Letter From Australia

I was listening recently to the re-run of an interview on ABC Radio National that took place a few years ago with the great South African trumpeter, composer, and activist, Hugh Masekela. In it, he was speaking about leaving South Africa a few months after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and not returning for sixteen years. He spoke about feeling more intensely South African in the years he lived away from his home than when he did on return.  

Even though my situation is very different, that sense of feeling my Australian-ness acutely while living in the US is similar.

And now I’m back in Australia for a while and I feel attuned to the land, knowing the contours of the sand dunes leading to the beach, listening to the choraling of Australian birds.  

In the car, I tune into Philip Adams, Late Night Live, Rachael Kohn, The Spirit of Things, Dr. Norman Swan, Health Report, Andrew Ford, The Music Show and Claire Nichols, the Book Hub. Long drives. Magpies. Kangaroos. Dogs bounding into the sea.  Older women soaking in the sea – up to their sunhats, long conversations, slowdown sea time.


Reading Helen Garner’s stories and re-reading Elizabeth Jolley, Woman in a Lampshade. On holiday weekends, there’s the crimson capped marathon swimmers, the more serene stand-up paddlers, the kite flyers, the kayakers, the sails and the motorboats specs in the distance, the bodysurfers and the kids being pulled along on surfboards.

While I’m in the sea, a shaggy golden retriever called Elvis dog- paddles up to me in the water, looking very much like his shambolic owner, also in the water.  All Elvis needs are those dark shades and we could be rockin’ it together to some groovy tune. Elvis gives me a daggy grin and then, with a waggy swish of his tail, he’s off again to find another swimmer.

My prime reason for being in Australia is because of family. My dad is very sick and I’m fortunate to be able to work from here for a while. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the world of those needing care –those who are old, sick, and/or have a disability.

My family learns about a new in-home support service created by three guys in Brisbane called Five Good Friends. The name refers to research conducted by the American, Dan Buettner, that identifies communities that have Blue Zones, where people live longer due to their connections with friends. Optimum quality of later life revolves around having a lifelong close circle of five core friends.

What’s different about this model is that it’s flexible and people-centered. Instead of my parents having to go through a central facility managed by coordinators they never see, with Five Good Friends, the coordinator sits down with them to discuss their needs, tailors the arrangements and then they can make and change arrangements directly with the people who provide their care.  

There’s also an app to track and change appointments, although those being cared for don’t have to use it. However, other members of the family can have access to the app so we can track changes in the care being provided and the costs. With Five Good Friends, the coordinator works from home rather than from a central office and people work as independent contractors, so they also have the flexibility of hours to suit their needs. With this approach, the company can keep overheads low and thus keep costs manageable for those needing care.

Rebecca Perry, the coordinator for South Australia, tells me “I am a dietitian and have been drawn to this sector after my father experienced a spinal cord injury 5 years ago. He is now an incomplete quadriplegic and needs to use a wheelchair so has complex care needs. I learnt about how well Five Good Friends operates so I’m delighted that I can be part of the team.”

Five Good Friends is the brainchild of Tim Russell, the founder of RetireAustralia, and his two school friends and founders of successful tech startup everydayhero, Simon Lockyer and Nathan Betteridge.

Russell resigned the CEO role at RetireAustralia in May 2015 and was joined by Simon and Nathan to establish Five Good Friends. They secured external funding and have taken the service to the wider market. Now, in addition to in-home support, the company is signing on partnerships with other providers to ensure a suite of in-home services including nutrition, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

I can see the possibilities for this service to go even further. Taking my parents to Centrelink, and seeing people line up in wheelchairs, with limited mobility, very frail, very sick, with mental illness, to do things like sign up for disability allowance or carer’s allowance, how much easier it would be for home providers like Five Good Friends to be registered to do identity checks and provide assistance so that people are helped in their homes or local communities.

In San Francisco and Sydney and many cities around the world, whether it’s Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, UberEats, WeWork, is changing the way we access goods and services and the way we work.  Now with Airbnb, the experiences it’s offering to people means it’s positioning itself as an experiential company rather than an accommodation provider. Similarly, Five Good Friends, and other services like it, will likely be positioned as resilience and well-being companies supporting people to live fully and to age well with the wrap round services and experiences to make this possible.  

The way people are interacting with the sharing economy means that services adapt quickly to meet innovations recommended or crowdsourced by users. The downside is that, at least from what I’ve observed in San Francisco, the sharing economy follows the market and that often results in widening inequality and polarizing poverty. Regulation is thus also key to support innovation while ensuring policies are in place to address inequity.

In Asia, the region’s elderly population is projected to reach nearly 923 million by the middle of this century. This means the region is on track in the next few decades to become one of the oldest demographics in the world.

Most governments in Asia are not well prepared for this vast change and the dramatic social and economic consequences that will flow from this trend. In China, according to the United Nations, the population is ageing more rapidly than almost any other country. Exacerbating this situation is the impact of the One Child Policy in China resulting in ageing parents no longer able to rely on the care and support of their children, governments and populations are having to confront the reality of the situation.

