Embracing the Power of People
17 December 2018 at 8:48 am
Shen Narayanasamy is a lawyer and human rights campaign director at GetUp!, fighting fiercely in board rooms, Parliament and the streets, for a better, and fairer future. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Activism is unforgiving. It’s characterised by endless negotiations with people who might not be listening to you, and small wins which take a lot of time and people to achieve. But for Narayanasamy, after 20 years of working in the activist space, her work and mission to create a better world has become a compulsion.
Her career in activism started at the age of 16, as part of a group that organised a school walk out protesting One Nation and Pauline Hanson, and since then, she’s learnt and experienced a lot.
If there was one thing she could go back and tell 16-year-old Shen, it’s that you shouldn’t assume good will always triumph – just be good at what you do instead.
From organising busloads of students to visit the Woomera refugee camps, to landing a job in corporate law, and facing up to the country’s biggest immigration detention centre contractor, Transfield Services, she knows that the best way to be successful is understanding how all corners of society walk, talk and operate.
She also puts Getup!’s success and power down to the public who support it, as the ones driving change for a better future.
In this week’s Changemaker, Narayanasamy discusses the incredible power of people-driven activism, keeping motivated for the tough fight, and her positivity for the future.
When you were in high school, you did a school walkout protesting One Nation and Pauline Hanson, is this where it all began?
What I remember from that day, was the reality – and I’m sure that the students who did the recent climate strike probably felt similarly – that as a young person you need to take out of bounds action to determine your future in a situation. And it really only comes about when you think adults are failing you I think, which is what a lot of the young people who were involved in the climate strike articulated and I think from memory what we articulated on that day was wanting to reclaim our future. Particularly our future as kids who had grown up in a progressive multicultural Australia, that our future should be free from people like Pauline Hanson determining our political debate and policy.
Was there a specific moment or action that made you realise you wanted to pursue a career in advocacy?
It’s a hard one. Sometimes I think you do it for idealistic reasons and then you start to do it almost as a compulsion, to speak out or notice injustice. And it’s been a 20 year history at least on these kinds of issues and it’s now I think impossible for me to conceive of not doing similar work. It is a very privileged position to be in to work on something that you genuinely really truly believe in. It makes it much easier particularly as a mother of two and someone with caring responsibilities. That’s a very difficult juggling act for any person to make and it is made a whole lot easier if you’re relatively convinced that your work is connected to making the future better for everybody including your children.
You were involved in taking busloads of people into the Woomera detention centres back in 2000. How does that experience make you feel about the refugee debate now?
We used to visit quite regularly actually the detention centres and then talk daily to people within them. It was just a really shocking face to face experience of acute injustice. Seeing children rotting behind fences inside Australia… It is internationally unlawful according to international law, but I think more deeply, it was a moral injustice when you saw it. We used to send buses up every six weeks, and my parents were on a bus. Our family, friends, people that voted all different ways [were there] and it almost uniformly had the same impact on everybody.
And I think that’s one of the successful things both sides of politics have done with detention is that they have taken it outside of the lived connection to the Australian public. People can’t have that experience anymore because they’re in places we can’t access and can’t get photos. It reduced people to tears, and it was so horrific to stand on the other side of the fence and think this is just so deeply wrong.
You were just starting out as an activist then, what have you learnt from that experience?
I think what you’d do if you’ve been in this space for a while hopefully, is grow your strategy and impact on the issues you care about. So I think the critical thing I’ve learned from that time is that within the bounds of ethics obviously having a really agnostic evidence based approach to strategy and impact is really integral to being a success in this area.
When I was younger I probably thought, ‘oh well you do the protest and then you change public opinion and then the change happens’. I now have a more sophisticated approach that uses a variety of different tactics including protest, that moves between them quite seamlessly. So you need to be able to move between the boardroom to the front of a rally or to the floor of Parliament, writing legislation and convincing members. You need to be a really multifaceted, strategic and skilled campaigner.
How do you go about switching between those different environments, is it something that came naturally to you?
Well I was trained for it. I did work in corporate law for a while and that was a deliberate decision to get a really good grounding in my professional skills but also to understand how different areas of our society work and what our cultural norms are, and how to operate in those spaces. And I think that’s definitely made me a far more skilled and strategic changemaker than not having done that.
You’ve been working on the Get Kids Off Nauru campaign as well as getting urgent medical treatment to adults. The bill to do that failed to pass Parliament last week, how did that make you feel?
