can learn about different courses and how they got to where they are.

“If they had any questions about the different courses, they could have a conversation with someone who’s gone through it but had the same upbringing,” she said.

She also helped organise sessions where people who had finished university came in to talk about their journeys in different areas, for example a scientist and a lawyer.

Zaynab was modest about her role as a leader in her community, saying it was just about “being present”.

“Being a leader is just about me being there for my community and supporting them in whatever way they need, whether it’s volunteering or performing a piece at an event. If there’s something I can do for someone, I’m always happy to do it,” she said.

In amongst all that she already does, Zaynab also works for the Department of Health and Human Services and is studying engineering at university.

When asked what her future looked like she said she wanted to get engineering experience and hopefully that would lead her to figure out exactly what career she wanted to chase.

She also endeavors to continue her spoken poetry and plans to write a book too.

“I’d like to put together some of my pieces, and make it more written, because a lot of the time, they’re more performance based,” she said.

She said she’ll also give the Australian Poetry Slam another go and is “pretty pumped to try it out again”.

But one thing that will never change is her drive to chase change.

And on that she said, “Everyone has a story to share, everyone is unique. A lot of the time we do come from different communities or religious backgrounds, but we are individuals as well and we have our own stories to share. It’s about being able to show others that they too have a voice. You might be going through something alone, but there could be other people who could relate, and you might be what inspires other people to push forward and persevere.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photography: Brendan Bonsack

91. Johnathan Binge

3 Mar

Johnathan Binge, aka Caution, is a proud Gamilaraay, Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr rapper. He was born in Moree, New South Wales and grew up on Wurundjeri land in Heidelberg West. As most of his family, excluding his younger brothers, remain in Moree, he takes regular trips to return home to family and Country.

Living so far from his Country is “semi-dissociative”, as he feels simultaneously there and not there. “It’s different when you’re on Country, that feeling of the fresh air and you jump out and you know where you are, it feels like home.”

Whilst Melbourne has perks, such as the music scene and his youngest brothers, Johnathan admits it is difficult “tryna keep up with the stuff that’s going on”. Family has always been incredibly important to Johnathan, as he realised at a young age the fragility of family.

“I’ve just lost so many people throughout the years, so it is something that I kept close to me just because I know how quick a life can be lost.” These lost people include his mother, “one of the most significant people in anyone’s life”, his cousin, “[who] helped me gain confidence, and really stand up for myself”, and his uncle, “who was my mentor, my father figure”.

“I just want to hold onto my family for as long as I have them. And I hope I don’t have to visit any more cemeteries ever again.”

Johnathan’s story isn’t unique, “it’s not unique at all. In a way for my community, it is almost uniform. There’s so much of these stories, just downtrodden stories, that we all come from that are shared so widely across different mob.”

Johnathan now shares his story and feelings through his music, which he started writing in 2014 to express and process his anxieties and traumas.  

“The moment that I had that anxiety attack, it pushed the fear back into me and it sent me on a real bad downward spiral. I locked myself in my room for a couple months. And almost every night after I had that first panic attack, [I had another panic attack]. And writing music was a way to put those thoughts that I was having in my head onto a page and making it a physical thing that I could let go of and put out into the world.”

Johnathan is very careful about finding the right time to release and share his music. The songs from his yet unreleased EP were formed in the years spanning 2014 to 2018, a formative, transitional period in Johnathan’s life. “Looking back, and listening to that music, it’s like it’s not me anymore. It was someone who didn’t have money, someone who was in a lot of pain and didn’t know how to deal with those emotions in the most healthy way.”

“So, the fact that I kept those [songs] as almost a time capsule, I just wanted to dress [the songs] up, make it as authentic as it was back then when I wrote it. I wanted to make it have that effect and have that feeling for any people who went through those similar things, and there’s a lot of people in my community that have. I just want the audience to understand that what I’m saying and what I’m speaking at any given moment are what I was feeling and might still be feeling.”

Johnathan is working hard “so that when I see my family, I am not projecting myself and my fears and my anxieties onto them. I try to put a strong foot forward, and show that to my brothers, and my nieces and nephews.”

Subsequently, when asked what his proudest moment is, Johnathan does not tell me of coming second in the National Indigenous Story Awards, but rather watching his youngest brother graduate from primary school. “Seeing him graduate, and just be up there and have fun with his class, is [so] cool to see… ‘cause I didn’t get a lot of moments like that, when I got to be a kid.”

