I’ve seen the power of the arts to move, to educate, drive change and foster social cohesion many times. I experienced it intensely first hand, when I produced Crossings: Songs from the East in 2013.
The concert showcased a cross-cultural collaboration of traditional and improvised music spanning the Greek, Kurdish, Arabic and Persian traditions. It was an exciting coming-together for the first time of local Sydney-based musicians; four out of the five were first generation Australians from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They drew from both their musical heritage and their contemporary experience of multicultural Australia.
The audience, which we surveyed, said things like:
“Beautiful to see a coming together of cultures through the arts”…
“Brought back memories of home”…
“Wonderful! Especially watching the musicians improvising – working together… so much richness (and they say multiculturalism doesn’t work)! It is alive and brings so much richness to our lives and to Australia”…
The experience of that production impacted all involved, from the artists to the audience and everyone in between, in ways that only arts and cultural experiences can sometimes – on the level where words cease and only the senses and the human spirit exist. One comes away from an experience like that with a sense that something in them is a little different… a little changed.
As an audience member watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production of The Secret River, I came away with exactly that feeling. I was shattered at the brutality of the story – the brutal truth in the story – but I was compelled to watch and listen.
I felt like I was bearing witness to a history not told often enough. In the author, Kate Grenville’s, words: “This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book “really happened” and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.” Knowing this, I felt the weight of responsibility, like I was almost charged with the duty of carrying this history on, of re-telling it. So I made it my mission for days afterwards to tell everyone I met to go see the show.
It was hard to watch at times. The woman sitting to my left had her eyes closed for much of the massacre scene. It wasn’t explicit or visually disturbing – but it sat in that space – the space where words cease and only the senses exist. Clearly for the woman beside me, her senses were in overwhelm. I was grateful that the night I attended happened to be followed by the Q and A session with the actors and co-director afterwards – it was an opportunity for the audience to re-compose and debrief almost. More than that, it was a way to bring the savage racism of our history into the present.
The discussion that ensued was open and honest. The actors told of their own experiences of facing and witnessing racism today. Actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf told of how she was refused a ride by four taxi drivers on the street just outside the theatre. Richard Piper, who played the most savage of the white characters, talked of how the experience of being a part of this production changed him – made him reflect on times where he had been a bystander to racist incidences and had not acted. He spoke of the need for us all to speak up and take a stand in similar situations, and of his resolve to do differently next time. An audience member asked the questions: “What can we do? How can we do better when we leave this theatre?”. One of the younger cast members, Madeleine Madden, spoke about the power of the arts to move and affect change. Everyone on stage seemed to acknowledge a sort of shared social responsibility to tell the story with authenticity and sensitivity.
I came away with the feeling that the sentiment in that Q and A session was shared company-wide, and with 2 mins of online research I discovered the Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Human Rights and Social Performance Statement’ As part of STC’s commitment to “operating as a responsible organisation” they state: “STC’s statement on Human Rights and Social Performance reflect our ability to uphold human rights within our organisation and our sphere of influence. We adhere to both international and local human rights legislation and reflect these in our human resources policies, practices and Code of Conduct.” Further down, in relation to audiences and the arts industry, it states: “We share our learning and promote human rights issues through giving voice to social issues by our choices in productions and our industry networks by contributing to conversations.”
This initiative – of writing the importance of social responsibility into the policies and strategic objectives of an organisation – is exactly what we need more of – especially in the arts and cultural industries, whose core ‘business’ is in the creation of meaning.
Go and see The Secret River if you can. Or read the book. Or watch the TV series. And share the story. Continue the conversation. It is our shared responsibility.
Review by Kiriaki Zakinthinos
Kylie O’Reilly is the Managing Director of the Agency Division for Australian Associated Press (AAP), the national news agency of Australia. Kylie has over 15 years’ experience in the media industry and holds an MBA from the University of Technology Sydney.
Kylie has been the Chairperson of All Together Now for some years, helping to lead the organisation through to some great achievements.
We now interview her about her role in the organisation, her passions and goals before she heads off to run in the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival, this Sunday 20th September, 2015.
All Together Now: You can be a role model of modern woman. Many girls in Australia can take you as an example, how to be successful in life. Can you tell me what story is hidden behind your decision to refocus from Managing Director at AD AAP to the role of a chairperson in not-for-profit organization? Why did you choose anti-racism focus?
Kylie O’Reilly: Firstly, the reason, why I chose to contribute my time as a chairperson to All Together Now, was because I want to do something to make a difference. So, for me was important to be sure, that I can contribute my skills into their work, make a difference into the community. But the most important driver was an ability to participate. My previous experience was very much commercial and corporate, and it’s great, it’s nice to help businesses to make money and to employ people. But, when it gets down to having children and to be a part of a family and a community, I realized that I want to see my children living in a better place. That’s why I chose All Together Now. And I thought, that one of these topics (racism) would be committed to, because it is a hard work, [and] it is not an easy thing to be part of it. It’s not one of the topics, which everyone would easily contribute to, such as animals’ rights, cancer or children, – it is much tougher. As for me, I like challenges and being able to contribute to the good.
ATN: Kylie, if you could compare from the perspective of racial discrimination Australia of your childhood and Australia today, what differences can you list?
