Archive by Author

98. Alinta Waitairie

27 Nov

Alinta Waitairie has a quiet strength, advocating for further cultural learnings through dance, art, and public speaking to promote broader Indigenous understanding.

Alinta was born on Wurundjeri land, and her father was from Yindjibarndi Tribe of Western Australia. Alinta is proud of her heritage and has built a career furthering cultural understanding.

Since the age of nine, Alinta has been a passionate dancer and now works dancing and speaking at corporate and community events, she has danced to open events at local schools, festivals, Banyule City Council and the Melbourne Convention Centre. For the past year Alinta has been running her own dance business – Morningstar Performing.

“I love working in the arts, community, culture, dance, nature and helping people… I feel connected through culture when I perform cultural dance, yarning with mob, being on the Banyule City Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee to help Barrbunin Beek Aboriginal Gathering Place where mob can come together as a community.

“I’ve been professionally dancing since the age of nine, and I’ve also been public speaking in Culture Services of Acknowledgement to Country at many levels.”

It all started for Alinta at the Northern Colleague of Arts and Technology, where she worked on a project to teach literature through sports, a very interesting concept.

The project entailed teaching kid’s literature through basketball in the Olympic Village, which is where Alinta first met staff member Liz from Banyule Community Health.

From here, she participated in many Banyule Community Health events as a young aboriginal leader and that’s where Alinta was introduced to Banyule’s Inclusive Employment Program.

“[Liz] mentioned there was an Inclusive Employment Program at Banyule City Council and Jess Sayers from Banyule Youth Service also encouraged me to go for it … and after having cared for my dad for the past year and half I went into the program,” she said.

The Banyule Inclusive Employment Program aims to remove any barrier that marginalised and indigenous people face when searching for employment, providing work experience in local government.

This program helped Alinta understand her potential work opportunities and pushed her towards a future career path outside her wildest imagination.

“[through the program] I was an Aboriginal Program Support Officer in the Community, in the Inclusive Planning Team with Banyule City Council,” Alinta said.

“It was great because I was able to get some work experience behind me.

“I was able to engage with other young people and indigenous mob, through food shares, and doing programs like NAIDOC week.

“During that time, we did a lot of workshops on how to do a resume, cover letter, and what kind of skills we had behind us, and to improve them and to know our weaknesses.”

Les my supervisor during my time at Banyule Inclusive Employment Program had told Alinta that there was another program that offered full-time work and a Diploma of Business for 2 years at the University of Melbourne … and I just signed up for it and I went for the interviews.

Alinta was successful in her application to the Melbourne Indigenous Professional Employment Program (MIPEP) at the University of Melbourne, where she now continues to gain extra skills, experience, and education. 

Sadly, Alinta’s father, who played an integral role in her life, had inspired her, and taught her about her culture, passed away at the start of 2022 – she had cared for him for over two years.  

After his passing, she saw the value in the (MIPEP) she had been successful at applying and decided to keep going with full-time work and the Diploma of Business – and not give up.  

“Now, I’m studying a Diploma of Business and working at the University of Melbourne in full-time work as a Global Learning Officer.”

Alinta has also been helping at Barrbunin Beek Aboriginal Gathering place where mob across indigenous communities are able to come together as one to teach culture through dance, storytelling, music, and yarn; something she is very proud of.

Alinta has great aspirations for her life post university; she aims to complete a bachelor’s degree, travel the world and to learn more about other places while expanding her knowledge of international cultures.

One day Alinta would like to be the Chairperson at Banyule City Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee to make Barrbunin Beek Aboriginal Gathering place a success for mob, and then be the CEO at Banyule City Council. And when settling into semi-retirement she would like to teach culture to mob and everyone else in the community.

With her will power and shear dedication, it’s only a matter of time that Alinta does all she sets out to do – watch this space! For Alinta, the sky’s the limit – “I’d like to be a great elder like my father was and make him proud.”

Words: Curtis Baines

Photography: Darcy Scales


97. Jamie Anderson

20 Nov

Bringing music production, large-scale events, and social support for young people together, Jamie Anderson’s success story at Banyule Youth Services is like no other. 

Jamie was 15 when he started his journey at Jets Studios, where he participated in the FReeZA music production weekly program.

FReeZA is a government funded scheme that offers young people access to industry standard equipment, resources, and support, to plan and put-on high-end events in their local community.  

Jamie has a strong passion for music and it’s something he loves; he wanted to share this passion with fellow Banyule young people who are wanting to make the same connections through music.

Jamie said that by working at Jets, he saw a pathway whereby he could support other young people, and by using his skills developed through Jets, he could go on to support them further within the areas of music and sound production.

