If there’s one thing 2016 made us do, it was reflect. Whether you wanted to or hated to, or were contemplating your country’s place and the people in it for the first time, this past year’s ups and downs have caused us to take stock of where we are – and who we are – as a collective. And whenever there’s pause for reflection on what has been, it’s natural to think, ‘where to from here?’ These young Australians are actively making our country a better place to live in and one to be proud of – so there’s nothing to fear about what’s to come. Meet these 18 incredible humans shaping modern Australia.
The Big-Hearted Crusader
Reading Tarang Chawla’s list of achievements leaves you a little breathless. He is a National Ambassador for Our Watch, White Ribbon Australia, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre and InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence. He is a board member of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC),the Ministerial Taskforce for the Prevention of Family Violence and other forms of Violence Against Women and the Diverse and Intersectionality Working Group. He was recently named as a 2017 Young Australian of the Year Finalist. But the most important title Tarang wears is brother to his sister Nikita, who died at the hands of her partner, aged just 23.
This tragic event would shape Tarang’s life, and as a result, impact Australia’s understanding and treatment of domestic violence – both conceptually and politically. Nikita’s legacy is the inspiration that drives Tarang to ensure that no one else needlessly suffers, let a lone in a space that is meant to be safe – their home.
His varied experience campaigning against domestic violence and gender inequality has given him special insight into the workings of the systems at play in Australia. “Our Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from violence, and 10 times more likely to die, than the general population. Indigenous Australians don’t have constitutional recognition. Our CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) women face systemic barriers to support, and we rob asylum seekers of their fundamental human rights,” he explains. Discovering these statistics helps to spur Tarang’s tireless work.
Tarang is working to set up his own podcast and write more about his family’s tragedy to offer help to other people. “There’s a lot of love in the face of adversity within my family,” he says, “and I want to tell that story to give hope to others.”
The Kitsch Cultural Kween
One can only assume that Stavroula Adameitis is the love child of Dame Edna Everidge and a Chiko Roll. This is because Stavroula, who operates under her brand FRIDA LAS VEGAS, shamelessly embraces all of the hilarious sides of Australia’s culture. “There’s something fascinating about a country that created the Big Lobster, Ken Done doona covers, Chiko Rolls, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, cans of Passiona, Life Be In It, Hills Hoists, the Gold Logie, plaster lion fences, Dolomites and Plucka Duck,” she laughs.
This fascination with the best and kitschiest parts of Australiana informs a large majority of her work – FRIDA LAS VEGAS’ illustrations and jewellery are bursting with colour and glamour. It’s these positive depictions of the weird and wonderful that make Stav’s work an emulation of our cultural identity and how we see ourselves.
Stav believes that real change starts with each individual going back to basics: “Being kind is the new cool. Start small and say hello to the bus driver every morning. When you say ‘thank you’, mean it! Ask if someone is OK and be there for them if they say they’re not. The golden rule is to treat others as you wish to be treated. Imagine if all 24 million Australians followed this one simple rule across all facets of our lives… we might actually become leaders as a nation, instead of followers.”
The Contemporary Creator
Abdul Abdullah is an artist whose work explores “the marginalised, colonised ‘other,’ and how that ‘other’ is perceived and understood.” Growing up as a Muslim in Australia, Abdul and his family have personally experienced life as the ‘other,’ and feel that their cultural identity and heritage have been politicised. Abdul uses his art as a vehicle to combat prejudice, something he speaks about in his sobering TED talk. An Archibald Prize finalist, his art is extremely personal, evoking strong emotion and contemplation.
When speaking to Abdul about his ideas on modern Australia, he confesses that he’s pretty cynical about where we currently stand. Yet he is passionate about the idea of an Australia that, “acknowledges the brutality of its colonialist beginnings, is taking steps to right the wrongs of the past, and is earnestly contributing to the betterment of all people”. While we’re not there yet, Abdul’s work in helping the individual connect to the ‘other’ is taking us a little closer.
“All of my projects are undertaken with the hope of affecting positive change. This is usually gone about by emphasising specific injustices and misperceptions that are often overlooked or taken for granted, and also by celebrating the good in things,” he says.
The Grass Roots Champion
Melissa Abu-Gazaleh is not OK with the rate of suicide among young men. She’s not OK with the pervasiveness of alcohol abuse among young males. And she’s not OK with the rates of poor mental health. So at the age of 19, Melissa started the Top Blokes Foundation to try and reduce these figures.