Add to this the effects of climate change including rising sea levels, exposure to more disease, more frequent natural disasters, increased temperatures and what this will mean for people who are vulnerable, frail, isolated, have mobility issues, and different forms of disabilities especially hidden disabilities. Many countries are ill-equipped with physical and social infrastructure as much as regulatory environment and a well-developed civil society geared to advocating for change and addressing these issues.

The work we’ve done at The Asia Foundation is important – including a program called A Fully Abled Nation in the Philippines, established in 2011 initially to create more accessible polling places for upcoming elections and to promote voter rights in the disability sector. It was so successful that it became a major program involving government and civil society to promote the participation of persons with disabilities in electoral and democratic processes.

In Indonesia, the work we’re doing supports people with disabilities to participate in development planning from village level to district level and to assume leadership roles.

This work is vital, especially with the rapid migration to cities, the massive traffic congestion and air pollution issues, all of which will massively increase the challenges for people with disabilities, who are elderly and/or marginalized.

Here in Adelaide, it’s been so hot and a friend from San Francisco emails me – “not much rain. Very mild.”  Climate change is hitting hard. In fact, 2017 was the third hottest year on record in the US and it was also the year that cost the US the most ever with a $300 billion damage bill for hurricanes, forest fires, drought, and flooding. In South Australia, where my family live, the predictions are for the state to get hotter and drier with an increase in drought and fire-related conditions in the years ahead.

Perhaps that’s why I turn ever more frequently to the sea and the ocean. Tonight, the sun setting over the sea was achingly beautiful.  A deep crimson pinwheel spinning out above the water, gaining color and momentum until it filled the sky.

Even the books I’m reading mainly have a water/sea theme. My Life Underwater, Turning: A Swimming Memoir; Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller; Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth and Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton and two non-water themed reads –  An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Earthsea by the irreplaceable Ursula Le Guin.

For me right now, I’m seeking creative time –for silence, swimming, spirit life, crayoning, dancing – away from noise and frenetic activity. I also visit my favorite tree – a bottle tree – that I’ve been spending time within the Botanic Gardens for over a decade. Back on my sea perch I watch two girls running across the sand with their dog and their parents behind them I think about the different world other girls are experiencing.

Last month in San Francisco at a Lotus Leadership Dinner we honored a girl group from Myanmar called the Colorful Girls.  I was introduced to this group when I first visited Myanmar almost six years ago, and I wrote about the visit in my blog at that time.

When I commenced work at The Asia Foundation I asked if we were supporting the Colorful Girls in Myanmar and I learnt that we were, so I could nominate them for a leadership award.

Colorful Girls in Myanmar – photo credit Whitney Legge

Colorful Girls is a grassroots organization in Myanmar that’s supporting adolescent girls and young women to gain confidence and leadership skills to prevent violence and trafficking and to advocate for their rights.  The organization has supported several thousand girls across the country over the last decade to gain confidence and connections through the programs it offers to girls from diverse cultures, ethnicities and geographies.

Importantly, girls are supported to speak out rather than feel compelled to be docile and quiet and in need of protection. By claiming their voice, girls are also more likely to speak out against abuse rather than stay quiet and be rewarded for enduring the abuse.

Zar Chi Win and Ji Mai are two members of Colorful Girls who are speaking out and sparking change.

Zar Chi Win – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Zar Chi Win shares her story.  “I joined Colorful Girls in 2011 when I was in 7th grade. At 14, I started working in the garment factory near my home during the summer, when school is out of session. In these factories, most workers are girls and young women. A lot of girls like me—some even younger—work in garment factories. In my factory most of the girls were below the legal age. In that work environment, the most common problem girls face is sexual harassment. I have experienced it myself. My supervisor harassed me, and when I responded to him by shouting back I was fired.

Zar Chi Win was one of the girls who attended a series of workshops we held in Yangon and Mandalay to teach the girls how to organize and mobilize a campaign for social change. She subsequently launched a campaign to combat harassment on public buses alongside other young advocates They gave out whistles to women and girls to blow when they were being harassed. They spoke to bus conductors and fare collectors to get their support and to help anyone who was being harassed.

As Zar Chi Win said, “From that campaign, I learned that we girls can speak out. We can do anything! Now as a Colorful Girls facilitator, I get the opportunity to help other girls become leaders.”  

Ji Mai – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Ji Mai’s pathway to joining Colorful Girls was very different, as she shares. “In 2012 I was preparing for my 6th grade exam at age 12, when war broke out in our surrounding villages. After fleeing the shelling and searching for a safe place for several months, we finally made our way to a camp for the internally-displaced (IDP) near the state capital of Myiktyina, Kachin State. I have now been living in this camp for over five years.  I joined Colorful Girls in 2014. For girls like us living in IDP camps, we experience discrimination at school: the school divides us war-victims from the students of the host community into separate classrooms, with poorer facilities. This reminds us every day of our low status. Daily survival is difficult for all of us. Some of the girls from my camp drop out of school to search for any possible paid work. During this process they will be exploited; some even become the victims of human trafficking.”

