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Young People Taking Charge

8 May 2017 at 8:42 am
Wendy Williams
Sashenka Worsman is the CEO of Oaktree, one of Australia’s largest youth-run organisations, which works toward ending poverty. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 8 May 2017 at 8:42 am


Young People Taking Charge
8 May 2017 at 8:42 am

Sashenka Worsman is the CEO of Oaktree, one of Australia’s largest youth-run organisations, which works toward ending poverty. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Worsman grew up in war-torn Sri Lanka where she saw first-hand the impact of poverty and inequality in all its forms. Since then she has worked towards fighting the injustices of poverty and creating a world where equality, justice and peace are commonplace.

After migrating to Australia at 16 she started volunteering at World Vision and Australian Youth Climate Coalition before studying a Bachelor of Law and International studies at the University of Adelaide.

While at World Vision she moved into a national director role for VGen, World Vision’s youth movement.

In January this year, Worsman stepped into the role of CEO at Oaktree where she leads a team of more than 150 volunteers, all under the age of 26, and around 200,000 supporters, working to end poverty within their generation.

Since 2010 Oaktree’s primary fundraising campaign Live Below the Line has raised more than $10 million for education and campaigning initiatives that work towards alleviating poverty across the Asia-Pacific region.

From 1 to 5 May, thousands of Australians “put change on the menu” by feeding themselves on $2 a day for five days.

The success of Live Below the Line campaign has enabled Oaktree to grow over the last seven years into a national organisation with branches in every state.

In this week’s Changemaker Worsman talks about why Oaktree is a place where fear does not hold them back, how seeing her childhood friend Vishmi grow up in poverty drove her to want to change the world, and why volunteers are the backbone of society.

Sashenka WorsmanHow did growing up in war-torn Sri Lanka shape your views on poverty and inequality?

I grew up there for most of my life, I moved to Australia when I was 16.  At the time I was in Sri Lanka it was, I guess, at the peak in some ways of the war as it was nearing the end, but also I think the impacts that war has on society as a whole and poverty, was stuff I just grew up around.

I grew up in quite a privileged family, and always had that feeling that something wasn’t quite right. We had a gardener and he used to bring his niece around sometimes and his niece’s name was Vishmi and she was an orphan so he used to take care of her. Vishmi was only a couple of years younger than me and I think growing up so closely with her and knowing what poverty was by watching someone who was a very close friend, she was one of my best friend’s growing up, have quite a different reality and way of living. I think when you are quite young, I think I was about six or eight, that age, when I realised that the way I lived wasn’t how everyone else lived. And the fact that you know I got a new set of books every year when I started school, my parents bought me a new set of books, and Vishmi used to write in pencil on her books and erase it every year so she could use the same book again, and you would see the pages wearing off. These are questions that no matter how young you are, you realise that something isn’t quite right.

I think maybe when it hit hardest was when I moved to Australia and realised that some of the stories and experiences that I had gone through and when I shared it with people here it was not normal. And I think when you are living in the midst of something you think it is normal. So I think that’s how growing up in Sri Lanka impacted me, because I was surrounded by it but at the same time I was really living in it, so it was almost the really harsh reality of my best friend can’t afford to go to school today but I can and I can go for sports after class but she has to go home and help go do people’s gardening and she was only six or eight at the time.

How did you come to work in the not-for-profit sector?

I think a lot of it goes back to that story of Vishmi and me saying to myself: “One day I am going to make sure that people like Vishmi don’t have to go through this.” I think from quite a young age I could understand that the reality was really unfair. I couldn’t understand why it was that me being born to my family meant that I had a different life to Vishmi being born to her family. I remember telling myself one day I will make a difference and I don’t think that is so dissimilar to young children around the world who experience injustice and feel that something is unfair, they want to do something about it.

I think moving that to action is sometimes difficult when the world is telling you that you need to get a big job, own a house, get a new car and stuff like that. For my version of doing something, I had no idea where to start, so I enrolled in a degree in law and international studies thinking that was how I would one day make a difference. But I think what truly changed it for me was I met some volunteers when I was at university. One of my friends was volunteering for some youth organisations and said to me: “Oh you need to come along.”

For me growing up volunteering, I was always pessimistic about the idea. Volunteering to me in Sri Lanka was you sit around the table and talk about the world’s problems and do nothing about it so I was quite pessimistic. But I went along to this event and saw that there were hundreds of young people actually taking meaningful action but not just talking about it and doing something but creating real influence. So that’s when I decided actually no matter how young I am I don’t have to have 30 years experience doing a law degree to one day make a difference but that one day for me was now and I was going to do whatever I could to make a difference. I think as soon as you start looking for it there are so many avenues you can take to do something.

You commenced as Oaktree CEO in January. What attracted you to the role?

Oaktree for me I think is unlike any other organisation I have ever come across. It’s the epitome of young people taking charge of something they believe in.

I think what attracted me to Oaktree was what attracted me to wanting to do good in the first place, which is people not talking about the world’s problems but putting their hands into action. This is a group of young people, we are all under the age of 26 here at Oaktree, and we don’t allow the fear of the unknown or the fear of failure stop us. We allow our vision to drive us and as soon as you walk into the Oaktree office you feel that energy. You have got 100 or so volunteers at any given time, sitting down at their desks, from doing accounting to running marketing campaigns, to running advocacy, to going into schools, sitting there not because they are getting paid to do it, not because they have to but because they believe in the vision and they believe that what we’re doing is making a difference.