Johnathan was involved with Banyule through Jets and New Hope, even giving New Hope its’ name. (Did you know New Hope is a Star Wars reference?) “I’m grateful for it all cause that’s really where I got my start and my confidence on stage. [Banyule] are still doing some deadly stuff and I’ll always be able to put my hand up and go work with them, and they know that.”

Aside from his family and his booming music career, in 2022 Johnathan is working with the Foundation for Young Australians in their first dedicated First Nations Team as First Nations Program Officer. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do for mob.” His main goal for the year is “to give myself to people as openly as I can. That’s all I know what to do.”

“My advice for young people is knowing what you have at your disposal, always go out into your community.” To musicians, he recommends looking for “any programs that can get you cheaper or free recording, and to know when to release your stuff, and when to hold off”. Take time to “develop yourself, develop your craft, know your way around what you want to do, set up a plan, give yourself a timeframe…But most importantly, give yourself time to grow.”

“If you’re a young blakfella, you know what your community is, you know your strength, play to your strengths. Keep yourself and your chin up, because your family needs you around. Keep strong…try to keep yourself out of harm, keep yourself out of trouble. Avoid the police, man.”

“For everyone else that doesn’t fit those two categories, be yourself man, don’t try to replicate anyone else. You’ve got your swag from your mum and your dad…You’ll find yourself one day.”

There’s a lot that we all can learn from Johnathan, his commitment to his family and community, and his generosity with his time and experiences.

Find his released music here, and follow him on social media to find out about upcoming gigs and his soon-to-be released EP.

Music link is Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3o5PFiBDtwOWQeog0H48f7?si=Tkn2JqITQSqsqT8SDxLrsQ

Social media: Instagram.com/MOBCaution

Words: Lucy Olsen

Photo: Grace Herbert

90. Kevin Mao

28 Jan

There isn’t much Kevin Mao hasn’t done. Since graduating Dux of Ivanhoe Grammar in 2017 with an impressive ATAR of 99.80, Kevin hasn’t let anything (including the ongoing pandemic) stand in his way.

Kevin is a published scientist, passionate community volunteer, consultant, peer mentor, student councillor, and a St John’s First Aid responder. Most of his leadership and volunteering experiences are connected to Health Futures Australia, UN Youth Australia and 180 Degrees Consulting.

However, Kevin didn’t immediately find his path in life. Culturally, there were two choices for smart, high-achieving kids– studying Commerce or Medicine. Kevin picked Medicine because he “likes science and got the grades for it. My parents actually didn’t want me to medicine as it is ‘too hard’ and ‘you won’t have a life’. But I thought Medicine sounded interesting.”

Six months into Medicine at Monash University, Kevin changed his mind and switched to a Bachelor of Biomedicine at Melbourne University instead. “I was 18 and I was doing medicine. I didn’t know if I could be a doctor and that’s the whole course, there was no leeway.”

Looking down the academic pathway that was prescribed for him at such a young age prompted Kevin to make a change. “Just ‘cause you’re good at something, and just ‘cause you like it, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Life always finds stuff you can do” Being open to new experiences and allowing yourself to change your mind provides greater depth and experience.

By switching paths at 18, Kevin found himself in a new community, and exposed to new opportunities. Studying at the University of Melbourne was an excellent decision for Kevin, it allowed him to have a more holistic university experience than Medicine would have permitted.

He credits his switch to Biomedicine for allowing him to have a multidisciplinary approach to tackling issues he is passionate about. “I would get bored if I spent all my time approaching problems from the same direction. Instead, I have this depth where I feel like I’m doing public health in many different directions”. Kevin aims to tackle problems with his scientific, consultancy and social skills.

“I need to exercise my brain, and keep things varied. In today’s society, you’re told you need to learn more, you need to get more knowledge. But you just do the same steps over, and over, again. You pipette the same liquid, to the same concentration, to get the same result. Things don’t change unless you stitch the future together.”

His volunteering work with various organisations, such as Health Futures Australia of which he is now the President, enabled him to see a different side of Australia. HFA seeks to “combat existing health inequities”, and one of their many programs provides nutrition-based school programs to kids and their parents.

“The first time I went to Daylesford not as a tourist, I was working in a school kitchen to provide healthy food. We did a survey asking, ‘What do you eat?’. What caught my eye was that the canteen didn’t serve vegetables, except for potatoes in chip form! I felt really privileged cause my school provided salads, wraps, etc. [In Daylesford] they have a lot of farms – acres filled with organic vegetables, but had minimal connection to the food they actually ate.”