“At my school, I was doing sound production stuff and I got involved in Jets when we were doing some recording for our school, and from there I kept going back and learning more technical skills,” he said.

“I then did some paid work with Jets as well; doing live sound engineering with other staff members, which gave me extra learnings and skills.”

By participating in programs at Jets, Jamie was able to seek other avenues to help support young people and give them access to events that youth innately enjoyed.

While working at Jets, Jamie worked full time at a bank doing operations, but always thought he could be doing more to support young people in his local area.

This led Jamie to apply for the role of Youth Festival Officer; coordinating and running Banyule’s annual youth festival where his passion for live music could flourish.

Youth Fest is an annual event Banyule Youth Services/ Jets Studios runs for the youth of Banyule, the event includes live music across two stages, free wellbeing workshops and initiatives, sports zones, body art, food trucks and large-scale rides. Youth Fest 2022 attracted 6000 people to the all-day event.

“Originally, I was actually working in a bank doing operations stuff and then I was kind of at a point where I didn’t feel like my job was making a difference,” he said.

“The opportunity for the Youth Festival Officer came up, I applied for it, I was a part of Youth Fest in previous years and I also worked at Youth Fest.

“And because it’s a great event, that made me want to pursue running the event this year.”

Jamie said: “there were a few challenges post Covid, but it was the busiest one ever,” with hundreds – if not thousands – attending the event. 

Jamie acknowledges he was able to run the entire event with the help of a dedicated team at Banyule Youth Services.

This opportunity – and his previous opportunity at Jets – gave him the key skills that he now utilises across his young career at Banyule Youth Services.

Although his passions are an intrinsic part of who he is, he also found inspiration in other fields, with Jamie saying that he was inspired by the youth workers around him who continuously make a difference.

“From my experience with youth workers and how they make a difference, they made me look at life in a different way,” Jamie said.

“That’s made me want to stay in this kind of area and support other young people.”

Jamie has set his sights on another project: helping at-risk young people in the weekly New Hope Program to follow their passions, while making meaningful art & music.

The New Hope Program is something that he holds dear to his heart, as it gives at-risk youth the opportunity to express their passions in music and street art in a safe and inclusive environment.

The program aims to help young people use their creativity in a structured and positive outlet – free from negativity and illegality.

Jamie said that this program is the one program that he enjoys the most because it allows him to help young people achieve their goals, and help vulnerable young people harness their creative talents.  

“Outside of Youth Fest, [New Hope] is the one that I still work on – and it’s one of my favourite programs.”

“The New Hope Program, I guess, is the one I enjoy the most because you’ve got young people coming in, learning new skills, and going away with recorded music or new street art skills,” he said.

“They can learn these skills in a safe environment and then take those ‘skills’ out into the public.”

He wants to ensure that young people in his community feel safe and supported.

Jamie is showing no signs of slowing down and has become an inspiring role model to many of Banyule’s young community.

Ultimately, Jamie wants to show vulnerable young people that someone does care about them and their interests, by highlighting that: “their creative interest, like music is not just a passion or hobby, but can be a life.” 

Words: Curtis Baines

Photography: Darcy Scales

96. Evey Hunter

9 Nov

16-year-old Evey Hunter is a force to be reckoned with; her push for environmental sustainability and the inclusion of local schools has seen her set foundations for change.  

Evey may be young, but her desire to implement environmental awareness across the Banyule community has inspired many schools in her area to adopt sustainable practices.  

She is the heart and soul behind the Jumper Recycling Program, where youth in the Banyule community can donate their old-school jumps to be recycled.  

The program came into fruition at a local youth event and with the help of Banyule Youth, she donated the recycled jumpers to Upparel where they’re turned into a range of useful products.  

Evey said that organising the project was very organic and with help across the community she saw that people we’re eager to jump on-board.  

“It was easier than I expected,” she said. “One thing I definitely learnt during the process: people are more enthusiastic to help me than what I was expecting.” 

“I worked with a wonderful woman at the council named Naomi, and she was a massive help coordinating and helping me draft my emails to Upparel and they jumped onto it very quickly. 

“We designed and printed collection boxes that are placed in schools and businesses across the Banyule area… we collected all the school jumpers and then Naomi and I drove down to Upparel warehouse where we dropped off 6 massive boxes. 

“It was a very rewarding moment to hand them over to someone where they were going to get recycled and diverted from landfill.”  

But, where did it all start?  

Evey was always interested in environmental awareness and saw that schools could be doing more to endorse recycling among young people; she just needed somewhere to start.  

This moment collided with the bi-annual Banyule Youth Summit event where young people from across Banyule convene to discuss important topics affecting youth in the community.  

