The Stories We Prefer To Tell

Speech delivered on 28 October, by Aleem Ali, at a QUT Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice event to thank partners and key stakeholders for their ongoing support alongside the current William Robinson exhibition, Love in life and Art.

Location: William Robinson Gallery, Old Government House, QUT Gardens Point campus

Thank you Professor Sandra Gattenhof for the warm introduction.

Thank you, Gregory Egert (Uncle Cheg), for the Welcome to Turrbal Yugara Country.

It’s an honour to see you again, Uncle Cheg. Thank you for your generosity and custodianship of knowledge, culture and country. As you stated, we are gathered on country whose sovereignty has never been ceded and never will be.

Thank you to QUT for the invitation to attend and speak at this distinguished event

Id like to share with you a little of my story, that you won’t read in a bio, and informs why I do what I do.

I grew up in a multi-faith and multicultural household in suburban Redcliffe (Ningi Ningi country), 40 minutes north of here.

First generation Australian on my Dad’s side – whose great-grandparents were from Northern India and indentured labourers under the British Empire, eventually finding their way to Fiji.

My Dad, a Muslim and the son of an Imam (the Muslim equivalent of a Catholic or Anglican priest) migrated from Fiji to Australia in the 60’s and met my Mum who was Anglo-Irish, a nurse and youth leader at the local Methodist Church.

To cut a long story short, the rest (as they say) is history.

I would often attend the Mosque on Friday with my Dad and I was put on the bus to Sunday School by Mum.

My first and my last name are Arabic, but my middle name is Shaun (like the sheep).

My Dad was a telecommunications and computer engineer and teacher and so we owned the first personal computer in our suburb.

We attempted to garden sustainably (and mostly unsuccessfully) on a suburban block

We juiced anything green before Boost Juice commoditised it.

We boycotted the local supermarket because it was owned by a South African multi-national during the apartheid regime.

We participated in land rights marches.

We were a very welcoming and busy household.

At one point our neighbour was a Canadian national and the Manager of the Redcliffe Entertainment Centre. He curated an excellent program of events and we would attend theatre, art exhibitions, and cinema.

To say that my childhood was formative, is a gross understatement.

My life and vocation has continued to operate at the intersection of creativity, technology, faith, sustainability, social justice and intercultural practice.

I went from high school to QUT. (cough) 30 years ago, and at that time the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice did not exist. But it is a Faculty and intersection that I would have undoubtedly chosen.

The closest I could find at the time was a Bachelor of Arts (Drama) / Bachelor of Education degree that lead me on this amazing journey of theatre, community cultural development, science, education and social enterprise.

Maybe it was the lens or sphere that I found myself in, but it seemed to me that the arts and associated sectors were asking questions in and of institutions and Australian society no other sector seemed to be asking or wanted to know the answer to.

And it was questions such as:

Where are Indigenous voices, First Nations cultural expression, beyond romanticised and colonial notions of the noble savage – that are contemporary, urban and vastly more nuanced and complex than mainstream society and institutions had allowed to surface or dared to engage with?

Of course they existed, they were always here. They operate at the so-called margins and in communities across this country – but they weren’t being broadly listened to or celebrated

And throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, I had the great privilege to witness the development and rise of artists and creative practitioners – many of whom were involved with QUT in some capacity and/or herald from this broader region.

Wesley Enoch, Leah Purcell, Nadine McDonald, Kooemba Jdarra Theatre Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Vulcana Women’s Circus (to name but a few). Artists and arts organisations who were telling stories and challenging narratives that so-called everyday Australians had never heard or seen or cared about — through a creative industries, education and social justice lens.

Other questions such as: how do we shift the ‘white Australia’ narrative to something that is vastly more complex and recognises the myriad of migrant stories?

Questions such as: how do we shine a light on and address systemic racism in this country?

Questions such as: how do we incorporate old and new technologies in contemporary arts practice and create hybrid, non-traditional art forms and practices?

Questions such as: how do we challenge institutional silos and consider cross-cultural approaches and ways of working that address some of our massive societal problems and injustices?

Small questions like those.

We have never needed the arts more than we do now to shine a light on injustice, to encourage creative ideas and solutions to massive problems, and to share the stories that are too often silenced but need to be told.

The true power of storytelling lies in our ability to bring our audience into a shared vision of change.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Art and creativity should be less prescriptive and functional, less instructive about defining the task at hand; rather, it should cause us to long for the immensity of the sea.

Which is a difficult metaphor in a nation where we still punish people for risking their lives to cross oceans seeking safety because the home they inhabit is vastly more dangerous.

Changing hearts and minds has ultimately been the focus of my work at Welcoming Australia for the past 7 years as we try to advance communities where everyone can belong.

In many respects we have had significant success. We went from an idea on paper to a national movement and organisation formally working with more than 70 local governments representative of 40 percent of the Australian population, hundreds of sports & recreation clubs, community organisation, a number of Universities — to do the hard work of looking both inwards and outwards.

To support people, communities and organisations on a journey of moving from fearful → tolerant → welcoming.

Making welcoming the starting line, the baseline, and then moving from welcoming → inclusion → belonging.

While also recognising that we are on stolen land.

Recognising that there are a diversity of migrant stories.

Recognising that there is division and polarisation.

Recognising that there is ongoing injustice.

But also learning that this work is not just about what the story is or how you tell it, but whose story it is to tell.

I recently wrote something mostly for internal consideration, for my team at Welcoming Australia, but I also made it public (in case anyone was vaguely interested): titled, Learning to Walk Behind.

I don’t have time to go into all the thinking that informs it, but my simple thesis was this: before we can walk beside, we must walk behind.

Broadly, if I’m honest, I have been involved and complicit in three ways of working:

  1. Community-led and community-owned;
  2. Institution or Agency-led; and
  3. Co-opted or self-centred work (aka Stolen)

I suggest, in that short article, that there are almost no ‘voiceless’ people or communities, just those on whose behalf we would prefer to speak.

And that co-design or collaborative approaches, ‘walking beside’ is understood by the dispossessed but for everyone else, myself included, paternalism and colonial mindsets are so pervasive that we (I) only understand walking beside from a position of power and privilege.

Walking beside, we cannot help but set the pace or alter the direction.

Walking beside may work in a bubble devoid of generational racism, dispossession and injustice. But that bubble is a myth.

Before I can walk beside, I need to learn to walk behind and put the power and process into the hands of people that I’m supposedly trying to support.

I then proceed to outline how we can do better. How we must do better.

How do we advance an Australia where everyone can belong in the context of an unresolved past, an unjust present and the prospect of a stark future?

This is what keeps us awake, this what drives us an organisation.

Do you have a part to play in that? Undoubtedly.

Does this Faculty have a role to play in that? 100 percent.

Do we need education, art, community, culture and justice to confront some of our massive, collective challenges? Now more than ever.

Can we make change?

If we’re willing, if we’re humble, if we’re committed to asking uncomfortable questions, to listening, and acting… yes.

We can change. We must change for the sake of a better future for all.

Thank you.

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