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Discovering Social Justice at Young Age

23 June 2014 at 10:59 am
Staff Reporter
Realising the potential Not for Profits made in people’s lives at an early age, led Australian Refugee Association Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Bickendorf into to a 20-year career in the sector. Bickendorf is this week’s Changemaker.

Staff Reporter | 23 June 2014 at 10:59 am


Discovering Social Justice at Young Age
23 June 2014 at 10:59 am


Kirsten Bickendorf

Realising the potential Not for Profits made in people’s lives at an early age, led Australian Refugee Association Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Bickendorf into to a 20-year career in the sector. Bickendorf is this week’s Changemaker.

Prior to joining the Australian Refugee Association, which has supported new Australians for 40 years, Bickendorf was CEO of Doxa Youth Foundation in Melbourne.

She has also held positions at United Way and the Lord Mayor's Charitable Fund, and has sat on boards including the Eating Disorders Foundation.

Bickendorf said that growing up in the Pilbara in north west of Western Australia she witnessed how poorly Aborigines in the Pilbara community were treated.

“Racism was rife.  I couldn’t understand it.  I had Aboriginal, Italian and Portuguese friends,” she said.  

“As a child I could not understand why some adults treated other people in such horrible ways.  

“As a teenager I became aware of organisations like the Red Cross and Vinnies and saw the change they made in people’s lives.   

“That led to me meeting an extraordinary woman working with Red Cross, who inspired me further.”

What are you currently working on in your organisation?

It is currently Refugee Week [ending on June 21].  We are celebrating with a range of events including a schools symposium, public lectures and our annual oration.  

This year our speaker is Human Rights Lawyer George Newhouse who has represented asylum seekers on Nauru and the survivors and relatives of those who died in the  Christmas Island Boat tragedy.

What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?

Marketing Assistant.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

With each organisation I have had the absolute privilege to work with extraordinary people.  Mothers, fathers, children and young people who have experienced such adversity, trauma, poverty but have so much courage and determination.

What has been the most challenging part of your work?

Injustice, the lack of decency and racism that so many in our community experience every day.  

Personally I overcome it by talking to staff, ensuring we have appropriate debriefing and spending time talking to my partner Mark, who works in this sector also.  

As an organisation we overcome it by being successful in providing a mechanism for Australians to participate positively in the lives of new Australians.  Providing a chance to do something tangible and with meaning.  I met so many people who want to make a difference.

In terms of your work sitting on a Not for Profit board, what would you say is the key to an effective NFP board?

Encouraging executive to not be afraid to lead the board because they know their business.

What do you like best about working in your current organisation?

The people.  Australian Refugee Association has such a rich and diverse staff and volunteer base.

Our team is from every corner of the globe, our skills and experience as equally diverse and yet we are like family.  The Soccer World Cup creates a whole new level of excitement and noise.   And the people we work with.

ARA works with individuals and communities from diverse cultural backgrounds, originating from dozens of countries across the world and is one of Australia’s most experienced providers of settlement services.

ARA’s services include social support programs, casework, employment assistance, accommodation support, community development and leadership training, migration assistance and youth programs.

Importantly we provide a range of ways that Australian’s can support refugees in meaningful, practical and positive ways.

I consider my greatest achievement to be …

From a career perspective turning an NFP around from having a $2.2 million deficit to a surplus in 18 months.  It was incredibly hard work but we did it.

Favourite saying …

* Results may vary

What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?  

I am reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Watching House of Cards, to which I have become rather addicted and listening to Dolly Parton (my partner and I had front row seats at her concert recently and have not gotten over it).

Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?

That Australia genuinely and really embraces the idea that everybody has a “fair go”.

My greatest challenge is …

Conforming to a typical day.

School taught me …

The first law of thermo dynamics – it has been invaluable.

What does a typical day for you involve?

Up at 6, gym, then home for a coffee which is waiting for me.  Work starts with a Bosnian coffee with the team.  

Our Deputy CEO, Finance Manager and I normally discuss what the day entails, at the moment we are writing tenders, so there is a great deal of work on.  

I speak to my Chairman, check emails.  I have a number of external meetings with other service providers and philanthropic bodies.  

We try to come together at lunch time, even for a short moment for time out (and Bosnian coffee – there is a theme here).  

As it is Refugee Week we are hosting many events so I am attending a school symposium where the key note speaker is our Lieutenant Governor Hieu Van Le.  

Afternoons are normally writing submissions, responding to media requests or meeting with program managers.  On Monday’s some of us have boxing class in the Boardroom after work.

What (or who) inspires you?

My stepson Jaxon and god daughter Tully inspire me.  Race, religion, gender does not matter to them.  They are honest and loving.  We can learn so much from children.

Where do you feel your passion for good came from?

I believe it was from my father.  He will always be my hero.  He migrated to Australia from Germany.  

Australia supported him as a new arrival and he always encouraged my sisters and I to contribute and to think of what we could do for others.


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