Kevin’s volunteering projects kept him connected to public health in a more personable, community-driven way. “That’s what’s the most important thing, is meeting people, and making a tangible difference.”

This isn’t to say you can’t make a tangible difference in research or academic pathways. “Research has these really big, long-term goals that you work towards. And when you achieve something, you celebrate!”

Kevin completed an internship in a structural biology lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research “looking at structures of cancer proteins.” And he is now starting placements a Doctor of Medicine at Melbourne University. When I asked what made him return to Medicine, his answer was one word – people.

“[Medicine] is probably one of the only jobs I could actually do where I make a direct impact in somebody’s life. What they care about is whether you’re a good person, and if you can get them back to their daily life. And that’s why I want to do it.”

Kevin’s advice to young people, and others looking to make a difference within their communities, is not to do everything. “First, focus on your values” to find something you are passionate about that aligns with what you believe in. “Focus your energy and time there, and find a way for your work, your study, whatever to reflect those values.”

“Structure everything in your life around your values. Say your goal is to be a doctor, you must do certain steps. But if you think of your values, say education, and weave it in that way, and it exposes you to so many more opportunities.”

Ultimately, Kevin’s primary value, above curiosity and innovation, is family. His parents emigrated from China more than 35 years ago and many sacrifices to provide for their children. His parents’ actions, and a strong cultural emphasis on family values, gave Kevin a strong sense of community and love.

“When everything else is gone, the people who are going to be there for you are your family. So, take time to love them.”

Words: Lucy Olsen

Picture: supplied

89. Libby Fisher

22 Nov

Libby Fisher is a force to be reckoned with.

Since 2016, the now 15 year-old has raised over $50,000 for wildlife conservation, under the umbrella of her initiative Libby’s Koala & Wildlife Crusade.

Despite being an animal lover from a young age, it was a trip to Queensland with her family that truly opened her eyes to the plight of the wildlife industry, and in particular koalas.

“In 2015, my family and I took a trip to Queensland and went to Australia Zoo and that’s where I got to see and touch my first koala, and where I fell in love with them. A year later, Mum and I watched a segment on The Living Room where they said koalas were listed as a vulnerable species in Queensland and NSW, and I decided I wanted to do something rather than just sitting and waiting for someone else to do something,” she said.

The Diamond Creek local, who is in year nine at Montmorency Secondary College, and her mum began selling small items at local markets to not only raise money but also awareness.

“I started a Facebook page and I got a lot of people involved in the community in that, and I got reached out to by my primary school who wanted me to come and talk to the grade 2s about what I do as they were doing a topic on Australian animals, and that’s where I thought that that’s something else I could do,” she said.

She’s now got a fair few school and group presentations under her belt and says the main message she spreads to young people is that age isn’t a barrier when it comes to making a difference in the world.

“There are always little things you can do. I tell kids to pick an animal and to learn as much about it as possible, and then tell their friends and families all about it,” she said.

She said the Facebook page was what attracted the most attention and awareness.

“Once we got the Facebook page up and running, we had a lot of people from everywhere joining, who wanted to do their bit to help. So then we started taking online donations and I would do things like buy groceries for wildlife, where people would message me saying ‘I’m going to put $10 in your bank account to buy tissues to give to wildlife volunteers to use on koalas’ and I’d go out and buy that,” she said.

When she reflects on the amount of money so far raised, she is amazed.

“Every time people donate and it goes up, I just feel so shocked, I didn’t think it would grow this much,” she said.

In addition to buying small, useful items, Libby donates the money straight to wildlife shelters all around Australia. Recently, after the devastating bushfires that killed an extraordinary amount of Australian wildlife, money went directly to shelters caring for those injured animals.

But Libby said raising awareness was almost more important than raising funds.

“One example is at a Clean Up Australia Day event one year I found out that there were platypus in the Diamond Creek river, and if you snip off the rings around juice container lids, you could save their lives, so I educated a lot of people about that,” she said.

When asked what motivates her to put in so much work after school, on weekends and school holidays, Libby said it was her empathy towards the special creatures.

“When I learned about what was happening I just felt so bad and I thought if I didn’t know that information, I wonder how many others don’t know too. So I wanted to educate people to say ‘look at what they’re going through, and if we don’t start helping now, it’s not going to get any better’,” she said.

