By Siyavash Doostkhah [Youth Affairs Network Queensland]
SIYAVASH: You are leaving the sector tomorrow after many many years, tell us, how long have you been in the sector? What was your first job?
MARIA: I started in the sector in... 1990 I think it was. I was at Brisbane Youth Service actually, but I've been in the sector a bit longer than that actually, because I did my placement at Youth Advocacy, so before that, so that was, um. So, yes, I came in the sector about 1990, I did my placement in 1989 or something.
SIYAVASH: So initially you were doing hands on work in service management, so then at some stage you moved into policy and advocacy. What motivated you to do that? When was that?
But, the motivating factor in the end was really, that was more about articulating young people's views and experiences, not so much thinking about the policy / advocacy, but when the policy / advocacy gig came about as a service delivery level, I realised I was just perpetuating disadvantage in some ways, so there needed to be social change or there was just going to be more and more young people that I was going to be seeing time and time again, presenting with the same issues that we weren't ostensibly making a difference in people's lives. And you know, you see young people that have been disadvantaged, um, systemically, having children, being disadvantaged, not for reasons of their own, but because they never had the opportunity to go forward, you know, because they system didn't allow for it, the system was oppressing people to the point where they couldn't take steps forwards, so you know, I think that was a driving motivation to go into the policy arena really.
I sort of fell into work at the Coalition in some ways, because I think I was doing a project and they had no-body there to do the job [laughs]. I can't really quite remember. But, um, I went, “oh yeah, all right, I'll have a go”. It wasn't really a considered career move as a social worker to go and become a policy advocate person, but, um, inherently I think, that's what everybody needs to do.
SIYAVASH: You've been leading the Youth Housing Coalition for over a decade, over that time you've seen many governments come and go...
MARIA: Some good, some bad [laughs]
SIYAVASH: ... so do you think that there were any governments over that period that did anything substantial in terms of dealing with young people's housing issues?
MARIA: I'd have to say the best thing that ever happened was Kevin Rudd. He put homelessness on the agenda and has been the only Prime Minister that ever has.
SIYAVASH: What about Bob Hawke?
MARIA: What about Bob Hawke? Yeah, no child will have to be in poverty by such and such a date, yes, that was [laughs] very aspirational of him! Um, look, there have been some great Ministers. With Kevin Rudd bringing along Tanya Plibersek, she was a particularly good Minister. And I find that there hasn't been any particularly great Government, young people seem to be like, I don't know, people just don't seem to embrace young people at all. There's lots of rhetoric around it, but there's not a lot of reality or truth.
Everybody loves the babies, and everybody loves helping the old people, but it's actually the young people at the start of their lives that they can't seem to get the grip around the fact that, well, maybe actually don't care for them. Yeah, look, I can't say I've had any particularly warm-hearted experiences with any of them [politicians], certainly, Rob Schwarten defunded us, so, hello. And a Coalition government hasn't come in and embraced young people either, for all the rhetoric there is. You know, it's all talk. Through my time, we've had a national youth housing strategy, I must have every youth policy going since the day I started, nothing's had consistency. I did do a three month stint in Government, I got head-hunted to write the youth participation strategy, until they didn't like the actual participation strategy we come up with, which was engaging young people.
So, you know, that has come and gone. There's been a lot of rhetoric and not much change. You know, young people still have an income support which is just abysmal. We still don't see a robust youth housing or homelessness policy that's about young people, um, you know, we still see government acting in silos, and all the whole Government rhetoric is just that! It's just rhetoric. So individuals have wanted to do stuff, but when it gets to when Cabinet makes a decision and going “yeah, well”, well, no, it doesn't happen, and I don't know why. Everyone can understand young people, everybody reflects happily on their own youth, but they don't want to acknowledge that maybe other young people who don't have such great experiences are entitled to that too. I'm just flabbergasted by it and still am. I think this is the reason I came into youth policy and it's still bloody the same, it's just unbelievable. So yeah, I don't know, I don't know if I can say there's been a particularly good government, I probably think that, as I said, yeah, Kevin Rudd was good by putting homelessness on the agenda, and making a commitment to it and making an agreement about it and making people accountable to it. But for young people, yeah, was there anything?
SIYAVASH: What about over that period of working, other than the Kevin Rudd thing, was there any highlight for you in terms of your work, in terms of people you met, whether they were young people themselves, service providers, politicians, an activity you did, or something that you take away and cherish as something that worked well?