Now 30, Melissa’s organisation works across NSW and QLD to mentor and converse with young men about becoming the best versions of themselves they can be. A recent winner of the Women of Influence Award from Westpac, Melissa says Top Blokes focus on “building a healthy and robust discussion on young men’s health, where young men themselves are leading the discussion”.
The Top Blokes Foundation are completing a three-year study examining the impact of their social education programs, which Melissa says is, “critical for our organisation, as it’ll demonstrate the need to invest in young men in order to reduce other societal issues like crime, violence and youth unemployment”.
As for her Australia of the future? “My ideal Australia is one where people are able to put aside their personal bias on contentious issues in a bid to improve the well-being and safety of others. From issues including gender and sexual identity, alcohol and drugs, religious and cultural diversity and mental health, today, people within Australia are being harmed because they are discriminated against, either personally or institutionally”.
The Essential Storyteller
“I feel lucky that we live in one of the most diverse nations on the planet,” says Benjamin Law, writer and creator of hit SBS show The Family Law. “Around a thirtieth of us are Indigenous. Roughly one fifth speak languages other than English at home. About a quarter of us were born overseas. Nearly half of us have at least one parent born overseas. One tenth are LGBTI and one fifth has a disability”.
It’s not a perspective many of us realise, and Ben’s comment might have even come as a surprise. And that’s the whole point. Ben uses his position as ‘outsider’ to tell a different – and important – story. “I’m gay and Asian-Australian, and as a minority-within-a-minority (I’m like a minority turducken), I imagine most people would consider me an outsider,” he says.
Ben is an advocate for diversity on Australian screens, and The Family Law reflects that. Written by himself and Marieke Hardy, it follows the dysfunctional world of a Chinese-Australian family through the eyes of 14-year-old Ben and was loosely adapted from Ben’s 2010 book of the same name. “I’m most interested in examining stories that aren’t usually told,” he explains.
As well as working on his television series, he is also dipping his toes into theatre. Ben and “a ragtag crew of emerging directors, actors, producers and writers” will be part of an inaugural artistic workshop with the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. “They’re my favourite theatre company in the country”.
The Caring Councillor
Occupational Therapist Charishma Kaliyanda was recently elected to Liverpool City Council in southwest Sydney. Previously, she worked educating young STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medical) professionals, but now she’s shifting towards “working one-on-one with young professionals in the first few years of their career, to develop skills and build knowledge to help them be more effective at their jobs and progress in their career”. She also works on ways to support and build skills with women in STEM, which she describes as “super exciting!”
In her role as a councillor, Charishma spends a lot of time looking at structural inequality within her region. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that inequality is not just about income or wealth, but that it is also about access to resources, opportunities and institutions. Developing and implementing good policies that seek to maximise not just equality, but equality of opportunity, is how we can get there.”
Charishma reflects on her own experience as a child of migrant parents who came to Sydney when she was a young girl, insisting that policy change will help contribute to equality. However, she says “visible role models, mentors and examples to enable people to be what and who they can see”, will also play a big part.
The Supportive Surfer
Joel knows that it can hard for many of us to acknowledge and discuss our mental health within the sterile confines of a doctor’s office. So in order to understand and support something that impacts so many Australians (one in four young Australians experience mental illness every year), Joel co-founded OneWave, an organisation combining mental health therapy with surfing. Sounds pretty good to us!
“Instead of delving into detailed clinical discussions in the hospital or health centre environment, the OneWave Surf Experience Program is encouraging access in the community by engaging participants in the mainstream activity of surfing,” he explains.
Every Friday morning, hordes of fluro-clad surfers take to the waves of Bondi Beach – and now, more than 15 other beaches around the world – to increase the visibility of mental illness with the public and to help those who are suffering. “We like to call it ‘saltwater therapy’,” says Joel.
Considering mental health is a global issue – it affects around 450 million people, regardless of their race or culture – Joel is intensely passionate about education in this field. He is establishing a mental health charity named Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation (to be launched in early 2017) and is also writing a children’s book, Stand Up Stand Out, aiming to “start the conversation early” and educate children about mental health.
Joel is hard at work for his vision of a modern Australia where, “people understand mental health as a normal part of everyday life. Where ‘invisible’ mental health issues are treated like any other physical injury. Where there’s no social stigma, and people struggling don’t have to go it alone”.