“Some of my fellow girls have little hope, and can’t see any better options, so they will get married while still very young. Due to the living conditions and problems that we face, we have a lot of stress and anxiety. But, when I play sports, it helps me manage and reduce my stress. I get happy while playing sports. It has truly become an outlet for me. Now I coach volleyball for the Colorful Girls. I teach girls from different IDP camps. To meet them, to know them, to do what I am good at, makes me proud, and them hopeful. For all of us who experience trauma and ongoing gender discrimination, playing volleyball together is taking action. We can relieve our stress, learn real teamwork, and gain leadership skills. Confidence and hope are critical for us to take the lead in our own lives and make progress for all girls. “

By mobilizing to confront abuse and violence and using sport to build understanding between different ethnic groups, these girls are actively building cultures of peace and resilience and reshaping the way girls are seen in Myanmar.

Back here in Adelaide, I visit Freya Povey, a friend and nationally renowned ceramicist who gave me the lessons in clay making that I wrote about in my book. Freya hands me a bust of a swimmer, resplendent in a dreamy blue bathing cap, a blue and white striped bathing suit and very red lips.   I call her Bessie. I can’t stop looking at her.

There’s often an essential self to which we return, as a touchstone for our lives when so much is evolving and in flux. For me, it’s swimming in the sea.  This morning, cool and delicious, I run to the sea and plunge in, a small daily act of fearlessness (“aren’t you scared of sharks?”) that makes me feel alive and with a renewed sense of hope.  

That night a big round lemony moon hangs low in the sky and early next morning, as I’m paddling in the sea, horses thunder by, their hoofs half in the water, half on the shore, spraying water on me. There’s magic afoot.

Jane Sloane
Adelaide 2018

Letter From Laos and Larrakia Country

Jane Sloane - © Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I recently travelled to Laos to join The Asia Foundation’s country representative there, Nancy Kim, to visit local women artisans and some of the other work supported by the foundation. My colleague and filmmaker, Whitney, accompanied me to capture the stories and voices of the women we visited.

When we arrived in the villages near Savannakhet, the women brought out reams of exquisitely textured fabrics that had been created by women in their villages. We were supporting some of these women to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market this year. We heard from these artisans that this opportunity would allow them to keep their daughters in school this year, and that increased economic security would likely provide greater protection from trafficking.

If sales and buyer connections went well, the flow on benefits would provide more work opportunities for young women from their villages, so that they are not forced to go to Thailand to do low-wage work. This opportunity would then contribute to the renaissance of artisan power in Laos and their outreach to the world.

Two of the women in the villages we visited in Laos shared their stories.

This is Tui’s story.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

Our village has continued the same tradition for generations…we know how to do natural coloring of fabric as it’s our tradition. In the past, our village’s main job was rice farming. But during the dry season, women weaved, made blankets and mattresses for families, and took care of children.

I started weaving in 2000 and organized our weaving group. Everyone did their own weaving – if that person had finished two, I bought two, if another had five, then I bought five.

Some local community people knew how to produce weavings, but they did not have a market to sell their products and had no idea how to sell. Therefore, I buy their products at a reasonable price, and then find markets to sell. Then women have work to do and increase their income to support families.

The way of our practice is, everyone has different knowledges. I give everyone chances, if they had, I bought, we discussed and agreed.  I’m also proud to see them have work to do and gain some income. I can sell our products because the price is reasonable. We really focus on quality. With customers, we always tell them that our products are made with real natural color.  

Our community has changed (since I started weaving). Many women can earn income, women are stronger and have equal rights to men because women can earn money almost every day.  It was different in the past.  After finishing rice farming, women took care of children and waited to use money given by husbands. Today, women are stronger, a woman can earn money and that makes me proud to see women and our community gain more income.

In the past, men were always presented in the front of families while women were always behind. Now, family in our village has been reorganized. In some families, men support their wives to produce materials, they could make color for example, they become wife’s assistants and they are also proud of their wives.  And our women get more respect.

I buy almost all products from local people. Like what you saw over there.  Then I must find markets to buy those products. I usually send to market every three days. Some orders 50 and some orders 100 pieces; and some may order up to 200 pieces. I buy every day from the weavers, by this person and that person, depending on if they have products. I sometimes owed them because market did not pay me and I had no money to pay; but not more than one or two days so I had to inform them that tomorrow they could come to get money, and they came back.

I am so proud that our products will be known by the world and reach America. That will give us income and other benefits.  I would also like to encourage some of our young people working in Thailand to come back and work in our community when we are strong enough. I hope young women will return to the community to work here, produce traditional materials, making nature colors, planting and doing anything here. Many young women have left our village to work in Thailand at low pay.