MARIA: Probably Youth Homelessness Matters Day was something I was particularly proud of starting, and it probably had a bigger life than we thought it would have, and not realising how quickly that traction would happen. That was probably something good. Probably working very hard working to Labor being elected before the Kev Rudd thing, we did quite a bit of work as a group of people to put homelessness on the agenda, and then to see it there was very exciting I think. Um, I think that in terms of people, I said it before, but I really am just a conduit for the work that people do in the sector and the experiences of young people, so it was really funny, we did a Youth Homelessness Matters Day right at the, one of the first few, and, um, somebody came over to me and said “oh, there's this young fella' there who wants to talk to you, he's one of the green keepers or something...” I went, “oh, ok, maybe we've done something wrong, we're hiring a park”, and it turned out to be an old young person from BYS who'd recognised my voice, I wonder why, “clean up that space! Don't do that! What are you people doing!?” [laughs], he'd recognised my voice and wanted to come down and say hello and say thanks, and say look, I'm doing this now.
So, there was lots of young people whose names you can't mention that make me want to cry. But they've done really well and they do come back to you and say “wow, look at my kids” and there's some that we've lost along the way, and yeah, look, that's part of the job. But yeah, they're also the people you think about when you're doing your work and when you need to improve and humble you and make you remember that. You're just part of a bigger group of people that want to do something better, you know. Yeah, I've been there a long time but I've been there because people want to be there and there's young folk that you remember you meet. BYS had invited me in with some of the stuff that they'd been doing with some young folk, and I met this vibrant young man through that and I got some lovely feedback from him about what that inspired for him. And you know, I think for me, it's individuals and feeling like you've made a difference to their lives because at a policy level, you know, it's been a hard slog. And along the way you've got to remember that it's those individual people that you want to change their lives and hopefully for the future that other young people don't have to go through that. So, it's been more about, um, thinking about will what I do make a difference. So, Youth Homelessness Matters Day is about individual young people having a chance to say their voice and not have a conduit like me talking about homelessness, it's about them talking about their own experiences and having that heard, because I think a lot of people think they're just bullshitting on you know. [laughs] And you just go, “frickin' no!”. And it's because they never step out of their glossy little world and go, yes. And people can't see past how people feel like they're behaving. Like if they're acting a way that you don't like them to act, if they're swearing or if they're doing stuff, well big shit you know. You gotta look past that and ask who is the person beyond that, you know, we can get just as um, you know, just as stuck up by people who are just as stuck up by their little posh ways of doing whatever, you know, but people don't do that. People just need to accept people for who they are. And why they're there.
And so, yeah, there's been lots of good people who I've worked with who have taught me, and hopefully who I've taught, and yeah, there's plenty of good folk who have taken the journey and continue to do so. So yeah, you could name a million people and someone would say you missed them out, so yeah, it's a bit hard. Just my husband, I love him [laughs], I'll name him.
SIYAVASH: So you just mentioned that the rewards are very little and far between in the policy area and the importance of being energised or renewing that motivation by actually spending time with other humans, with young people and their experience. So what other advice do you have for the next generation of people who potentially might move to advocacy / policy area; whether they come from practice or if they come from straight from a university or something, do you think there are some key things that they should be conscious of moving into the sector for their own survival and hopefully having a positive impact on policy and the lives of young people.
MARIA: Well, my first thing would be that anyone in the sector that doesn't do social policy is a fool. If you don't do advocacy, you're just on about yourself, cos all it is is about feeling good about yourself and thinking “wow, look what I did for this one young person”, which is great, but you're just sitting there perpetuating disadvantage. So if you don't get off your arse and do the right thing and make it hard, then get out and do something else, because you really do need to be an advocate. That's the first thing I would say.
Then, the second thing is, yes, it is hard. But the thing that sustains is that the glass is always half full. So, if you're a glass half empty person, then you're going to find policy really difficult because it is a long-term slog. And for me it is a bit like, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to know what you aspire to. So for me it's about social justice and it's about equality, and all the things that go with social justice, that's the aspiration and what does that mean. And that's what sustains you. Have a bit of humour around it, I swear a lot, that works for me, but yeah. It's about you're always moving towards a space... Where we are now with the current government, we just need to hold a line, because this government's clearly about, well, we're not quite sure what they're about, but I don't know if they're about what I'm about. But yeah, you need to just hold the line about this is what we need for young people and this is what this system does. And I think we have gone a long way since I started in terms of the whole continuum of service delivery. So you know, you have to have a glass half full, you have to have a bit of humour, you have to play with other people, otherwise it's a very lonely world. We all have a bit of a laugh and a giggle about that. And do fun stuff in between it – I've done advocacy using puppets, films and making it a bit humorous in the delivery of it. But, yeah, surround yourself in people who are like you, don't put up with the people that aren't because it will drain you.