Libby also volunteers at wildlife centres and she says the other volunteers there are an inspiration to her.

“When I go and volunteer and I hear stories from other volunteers about their experiences, that inspires and motivates me to want to help them,” she said.

Libby said one of the highlights of her wildlife journey so far was meeting her hero, international wildlife warrior Jane Goodall last year.

“I started working with Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Australia and they said to me she was coming out for a weekend in May last year, and on a tree planting day I met her. Then they asked if I wanted to make an exhibition showcasing what I do and I got to have a one on one conversation with her; that was an amazing experience. She’s very passionate about educating people and getting people involved, so I gave her an overview of all my work and what I do for my community. I just think she’s amazing, she’s such an inspirational person given everything she’s accomplished,” she said.

When asked what her future looked like, Libby said she wasn’t 100% sure but said she knew she wanted to keep helping Australian wildlife.

“Every year I do something new, there are new ideas and plans, and I’m hoping that it continues to grow and get bigger and better. I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I know I do want to stick with wildlife in any way, whether it’s in education, or something like that, I’m not entirely sure,” she said.

In late 2020, Libby was awarded the “Young Legends Award” as part of Keep Victoria Beautiful’s Sustainable Cities Award. Libby doesn’t volunteer for the awards but hopes that through her success, others are inspired to act, no matter their age.

She said no matter what, there’s one message she won’t stop spreading: “No voice is too little, no hands are too small, to help save our wildlife.”

You can find out more about Libby’s work here.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Meg De Young

88. Ben Stewart

23 Jul

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Having benefited from music mentorship from a young age, the lead singer of Slowly Slowly Ben Stewart is a strong believer in giving back to the community.

Ben said he had an infatuation with music from a young age, starting on the drum kit at the age of 10. And while motivation and drive came naturally to him, he said the industry could be difficult to navigate at first, which was why he believed it was “just part of the job” to help up and coming musicians.

“I feel like I spent so long wondering around in the dark, and I don’t want that for the same sort of people who have the same drive as me. It’s really frustrating when you have someone who’s really obsessive and driven with music but who’s in a schooling system that’s not catering to them,” he said.

Ben’s involvement in the local music industry started when he did a Youth Advisory Group traineeship in Croydon when he was 15, which he said was very similar to the Jets program in Banyule.

“You can get certificates in lighting and sound and the running of events. I put together the Maroondah Festival one year, with a line up of my favourite bands; that was a huge foot in the door for me,” he said.

About four years ago, Ben also joined the Banyule youth team, helping out with events and outreach.

He said he really clicked with a lot of the young people involved and he eventually moved his way up to be in a role where he was co-facilitating or facilitating events or programs. One of those was Band Jam, a program where young people could come together to make music and share tips and tricks from the industry.

Soon enough, Ben’s own project – Slowly Slowly – started to gain momentum and most of his time was put into the band. The band consists of four members, Ben as lead singer and guitarist, Alex Quayle on bass guitar, Albert Doan on guitar and Patrick Murphy on drums.

Ben said despite going to different high schools, he and Alex were good friends throughout. After school finished, they began jamming together and eventually formed Slowly Slowly with Patrick and Albert coming on board.

“Every member came from a different band, and they were the stand out members. If you were watching Pat’s old band, you wouldn’t have been able to take your eyes off him,” he said.

The band released their first single in mid-2015, and five years later, have big hits under their belt like Alchemy and Ten Leaf Clover, and Hottest 100 favourite Jellyfish.

Reflecting on how far they have come in a short time, Ben said it was a really nice feeling to have an audience who was watching every move they made.

“You definitely feel it through the live shows, you’ve got people singing along and it’s very different to playing to no one at an old bar on a Saturday night. And it’s been a huge source of confidence. It’s allowed me to be a little bit more artistic and to take some risks that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

But he said he and the band have stayed very grounded throughout their rise to fame, including in the process of making music, which has remained the same from the start.

Ben is the songwriter of Slowly Slowly too, and he said songs come to the band 95% complete.

“I’ll write the entire arrangement, and of course everything’s up for discussion and every decision is made for the better of the band. The biggest reason Slowly Slowly has been so successful is there’s no egos in the band, we’re all in it to have some fun and to make some cool music,” he said.

Over the years, songwriting has been almost like a therapy for Ben but he said he writes music from a few different places now.

