Connecting to Life Skills

Feature article in the Courier Mail on 14th May, 2005.
Written by Matt Condon.

It’s not often you get to meet a genuine contradiction.

Take Aleem Ali. His office is a neon-lit corner of an open room, the desk sparse, the floor behind his chair littered with boxes of files. It could be the domain of the office gopher, yet he is the CEO of the business Speak Out.

In person he is neatly groomed and hip and so physically young looking he could have just come in from a morning at a skate park, yet he is a father of four (with one on the way).

And his company is orchestrating fantastically innovative work, breaking rules, sailing into the future, yet Speak Out is housed in the delightfully ramshackle and historic School of Arts building in Ann St. Brisbane city. In other words, a very fresh egg in an old nest.

Ali, 31, waves you towards a chair. Office hubbub circulates around him. He rarely looks at you when he speaks, more to a fixed point just beyond the far edge of his desk. “I was born and raised in Redcliffe,” he says, an almost automatic response to a question about his childhood. He speaks quickly and clearly, and it’s only when you backtrack for detail that he relaxes the pace and opens up.

“We weren’t particularly well off.” he says, “but my parents were ahead of their times in lots of ways. We were forced to drink appalling concoctions of healthy juices as children. Things that now cost you $6 a cup. It was a semi-alternative lifestyle. We were taught to respect all people, no matter what their religion or where they came from. It was most important to respect people.

“My father is Indian-Fijian, my mother second generation Irish-Australian. I’d go to Sunday school every Sunday and then to a mosque with my Dad. It was a broad upbringing.”

More contradictions. And yet more — at school Ali studied maths and physics and also theatre. He was school captain of both primary and secondary and yet is intrinsically shy, possibly introverted.

He remembers his first stage performance. He was one of the leads in a musical. He had to play a female by the name of Caprice Lovely. She has never made a reappearance,” he smiles, “which is
a relief to my wife.”

Ali went on to study the arts at university, got involved in local theatre, then had a child at the tender age of 19. It propelled him directly into the workforce, specifically hospitality. He worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, to support his young family. “During that time I became a single dad,” he says.

Ali later drifted back to his creative interests and worked as a city events co- ordinator for Brisbane City Council. It gave him an artistic freedom he’d always coveted and led him, via a circuitous route, to the Speak Out organisation.

At Speak Out, all of Alt’s contradictions found a home. It is simultaneously a business and a youth support network. It offers design and marketing solutions for other businesses, big and small.

Where it differs from similar outfits is that with it uses the creative skills and energies of troubled or disadvantaged youths. It provides mentorship and training and a clear path to employment and all the dignity and self-respect that that affords. Speak Out also is non-profitable.

It is here that Ali can exercise his creativity, employ his life skills to make a difference in the community and apply that broad-minded upbringing to all manner of difficult “coal face” situations.

Speak Out bridges the gap between the work of charitable groups such as the Salvation Army and employment or mainstream educational institutions.

“It’s a wonderful thing to clothe and feed and shelter people and there are many groups and institutions doing a great job,” he says. What then about the transition period between troubled youths in that situation and employment?

“We wanted to position ourselves in between. It’s a hard task, it’s complex. But it doesn’t have to be that hard. There has to be a paradigm shift in thinking. We live in a society where a golfer can eam millions of dollars for a week’s work and yet the teachers and social workers of this world are struggling to make ends meet. These are the important jobs that keep society cohesive.”

Speak Out provides fully professional services to businesses and individuals and in the process equips youths with personal and career skills that will last a lifetime.

“What we’re proving is that you can be a successful business and a charity at the same time,” Ali says. “They can work together. It has proven so successful that young people are now coming to us off the street. They want to get their life back on track. These people are talented in their own right. We ty and tap into their creative potential.”

The volume of youths going through Speak Out is either indicative of the project’s success or reflective of the problems in the city. Or both. In the first year, Speak Out looked after 50 people. In the last financial year it took in 400.

Only now are govemment bodies seriously studying the Speak Out model as a means of reconnecting troubled young people with the real world in a productive and meaningful way. In addition, this vibrant organisation is branching out with its education programs and is in the process of offering training in the music and visual mediums. It’s even looking at ways to set up youths in their own small businesses.

“The staff here work with incredible energy and passion and it’s great to be around that. It’s hard work. But it can be incredibly rewarding.”

Hundreds of young men and women in Brisbane would attest to that. And Caprice Lovely may no longer be a part of Aleem Ali’s repertoire. The work of her alter ego, though, is lovely. It’s very lovely.

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