Australia: Far Away So Close

It felt so normal, too normal. Twenty hours of flight time should produce some level of culture shock, but no shock. In fact, next to my host’s car in the airport parking lot was a “Milwaukee Tools” truck. Sydney, Australia is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan city, and its nonprofit sector fits that description as well.

I traveled to Sydney to speak to and facilitate workshops for the Local Community Services Association, a network of neighborhood centers in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. The conference engaged over 200 neighborhood nonprofit leaders. In addition, Collaboration for Impact, a group that supports collective impact in Australia, arranged for me to address the Ministry of Social Services in Canberra (Australia’s capital) and hold a lunch meeting with Ministry leaders.

Racial Equity and First Nations

My first stop in Sydney was the Art Gallery of New South Wales, its major art museum. I began by joining a tour of Aboriginal art. Our tour guide, Diane, and the Australians touring spoke of the Aboriginal art with great respect, recognizing the history of gross racism and mistreatment, and the Aboriginal peoples’ place as the true natives of Australia. The colonial history – Great Britain settling Australia as a penal colony and developing it as a South Pacific base for its empire – and its racist treatment of first peoples was addressed directly. The Aboriginal art told visual stories, and was recognized for its aesthetic not just anthropological value; it was valued art not curious artifacts.

The LCSA conference met in a train car factory converted into an incubator and conference center. To open the meeting, Uncle Ray, a local Aboriginal elder, welcomed us and acknowledged the ancestors of the land where we convened. Each speaker who followed him also began by honoring the first Australians. The first Aboriginal woman elected to Parliament, Linda Burney, MP then spoke, highlighting the slow progress of change since

Aboriginal people first gained citizenship in 1967. In 2017, there will be a referendum to recognize Aboriginal people in the constitution. When I spoke at the federal government ministry later that week, the Deputy Minister also opened the meeting with an acknowledgement of first nations.

The Aboriginal population represents 2% of the population, approximately the same percentage of Native Americans in the United States. Asian immigration and refugees have further diversified the population in recent decades. Recognizing both that the aboriginal population is more prominent in rural areas than the city, and that my hosts were more educated, cosmopolitan, socially conscious, it was striking to me how central the Aboriginal experiences are woven into the fabric of the city and the story it now tells of its history.

It is also clear that there are many racial disparities when it comes to educational, economic, health, criminal justice, and other systems. And recently, the Australian government has taken a very hard line on refugees. One report I read, Lost Conversations, documented the need for healing and bridging work between whites and Aboriginals. It recognized the centrality of power in relations. It was all very familiar to the work we continue to do in the U.S. on race, power, privilege, and oppression, and the pathway for white leaders become leaders and allies in dismantling racism and oppression. It appears that like in the U.S., they have both come a long way and have a long way to go.

Theory Sponges

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the trip was that my hosts were so well versed in nonprofit, philanthropic, social innovation, leadership, and community building models from the United States.

Participants asked questions specifically about applications of Rich Harwood’s public innovation; John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann’s Asset-Based Community Development; Tamarack Institute’s community conversations; Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s Adaptive Leadership; Peter Senge’s System Thinking; Mark Friedman’s Results-Based Accountability; John Kania and Mark Kramer’s Collective Impact (and Wolff’s and others’ critiques of collective impact). Most nonprofit audiences at home are not so well versed.

Seriously, the nonprofit leaders, public sector leaders, and social innovators I met are sponges, and their 7,500 mile distance from our shores has not impeded the transmission of ideas, models, and best practices across the Pacific. Of course, we have also learned from models in Australia and New Zealand in social work, public participation, and other areas (Australian work in Asset-Based Community Development has greatly influenced the community building and engagement field). And they travel around the world to continue learning – my hosts took off the weekend after my visit for conferences in Germany and Canada.

The nonprofit sector is much like Canada’s, where government plays a much bigger role that in the U.S. The philanthropic marketplace is still new and relatively small so organization are much more dependent on government funds and beholden to government regulations and requirements. This is starting to change, and there is more reliance on private support, which creates new challenges for local groups. The government is also increasingly interested in collective impact as an approach to move the needle in urban and rural communities.

