A lifelong fight for fairness
6 September 2021 at 4:40 pm
As the coordinator of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project, Sister Brigid Arthur is using her passion for social justice to fight for the rights of some of the community’s most vulnerable. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
At 86 years old, Sister Brigid Arthur is a force to be reckoned with.
For the past 20 years, she’s headed up the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP), providing practical housing and employment support for asylum seekers. She has also taken asylum seekers into her home and made hundreds of visits to detention centres.
There’s even been run-ins with the law. As part of her work with Love Makes a Way, Arthur has been arrested, not once but twice, for participating in peaceful sit-ins at the offices of Australian politicians to protest asylum seeker policies.
She’s also served as a litigation guardian for asylum seekers in Federal Court, and more recently, she supported eight teenagers launching a class action against the federal government for its inaction to protect future generations from the impacts of the worsening climate crisis.
There’s no sign that Arthur is slowing down. She continues to use her passion for social justice to drive change on a grassroots and advocacy level for people that need it the most.
Earlier this year she was named as one of the winners of Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 Awards for her tireless social justice work.
To mark this year’s National Child Protection Week (5 – 11 September), Arthur will join a panel of experts to speak on the role that different, and unexpected, parts of society can play in boosting child well being.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses the key to keeping up the fight, her biggest learnings throughout her career, and why it’s important to focus on what’s going on around you.
You were a teacher and a principal for many years, what led you to starting BASP?
It just kind of morphed into being. In the 90s I was still working with schools, and was in a social justice group with some of the Brigidine Sisters. One of the issues we began to get very interested in was asylum seekers.
I’d lived in really multicultural communities and so I always had a long-term interest in creating communities that could be inclusive no matter who was there and the richness of a lot of different cultures coming together.
You’ve been working in the advocacy and social justice space for a long time now. What’s the key to staying focused and keeping up the fight?
I think it’s important to find a balance of actually doing things that help, as well as advocating. One informs the other in any case. You can advocate much more about an issue if you’re actually having experiences with people who are affected by whatever it is that you’re talking about.
In our case, there’s a whole lot of asylum seekers who are left without any income at all. So trying to help them with housing and paying bills, food, and other essential things is really important. When you’re meeting them day after day, constantly talking to them on the phone, it helps you to advocate that no one should be left without any income. I think you’d still know theoretically that that was a necessity, but when you experience it and you’re talking to people, it becomes much more real.
What have been some of your major learnings throughout your career?
I think that every generation has the obligation not just to look after themselves, but to think about who’s coming [after you]. I suppose that’s particularly true of the climate change issue, but it’s also true of people who seek refuge somewhere. Just inflicting pain on people, which is really what [the government] is doing, on top of what they’ve already experienced is terrible, not just for those people, but for their children who are living through that now and possibly for the generations after that. I mean, we’ve seen this with the Stolen Generations and the intergenerational impacts that has had on First Nations people, but we don’t seem to have learnt much from that.
What advice do you have for the younger generations interested in making a difference in the world?
If they are keen to make a change, that’s great, because that’s step number one. I do think that people generally in Australia – young, middle aged and old – have adopted a mentality that’s focused on what’s in it for them at all times. I think we’ve become a bit preoccupied with our own souls. Obviously mental health is a massive area of concern and should be paid attention to, but I think we can almost talk ourselves into thinking that we need a really good place to live, and a really good job, a really good salary, and it goes on. And, you know, we don’t actually need all those things. We just need to be okay in terms of being housed and being looked after, but we don’t need the nth degree of everything. This sense of entitlement is one that people have espoused more than is healthy.
What kind of world do you hope for future generations?
The change I hope for is for a kinder and more humane world where we make communities inclusive and where we make it possible for all people to live a reasonable life.
My hope is that we no longer have this layered community where some people are almost invariably much better off than others.
If you’re interested in hearing more from Sister Brigid Arthur, you can see her speak on what a community needs for every child to thrive on 7 September as part of National Child Protection Week’s webinar series. Find out more information here.