My expectation is that in 10 years I would like to see the change of women and they have better livelihoods. I will be proud to see that happened and my family business will increase too in the future.

One of the other women we met, Lae, also shared her story.

© Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I’m proud to be able to do weaving. In the past, my parents taught me how to do weaving and I like doing it.

I started weaving in 2000 when I was about 16.  I also helped my parents doing farming as it was the only job in the community. I finished only secondary grade 2 at school. When I saw my mother gained income through weaving I followed her as her assistant. After a while my mother stopped working, so I  continued working. I started looking for customers until my village organized the weaving group. I applied, and have worked together with Mrs. Tui doing weaving and my own design.

There are about 10 women the same age as me that weave. Some of them also continue study. But most of them are just weaving. Some of them who left school went to work in Thailand in a factory.

If there are more markets, it would be good for us and it will help our community to have more work and people will have more income to support their family. I’m very happy and proud to have a chance to go to Santa Fe. Of course, I have a lot of hopes.  I expect to have more customers and more orders of our product; that would help to develop our village. I would like to thank Facebook and WhatsApp as they make me fast in trade and communication, comfortable and easy in conversation. When buyers need products, they can send the order. It’s easy and I’m happy.

My husband is happy with me. I married him in 1999. Since we married, he never disagreed that I work on weaving and it helps to increase family income, although my husband does not help me because we have divided our tasks: husband does farming and raise the cows, and I do weaving. But we discuss and support each other.

I hope that in the future, our work will be bigger. I expect we can sell more, especially through export.  I would like to do better than this and to have more customers.  But we have come a long way. When I started with my mother, we had no technology. It was very difficult for communication and transportation. If we needed something, we used letters and or communicated through public transportation like bus. The bus could service us only once per week, but some work requested was urgent.  Then we used radio to help communicate. Travel was also very difficult because of the quality of the roads. if it rained, we had to take tractor to help transport us to the main road to catch the bus. It was very difficult at that time, however, it’s comfortable now.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

While in Laos, we also visited the Laos Women’s Shelter, led by visionary director, Madame Virith Khattignavong. The Asia Foundation was instrumental in helping to create the shelter and supporting its early work. The shelter is located on a large tract of land, which was provided by the government on long-term lease, surrounded by gardens and market produce. The shelter takes in girls and young women who have been affected by violence, and it provides them with access to formal education and apprenticeships in hairdressing, hospitality, textiles, and horticulture.

The girls and young women go to school each day and return to the shelter as their home and community. For those young women who want to gain livelihood skills, they can learn these skills within the shelter grounds. The shelter has also have developed a network of employers who employ the girls and women who have completed their studies or apprenticeships. This integrated approach ensures that there are sustainable livelihood opportunities for girls and young women who arrive at the shelter, providing increased freedom from violence and pathways to prosperity. Others can access scholarships and continue their study at college or university.

@ Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

The grounds themselves are lush and spacious and we visit a community garden planted out with vegetables and fruit and herbs that are abundant and inviting.  The gardens are well tended and provide an important outlet for the girls and young women to learn about nutrition while also testing their skills as cooks and horticulturalists.

I listen to some of the young women talking and laughing, then we visit one of the training areas where it is very quiet as these women concentrate on their work, and from time to time glance over at us. I’m as curious as the young women, and I’m struck by the quality of their work and their composure.

What’s essential in this work is supporting girls and women to be safe and free from violence and connecting them to pathways to education and employment so that they have the economic security to pursue their potential and passions. I think back to the women artisans we met and to the real joy they expressed in their art and work.

While in Laos, I also had time to discuss with Nancy the potential of creating an artisan market in Asia, drawing on the success of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market that has been going for 14 years and which attracts more than 20,000 buyers each year. What if we could create the opportunity for a similar market in Asia that would provide women artisans in Asia the opportunity to be connected to more buyers and markets, and to build year-round sustainability of their products? That is some of what we’re exploring at present in our discussions with buyers and artisans.

Several of my colleagues traveled to Santa Fe to join the women artisans from Laos, Bangladesh and Timor Leste whom we’d funded to be able to participate in this market. My colleague, Whitney, was also there to capture on film the journey these women had made and their experience of the market and the outcomes for these artisans.

I couldn’t be there as I was flying to London to take up a non-residential Atlantic Fellowship with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. This fellowship is one of several across the globe funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and is designed to support a corp of global practitioners working to address inequality in its many forms over a 20-year period. I’ll be sharing more about this experience in future blogs and this program inception was a powerful start to develop our thinking and action in relation to the inequalities we were focused on through our own work, for me most especially gender equality.

While I was in London I went to the Tate Modern and picked up one of the books written by Louise Bourgeois – one of the most provocative, creative and arresting sculptors and textile artists of this century. It was Bourgeois who said “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.”