The Painter of Words
Spoken word poet Soreti Kadir is one of the founders and mangers of In Our Own Words, a grassroots movement empowering people of African descent to share their story. Soreti is an Oromo woman hailing from the Indigenous people of Ethiopia, and she is passionately interested in what it means to be a person of colour in modern Australia.
“The black African experience in this country will evolve,” says Soreti, “and as we learn about ourselves as individuals and each other as a collective, how our experiences and spaces will educate the breadth of our community about the vitality of expressing support and solidarity for Aboriginal resistance, self-determination and sovereignty”.
Soreti’s heritage underpins her work. “It informs what I am vocal about and how I position problems and solutions. I have much to learn and my work is a learn-as-you-go sort of process,” she says.
Soreti has a unique ability to speak powerfully and truthfully through poetry on the subject of race in Australia. Her artistic contribution is essential to a more consciously diverse, modern Australia. “Everything I do is about speaking of the personal experience and feeding into a broader narrative of change”.
The People’s Refuge
Dana Affleck has spent the past six years campaigning for the rights of refugees. She works as a Youth Organiser at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and founded Road To Refuge, an organisation and interactive website that takes you on the journey an asylum seeker makes to reach Australia.
Dana’s biggest project has been developing the Advocacy and Power Program at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. She describes it as “a program that trains people that have experience seeking asylum to be public commentators and advocates for refugee rights, in the form of writing, media training and storytelling, and getting used to being in front of a camera.”
She is particularly passionate about this project because the refugee movement “has a significant lack of authentic voices of refugees themselves. There are a lot of people speaking on behalf of others”.
Dana’s work puts a face to the asylum seeker movement, steering us away from seeing these persecuted people as one “homogenous group”.
The “Blacktivist Traveller”
Paul Gorrie is a musician, writer and activist, and Gunai/Kurnai and Yorta Yorta man. His contribution to music and media pushes us to remove our inherent cultural filters and see things from a different perspective. Paul is also an activist for climate change and Aboriginal rights.
As an Aboriginal man, Paul struggles to identify with the idea of Australian culture and identity as it currently stands. Paul explains: “[Modern Australia] was built on a foundation of dispossession and racism and self interest, mostly. And while there may be some changes in particular circles, the majority of Australia is quite self interested.”
To help bridge the awareness gap, Paul works for the Climate Action Network Australia and volunteers with Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, which focuses on building a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who work to prevent their country from the negative impact of climate change. He is currently the State Coordinator for Victoria and organises volunteer groups across the state.
As well as his activism, Paul is working on some music projects with local artists that he’s really excited about. In the meantime, he looks forward to an Australia where Aboriginal people “are able to determine [their] futures, and they’re not determined by the wider public”.
The Laundered Entrepreneur
Lucas Patchett and his mate Nicholas Marchesi are the types who see something that needs to be done – and then do it. They’re the founders of Orange Sky Laundry – the result of the realisation that people who were homeless or living on the street did not have access to clean laundry.
The initiative – which saw the boys receive the 2016 Young Australian Of The Year Award – started by chucking two washing machines into the back of a van and driving it around Brisbane. Now, with volunteers driving vans all around Australia, they wash laundry and have conversations with thousands of homeless and displaced people every year.
The idea of helping people and establishing a community drives Lucas to continue his work. His ideal Australia is somewhere “everyone feels connected to the community” – whether homeless, from a different cultural background or otherwise.
He believes that we’re already doing a good job, with “tons of people around Australia who encapsulate this,” especially the people who volunteer for Orange Sky. “We’ve got people who are uni students, we’ve got high school students, we’ve got retirees, working professionals… People who give back, expect nothing in return and really live out that mission of helping the community”.
The Director of Experiences
Creating experiences is what lights Kim Pengelly up. The director of Woodford Folk Festival – a magical music and cultural festival in the Queensland hinterland – Kim says she loves the “ephemeral nature” of these types of events. “Thousands of people gather together for a shared experience,” she explains, “and then all is collapsed and the only thing that remains are beautiful reflections, special images, treasured memories, quality conversations, [and] precious interactions”.
But Kim understands that throwing a large-scale festival comes with a lot of responsibility – both environmental and cultural. Though the event is fleeting, the impact is not. Kim began looking into what she could do to help soften the environmental impact of a festival, and so rolled out a reusable cup system at all of the festival’s bars. It’s something she admits is no easy feat for a festival of Woodford’s scale.
