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Keeping the Conversation Going!

20 October 2014 at 10:13 am
Xavier Smerdon
A lifelong dedication to volunteering, a love of meeting people and a desire to ‘keep the conversation going’ keeps the founding President of Volunteering Australia and the past World President of The International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) Margaret Bell on her toes. Bell is this week’s Changemaker.

Xavier Smerdon | 20 October 2014 at 10:13 am


Keeping the Conversation Going!
20 October 2014 at 10:13 am

A lifelong dedication to volunteering, a love of meeting people and a desire to ‘keep the conversation going’ keeps the founding President of Volunteering Australia and the past World President of The International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) Margaret Bell on her toes. Bell is this week’s Changemaker.

What are you currently working on in your organisation?

Chain Reaction Foundation is busily preparing the detail of work for school Term 4 at Mt Druitt Learning Ground, our Behavioural Change Management Centre, where we work with 60 families from the 11 suburbs of the 2770 postcode, some of whom are amongst the most disadvantaged families in Australia. We are always amazed at the resilience of people as they struggle sometimes in the face of most overwhelming odds to do what is right and to provide for the families they love.

In addition to working locally Chain Reaction works nationally with business, governments and NGO's to bring about a more cohesive and inclusive civil society. Challenging work as we operate in the present climate of social unrest as we grapple with fear of job losses, uncertain budget outcomes, and threats to safety in community. Focus of our program delivery right now is on the transformational nature of working in community rather than the transactional service model many NGO's and others have worked to in recent years.

Groups we have worked with this month are keen to talk about and to learn from South Sydney's spectacular win in the Grand Final after 43 years, to discuss the complexities of the circumstances in Iraq and Syria, coupled with discussion on what is happening to refugees from these countries, and children in detention in Australia. The Hong Kong student protest is also of great interest as we have poured over the value of democracy and considered the present role of Australia's civil society in leading these debates. Once discussions would have looked to government to "fix all evils", more recently we have asked what role the global business community has in making major economic decisions, and now we are interested to see many citizens we are working with are keen to say perhaps CIVIL SOCIETY in every sense of the word is a time that has come. Where do we look to see to citizen engagement for future?

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Being with people. At least every week, and perhaps every day I have the privilege of meeting and working with people who care about one another. People who volunteer to make a difference, in their families, neighbourhoods, communities, nations, and regions of the world. Conversation is always valuable, learning is continuously taking place, the Chain Reaction philosophy of "each one teach one" is born out on a daily basis. Every day I look forward to getting out of bed in the morning!

What has been the most challenging part of your work? And how do you overcome that?

I guess it's lack of resources both financial and human. There is always so much more that should be done, could be done, and deserves to be done. Prioritising is a challenge for me. I'm getting more realistic as I get older but I find it very frustrating to see an essential piece of work undone when time and money is often wasted on frivolous pursuits or in duplication of services because of lack of will to collaborate.

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

The people I work with, and the client base. The openness of both groups. Colleagues who strive so hard to make things happen, volunteers who quickly grow to enjoy being part of the team, and watching a community emerge stronger, wiser, and more productive.

With the adolescents we work with I love the lack of pretence, the willingness to call a spade a spade, and the look on the faces of those who recognise their own achievement sometimes for the first time.

I’m always being asked …

Where do you get your energy?

I wish I could say from all the sport I play, but that would be a lie! I've always thought energy comes from being comfortable in your skin. I do have a lot of energy, not needing a lot of sleep, and happily able to work long hours. Actually I don't make much distinction between work and play because I am a really fortunate person in that I really enjoy what I do for work, when it's time to play, I guess I pretty much carry on doing what I do when I work. Does that mean I'm on holiday every day? Perhaps.

I consider my greatest achievement to be …

To have five children all extraordinarily different from one another but deeply enriched by the process of growing up together, and fourteen grandchildren, only others of you like me who have been only children will know how great that feels.

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

I am reading Hugh Mackay's "The Art of Belonging" it is most compellingly argued and written with Hugh's inimitable style and wisdom. He is a man for others, and as a lifelong social researcher has struggled in such a totally genuine way to unfold truth after truth about living and dying.

This is his latest book is for those who yearn for a society that sustains and nurtures the many, not just the fortunate few. He claims we are writing each other's stories as much as we are writing our own and I agree with him.

I am watching Q & A, on ABC. I love it. I get angry, delighted, transported, deflated, exhausted, satisfied, and amazed all in the space of an hour. Tony Jones for the most part I find respectful and an extremely competent interviewer. The guests (other than when we get an overload of politicians) are stimulating, entertaining, usually quite wise, and always worth listening to. The audience is active generous and engaged. I try not to miss it.

I am listening to silence late at night. That's when I can write, think, and enjoy being by myself. The sound is magic, the stillness deeply moving.

School taught me …

That I can do anything and become anyone I choose to be. I was taught by the Sacre Coeur RSCJ,  The religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. All the teachers were nuns. It was a contemplative Order and the nuns literally gave their lives to educate women.

The order was founded in France in the middle of the 19th Century with a view to providing advanced education for women especially those who would become women of influence. The nuns were highly intelligent well educated women, amongst them doctors, lawyers, scientists, linguists, and teachers. They taught us we were capable of anything. I had difficulty understanding the feminist movement in the 70's because I had always known I was free to become, and that I didn't need a man to complete me.

All my teachers had modelled that understanding. It was a boarding school, and I loved it. In many ways as I look back I can see we were educated in something of a restricted way but I loved the quiet, peace of the chapel, room to think, to listen, and to respond. We were invited always to give of our best, to decide for ourselves, and our religious education unlike many others experienced at the time was in fact very liberal. We were taught that our education was a privilege and that we would grow up to be women for others. In those days "the other" was often defined as the husband and children, but it didn't stop there. Our teachers were scholarly women and had studied with success; we were encouraged to do the same and to share the rewards of our education with others. In so many ways the message stuck with me. I learned to be both reflective and responsive and have always enjoyed the experience of both.

Favourite saying …

My favourite saying is not really my own but something that Donald Horne (author of The Lucky Country) and much much more, said to me when he was dying. He was a great man, I have tried to do it, in fact in some ways to live by it, and now I invite you to do the same:



Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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