Setting the next generation up for success
2 December 2019 at 8:01 am
As the CEO of the Youth Affairs Council Victoria, Katherine Ellis is working to give the next generation a voice and a seat at the decision-making table for their futures. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
While Ellis’ career has spanned across the private, community and government sectors, fighting for the rights of young people has always remained at the core of what she does.
Growing up, she says she was privileged and lucky to never come face-to-face with anything that got in the way of achieving her goals.
It is this experience that has been the motivating force in her career to make sure all young people have the opportunity to make a difference.
Now seven months into her role at YACVic, she is using her global and national leadership experience in the youth affairs sector to drive change for the young people of Victoria.
She knows she has a big job ahead of her. Young people around the world are facing a more unstable and complex future than ever before, but she also knows they are more than capable of turning things around for the better.
In this week’s Changemaker, Ellis discusses what drew her to youth affairs, the power of young people and why she loves her job.
Was there a specific moment when you knew that you wanted to work in the social change sector and specifically with young people?
I feel like I’ve had a very privileged life and I don’t mean wealthy privileged, because I certainly don’t come from that, but I’ve had all the opportunities that a young person could want. My parents created a very loving family and they both believed education was really important. There was never any question that as a girl, I wouldn’t have all the same opportunities that my brother had. I’ve always been very conscious that I was very lucky, and I really wanted to make sure that other young people had the same opportunities that I did.
And what drew you to YACVic specifically?
Before I came to YACVic I was working in London as the head of youth affairs for the Commonwealth of Nations. My focus was influencing policy across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth so that it worked for young people, and really putting young people at the centre of policy making, decision making, taking young people seriously and looking at what they needed, but also what they could contribute and what perspectives they would bring to situations. After some time, I could see that I could do the same kind of work at YACVic but rather than making policy work across 53 countries, focus really strongly on one state and really make a difference for the young people here.
What are some of the biggest issues young people are facing at the moment?
What we’re hearing is a real fear for the future. The existential threat of climate change, the lack of support from the mental health system, their perceptions of how adequate the education system is and that it’s not going to equip people for the future. The issue of income inequality is linked to that fear for the future as well.
I think every generation of young people have uncertainty about their future, but this generation are living in a far more uncertain world. They’re the first generation that will probably be worse off than their parents and they are dealing with those existential threats on top of that. So I think it’s a very difficult time for young people who are trying to form their identity and forge their way forward.
You are up against and dealing with some very big issues. How do you stop yourself becoming overwhelmed and remain motivated?
I’m a real optimist and in this space there is a level of idealism that you see from young people who may be feeling an existential threat or a real fear for the future but at the same time they’re fighting as hard as they can for a better future. That keeps me going.
The only time while working in this space that I had a feeling of desolation was when I was doing some work in Madagascar about 10 years ago and I was working with a group of young people in the slums. There was a moment where I could see no future for these young people, and I could not work out a way that they could get out of their situation. The economy was tanked, there had been a coup in the country, there were no jobs, there was no industry, they were illiterate and they had no voting rights. I just didn’t know how to help them and it’s the only time that I’ve ever felt that hopeless.
How did you bring yourself back from that moment?
I retreated into my circle of friends that evening and talked to various people about what might be possible. There is always a way forward in the end, and in actual fact, just working with those young people, listening to them and being with them made a difference in their lives anyway, I discovered. Because up until then, no one had cared about their opinions or abilities. So it’s important not to underestimate the difference it can make actually just being there for people and making sure people feel that they are included and that their voices are heard and that their lives matter.
What would you say you love most about your job?
Getting up every day knowing that the work I do makes a difference in the world is a huge motivator and something that adds a lot of intangible joy to the work. I have a great team working here. Everyone’s so committed and very talented and we’re not a huge team, but I think that we punch above our weight.
We are really trying to effect change through policy change and through systems change by playing a convening role where we’re connecting the youth sector together. From that, you see an exponential cascade effect where the work we do helps the work other people do, which in the end really makes a difference in the lives of young people.
How important is it for you to take time out to recharge and reset?
It’s very important from a physical exhaustion point of view to take time out, to get some sleep, eat well and do things where you completely switch off your brain, such as going for a walk, watching movies, reading books or chatting with friends about nothing much at all.
But I actually think that it’s really important to refresh yourself in a way where you’re hearing new thinking as well. So going to conferences, or going to hear an interesting talk, or listening to podcasts where new ideas are coming through is really important. Sometimes just because they stimulate your own thinking, but sometimes it’s because they bring a new idea to the work that you’re doing and give you a new perspective that maybe you hadn’t come across. That constant refresh of how you’re approaching your work can lift you out of a rut where you feel like you’re doing the same thing every day and you actually step into a new level of how you’re approaching the work as well.