Yet the pay off is immense. “In the short term, the system will eliminate the use of 270,000 single use plastic cups at The Woodford Folk Festival annually,” she says. Seeing such positive impact from the system inspired Kim and her husband’s next project: a program called Dolphin’s Hiccup. She says it’s “similar in nature to Clean Up Australia Day but more frequently held and focused on tending to our beloved beaches”.
But what really inspires Kim to make positive changes within the festival is the cultural responsibility. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the power of celebration, and what a strong voice large-scale events can be in society and how they should be an opportunity for cultural change,” she explains. “In a celebratory environment, we have the opportunity to create and facilitate habit-changing tools, to allow patrons to learn new concepts.”
The Mental Health Dynamo
Lee Crockford develops interactive ways of engaging with and acknowledging mental health. The CEO of Spur Projects, Lee is particularly concerned with men’s mental health. “We live in a society where men are taught from the youngest age to hide their emotions and to avoid talking about how they’re feeling: That construct is so strong that there are literally men out there today for whom taking their own life seems like a better option than saying ‘Hey, I’m not alright’. That needs to change and that’s what I’m passionate about.”
Lee has just launched an app that asked people around the world how they were feeling. “We collected over 58,000 submissions from 104 countries, creating the world’s largest real-time database of emotions. All that (anonymous) data is now open source and available for anyone to download and use, and the insights are fascinating”.
In 2017, Spur Projects is launching Old Mate, a campaign to encourage 100,000 Australians to take a pledge to spend one hour per month with an older gentleman in their life. Why? “A little know fact: Men aged 75-plus suicide at a rate twice that of any other age group,” explains Lee. “Loneliness, loss of capability and loss of connection are key drivers to poor mental health. Old Mate aims to combat those contributing factors”.
Lee admits he is proud to be Australian, but that this also brings “the necessity to critique it and to strive for an ever more equitable and fairer nation”.
The Political Optimist
Skye Riggs is the founder and CEO of Y Vote, a non-partisan organisation of young people that work to strengthen democracy. Why is this important? “There is a fairly pervasive ‘cultural cringe’ when it comes to domestic politics and a serious disconnection between many citizens and the politicians that represent us,” she explains.
Y Vote works to break down these barriers of disconnection between Australian youth and the political system by empowering young people to get involved. Skye says it’s all about “how we can shift the culture of politics in Australia to one that is more vibrant, positive, accountable and inclusive”.
In Skye’s ideal Australia, politics would look a lot more inclusive. “My ideal Australia is one where positions of power aren’t mainly accessible to the most privileged and where we proactively work to provide pathways to leadership for people that are structurally marginalised from these opportunities”.
Skye knows that a lot of young Australians avoid Australian politics, even if they studied it at university, because she did too. But authenticity in the political system could change that relationship. “I want to work in partnership with politicians and policy makers at all levels of government to create stronger connections between them and their community.”
The Active Alchemist
If you don’t think you can dance or that movement is for you, then spend some time with dancer, dance maker, writer and activist Amrita Hepi. The proud Bundulung and Ngapuhi woman feels that movement was one of the many gifts her ancestors blessed her with, and we thank our stars she shares that gift with thousands of Australians every year.
Go to one of her classes and you’ll witness alchemy in motion. Amrita will take those of us who are nervous, scared and oftentimes dealing with body shame, and tap us into a part of ourselves we might have forgotten existed. Her aim is to encourage you to be confident and comfortable in your body, and the people leaving the class are transformations of their earlier selves. Such is the power of movement – just ask her booty-shaking Beyoncé dance class attendees, or watch her TEDxSydney talk at the Opera House (watch below).
Amrita also uses movement as a means to explore and express alternate ways of seeing the world, having recently finished a season with OCHRE contemporary dance company and making her first full length dance work, Passing, with Jahra Wassasala at Next Wave festival in Melbourne. “Most of the things I make are a re-imagining of worlds and how things could be; or presenting a skewed reality of how they are. I see it as a suggestion rather than a solution – but one that you can’t ignore”.
Her cultural and creative contribution to Australia supports a future that is “blacker, more vibrant and queerer than what has been previously perceived”. Amrita believes that one of the first steps we can take towards reconciling our identity is through treaty with the Indigenous population of Australia. After all, she says, “the Aussie ‘battla’ could do with a rebrand”.
The Circuit Breaker
Yassmin Abdel-Magied isn’t your average petrol head. She isn’t the average person you’d see working on oil and gas rigs either, but then again, Yassmin is anything but average. At just 25 years of age, she is a certified mechanical engineer, activist, writer and author, presenter, Formula One obsessive, founder of Youth Without Borders and former Queensland Young Australian of the Year. And she’s also just set up a new company, but more on that later. Tired yet?