Topics such as; the environment, disability awareness, LGBTQI+ rights, and a range of other topics. 

When her school was approached to take part in the event, Evey saw this as an opportunity; she decided to attend and use her passion to create viable and tangible change.   

“I did a project in school and a teacher spoke to me about the possibility of getting the project started and how I could turn that passion for clothing recycling into a tangible project that I could bring to my community.  

“The Youth Summit came at a perfect time because after going, I met some people who were really enthusiastic about helping me; they helped me source Upparel – the company who help me recycle the jumpers.  

“It started as a project at school, but quickly transitioned into something I was pursuing with the Banyule council – In particularly the Banyule Youth Summit.” 

During the Youth Summit, Evey used her project to come up with the Jumper Recycling Program, and she saw this as an opportunity across the entire region.  

The program gained rapid traction and she received a positive reception with many young people joining her efforts at their own schools.  

“I’ve always been passionate about the environment and the waste crisis that we’re facing; particularly the textile waste issue and I know the community are very enthusiastic to get on board,” Evey said. 

“It was really well received which was excellent, because I think generally speaking, people want to do the right thing when it comes to clothing recycling.  

“It’s a bit tricky to do so [however] because people don’t often know where to go or where to drop their clothes off. 

“I would like to further the program and provide that intermediate step and provide a means for people to have their clothing given to a place where it can be recycled.” 

When it comes to the Youth Summit, Evey is glad she we went: “because it gave rise to a lot of cool stuff I’ve been able to do since.” 

That cool stuff surrounds her subsequent involvement with council meetings where she’s taken the opportunity head on to talk at council meetings about youth involvement. 

She didn’t originally see herself in this career path, but avidly participating in youth discussions and being able to use her passions has given her a path not previously considered.  

“I hadn’t really considered that field of work before I got involved with the Banyule Council; I’ve had beautiful opportunities to talk at council meetings specifically about youth involvement,” she said.  

“That’s been a really cool opportunity, and it’s allowed me to meet councillors who are passionate about the work they do, and are making a tangible difference in their community. 

“It’s all about helping people and that’s something I would love to continue doing in the future.”  

Words: Curtis Baines

Photography: Frances Biggar

95. Kieran West

17 Oct

Working with vulnerable youth in the Banyule community, Kieran West has cemented positive foundations and the ability for at risk young people to flourish.

Kieran grew up in the Banyule area finding his calling by becoming a secondary school history teacher, where his passion for helping disadvantaged youth and community engagement ignited.

“I was a secondary school teacher; I worked out West in some low-socioeconomic schools. And what I found was: a lot of particularly young men in my class – probably about a third – couldn’t read or write to a level that they could pass anything,” Kieran said.

“[Having] about a third of my class that couldn’t read or write to a high school standard, they failed from day dot.

“So, I found myself providing more and more individual support in the way of trying to catch people up in those really basic educational life skills.

“I guess the rigidity of having to teach by a curriculum led me to explore other avenues of being an educator.”

Before he became an educator, he volunteered at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the burns unit, where he aided Black Saturday Bushfire survivors in telling their story through mixed media.

His career as a teacher led him down a path of personalised and individualised support for young people to give them hope and the best chance at success.

From these past experiences, Kieran found a new calling in life: youth work.

He applied for a youth work course on the last day at the last hour – something that can be considered fate

“It was lucky circumstances,” Kieran Said.

“I had a placement lined up where I worked alongside a wellbeing worker, and that fell through the day before.

“I desperately tried to find a last-minute replacement, and I ended up doing my student placement with Naomi at Banyule Youth Services.”

From then on, Kieran was enthralled in the rewarding work of youth services and began his work in the casual pool, aiding in administrative tasks and progressing to where he is today.

Kieran now works in many fields within Banyule Youth and specialises in working with at risk young men culminating to his pride and joy: The New Hope Program.

The New Hope Program follows two streams falling under the same banner of hip hop and culture, allowing aspiring young and enthusiastic, street artists, rappers, and beat makers, use their creativity in a safe environment, away from illegal and negative avenues.   

For many years, before Kieran was involved, the program has been a safe outlet for young people to express their passions for street art and music, while providing them with life skills, peer interactions and connectivity.   

Kieran now runs the program in conjunction with talented street artists, musicians, and role models: Dean Peters, D’Arcy Savage, and Sebastian Fransz, creating an ecosystem of inclusivity.

“At its heart, [New Hope] is a diversionary program; diverting young people away from graffiti crimes and anti-social behaviour, and more into avenues of using those things towards paid opportunities or opportunities to give back to the community,” Kieran said.