I wish I had more time to see how all of this work has been linked and practiced at the community level. There clearly is a lot of innovation, adaption, and synthesis that we can learn from. I also think that their equity work with Aboriginal people and other minority populations will show us new ways to approach this work. I expect that at some point we will be pointing as much to their models as they do to ours.

Coda: Travel Woes and Benefits

Jet-lag was not too bad on this trip. I crashed early each night, but was 90% of my normal energy during the days. I had three full days to explore the beauty of Sydney – the Opera House, botanical garden, and harbor; the coastal peninsula of Manly; the beaches of Bondi and Coogee. During my day trip to Canberra, my hosts drove me to an arboretum where we took in the beautiful mountain vistas around the capital. On my final day, while in Canberra, we chanced on about two dozen wild kangaroos outside the Ministry of Social Services, and in Manly, I saw a rare echinda.

During my visit to Manly, I was hiking above Shelly beach headed to the north end for a view up the coast and across to Sydney. While standing on a shallow bridge along the path, a plank broke and my leg fell through. It hurt, but I was not injured. I was more worried that the next person might break the next plank, and really hurt themselves. Along the hike is an old army base and there was a First Aid office when I first arrived no more than ¼ mile from the spot where I fell.

The cheery woman there greeted me and I told her about my fall. She asked if I was injured and needed attention. I told her “No,” but expressed my concern about the bridge and its danger to future hikers. She said ,“Well, if you are not injured, there is not much I can do. You should contact the park service. You can Google the number.” Seriously. I told her I did not have cell service, and she suggested contacting them when I got back to where I was staying “I’m federal, the paths are maintained by the state.” Silo hell. I did not want to be the ugly American tourist telling her how to do her job (she had an office with a computer and a phone, knows the area, understands how things work there, and is in public service…)

Anyway, I visited the official tourism office upon my return and they also first suggested I call the state. When I explained to them I did not have cell service, they said they could email the park service and asked for info. Better. Hope they did it.

But that was day one of things breaking. The next night, I was dining at the bar of a Thai restaurant when the stool I was seated on collapsed when the screw holding one of the legs popped off. A waiter was right there and caught my fall. They were confused by my giggle fit at this and offered to buy my drinks and dessert. Then the next night I was at a Japanese restaurant eating in the bar, when a waiter slipped behind me, and his tray of waters poured on my back. Again, they were confused by my laughter instead of anger, but I could not believe my luck three days in a row. I was grateful for the rule of threes and hoped I was done. The rest of the trip was accident-free.

Beyond the amazing restaurants, I was amazed that every restaurant, hotel lobby, and bar made perfect lattes. None of the overly-hot, over-foamed nonsense most chain coffee shops, hotels, and restaurants in the U.S. serve. As I really only drink sparkling water and decaf coffee or lattes, I was well taken care of everywhere I went.

On my final day in Canberra, my hosts asked if there was anything I’d like to see before I left. I replied that I’d love to see kangaroos and they were not sure where to take me. To our surprise, about 20 greeted us near the parking lot when we left the Ministry of Social Services. It was an awesome and fitting end to my trip!

While I did not experience culture shock, I experienced pleasant surprise at the friendliness of the people, the convenience of navigating the city, the beauty of the Sydney and greater Canberra, and the great social innovations afoot in their communities.

Linda Burney MP, the first Aboriginal woman member of Parliament, opens up the LCSA Conference

A breakout during my LCSA keynote

My workshop at LCSA on adaptive leadership and collective impact

Close up of Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House at night

The Manly coast north of Sydney harbor

Bondi beach

The walk from Bondi to Coogee Beach near Sydney

Canberra, Australia’s capitol

Australia’s national capitol

A protest zone and camp for Aboriginal people outside the Capitol

We found about 20 kangaroos near the parking lot at the Ministry of Social Services on my last day.