I think, one Oaktree is a place where people take action, two it is a place where fear does not hold them back, and three it is a place that takes a few risks, that isn’t afraid to push the boundaries. One of our most successful campaigns or projects that we implemented in Cambodia, was a project that no one else wanted to fund because it was seen as too high risk. Oaktree took it on and three years later it was so successful that the Cambodian government decided to implement it as national education reform. And so that’s the sort of work that I think inspires me. It is young people going: “We’re not taking no for an answer or we’re not taking too hard for an answer because this work and our vision is too important for that to be an excuse.” So that’s what attracted me to Oaktree. You can often get caught up in bureaucracy but here people just do.

Sashenka WorsmanWhy is it important to harness the power of young people?

I think when you take it from a frame of: “What do you miss when you don’t engage young people?” I think one of the main things you miss is that passion.

Some people talk of inexperience as a weakness. For me I think in the last five months, that word inexperience has actually been one of our greatest strengths. It has been the thing that, like I said, is where there is no fear, because maybe we don’t know what to fear, but that’s actually been one of our greatest strengths. Because we don’t know what to fear it does not hold us back, we give everything a go. And I think it is not just about giving something a go but doing it to the best of your ability and actually doing it very effectively.

If we talk about impact, I just shared the story of Cambodia, if we’re talking about people we engage, over a course of a couple of weeks every year we have engaged over 10,000 people to take part in the Live Below the Line challenge, if we talk about employee satisfaction, or things that we talk about in general industry we have some of the highest employee satisfaction rates in the sector and once again it is because I think young people believe in what they want to do.

I think also young people are willing to take a few more risks. I think sometimes we can play it too safe, which means we miss out on opportunities. I think for young people one of the key things is we are digital natives. We are using technology and engaging through channels of digital media, it is something that comes quite natural to us and I think in a world where technology is more and more going to be a tool that we need to harness, engaging young people is really quite crucial to doing that well.

I think another thing is young people are very agile. At Oaktree we’ve taken a campaign from an idea to implementation in three weeks. Agility is this buzzword at the moment. But what does that really mean and how do you foster a culture of agility? And I think those are questions where really a lot of those answers do lie in engaging young people.

You are currently taking part in the Live Below the Line challenge. How is it going?

You’re calling us in our biggest week of the year. It is so difficult. I was really full after lunch but then starving half an hour later because I’ve had so many carbs that I was so full and then I crashed. So for breakfast I had a banana, well three quarters of a banana I had to ration it out. And then for lunch I am having pasta with some tomato paste. And for dinner I am having rice and daal.

[The idea is to live on] under $2 a day. So we are doing that for five days. Live Below the Line is obviously the massive priority at the moment. We’ve been running it for seven years and we’ve raised over $10 million and had over 10,000 people take the challenge over the last seven years, which is pretty phenomenal.

The reason we do under $2 is because that is the equivalent of the poverty line in Australian terms. It is to give people a very small glimpse of what it is like to live in poverty. It is by no means the entire picture but for that week you get a small glimpse of it and you are having some meaningful and important conversations. So that is our biggest priority at the moment. It is actually the reason Oaktree exists. It brings in a massive, massive portion of the income that helps us run and it is all run by volunteers as well.

You mentioned before you were previously sceptical about volunteering. Have you changed your perspective on the importance of volunteers?

I have come full circle, so much! I don’t even know where to start. I think first of all, there is the assumption that volunteers are passionate, that you wouldn’t be giving your time unless you are, but whether they are capable. I have worked with volunteers for the last six years now and time and time again it has been proved how capable people are when they volunteer. They are not doing it simply to get experience, they are doing it because they want to give you their skills. Second of all I think that if someone is doing it for you for free, when they could be out there making money or doing something else, they’re probably going to give it 110 per cent, because why else would you come in.

Oaktree is proof enough of what is possible with a group of passionate volunteers. It is incredible. We wouldn’t exist without our volunteers. I mean we have volunteers doing up to three days a  week for us. Volunteers who give up a night out with their friends so that they can afford to volunteer an extra day with us. They live on very bare minimum so they can afford to back what they’re passionate about. I couldn’t speak more highly of volunteers. I think they are the backbone of our society to be honest. They represent everything that we should be proud of.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

So the ultimate goal is to end poverty in our generation. It is a pretty lofty vision but I think it is not a vision that is impossible. I know over the years we have seen deaths in maternity halve, in my lifetime alone we have seen so much progress in the sector that there is no reason why we can’t do it. If there is the will, there is no reason why we can’t do it.

How do you find time for yourself?

I actually spend a lot of time with the people I love, so my family and friends, I like going to the beach and going outdoors and going camping and stuff like that.

But I think for me as well, it might sound like a bit of a cliche, but it doesn’t feel like work because this is what I am passionate about and my whole life aligns to this purpose. So being able to work in a job like this is actually for me quite a privilege and does not at all feel like work sometimes.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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