She also said “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…” This resonated with me since it had been a few months since I’d taken time to draw, paint and dance. It was a reminder of not subsuming work and other commitments to the creative impulse to express and explore. There’s beauty and fire in taking up that invitation to enter another dimension by dancing, sculpting, painting, writing, filming and other creative forms.

After two weeks in London I was finally back on my boat. What joy!

A day later we held an event and pop-up shop in San Francisco for the artisan entrepreneurs who had traveled from Bangladesh, Laos and Timor Leste to Santa Fe so that we could welcome them to the Bay Area before they returned to their respective countries.

The color and energy these women brought with them through their textiles was contagious. The event we hosted was a riot of color and activity as guests exclaimed over the quality of the textiles and tapestries, and then went into a buying frenzy to purchase some of the gorgeous garments and crafts the artisans had for sale.

A year ago, this was just a dream. To find ways to get some women to the Santa Fe event, to explore a sister event in Asia and find donors to help make this a reality. Now it feels like we’re on our way.

On the other side of the world, in Darwin, Australia, enroute from Timor Leste to Sydney via Darwin, I recently interviewed a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women textile artists about their own work and art for an article in AQ: Australian Quarterly magazine.  One of my friends, and a great Australian leader, Lenore Dembski, who created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s fund (ATSI women’s fund) brought these women together at Paperbark Woman, her Darwin based outlet to showcase these textiles.

June Mills holding one of her hand designed and pained skirts
June Mills @ Paperbark Woman

One of the women, June Mills, is a musician and a member of the famed Mills Sisters group, as well as a gifted artist.Here’s what she said, as an excerpt from the interview when I asked her to share more about what painting her dreaming on clothing and creating other art meant to her:

June: It’s cultural maintenance, cultural knowledge. You know, we’re in a dominant culture, which suppresses our cultural business, so there was a definite need for me to make clothing that is representative of our culture, our tribal people.

That skirt of mine that I made, that you fell in love with, is the major Dreaming for the Larrakia people… And you’ll see the sea eagle, another major Dreaming. The sea eagle flying over Casuarina Beach. So that, to me — calling up our Dreaming — is giving our children strength in the knowledge of whom they are, their identity… With each generation, there’s less and less cultural knowledge and all being passed on. And so we really have to fight against that, push against that. Assimilation and integration is still going on in this country … to make us like every other Joe Blow. Well, no, we’re not. We are people of the land and that’s what my art is about.

Jane [interviewer]: June, do you see a connection between your music and your art?

June: Well, my friends here are saying it’s all about making yourself happy. I was thinking about [how] for a long time with my sisters we just sang [as the Mills Sisters] what everyone else wanted us to sing… But then, at some point, I started to make my own music that had much more cultural relevance to me… My music is very much a mixture of cultural business, healing business and fun business… One of the things I did as healing business was I wrote a song for my grandmother who was taken away from her country when she was only three years old and taken to Warrnambool to be a slave there — until she was too old and then she was sent back to the territory. But there was no record of where she came from, or of her family — nothing.

Miraculously, she found her way back to country because she remembered one word. And that word was her birth name, Kilngaree. She had her name changed five times and yet she remembered her birth name. She sung her way back here before she died… So I wrote that song, ’Sweet Child of Mine’, which has in it the line, ‘remember your name’. But that name… Kilngaree, means ‘a stream system’ in Larrakia, and so Kilngaree took my nanna right back to her birthplace. She had to ask around and people knew the language and said, ‘This way’. I finally found my own voice and I wouldn’t even say that it’s fully developed today.

The women speak about their need for support systems for these textile artists. Ideally an ATSI textile artist business incubator and manufacturing cooperative for women sewers and designers who can share facilities and lay out their work, and then a pop-up incubator in more rural and remote communities.

Another Aboriginal designer, Colleen Tighe-Johnson, whom I also interviewed for Australian Quarterly has had invitations to New York Fashion Week and Cannes International Film Festival.  In the article she said, “Our people are hurting; our people are dying. They need the connection to community and economic opportunity that will give them hope and focus.”

Colleen also dreams of creating a similar cooperative in Redfern in Sydney to provide pathways to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to be supported in developing their skills, designs and access to markets.

My own struggle and question, from the time I spend with the women in Laos and the time spent with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women artists, is how to connect these women to the funds and power they need to transform their lives.

Individual and institutional donors have so much money. The world is awash with money.  And yet so much of it bypasses those who have demonstrated time and time again the potency of their own work and potential to catalyze change in their countries and communities. As donors seek to aggregate their funding to reduce administrative costs, those at the frontline of change within their communities get left out.

The renewed focus and fascination with innovation frequently rewards those who are already well placed and positioned to receive the funding, further widening the divide with those on the margins.

We need a genuine commitment to funding grass roots groups, especially those led by women, and to ensuring they are included in policy forums and key places of influence – where their work on the ground can influence policies and laws and ensure an enabling environment for their work and creativity.