Kylie O’Reilly: I think, nowadays we are much more aware. There are two major things. First of all, when I grew up it was a very white Australia, where I was. Australia wasn’t so multicultural. I spent my childhood on the Northern beaches of Sydney and it was a very Anglo-Saxon place. Now, when we are near the beaches it is much more multicultural. I can see that children integrate much more in classes. They ask questions about different religions, different customs and many other things. As a child, I didn’t have any of that. So, I see differences in all of these things that were changed since the time of 30 years ago till now.
I would say that modern Australia is much more integrated. People are more aware now about dangers of racial discrimination. I don’t think that 30 years ago we did understand the impact of racial discrimination, how is it felt like to be an excluded outsider to someone new to the country. Nowadays we are totally aware how harmful that is. So, I think, Australia became very different in that sense.
ATN: As a mother, how do you explain and will explain multicultural differences and diversity to your children? Is it possible to erase racism from Australian society in future, educating a new generation today?
Kylie O’Reilly: Yes, I believe so. I have always believed that it’s possible, because I believe in the strength of acceptance and love. So, for me, why would not I accept everybody’s differences, we are all similar human beings with a heart and a brain…You know, it’s just because you look differently and speak differently to me, it doesn’t mean that we are that different from each other. All these differences are things which need to be celebrated. So, as for me, I will teach my children about it: differences make us unique, there are many things that we should celebrate and be curious about, [and] learn more about. All these things make the world so interesting, [like] when we are travelling, doesn’t it? We get to learn about different cultures and different places, we can learn different things and taste different food and we can immerse ourselves [in] something completely unknown.
ATN: Apart from being a chairperson of All Together Now how do you oppose racism in everyday life?
Kylie O’Reilly: I would say that the first level of racism, that I would see, is joke. People are making jokes. What they think is a joke in the reality is a statement. Basically, it is framing of our culture into a joke. So, for me, I would say that joke is a way of framing the culture. I don’t think that it is much more diverse in that. In everyday living we can frequently hear jokes about Asian drivers or…you know, when people say those kinds of things. To me that is a crazy talk, because I am not my one culture, you are not your one culture. Same as it doesn’t mean that I am a great driver or a bad driver, just because I am a female. For me this is much more complicated now. So, in everyday life racism usually appears in those kinds of comments and inappropriate jokes. Me as a person would stand up and say something about that. And I would try to educate people, why that’s not appropriate.
ATN: It is great to hear you are so active Kylie. Thank you for having this attitude. .
Kylie O’Reilly: It’s the way to be, isn’t it?
ATN: This shows the strength of your character. Not everyone is brave enough to speak up and be opposite to racism.
Kylie O’Reilly: I think, what you can do is to deliver your thoughts through the humor. It doesn’t have to be controversial. It doesn’t have to become confrontational. If I’ll deliver it with actual curiosity and humor, when I say to you: “Why do you say that”? It is not threatening, isn’t it? So, if I can deliver it in non-threatening way, sometimes it can be educational. I think this is what people struggle with sometimes: how to communicate to another person if anything is inappropriate.
ATN: How do you see Australia in 20 years?
Kylie O’Reilly: My vision for Australia in 20 years would be that it’s much more embracing and has different cultural identities. It gets down to a couple of values instead of identities. I would like to think that my children will have multiple kinds of friends of different color, different races and different backgrounds and that’s generally accepted as we become more global. So, that’s what I would like to see in the future. I don’t want to see an Australia where everything is only Anglo and white. In this case we would be very limited and especially in terms of Australian values. So, for me diversity is the way to go.
ATN: Could you, please, share your plans for the future? What projects do you want to realize?
Kylie O’Reilly: Well, my job as a chairperson is to help forming a strategy together with the managing director and a board. Talking on behalf of the board, we are very committed to educating and standing up against racism through education. So, I am very excited about the projects that are useful for children and for teachers. I can comment that they are really great projects to be involved in, because putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else can educate you more as it is like to be a victim of racism. And once you have some empathy to that situation, it helps you to understand more, you are even able to curiously challenge people on their views. So, as for me, I love that project.
I also like how we are associated with sport. It is important, because there is a lot of racism in sport. Sport is a one avenue where people can really embrace each other and come together with the common goal of going to their teams. And I think that to be a part of this and to generate an awareness of All Together Now is really important.
So, our projects are connected with everything that can be put on a plate for educating and helping people to stand up against racism. As an example, we created educational mobile application. And on the other side we would like to associate with sport.
Episode #6: You cross the road to avoid people of a certain race.
Refer to episode #5 for further explanation, however this episode appears pretty self-explanatory. This is a high level of casual racism, and is very explicit in how someone will hold discriminatory views against someone else purely based on race, culture, or religion.
Episode #5: You get nervous around Muslims/Hindus on airplanes.
The fifth episode in our individualized “10 signs you might be casually racist” really targets an ‘elephant in the room’ point about the rising attitudes towards the Muslims within Australian society. There has been a large rise in anti-Islamic sentiments within Australia, with 25% (Scanlon Report 2014) of people feeling negatively towards the Muslim population. Hindus and Sikhs often suffer the same discrimination, as the perpetrator of the racism assumes, based on visual appearance alone, that the person they have targeted is Muslim; they, then, receive the same taunts and abuse.
If you see anyone being racially attacked you can speak up, take evidence and assist the victim by going with them to report it, and providing your evidence as proof of the incident. Any incidents have are also being reported to the Islamophobia Register Australia.
Here is part 3 of the new visual series based from our popular blog last year about “10 signs you might be a casual racist” . We have designed some easy to use and share infographics on each of the 10 signs of casual racism.
Episode #3: “You speak so well for an Asian.”