“Our culture at New Hope is something we’re very protective of, it’s about establishing those good routines and that respect from the outset.

“Some of the feedback I’ve received is that they feel that they can be themselves, and that’s the highest compliment I could wish for… you can come here and be yourself without being self-conscious; you feel like you can belong here.

“It’s a tricky one with street art culture; it inevitably has that criminal element, but our responsibility is to teach them there’s another side to it: you can make a living and do things for the community as well.”

Kieran is also responsible for youth skate, scooter and bike events in the Banyule community, and although there are similarities with New Hope, these programs need to be treated differently.

Kieran said that while these young people are not their usual cohort, they have a responsibility to locate, navigate, and present programs that young people want to do.

“Consulting with young people and finding out what fun things they want to do that’s purely recreational, and we target things like skate jams and BMX jumps because they’re not our usual cohort of young people,” Kieran said.

“It’s part of our responsibility to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally come themselves… [however] they are resistant to the therapeutic side of youth work.

“You have to come to it with a bit of flexibility and meet them on their level, so it’s about making things as little like school as possible, while providing them with a safe and structured environment.”

Ultimately, Kieran strives to negate the negative avenues that vulnerable young people may fall into by creating programs that are tailored towards their passions.

He still sees himself as an educator, providing invaluable life skills and independence; removing the need or warranty for negative outlets.

Kieran says he would love for his current generation and emerging New Hope participants to thrive and have the same outcomes as many of their past participants.

“I really want to see these guys take their creative passion and turn them into paid employment opportunities,” Kieran said.

Article by Curtis Baines

Photo by Darcy Scales

94. Mahamed Hassan Awl

2 Oct

Paving the way for young people to better understand their culture, Mahamed Awl has become an intrinsic part of his community.

The Beyond Youth Founder; a not for profit local organisation that helps young Somali-Australian’s learn more about their culture in a supportive and age appropriate environment, has been helping young people since it’s inception.

Mahamed grew up in a Somalian community in Melbourne’s North where he yearned for community events to participate in.

He saw that sport had the monopoly on community events, but he questioned: what if some young people don’t like sport?

Like himself, there were other Somali-Australian young people who didn’t have an outlet because they also didn’t enjoy sport; ultimately leaving them excluded.

Calling Heidelberg home, Mahamed has become an integral part of his community; he now works toward the mission of addressing – and ameliorating – the: ‘disadvantages within our community’.

“Starting off living in a Somalian community, [and] our community is very connected, but I think that there wasn’t a lot of community events that were happening or a lot of support for young people,” he said.

“For me personally, I wasn’t dedicated to sport or those kind of things, so there wasn’t an outlet for me to actually speak to others or socialise.

“I had a need of trying to develop my social skills and talk to others; I really wanted to have a space where I could actually do that – it was something that was lacking.”

Mahamed saw a gap or a disproportionate number of events that were tailored towards young people that searched for other ways to socialise.

This sparked an idea which lead him to build a community based program targeted towards young Somali-Australians: Beyond Youth.

“From the beginning, there were four of us that started it all,” he said.

“We helped start it up and create the organisation Beyond Youth, and ensure that we had our plans, our goals, our focus on who we will support, and what we can do, and what programs we’re going to do.

“There are a lot of others who are like me, who had no opportunity to go to events, so we thought: why not do it ourselves, we can be the solution to this problem.”

Their classes are aimed at equipping young Somali-Australians with important life skills: public speaking, swimming, job searching, and so many more.

However, these classes also allow many young people within the Banyule community to connect with their Somalian cultural heritage, and see the inspiring success the programs volunteers have achieved.

These classes started from grass root ideas, and was incepted based on Mahamed’s upbringing, and lack of classes targeted towards young Somali-Australians.

Mahamed says the catalyst moment that pushed him to get involved with his community was simple: helping others socialise and find their place within their community.

“I would say it started in school; luckily I was given the role of being school captain, so I think my eagerness of wanting to help other students really put forward an idea of me enjoying helping others,” he said.

“An event that I supported from a young age was the photography program, which was very simple… however, that engagement with others was what really allowed for relationships to be created.

“The highlight for me is the small things… we wanted to teach youth a simple life lesson, and the reason I enjoy it so much is how it really impacted their lives.

“[these programs] really allowed for the community to know who we are, and really create a bond between ourselves and the community.”

Mahamed follows the mantra: ‘I do have the power to help others and I do have the power to change someone’s life for the better,’ which has empowered him to pursuit a career in social work.

Now Mahamed is a force to be reckoned with; his passion lies with helping young people succeed, and giving more young Somali-Australians an outlet to get the support they need.

Photo by Darcy Scales.

Article by Curtis Baines.

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