“It used to simply be like an outlet, a lot of it was done in secret, it was almost like a valve to let off, but after doing it for a while it became a craft, and muscles you build up. I draw a lot of inspiration from my life but it doesn’t always have to be autobiographical, sometimes I draw from other art forms,” he said.

Ben said COVID-19 has put a pause on Slowly Slowly’s “biggest touring year yet” but it gave them the opportunity to focus on writing and “setting ourselves up for a few good years of music”.

“We were supposed to head out on the Groovin’ The Moo tour, and it was shaping up to be the biggest year of our careers, until the rug got pulled from under us. But rather than sitting around licking our wounds, we used it as an opportunity to bank some material. We tried really hard to make the most of this time, and have been really, really busy in the studio,” he said.

He said while he’s looking forward to what’s to come for Slowly Slowly, he plans to keep working with young people too.

“I want to provide a service for young people that is really relevant to the industry. It’s rare to find that passion in young people and I think that’s what fuels our arts industry and I don’t want that to go to waste, so that’s what drives my work with youth,” he said.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Michelle Pitris

87. Samatar Yusuf

16 Jun

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When I first met Samatar Yusuf, I asked him to describe himself. ‘Community oriented’ and ‘passionate’, he said. But the more I got to know the 23 year-old, the more I realised these adjectives were huge understatements.

The Heidelberg West local has got a long list of achievements under his belt already, and it all revolves around one sentiment – helping others in his community thrive.

This passion to help and drive to get it done were instilled in him from a young age, playing a sport he holds close to his heart – soccer.

“I’ve been playing soccer for the Heidelberg Stars since primary school. I kept playing throughout the years and then when I reached a senior level, [the club] offered for me to spend some time with the junior players, not in a full role, but a support role, bringing out equipment on the days they trained and supporting them on match days,” Samatar said.

He said from there, the club started to properly notice him, and eventually asked if he would like to coach a team of his own – a prospect that was initially terrifying to Samatar.

“At the start I was like ‘no I can’t do that, that’s massive responsibility’, but over the years I’d seen what the other coaches were doing and learned from them,” he said.

So he said yes, and before he knew it, was coaching a team of under 12s. He admitted that the first season “wasn’t the best”, but said it was more about getting to know the team and bonding with them. The longer he did it, the more he fell in love with it and he began thinking about the future and committing to coaching long term.

How quickly Samatar adapted to his new role and the passion that was exuding out of him became clear to the club, and he was invited to join the sub committee. Soon after, he was asked to join the actual committee, a role he described as eye opening.

He said seeing how reliant the club was on volunteers made him realise the true value of volunteering.

“If you’re a volunteer, you’re not getting paid, but you still have that responsibility that if you’re meant to do something, you should do it like you’re being paid because that person is relying on you,” he said.

Almost seven years later and Samatar is still heavily involved in the club, but in mid-2018 he decided to take things to the next level.

“[A group of friends and I] were thinking about how we could support the young kids with their education on top of them loving soccer, because all the kids wanted to do was play, play, play. If you told them they were playing Monday to Sunday, they’d be happy with that, but their parents wanted them to do their homework, so we were thinking about how we could do both,” he said.

So along came the idea to launch Bright Young Minds Australia.

“We bring kids together on weekends, and before they start the sport or activity, we support them with their homework, to ease the pressure on parents. We also helped them with cultural stuff that they hadn’t learned yet, like integrating the Australian and Somali culture,” he said.

Initially, they started with a small group of about 10-15 kids that they already knew, but eventually they began getting requests for more kids to join. They put their brains together to work out a way they could make it bigger and better and settled on the idea of approaching a local futsal centre to use a court there. And they were given the green light to go ahead.

“We did that for a good 10 weeks, and then the futsal centre came back and said ‘would you want to start a league?’. We started with 10-15 kids, then had 20, then 30, then all of a sudden we had a whole program,” he said.

And just when you thought Samatar couldn’t add anything more to his plate, he did just that.

At a soccer presentation night, he met the then president of the Somali Australian Council of Victoria, also known as SACOV, who gave Samatar an insight into what they did for the local and wider Victorian Somali community.

“[The president and I] bonded really well, and I saw myself in the kind of position he was in – spending lots of time in the community, advocating for the people in the community, so that’s how I got involved,” he said.

He said his role at SACOV was incredibly diverse and ranged from having someone come in needing help translating a letter, to organising events and camps. One of the biggest events he’s been involved in is Somali week Oceania, a soccer tournament that happens annually over the Christmas break that’s attended by “a good 2000 people”.