You know, and have another life. Your work is not your life, well, it is soughta [laughs]. Well, you know what I mean! If you start using your work as a way of affirming who you are totally, you will lose in the process. You have to inherently have a belief in what you want to world to be, you bring that into your work. Your work becomes the vehicle I suppose, in some ways, but it's not all of it, you know what I mean. Cos I've seen people who have been in the sector a really long time who have been so passionate that they have foregone lots of things, and they get to an age where they realise that there just needs to be a bit of a balance really. And because policy can be so fickle and it can come and go, your sustainability needs to be through just being a strong, healthy person with clarity around who you are and stuff like that.
And deal with your own shit as well. Don't let your own shit dominate it. I could name my lightbulb moment when I was able to separate my own shit from my work, and finally go “yeah, I'm about something bigger than just about me”. And I think we all come into the industry at some level because there's some shit that has gone on in your own life, but it was the day that I made that fundamental shift in my mind and realised that shit yeah, I've done something really good. I imagine that some people in the sector who were with me then could too, cos I ran upstairs like a bloody idiot going “I think I just did a really big piece of work then!” [laughs] “oh wow, I just sorted my own shit out!” So yeah, that was probably pretty good.
So yeah, be true to yourself, be strong, be clear about who you are, surround yourself by like-minded people, get in, get dirty and enjoy it. Don't let people trample over you. Say it as it is, people say “oh, you're a great advocate”, that's because I've held strong to what I believe in, for betterment of the young folk hopefully.
SIYAVASH: Now, leaving the sector after all these years, do you think you can stay away or do you think there is possibility that there will be a return?
MARIA: Hah, well I think it will be a hiatus... [laughs] “It's in your blood!” Look, I don't think I've left voluntarily either, it's not like I'm going “ah, I'm getting sick of it”, more like “ah, sorry, there's no more money”. So yeah, it's probably just a hiatus, have some time away and then come back and yeah. I'm going to go to uni, so I figure I can say a lot more... I can 'shape social policy very effectively' I think, from the 'high towers of university' [laughs]. So yeah, I might make some commentary I think about how I see things going. And yeah, I'll probably some back and do some voluntary stuff if not, and then some paid stuff at some other point.
And that's the other thing – don't be a career person. Just for the sake of it anyway. So if you want to go into government, think about when you want to leave it as well. You know, use it as an experience, but yeah, so many people have gone into government and have forgotten where the bloody hell they came from and why they were in the bloody sector in the first place. And then they're willing to bag the sector and have fricken' forgot that they were in it one day. And totally forgot it. I did have a spell in government, and it was very instructive for me. You know, I learnt how it all worked and I stepped away from it for a while. And those people who I've seen who have had a little spell in government and who have walked away come back into the sector have been enriched by the experience. But those who have generally gone in and stayed, then they shouldn't talk about “I was once in the youth sector”, because they're not any more and they're an instrument of government and la la la... you know what I mean? And even now, in my position, I don't bullshit people and say “I'm a youth worker”, I'm a policy worker, been a policy worker for ten years. I talk to young people, you know, but I'm not. And we want to hear from the young people what their bloody experiences are. You don't need an old hack like me going “ah well, in the day, I remember young people when...” Big deal! Things change, people change their lives, technology changes, the way young people communicate via technology and all that, if you're not in it, you're out of it! [laughs] Don't pretend that you are in it!
Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I'll be back!”
SIYAVASH: We hope so! Anything else you want to say? Any message to people that you might not have got to say goodbye to or don't know you're leaving? Any message to the sector as a whole, any message to the government, to decision-makers, to the world?
MARIA: I just want to thank the people that shared my journey, the young people that have been workers or whatever. To the bright new things, stay committed, and there are a lot of you out there an you know it. And don't be afraid to step up to the plate and do it. Basically, I did it because I was sucked into it as well, but have really been enriched by it doing so. To the state government, I'd say, get your act together and be true about having a true youth strategy and having a youth housing strategy within the government homelessness strategy. To the federal government, I'd say, you have a massive role to play in ensuring that states stay true to any agreements that you put down. I have always thought that there needs to be special purpose arrangements however they look. And for those politicians in government, remember that you come and go, but we stay here forever. I have seen Ministers upon Ministers, I can certainly say to Rob [Schwarten], you left before I did, and I'm still here, as we said we would be. And, you know, just remember the purpose of what people voting you in to that position was.