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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed experts comprising Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability.
For our community and culture category, our judges have chosen individuals who are striving for change – whether that means teaching women tech skills or using their platform to advocate for people living with a disability. This category is broad, but it's clear every single person chosen is doing something that impacts our community as a whole – and we want more people to support them and hear their stories.
In community and culture, our Future Shapers are Carly Findlay, writer and proud appearance activist; Sarah Moran, co-founder and CEO of Girl Geek Academy; Meriki Onus, co-founder of Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance; Ali Halkic, founding patron of Bully Zero; and Micah Scott, CEO of LGBTQIA+ youth charity Minus18.
Carly Findlay has been busy. The writer, speaker and self-described appearance activist works part-time as Melbourne Fringe Festival’s access and inclusion coordinator, has published a memoir called Say Hello, edited Growing up Disabled in Australia with Black Inc Books, and that’s not even the half of it. The outspoken advocate for people living with a disability is planning a podcast that talks to disabled women (with a focus on disabled Women of Colour), a children’s book and numerous events centred around Growing Up Disabled in Australia, too.
So what does an appearance activist do? “I help change perceptions around appearance, diversity and disability,” she says. “So I advise on best practice accessibility for deaf and disabled audiences and artists, and how to improve the sector in that space. I also freelance and do lots of training around access and a lot of different things that relate to appearance, diversity and disability.”
Accessibility stands as a big problem for those living with a disability. It can range from venues not offering wheelchair access to not providing visitors with a separate, quiet area if they might need a break. “Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought but something that is constantly thought about and provided in events,” she says. “The Melbourne art scene, in general, has improved on accessibility, but we still do have so far to go. So I think it is about making sure that all businesses consider access when they build their venues, when they put on events and when they recruit people so that it isn't just on disabled people to do it.”
Sarah Moran has been coding since she was five years old, but as she went through high school, she noticed something strange. “I found myself being the only girl,” she says. “When I was in primary school, we all learned technology together. When you give a kid toys, and they’re tech toys, we all enjoy playing with them.”
“But then you kind of get to that point where you sign to figure out your identity in high school. Groups of friends don't necessarily hang around and play with computers together... and those that did were the 'nerdy boys'.
“But what I noticed is at almost every school across Australia, there's at least one girl who’s interested in computers – you might feel alone at your school, but did you know that at every school there’s someone like you?”
Moran is the CEO and co-founder of Geek Girl Academy, an organisation providing programs that teach women and girls skills in technology – everything from how to code and build websites to 3D printing and animation. Founding the business, however, was almost completely unplanned. “We accidentally ran the world’s first all-women hackathon,” Moran says. “And off the back of that, we said ‘You know what, this needs to be a thing’.”
According to Micah Scott, CEO of youth-driven LGBTQIA+ charity Minus18, the general perception is that things are getting better for queer young people in the community. Recent research backs this up – however, this isn’t the case for all queer youth in Australia.
“For young people in particular in 2021, a lot of the issues centre around a changing world and a higher visibility for conversations around sexuality and gender identity," Scott says. So not only are queer young people facing challenges associated with being online, digital spaces, social media and the complications that arise there. But in addition to that, identity is significantly more visible, which is a double-edged sword. There’s a sense of empowerment that can come with visibility, but also, visibility opens up the risks of extra bullying and negative experiences.”
Minus18, at its core, creates safe spaces for queer young people to make friends – one example is the annual Queer Formal, a dance organised for LGBTQIA+ young people who might otherwise feel left out or uncomfortable going to a regular high school formal. The charity has grown over the years to host these sorts of events across Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, all the while running school-based education and workplace inclusion training. According to Scott, “the real mission of Minus has expanded to transform Australia into a safe space for queer young people”.
Meriki Onus wants everyone to do the work, as she has. Over the past decade, the Gunai and Gunditjmara activist has made a name for herself as someone who is passionate about policy and advocacy for Aboriginal people. In 2014, Onus co-founded the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, a group of young Aboriginal people who are committed to the cause of decolonisation and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism – resistance and revival.
WAR is fighting for Indigenous sovereignty, land and justice. The organisation is instrumental in organising the annual Invasion Day protest, which happens on January 26 each year. Recently, WAR has been using its platform to show its support for the global Black Lives Matter movement and fight to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance isn’t a new concept, but it’s a new group,” says Onus. “Despite what risks that came with, we took a bold move and we reclaimed our position in Aboriginal politics. We did things differently from the perspective of young people.”
Last year, Onus founded Yarnda Consulting, a consultancy business that allows her to do project and research work. For the moment, Onus is taking a step back from consulting to focus on studying a master's in social equity – a course she’s taking in the hopes of expanding her research and writing skills.
“It’s enabled me to learn how to break down political theories and understand our positions on a bit more of an empathetic level. And to understand academically some of the theories behind some of the stuff that we talk about. Also writing – understanding how to write and construct a good argument and know how to back my own arguments up with research.”
Content advisory: This article discusses suicide.
Twelve years ago, Ali Halkic and his wife, Dina, went through the worst thing a parent can ever experience when their only son, Allem, killed himself. In the horrific aftermath, his parents discovered that something terrible had been happening to Allem, in secret. He was being bullied, online and in person, by someone who had once been a friend.
"He was getting online threats from someone he knew," says Ali Halkic. "Social media was just kind of kicking off 12 years ago, Facebook had just started. We didn't have an understanding of the dangers of what we were actually paying for and allowing him to use. For many years we tried to understand, we had guilt. As a parent, you have to take ownership. Naturally, people protect their kids and keep them out of harm's way, but we allowed this thing to come unto our home and we didn't understand the dangers associated with it."
Halkic turned that guilt and grief into a drive to ensure that no one else's child would have to go through what Allem went through, and that no parents would be left as utterly bereft as he was. He fought for years to secure a criminal prosecution for the bully who drove Allem to suicide, the first decision of its kind in Australia and one that would give hope to the victims of bullying and their families. He also lobbied the Victorian government to erect a safety barrier on the Westgate Bridge, as Allem killed himself on the bridge just over a week after four-year-old Darcy Freeman was murdered. The safety barriers have reduced suicides on the Westgate by 85 per cent.
Three years after Allem's death, Halkic had the idea for a charity to educate about and prevent bullying, particularly online. Five years after that, Bully Zero was created. The charity runs school-based education programs and offers resources to children, parents and teachers to prevent bullying.
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