As we roll through 2020 at an ‘unprecedented’ rate, we took a couple of days in June to attend Virtual Progress 2020, an online gathering of over 2000 like-minded people and organisations seeking to address some of the biggest issues of our time.
Hosted by Australian Progress, the two-day online event saw a range of individuals from Australia and beyond share their insights, wisdom and knowledge on subjects ranging from First Nations justice to effective organisation, disaster capitalism, ethical data use, progressive tech, rebuilding democracy, economies for the future and self-love in the time of COVID.
Through it all, stories were shared, tears were shed, video streams were interrupted, fun was had, ideas were disseminated and inspiration was generously distributed. ‘Progress’ doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the event was a humbling – and motivational – reminder of the sheer number of people who are working hard to create a fairer, more just and more sustainable society every day.
Here are a few – but certainly not all – of the things we learned from day one of the event.
1. Climate activism is about re-indigenising our way of life
Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson greeted attendees with an impassioned Welcome to Country, some of which he delivered in language. “The language I’m about to speak,” he said, “this became illegal in 1863 thanks to the Christian missionaries. We’re trying to bring it back as part of our cultural healing today.”
Though a stark reminder of all the culture that has been lost, the Welcome to Country also underscored that there is still so much to be learned from Aboriginal ways of life. Uncle Bill talked about how we all have a responsibility to the land. “That responsibility is a law here on country,” said Uncle Bill. “To feel truly welcomed on this land, you must respect the land, the people, and the culture.”
2. “We are in an extraordinary moment”
Australian Progress CEO Kirsty Albion posited that times of great chaos can also be times of great change. She warned against “the other side”, and said “they are organised, and pushing for austerity and corporate tax-cuts” and that there is “growing power in far-right nationalist movements.”
But the overall message was one of hope: that while we might be in the midst of a pandemic, a climate crisis, and an economic crisis, there is still power in the collective – just look at the momentum the global civil rights movement gained following the murder of George Floyd.
For answers, Albion urged attendees to look ahead, and to listen to those with lived experience of an issue. “Lift your eyes to the horizon – the budget, the election, and beyond,” she said. “Listen to those most impacted, and look for the big ideas that solve multiple problems at once.”
3. For First Nations people, a pandemic is nothing new
Donnella Mills, Chair of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), reminded us that for Indigenous Australians, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new. “When they say COVID-19 is unprecedented, we may have a different view,” she said. “The situation is all too familiar. Smallpox, tuberculosis, sexually-transmitted diseases – they decimated Indigenous populations.”
And when it came to dealing with COVID-19, many Indigenous communities didn’t wait for the government to help – they already knew what to do. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people shut down their own communities – well before government orders. They got on the front foot before the majority of the urban centre did.”
The result? Less than 60 Aboriginal people nationally have been diagnosed with COVID-19. “We dodged a bullet,” Mills explained, “but the gun is still loaded.”
4. We all need to stand up for Aboriginal justice
Mills also talked about how, when it comes to Aboriginal justice and equity, it’s going to take all of us to make a difference – particularly when it comes to shifting government policy to focus on the betterment and fair treatment of Indigenous Australians. “We know the Uluru statement is from the heart,” said Mills. “But we can’t wait for everyone to accept it, to catch up, to understand.”
She used the example of NACCHO, which rejected the government’s ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy, which was aimed to reduce societal, economic and health-related disadvantages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
NACCHO invited all nine Australian governments to revisit the process, and to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in a genuine partnership. “They conceded that the current ‘Closing the Gap’ targets were government-set targets, not targets shared with us,” she said. “Six days later, those nine governments committed to developing a genuine partnership with us. We have made progress. But we have to stand up and do it ourselves. We have to continue to push forward and stand together.”
5. Change requires mobilisation requires organisation
Lifelong activist and senior lecturer in the fields of leadership, organising and civil society at Harvard University, Marshall Ganz, imparted some rousing words to the wise for effective activism to a 200+ strong Zoom crowd. In the wake of the recent sustained momentum by the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous justice movements, the advice couldn’t have been more timely.
“It’s important to distinguish between mobilising and organising,” he explained. “Mobilising is about aggregating individual resources and deploying them, like at a rally. Sometimes, ‘mobilisation’ can be a tactic in search of a strategy. You need organisation to capture the power, the sustain it, and to build on it.”
6. Understanding flows from action
Ganz was also clear that, when it came to ‘getting involved’ in a cause we believe in, we should never be discouraged because we feel we don’t know enough. “Understanding flows from action,” he said. “We can’t have all the knowledge before we begin something. I didn’t come with the answers, I came with questions and ready to learn. There is an incremental learning to finding your own voice, and your own source of power. It doesn’t come as an individual, it comes as people working together.”
7. Quantify your activism
In what might seem counter-intuitive to proponents of radical action, Ganz also believes that a fundamental part of effective activism lies in measuring your successes as accurately as possible. “I’m from the school of thought that if you can’t count it, it didn’t happen,” he said. “You win an election with numbers. It’s not necessarily about reducing things to numbers – it’s about capturing what you’re doing so you can learn. Unless you can learn how effective you are, how can you improve? ‘
8. Use privilege to make room and start a movement
Award-winning Arab-Australian activist, writer and poet Sarah Saleh talked, amongst many other things, about how important it is for those with privilege to put it to good use. “Make space and uplift people,” she said. “Give more access, keep celebrating, keep building together. I’m not interested in one or two success stories. I’m interested in a movement.
9. We need to fix Australia’s immigration problem
Neha Madhok, the national director of Democracy in Colour, isn’t a fan of the way Australia’s immigration system and policies are designed. To treat people like currency, or like economic wins and losses, is no way to foster a society based on humanity.
In Madhok’s view, immigration reform means building a new system entirely. “Going from immigration based on fairness rather than economic gain, and making changes to health, emigration, and environment,” she said. “It ultimately means dismantling capitalism. Imagine a world in which you can choose where to build a life, no matter where you come from, and that moving somewhere does not mean a life of struggle or starting from the bottom.”
A little later, investigative journalist Anthony Loewenstein added: “Australia is the only country in the world that has privatised and outsourced its immigration system.”
10. There’s no such thing as ‘too much’ Progress
If there’s one overarching takeaway from the entire event, it’s that the world needs more of us to go out there and make a difference.
It needs more of us to be the difference in our families, our friendship groups, our workplaces and our communities. It needs more of us championing diversity and inclusivity, having difficult conversations, and checking our privilege. It needs more of us making space, getting out the way, and taking politics personally.
Bank Australia is a proud supporter of Australian Progress and Virtual Progress 2020.
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