Funding these groups is important and yet inadequate if this funding isn’t combined with a commitment to support women leaders to assume power and influence in policy and legislative decision making and arenas. Without paying attention to the policy and legal factors that create an enabling environment as well as the social norms that sustain inequality, there’s a danger of ‘spinning wheels’ – i.e. getting the funds to groups without addressing the systemic and attitudinal factors that inhibit transformation.

[symple_testimonial by=”Diane Mariechild” fade_in=”false”]A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”[/symple_testimonial]


Back in Sausalito there’s a buttery yellow moon slung low over the water. I’m back again! So now, full circle, I return to the flowing tide of my boat life to draw from the energy and power of nature’s rhythms, and the sweet beauty of home.

Jane Sloane

Power of Artivism

Last year just before Australian singer/songwriter Shane Howard released his new album “Deeper South” I had the privilege to talk with him for a few hours. This year Australian Quarterly published my piece in their April 2016 Issue.

Artists, whether they be musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors or writers, have incredible potential to catalyze social change through the way they use their art.

I’ve long been drawn to the story of Shane Howard’s life, first as creator-singer of the band, Goanna, and later as a solo musician, Shane Howard continues to use his lyric power to reconnect Australians to spirit of place.

This spirit takes the form of connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ dreaming and creation stories and identity, and to the communal power of standing ground for what’s worth fighting for.


Shane Howard – Spirit of Place

[symple_testimonial by=”Shane Howard” fade_in=”false”]I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well.[/symple_testimonial]


Many things can be said of Shane Howard — that he’s an Australian musician, he’s a poet laureate of the people and he’s an artist activist who fuelled our consciousness of what it means to be Australian. As  the founder, in the 1970s, of the band, Goanna, Howard’s lyrics drew on his own journey into the interior — of himself, and of Aboriginal Australia. In so doing, Howard held up to us that cultural mirror of identity, land and dispossession, and then he used his music to engage us in a national conversation about those issues that continues to this day.

Shane Howard was born in Dennington, Victoria in 1955. As he recalls: ‘Where I grew up in south west Victoria, it’s Gunditjmara country and on the border between Gunditjmara and Girai Wurrung country. So Aboriginal people were a fact of life for us growing up but it was a very dispossessed reality. … My early secondary schooling goes something like “Aboriginal people lived here and then the first fleet came — colonial settlement — and it was all quite peaceful”. That was the popular narrative in terms of the history that we were taught. … [However,] what I saw around me was drunkenness, I saw Aboriginal people completely pushed to the fringes of society, discriminated against, the butt of jokes, you know, racism. Not in my own family but certainly in the wider world. …

‘My Dad had a very keen sense of justice … [and] Mum was a musician. She played music, she played piano and we sang as a family. … She instilled in us a love of music and, I suppose, the power of music too. …

‘There’s one … very beautiful moment for me that fed into my songwriting and a kind of “fire in the head” moment. … When I was only about 10 … [I heard] The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan.

‘We’d grown up with a lot of folk music around us … but Dylan brought something new to that whole genre. … He was speaking about contemporary issues, and I guess that was the great awakening. …

‘Song is one of the oldest and most transportable and transmissible forms of memory … and I still see myself as part of a troubadour tradition — and the balladeer, the storyteller. We were the media once and we would travel from place to place and take the stories of one place to another. And I still think that’s an important role of the songwriter and the singer to the communication of ideas. …’

Standing on Sacred Ground

When he was 19, Howard went hitchhiking across the country, and he recalls his own social awakening from these trips:

‘I felt a keen sense to write about my Australian experience. … I did lots of journeys. … It’s amazing how far 32 dollars and a guitar can get you. And of course, as I went further north, I met more and more Aboriginal people. … So my experience deepened, and I began to hear the stories of dispossession, of colonisation, of stolen generations, and of course, the questions became more amplified and the racism became far more conspicuous. …

‘The band [Goanna] had started by then. It was very, very early days, but I got very sick and very run down and I had to take a break, so I ended up going to Uluru by train and by bus. It was pretty basic in those days.

‘The first night I set up my tent and set up camp. The next morning I went to the store … and said to the people, “I’d like to pay my respects to the local people, and how would I do that?” And they pointed me in the direction of a house. …

‘And I went over to that house and knocked at the gate. An Aboriginal guy came to the gate and [said], “What do you want?” and I said, “I’ve just come to pay my respects”.

‘In the end, they let me in and … there was an old Aboriginal man sitting there, whom I learnt, very much later, of course, was a very senior custodian for that country, with his wives and children and extended family all sitting around a small fire. I went over to where he was and felt the gravity of that moment. … And he said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I just want to pay my respects and walk the country. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m not supposed to go or go to any places I’m not supposed to be”. And he was lovely; he said, “No, you’re right, you’re right … most of the places where you’re not supposed to go are marked and just respect that”.