The thing is, it was largely a success from a couple of viewpoints. It didn’t pass the House, but I’m confident it will on the 13th of February. It felt bad in the sense that we could have got this through, and those people could get treatment right now, but it also felt like a massive win because for the first time everybody except the current government and One Nation, were voting together to follow doctor’s orders and provide medical treatment. It felt like at least there was a line in the sand being drawn from a legal and ethical standpoint that whatever people’s reasons for supporting offshore detention, no one agreed to deny sick people medical treatment. People were prepared to look down the barrel of a fear mongering campaign and say as a community, we are not going to deny sick people medical treatment.
The current government’s going to try and stop it from eventually happening but regardless, this has put extraordinary pressure on the government. They’re talking about how they got the kids off Nauru, instead of spending $500,000 in legal fees to stop sick kids being transferred, which they were doing only a few months ago.
As the humanitarian director of Getup! you coordinate a lot of different and complex issues – from refugees, to First Nations affairs to LGBTQI+. How do you go about getting to the core of these issues?
We have a large specialist team, with senior campaigners and I also prioritise hiring people who have lived experience from the communities that we’re working on which I think brings really added expertise in this area. Largely speaking, nearly every single one of my issues are also determined by our members. For instance, on religious discrimination, we’re reviewing that religious discrimination report in the context of campaigns our members have nominated and campaigned on, like the campaigns around ensuring queer identifying students are protected in religious schools. We regularly survey our members about what issues are important and we build up our membership, so we’ve now got a significant membership across all communities. We are skilled human rights specialists and campaigners but it’s a really great situation to be in at Getup! because you are guided by your members.
Getup! Is one of the most influential activist groups in the country, do you think that’s because you place such great importance on your members?
It’s driven by our members, and that’s where our power comes from. It’s powered by a million people and it’s an extraordinary swathe of the Australian population, and they’re really active, really intelligent and really well-informed. Even the question you asked me in relation to what happened in Parliament with getting kids off Nauru, one of the first things I did was we drove back from Parliament we didn’t get back until one am on Friday morning, and members had an email to them drafted at 9 am and it was about exactly what happened and it wasn’t something you could read in newspapers. It was probably not my best piece, written very quickly, but within an hour or two I had 600 responses from members because it goes out to a huge swathe of the membership which campaigned on this issue to inform them what happened, to note who was important and to ask for their ideas on what to do next. So it is really powered by the vast and active membership.
How do you stay motivated when it is such a tough fight?
Most of the time I think we’re really in a lucky position where we maintain significant contact with people in the affected communities and work together with them. One of the great privileges of doing human rights work is working with impacted communities. They are so inspiring, resilient and intelligent and are often denied the tools to determine their own destiny. Being part of an organisation that really is not so much about bringing tools but bringing the support of the community around them to these issues and working together to develop a way forward, it’s a really great interface. People know that we represent and speak for one million people and really enjoy working together on these issues.
I think if you had asked me these questions when I was 16, I would have just told you how good triumphs over bad.
Have you learnt that that’s not the case sometimes, or do you still believe that good does triumph?
When we all talk about Nelson Mandela, we forget that he spent 21 years inside a jail cell. I think I would say to my 16 year old self, prioritise being really really skilled and very very good at what you do because that’s the most effective tool for change. It’s not about me being inspiring or starry eyed about this. It’s about really understanding that very good people have been putting very bad circumstances, not because they didn’t know what to do but because power is significant, and people who have been marginalised have faced that for a long time. So to shift the balance away from that is a long, hard slog.
You have young kids, do you worry about the future for them?
I mean the International Panel on Climate Change set a deadline of 12 years before the world sits on a trajectory that could destroy civilization and life on the planet. I mean, in 12 years, my kids will still be at school. I feel like that is a pretty immediate threat.
You’re very involved in trying to change the world, do you think there is a way to turn things around?
I actually do. I think we forget that Australia is actually really dragging its feet globally. There are efforts elsewhere across the globe, and Australia is particularly bad. That’s mainly because of a peculiarity around politics where we are literally being held hostage to ideologues that don’t believe in science. We are not going to be able to address this 12 year challenge if we don’t get involved.
There’s literally no time to sit it out anymore, and this coming federal election is the only time we have to turn things around. And that’s not about any party or any thing like that, it’s whoever brings forward a policy platform that will do what the science is requiring in the timeframe required. And I mean that in a way of actually volunteering on election day, making calls from your bedroom to an electorate on the other side of the country and having a chat to an ordinary person and talking to them about why it’s important. We’ve got no choice.