Last year, Samatar was awarded the Banyule Young Volunteer of the Year Award, in recognition of all of his local community work.

“It felt amazing, knowing all the hard work was finally recognised. It made me want to do more,” he said.

In amongst all of his volunteer work, Samatar works at the Banyule Council as a social enterprise and local jobs administration officer. The social enterprise aspect of the job entails supporting local businesses that have a social cause, for example a café that’s employing people with an intellectual disability. He described the employment side to the job as connecting with different businesses to get them to put on a lens of how they could support different people.

And as if life couldn’t get busier, he’s also in his first year of a Bachelor of Community Development degree at Deakin University.

“It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to study, but given all that I’ve been involved in, I think community’s where it’s at and I’ll see where that takes me,” he said.

But one thing’s for sure – he wants to be out and about helping those around him.

“My family migrated to Australia as refugees, so given that the opportunities and education was a bonus. When my parents came here, it was kind of like ‘work, work, work’. For them there wasn’t that room to focus on us [because] everything was about trying to get food on the table and now I see myself as trying to support young people who are in the same situation, and to kind of do the best I can in making positive change,” he said.

You can catch Samatar on the Noteworthy podcast here.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Rod Cebellas

86. Rebecca Lonie

11 Sep

Bec Lonie is bubbly and animated. It’s easy to imagine her in her role as Jets Team Leader, running the Banyule creative arts space and working with young people.

The Jets facility is responsible for delivering a range of programs and activities for young people in and around Banyule. It presents young people with an opportunity to train in and and to access a range of professional music and multimedia equipment, be involved in creative arts workshops and help coordinate events, including the annual Banyule Youth Festival.

With a background in education and performing arts, Bec was naturally a very good match for Jets.

“I studied art therapy, yoga, opera – I did a lot of weird things! It started to link together through my career in education,” she says.

“Then, [Jets] is one of the first places I’ve worked where all of those disparate practices and philosophies I’ve studied have come together.”

Bec originally thought she might become a performer herself. “I soon realised my personality wasn’t showcase-y enough!”

Despite this, it’s clear Bec has a real love for creative arts. When it comes to her work, Bec speaks eloquently and with passion.

“The benefits of creative arts are self expression and building confidence. Those are transferable skills for other areas of life. Young people get to develop confidence and their sense of self, while having heaps of fun… They leave in a much better place because of that.”

“The idea of having a creative space as a vehicle for self expression and development is something I get really excited about,” Bec says.

“The fact that the Banyule Council has a facility like Jets as part of the work of the youth team is amazing in itself. It can be an awesome alternative for young people who might not fit into the footy team, or might not yet have found their niche.”

What exactly awaits young people who join Jets?

“It’s a choose your own adventure!” says Bec.

“If you’re interested, and you’ve got an idea, we’d love to help you realise that and support you in having an awesome time while you do it.”

Bec also tells me that when young people are applying for jobs, it can be difficult to put together a resume with little experience.

She says, “Jets offers opportunities for [work experience] placements, mentoring and support which can help young people get into employment. We recognise that it’s a gap and it’s one that we’re uniquely placed to meet.

“The culture is ‘less scores, more skills’, so we’re aiming to deliver on that.”

When I ask Bec what her favourite things are about Jets that keep her coming back each day, she takes a moment to mull it over.

“That’s a good question! I think having a really inclusive culture at Jets is one of the things we’re most proud of.”

At Jets, young people from all backgrounds can come together to work on projects – this includes people with a disability, people who identify as LGBTIQ, people who have mental health issues, or those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“That sense of community, of being like-minded creatives, unites everyone because of their similarities, not their differences,” says Bec.

Most importantly, Bec keeps coming back because she sees young people achieving great things.

“There are lots of individuals who have gone through Jets who have become very successful – whether that’s going on to study in a creative field or being employed in a creative role.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we don’t just talk about it – things happen,” says Bec.

“[Young people] may come to us feeling a little lost or unsure about what they’re good at and [through Jets] they’ve been able to follow their passion and ‘make it’… Some people may have joined for social reasons, but everyone leaves with such great skills.”

“We’ve had a young person move onto the Arts Centre to be involved in a bigger project… This maturity, personal growth and skill-building is awesome to be a part of.”

For Bec, the smaller moments can be just as rewarding.

