By Ashleigh Streeter-Jones
My activist journey started back in 2005 when, my parents, who had previously lived in Johannesburg, took me to South Africa. This is how I found myself in SOWETO – the South Western Township – on Christmas day.
It was a confronting experience. Although we were in SOWETO with a local tour guide giving out Christmas cakes, chocolates and other goodies, I had a lightbulb moment: these were the only Christmas presents this community was going to receive. That was my first experience with poverty, and it broke my heart.
Returning to Australia, I struggled to reconcile this experience. After all, there weren’t exactly a load of year 7s who could relate.
But this experience lit a fire, a passion. For the first time, I’d come face to face with inequality, and I wasn’t happy with what I’d seen. At that moment, I made a promise to myself: I was going to spend the rest of my career challenging that status quo.
Fast forward a few years, I was studying politics and international relations at University to better understand the systems of power which entrenched inequality. I was ready.
I applied for an internship with World Vision, and was fortunate to be accepted.
This became a turning point.
Shortly after starting, I participated in a trip to India with a cohort of other young activists to learn more about the work of World Vision, and to translate our experience into advocacy on return.
It was an incredibly jarring experience. I didn’t adjust well when I came back and struggled with reverse culture shock. I was desperate to have an outlet where I could contribute to being part of the solution. I threw myself into World Vision’s youth movement, VGen, where I could work with young people here in Australia to take action on poverty, first managing Universities to develop and build the movement on campus, before starting as state director in November 2013.
Spending two years in this role, I learnt on the job. I hired my own volunteer team, set KPIs, wrote and ran training programs in schools and universities, networked, build relationships, and ran a state-wide campaign to help achieve the ultimate mission: getting child labour on the G20 agenda for the first time in history.
And, we did it. Following a range of political meeting across Victoria, passing a Senate motion supporting our work to end child labour, and joining with other groups across the sector nationally, we got it across the line, making history.
After another year in this role and an internship with the Campaign for Australian Aid, I was appointed as the first ever National Director of Campaigns. For the first time, I had a virtual team, and was working with people with whom I wasn’t able to build face to face relationships.
This was a significant period of personal growth and challenges. In managing my culture shock, I dropped out of a Masters at Melbourne University, left a five-year relationship and entered into a new, unhappy relationship which took a further toll on my mental health. I kept working but took six months off study. I then returned to do my honours, knowing that I wanted to keep studying but recognising that honours was a cheaper mistake than doing a Masters I wasn’t sold on. I focused on women peace and security and peacebuilding, and realised my dream job.
In 2016, I leant into my career and accepted an offer from the ANU to study my Masters of Diplomacy. This was a positive change and gave me the opportunity to chase my other passion, gender.
Partnering with a friend I’d made through VGen, we put our heads together. It began with a pay it forward self defence program – for each spot in a class which has been paid for, a spot was donated to a survivor of gender-based violence – but I missed campaigning.
In 2017, as part of the Youth Activist series, I worked with my friend and Plan International Australia to co-found the Girls Take Over Parliament program. The program was designed to encourage more young women to enter politics, providing the skills, knowledge and an opportunity to support young women to get a taste of political life. It took a lot of thinking outside the box, critical analysis of a problem and examination of the best solution.
This program was by far one of the best things I’ve worked on. It pushed me to the limits – the limits of my energy, my risk appetite and innovation, but the outcome was exhilarating. Not only did we have buy-in from every major political party both in the ACT and federally, but we also got to work with 20 incredible participants from diverse backgrounds who made a concerted statement about the absence of young women’s leadership.
2018 was a year of building, forming an organisation to consolidate the self-defence, Girls Take Over Parliament program, and the Trailblazers program, a leadership and development program for young women of colour in the ACT. It came with highs – being named ACT Woman of the Year and on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list – and lows – significant burn out which led to some tough self-reflection, and the decision to take a step back for a bit. So, for now, I’m taking some time to think and lay the foundations of the next projects.
My journey has come with critical learning. I’ve learnt to always appreciate the people you work with, the relationships you build, and the people who support you through thick and thin. I’ve learnt that self-care comes first because, if you’re not taking care of yourself and setting boundaries (a particular challenge in volunteer work), then your work won’t be sustainable. I’ve learnt that advocacy and activism require an incredible amount of resilience, and that not everyone shares your passion or your values.
But most of all, I’ve learnt the power of people as change makers. The power of passion and determination. And when the going gets tough I reflect on this, and I know that we’re going to be okay. The fight for progress is far from over, but it’s these people I’ve met and worked with along the way who give me hope.
Disclaimer: By no means was this work easy. I had many an event where only 1-2 people turned up, or a handful of people turn up to a training I’d spent two days writing. I’ve had to approach potential participants and ask them to apply for programs, I’ve had aggressive questions from media and members of the public, and dodged some pretty nasty trolling. I’ve also had the privilege to be able to do all of this work for free, which is an option not available for everyone.
Ashleigh was named ACT Woman of the Year and on the Forbes Asia’s 30 Under 30 list in 2018. She has run programs to support young women’s leadership and political participation, and has been involved in a range of initiatives including the Women’s March Canberra designed to support and amplify the voices of diverse women of all backgrounds.