‘Over the next few days, … as people went past my camp, they would wave, and … I felt like a welcome visitor and not an intruder. … [One day,] there was a little sign on the toilet block that a white woman, a non-indigenous woman, was putting up. It just said, “Inma, other side of the rock at sunset.” And I said, “What’s an Inma?” And she said, “Ah, a Corroboree dance, you know, songs.” … So I walked to the other side of the rock. It’s a long way, 9 kilometres. When I got there, there was a group of people set up, sun going down, darkness fell, … the dancers came into the firelight, the body paints made them look like spirit figures — in the firelight, against their dark skin.  

‘And at the moment the women began singing and chanting, the full moon rose over the back of Uluru, and I describe that experience as my “wake up” moment. I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well. …

‘What I didn’t realise until years later was that … [these people] were coming back to reclaim their connection with Uluru after their own disconnection and removal. … And that dance, that Inma that night was a very important moment for them as well, and so it was those experiences that really coalesced in the first two verses of “Solid Rock”.

‘It was an experience to … go to sleep out on the ground, under the stars, like you were on a floating platform in space with a circle of Aboriginal people all speaking across the camp to each other in their language until the voices died down to a murmur and everyone goes to sleep under a full moon. …

‘I remember the very first night writing, “Out here nothing changes, not in a hurry anyway”. And that song then grew out of that experience, and then the last verse grew out of going back to Alice Springs after that experience and seeing — being confronted, after that very gentle experience, with the harsh reality of racism, colonisation, defamation, drunkenness, violence, dispossession. …

‘I saw something profoundly beautiful, and then I came back into the Western world out of that experience and saw something really ugly and I wondered who was civilised. And some things are so compelling that you can’t turn away. …

‘We’ve grown up with images of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and with all the imagery of Martin Luther King … and Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” and those very powerful songs and all the great black artists as well, [like] Sam Cooke. … All of a sudden, it’s real to me in my own country and I felt embarrassed and ashamed of the country I was living in, and I suppose when you see something so wrong you either turn away or [you act]. …

‘I got deeply radicalised by the experience and I couldn’t shut up about it, but most people just glazed over. … But of course, bearing in mind during the seventies there’d been …  great Aboriginal activists at work: Gary Foley, Charlie Perkins, Cheryl Buchanan, these people I came to know later, who were rattling the can. …

‘[And me,] I’m a young bloke starting out in a band, with a young family … all I could do was write a song. I didn’t know at that time how persuasive that might become.’   

That Spirit Following You

In 1982, Howard’s band, Goanna, released its debut album, Spirit of Place, featuring the rock anthem ‘Solid Rock’. Spirit of Place was an album that ignited the social conscience of a new generation, fuelled in particular by the raw power of the lyrics of ‘Solid Rock’, the album’s distinctive didgeridoo feature (played by Billy Inda) and the use of traditional clapping sticks.

‘I felt strongly that a band called Goanna … had a really strong sense of trying to articulate an Australian sound because, at that time, … Australians … weren’t writing about Australian subject matter seriously.

‘And I was influenced by people like Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson … and Professor Manning Clark … . He was the one who … used the phrase “spirit of place”. … He was saying that the land, the landscape, the colour of the sky, all this will inevitably determine who will become an Australian in our evolution as a national identity. And so, … who better to go with as a guide into that understanding as a young evolving nation than the First Peoples who have been here for thirty, forty, fifty, sixty thousand years and have an intimate knowledge of the country, the land and landscape.

‘So, Manning Clark was very, very influential … and we approached him about writing the liner notes for the album, thinking he’d say no, but he actually agreed to do that. It was an unusual thing to have an emeritus professor of Australian history write out the liner notes for a pop album.’

The success of ‘Solid Rock’ gave Howard a platform for a wider public conversation about race and justice.

‘[The song] threw me headfirst into mainstream Australia and … popular culture at the same time as it threw me headfirst deeper into Aboriginal culture, and those two things were quite oppositional in many ways. …

‘An old Aboriginal fella said to me many years later after the song was released, “Ah, Shane, you’ve been going to that country, to Uluru, and that spirit been followin’ you around”. … Some things come from you and some things come through you, but I think in many ways that was a song that came through me. … It still continues to do that and it calls me powerfully every time I sing it, to really give your spirit. …

‘Once “Solid Rock” [came out] … there [were] Aboriginal people coming to every gig, coming to check out these white fellas. … People were telling me stories of the “Stolen Generations”. ……

‘Archie Roach was one of those kids, the great Aboriginal singer songwriter, who was taken away from the family and community … 20 kilometres away from where I was living. And of course, Archie and I became great friends over the years, and he and I are the same age and we often ruminated that if … he’d not been taken away, we may have been great friends [earlier]. We would have grown up together in the same town. A lot got broken.’