“It’s all the little wins and the conversations we have at Jets. Hearing someone say ‘I feel safe here’ – that is amazing. It shows the impact we can have on someone’s life. If young people can feel confident in a group here, it can make them feel confident elsewhere – then their world starts to open up,” she says.

“Particularly now days, it’s not about ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’. It’s about what awesome things do you want to create, or what kind of person do you want to be, holistically?

“I think these are things we can help support [young people] to be confident about. We can help them to be confident in themselves and in the gifts they can share – because we all have one!”

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Photo: Nicole Squelch

 

 

85. Anthony Despotellis

2 May

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From the moment Anthony started his interview I could tell that this is a man who is passionate about what he does. He has come up the ranks in the community and acts as a mentor on local art projects, and recently supported the mural project at the community garden at Macleod College. He is passionate about socially aware hip hop culture and creating legal murals around Melbourne.

Currently, his life is divided into three parts- he has just completed his industrial design course at university, he is involved in spray painting, and is learning a new language. He tells me he has always been creative since he was a child, but it wasn’t until he was about 14 that he started learning how to break dance, which set in motion a big change in his life. Through this he found hip hop. The 4 components of this are graffiti, rapping, DJing and break dancing, all of which he is involved with in some way. He expresses concern that graffiti is not very widely accepted as an art form, yet you can learn a lot from it. He says that ‘art is a never ending journey’

Anthony loves to draw and paint people with a story behind them as it makes the art more personal and meaningful. This is part of what he will do when he travels to Brazil for three months, where he plans to paint walls and the people he meets. He says ‘you can look at someone and not know anything about them, but once you find out something about them it changes the way you look at them’ He wants people to look at his portraits and see what it is that makes that person unique.

In his opinion, artistic expression is important in today’s society because it has always been a part of the world, and reflects the world we live in. It is part of us. He tells me that a very important part of art is ‘the way you create it and who you create it with… art is everywhere and we like it whether we know it or not’.

One of the first projects Anthony was involved in was spray painting the wall of a local gym. He says that was a great experience because of the amount of work and effort he put into the job. One of his biggest projects so far was for Yarra Valley Water , painting a mural opposite Loyola College in Watsonia. It took 3 months to plan and only 1 week to paint, so the ratio isn’t quite equal, but he said it was a great opportunity that he enjoyed working on.

Being part of the hip-hop movement is very meaningful to him, as he feels like having strong goals and working hard, but still having fun is paramount to what he does. He says it has helped him realise what is important in life and he gets a lot out of it.

To someone who wants to get involved in this movement, he suggests that they try it out. It is continually developing and attracts a lot of different people from different backgrounds. ‘If you want to get into painting, grab some cans and paint a (legal) wall, and if you want to start dancing you can find tutorials online… find the right people, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and just enjoy it.’

Graffiti grew from the need for a voice and expression of feelings. Many people don’t have a very positive view of it. To these people Anthony says he would educate them on the history of the art form and tell them that it is a beautiful art that is not intended to be destructive.

When asked about who his influences are, he doesn’t give a list of names, he tells me he is influenced by everything, especially since social media is so popular with artists these days, its impossible not to be influenced by everyone. People often take what is important to them and reflect that in their art, which is what makes everyone’s work so different. To continue to improve on his work, he studies art, and sets goals for himself to achieve, so he is constantly practicing and improving his skills, and this is the method that he sticks to in order to get better.

He would like to thank Banyule Council for the opportunities he has been given because they have helped him progress from walking around asking to paint walls, to being paid for jobs. He says ‘there are a lot of people who just do things for the hell of doing it, and if you’re reading this then be that person who does things the best that they can.’

Update:

I had the opportunity to catch up Anthony after he returned from his trip and he filled me in on all of the things he experienced during his time in Brazil.

He stayed in Rio De Janeiro for 3 months in what is known as a Favela and spent a long time getting to know the area and the people that lived there. One thing that really stood out to him was how welcoming the people were. He says it was a bit of a reality shock because where he was staying, no one spoke English, people wouldn’t walk with their phones out or be outside after dark and the culture was very different. One of the things he liked about the trip was the cuisine. ‘The food was incredible’, he tells me, and he says that the neighbours would often bring him food, out of a kind and welcoming spirit.

