Rocking the Boat
29 February 2016 at 11:21 am
For Rosie Thomas the issue of bullying in schools has become her life’s passion. Thomas and her sister Lucy are the people behind a national movement to make schools safer and more inclusive places. Thomas is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
In 2006 Rosie Thomas was just 20 years old when she and her sister Lucy started PROJECT ROCKIT.
The organisation is now considered an expert voice on cyberbullying, having travelled internationally to provide advice on the issue.
As this week’s Changemaker, Thomas explains what Australia is doing to lead the way on tackling bullying and shares what makes her hopeful for the future.
Can you explain a bit of the background behind PROJECT ROCKIT?
Ten years ago, which is crazy, my sister and I started PROJECT ROCKIT. A lot of people ask us if we were really badly bullied at school, and we both had different experiences, but for both of us it wasn’t one single traumatic experience that caused us to start the organisation. In fact, at school we were definitely on both sides of the stick, like most young people, when it came to bullying. But for us it was just a matter of not being able to stand by and watch any longer the really destructive effects that bullying had on our peers.
When we started PROJECT ROCKIT we were fresh out of school and we never intended on starting a movement or an organisation or a social enterprise. I didn’t even know that words like that existed back then. We could just see having just finished school the way bullying just robbed young people of their potential and their opportunities. It was kind of like on the first day of year seven we all start school on a bit of a level playing field, fairly confident, willing to put ourselves out there and take some risks and then depending on the way our peers were treated, I just saw over time the way my friends stopped putting their hands up in class and just really learnt to hide the way that they were. When Lucy and I finished school and we were sitting down and remembering all these people and the awesome kids that they used to be, we just thought it was so unfair and totally preventable.
We looked far and wide around us and as far as we could see no one was actually addressing this issue in schools in a way that was cool and credible and in a way that actually reached young people. We also felt that there were lots of initiatives or teachers at the time that were focussed on bullies or victims using those labels, which we don’t use ourselves, but the way we saw it having just finished school and having been the person at school that could have done something about it, we realised that the number one way that could wipe out bullying is actually by mobilising the bystander or audience to stand up when they see this stuff happening.
Obviously that’s a really accepted and promoted way of tackling bullying today but it really didn’t exist when we started our organisation. we were young and dumb and, as I said, we never anticipated it growing into a movement but it did. Essentially PROJECT ROCKIT sparked itself and I look back at the last 10 years and it seems that PROJECT ROCKIT raised me more than I raised it, if that makes sense. It’s taught us our values and what’s important.
What kind of impact have you had over the years and how do you measure that impact?
Ten years ago the issue of bullying itself was barely on the radar. Today it’s in the media daily, unfortunately and obviously, now that we’re playing our lives out online, we see that cyberbullying has really changed the mix of things. Back then it was probably in the media every six weeks or so and as I said cyberbullying was barely a concept and Facebook had only been alive for two years.
For us, we really saw that regardless if bullying was online or offline, it is really a social issue. We use the issue of bullying as our foot in the door and as our vehicle to explore other issues, the timeless issues like fitting in, being different, ethics and building empathy. So for us in terms of the impact we have, it’s not just about making young people safe online or teaching young people to stand up for themselves, it’s also about fostering emotional connections.
To date in terms of the ways in which we’ve had an impact through the initiative, we’ve worked with hundreds and thousands of young people. We’re really proud to have earned a reputation in schools as a student favourite in anti-bullying initiatives. Ninety-six per cent of our students have found PROJECT ROCKIT personally helpful and 94 per cent have observed a difference in the culture of their year level following the program, which is really important for us because we’re all about achieving really positive and lasting change. That’s why young people having ownership over the material and leading the program is really important to us.
Over that time we’ve equipped young people with cool and credible strategies for standing up. Now that we’ve matured another impact that we’re choosing to have is to work really closely with industry to make social media platforms safer. We work really closely with Facebook and Instagram. We’re one of five Australian organisations that has just joined Twitter’s International Trust and Safety Council. Our goal is to use these platforms to empower young people to directly feed back to the powers that be at these social media platforms about how they can improve, how they can innovate their reporting features and how the platform can be kinder. We also have the opportunity to feed back what’s being done to young people in our workshops. That’s been a really powerful initiative as well.
What kind of progress are we seeing in this area?
Bullying is in the media regularly, particularly the issue of cyberbullying. But I think as a country Australia is really leading the way when it comes to developing really positive and strength based programs for tackling these issues. Young people have the vocabulary now to be able to explain online hate and the types of behaviours at school that just aren’t accepted.
We’ve done a lot of work overseas in the States working with other initiatives and other students and what we’ve found is Australia is really leading the way with the sorts of interventions and the ways from a preventative perspective that we can tackle these issues head on.
Has running an organisation with your sister ever created any issues?
People always ask “ what is it like working with your sister, is it hell for you, is it hell for the rest of your team?” Actually it is the complete opposite. I think when you work so closely with somebody that you’re with for life and someone that you just have boundless respect for, there’s too much on the line to treat each other like shit. You’re almost more careful with your communication.
I feel so lucky to have been born into the most synergetic relationship I think I’ll ever have with anybody. My weaknesses are her strengths and vice versa. That has in a way provided us with the greatest shortcut to achieving success with PROJECT ROCKIT. I think the two of us work so incredibly well together and being related has only made our passion and our values more intertwined.
What achievement are you most proud of?
There’s been lots of achievements in terms of awards and other moments. Last year we were flown over to Facebook headquarters to feed back to their trust and safety engineers what the young people were saying in our workshops. We got to work with them on issues like how can we make Facebook more compassionate, not how can we prevent bullying or how can we make it easier for people to report hate, but how can we use technology to innovate compassion, to make it easier for people to spread kindness. That was an incredible experience and what was incredible for me was just the honour that it was to share the experiences of the young people we serve because to us when it comes to all of these issues, it’s the young people that we serve that are the experts.
We were given the International Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cybersafety in Washington DC, which was pretty cool. But to be honest the greatest achievement for me is this incredible team that we’ve created. It’s taken so long to scale what we do. Now we finally have a team of young and passionate, diverse and utterly inspiring individuals that make up PROJECT ROCKIT.
This started as a family business but it’s grown as family businesses. Even the relationships that we have with the students, which we call P Rockers, that have come through the project, they’re so close and so personal. PROJECT ROCKIT is my greatest achievement and I look back and it’s all of the people involved, my team and the students, that make me beam with pride and put that fire in my belly to make me keep on pushing it.
What frustrates you about the present and makes you hopeful for the future?
What makes me frustrated about the present is that I feel like on a number of different issues currently, take for example marriage equality or our refugee policies, I feel like I’m so excited by all the incredible ways in which people of all different walks of life led by the courage to be compassionate are standing up for these different communities so that we can work towards a much more compassionate and equal world, but I’m so frustrated that those voices are just falling on deaf ears. It seems like change is taking such a long time. It can be not just frustrating but really saddening to wake up every morning and find new pieces in the media that are just further making us feel like no one is listening to the important things.
What I’m really hopeful about is the fact that, particularly led by young people, more and more people are standing up, not just for other people but for social justice. I’m so hopeful because we’ve really got to dream up the world that we want to live in and we’ve got to say it out loud so that it actually happens. I guess I’m really hopeful that while the deaf ears might be powerful, they are a minority and I think the momentum is changing.