Yassmin believes that Australia really is a lucky country because of our greatest asset – “not just fossil fuel[s] – but our people”.
She explains that we have a relatively cohesive multicultural society compared to other nations across the world and that, “Yes, it needs a lot of improvement; yes, it needs a lot of work and maintenance – but I think, by and large, there’s a relative level of social mobility in this country, and that’s something I’m really passionate about. People are generally open-minded about thinking about how we can be better.”
Yassmin hopes we’re able to recognise the unique opportunity we have to be a model to the rest of the world. “We’re one of the few countries in the world where the majority of our nation isn’t beset by poverty, isn’t beset by disease, we haven’t had a major conflict in modern times – we do have an issue with our Indigenous history that we need to face – but I think generally, we have a small populace, a lot of resources, and a good temperament. And that is fertile ground for the model nation, if we know how to make the most of it and have the leadership that can really utilise that”.
For the moment, Yassmin continues to lead by example as a model human. Her MO is as a public advocate for the empowerment of youth and women (especially women of colour), and she is passionate about diversifying public voices and making positive change happen. To that effect, she’s launched a new company called Mumtaza, a speaker’s bureau for women of colour. “The reality is there are so many amazing women and women of colour around the world who are experts in their fields who could be great presenters – who could really educate people on different topics, whether that be finance, engineering and so on.”
The Fashion-Forward Activist
If fashion isn’t something you usually associate with activism, then one conversation with Courtney Sanders should do the trick. Courtney is the co-founder of Well Made Clothes, a website where people can browse responsible designers and shop by their personal values. She is also the editorial director of Catalogue Magazine, which creates fashion and culture content for women that’s diverse, representative and challenging.
Seventy-five percent of the global garment industry is made up of females, so Courtney passionately believes that when we speak about protecting women and advocating for gender equality, fashion is a great starting point.
“Considering problems like domestic violence and sexual assault, these might seem like kind of frivolous places to start, but the power the fashion media has to undermine women’s rights through storytelling and advertising is huge, and the power of international fashion conglomerates to exploit women – particularly in the developing world – is massive, too,” she explains.
The first step Courtney wishes to take towards shaping modern Australia is by focussing on women in this particular industry. “I would like to help to change both the representation of women in the fashion media and to make consumers aware of the problems in the fashion industry supply chain, so they can make informed decisions about what they’re buying.”
Through Well Made Clothes and Catalogue Magazine, Courtney says she is always working to challenge these existing frameworks within her own work. “We don’t always get it right, and we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be better all the time, which is kind of the underlying theme of both sites: nobody’s perfect, but we can, and should, always be trying to be better”.
The Community Campaigner
Forget the days of Australian Idol, James Mathison is a man on a political mission. He believes that ultimately, we all want the same thing: “A tolerant, compassionate, kind, thoughtful, educated populace,” he says. “The thing we argue about is how to get there”.
James made headlines this year when he announced he would run against Tony Abbott in the 2016 federal election. He strongly feels that Australia needs a new, progressive political force that consolidates the strengths of the current left and challenges the elitist policies of the right. “With the rise of Trumpism and One Nation, and the sort of paralysis of two-party politics, it feels like Australia is crying out for an alternate progressive voice,” James says. He hopes to launch that voice late 2017.
This alternative party will be “radically inclusive,” he explains. The main focus will be on diversity, the environment, social justice and equality. James was frustrated by the lack of discussion around the rising inequality and poverty in Australia during the 2016 election. “If you’re a poor Australian, if you’re disenfranchised, you were left out of that election. So I guess it’s a call to arms for those people who were left out, and it’s a call to arms for those people who want to see Australia moving forward on a whole range of issues.”
James is also passionate about change at a community level. He’s created Communitarian, a crowd-funding platform for community-based projects. “If your local park doesn’t have a toilet block and your council isn’t doing anything about it, you can get support within your local community and get that crowd-funded,” he says. “A lot of the crowd funding at the moment is for big projects or personal gain, but Communitarian is all about your local community, what’s important to it and getting those things off the ground”.
We believe the best way to advance Australia over the next century is to invest in the next generation of leaders: the gifted visionaries, the bold reformers and ambitious innovators. The Westpac Scholarship Program will help achieve this by funding 100 scholarships and fellowships every year, forever.
Lead image: Stavroula Adameitis/supplied