He did a lot of exploring and adventuring during the trip, and as planned, lots of painting. He painted the side of a highway and says that while he was working, the police came and talked to him about his art and complimented his work. He did 3 paintings in the favelas and slept overnight in a school one night while working on one of them, and says that his painting took him to places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

Anthony says he would definitely return to Brazil and says he now has an affinity with the country. When asked if he would like to travel to other places, he tells me ‘yes and no’, because he has such a strong connection to South America he would rather go there again before travelling anywhere else. However, although he loves the country, he wouldn’t move there because of how different the culture is.

Anthony recommends travelling while you’re young in order to experience different things and develop as an individual, and go to places you wouldn’t usually go so you can grow your cultural intelligence and be able to see different parts of the world.

You can follow Anthony’s work on Instagram

Words: Jennifer Walker

Photo: Sean Porter

84. Samira Liban

11 Dec

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Samira Liban said she wouldn’t be the person she is today without important mentors that guided her through her younger years.

While most of those were primary and high school teachers, the 23 year-old said one particular group was formative.

When she was in grade six at Olympic Village Primary School, a mentoring group for the older primary school students was formed, called Girl’s Group.

The group, led by Banyule Youth Services’ Leonie Farrell, was an open meeting place for young women, to discuss issues and opportunities, and strengthen relationships.

Samira recalls running to the Banyule Community Health Centre when the bell rang at the end of the day at 3:30pm once a week, excited about what the activity or discussion topic for the day would be.

After running for multiple years, Girl’s Group eventually wrapped up, but Samira said the impact it had on her life was immeasurable.

“It helped me maneuver my way through to high school” she said.

And now, over 10 years later, she is returning the favour.

Already connected to Banyule Youth Services, she was approached last year to see if she could suggest a program worthy of starting up to support young women locally.

She said her answer was a no brainer – Girl’s Group.

So at the start of the year, the group was reformed at her old primary school, with the same intentions it had over a decade ago, to support young women in their journey to high school.

Knowing the impact it had on her as an 11 year-old, Samira decided to get involved again.

But this time around, she wouldn’t be a participant, rather a mentor.

Samira has almost wrapped up a full  year’s worth of mentoring 10 and 11 year old girls.

She said while she came prepared knowing a lot would have changed since she was in their shoes, she was blown away by how mature they were.

One of the most important themes they worked on this year was self-respect.

“We really wanted to dig that into them at a  young age, because once they’re in high school, these sort of things start coming to mind,” she said.

To start these conversations, at the start of most meetings, they would go around the room and get each person to say something they had done that day that they were proud of.

She also worked to strengthen relationships in the cohort.

“Straight away we saw there was a division between them, the little groups they had formed, and the preconceived ideas they had of each other.” she said.

“We’ve taught them how to talk kindly to each other, and how to communicate their feelings.”

She said each of the girls was different, and needed different approaches to take information in.

“Some were loud and some were a bit quieter, so in some sessions we would do drama and plays, and in other groups we’d do writing or games,” she said.

But she said each session was different.

“We plan most sessions beforehand, but it’s always dependent on what the girls want to do, ” she said.

“One might be having a bad day and need one-on-one mentoring, so we’ll give them that.”

Samira finds the concept of giving back incredibly rewarding, and her pro activity to getting involved speaks volumes about her character.

In addition to her hard work mentoring young women in Girl’s Group, once a week she volunteers her time and goes to her local bakery to collect the unsold bread.

She then distributes this to local churches, mosques and individual houses, so it “doesn’t go to waste”.

And she has been recognised for her contribution to her community, having been invited to the Governor’s house for a breakfast during Mental Health Week recently.

“That was really cool,” she said.

In the midst of all her community work, she has also found time to study.

She admitted she had been a bit “all over the shop” when it came to choosing her study path and eventual career.

She originally enrolled in Human Resource Management at La Trobe University in Bundoora, but realised that wasn’t her “cup of tea”, so switched to an early childhood course, which she has just completed her second-last year of.

But she said sh was still unsure where she wanted it to take her.

“There’s not really job title suited to what I think I’m best doing, maybe I’ll just have to make up a role,” she said.

When asked what it was that she thought she was best doing, she paused to think.

“Talking to young people, and trying to help create a better future for them,” she replied.

When asked ‘why’, she recalled a moment from many years ago, at an end-of-year dinner with the Girl’s Group when she was in grade six.

“We went around the table and everyone had to say what they wanted to be when they were older, and I said I wanted to be like Leonie,” she said.

“Everyone laughed, but it was true, she had so much of an impact on me, and I wanted to do the same for girls like me.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Heidi Woodman