Something Worth Fighting For

‘[In 1972,] Lake Pedder was dammed in Tasmania for hydroelectricity. … I remember when first I saw the photos of Olegas Truchanas, his photos of Lake Pedder. It was enough to make you weep for the loss of what can only be described as the “goddess’s bath”, one of the natural wonders of the world. I think that’s true for a lot of my generation, that we felt a deep sense that there should be no such loss like that again.

‘So then to go to the Franklin River, at the invitation of Bob Brown … and to be there with hundreds and hundreds of young people my own age who gave up their own time … to be there in very harsh conditions in the middle of the bush … all these people, with this great energy and exuberance and dedication to what they were doing, that was inspiring to me. … I had a week to write that song [“Let the Franklin Flow”] before we performed it live at “Stop the Drop” concert in front of 70,000 people in Melbourne. We had the ear of the media at the time because we were coming off the back of the success of “Solid Rock”. So we had the opportunity to get that song out there and on to the airwaves … before the … federal election. …

‘Peter Dombrovskis’ photo [of “Rock Island Bend” became] the front cover of the single, and … there were … full-page ads in newspapers all around the country that said, “Would you vote for a government that would destroy this?” That was an amazing campaign; it was the first for the Greens in Australia, and it was really the awakening of the environmental movement in Australia.’

The song, ‘Let the Franklin Flow’, became an anthem for those working to save the Franklin and, ultimately, a victory song when the river was saved.

Later, it also led Shane Howard to spend more time working with young people and fuelling their social conscience.

‘I’ve done work with a lot of kids in schools … and I say to them, “Today we’ll learn a song in an Australian language”. And they look at you strangely because they think they’re speaking an Australian language, but of course, they are not. And we teach them “Solid Rock” in Pitjantjatjara. …

‘I’d love to think that we would adopt an indigenous language as a … national language, so that we have a way of speaking [to] each other as a nation that is not just English. … It goes right back to what Manning Clark said about spirit of place, that, inevitably, the country, the land, the light will determine who we become as Australian people, and we already have a beautiful model here before us in terms of the First Nations people, so why not follow that lead?’


Last year, Howard released his 13th solo album, ‘Deeper South’, which is drawn from 5 years of songwriting.

‘This is an album of deep material … I deal with the sea and there’s a lot of references to the ocean. I’ve lived in a lot of places … most of my life has taken place around the sea, and ironically, I’m best known for a song about the desert.

‘We’re at the edge of the world here and anywhere south of here, [like Antarctica] … its wild country.’

Wildness in all its dimensions has had a defining influence on Howard, and so have other artists. ‘I’m so drawn to the old masters like the Joni Mitchells, the Van Morrisons, the Leonard Cohens, the Bob Dylans. These artists who have lived an artistic life, and continue to do so, they’ve inspired me since my childhood and they continue to speak to me about living an artistic life and staying true to the past. Making art that is useful and not just entertainment. …

‘I think we lost something in the last 30 years. We were on the path to somewhere and we lost that. … Modernity came on us very shortly after our establishment as a nation, and by that I mean “as a colonial nation”, so we didn’t have time in isolation to develop a really strong cultural identity. So we have to work really hard if we’re not to just be swept up into the powerful forces of an American cultural imperialism. …

‘[However,] there is something in us as humans that is about the joy we derive from doing good for the other. There’s something hardwired in us about being decent and doing the right thing.

‘I have to believe we’ll get it together despite [laughter] everything and deal with these big issues like climate change and the ongoing issue of injustice, and we will, despite everything we do [laughter] to damn ourselves, we will find the pathway to decency. And you know, there is more good in the world than there is the opposite and we’ll find a path forward. But our art is playing a central role in prompting our conscience.’

In this respect, Shane Howard seems attuned to another of his muses, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, ‘In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something has happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.’

As de Chardin encapsulates, ‘Love is … the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world. … Love, in fact, is the expression and the agent of universal synthesis’ and ‘The day will come when, after harnessing the ether the winds, the  tides, and gravitation, we shall harness … the energies of love. And on that day, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.’

Shane Howard’s music has about it the qualities of infinite space, energy, timelessness — and definitely fire — that also seem to infuse his journey and his social activism. His hopefulness, social witness, attunement to the land, and to the universal, mythological and cosmological is, in itself, a love story.

[symple_box color=”white” fade_in=”false” float=”center” text_align=”left” width=””]Shane Howard is one Australia’s most influential writers and singers. He was the founding member of the iconic Australian band, Goanna, whose first album, Spirit of Place, went to the top of the charts in its first week and was released in 35 territories worldwide. The first single from the album, ‘Solid Rock’, challenged colonization and injustice experienced by Aboriginal people. With Archie Roach, Howard won a 2015 APRA Screen Music Award for ‘A Secret River’. In 2000, Howard was awarded a fellowship by the Music Fund of the Australia Council for his contributions to Australian musical life.[/symple_box]

Australian Quarterly April 2016 p26

Jane Sloane