I’M THE GENERATION that could spell the end of nature.
I’m the generation that could farewell real-life connections.
I’m the generation that is facing the biggest inequality the world has seen: sixty-two people hold half the world’s wealth.
I’m the generation that has been swallowed by the cleverest advertising device of them all.
I’m the generation that has played a part in the destruction of the fourth estate.
I’m the generation that has created heroes from celebrities.
I’m the generation that has not valued the arts in Australia, allowing them to erode.
I’m the generation that has fuelled the rise of reality TV. This year Channel Nine debuts Murder Calls, a show about real-life murders and people who called the police – how long before we are comfortable watching public executions?
I’m the generation that will have to rise.
SURE, MY GENERATION has inherited much of this reality. But it will be on our watch that it’s sustained. The game of life has been played for many a season, yet we’re the ones set to play in one of the most critical times in the history of our species. At a rapid pace, we are flying towards a dystopia that could well be lived in an alternate reality – if it isn’t already. The freedom promised by technology may in fact prove to limit mindsets – just look at our track record as the first generation to come of age in the digital world.
As we’ve moved from being eighteen, voting age, and into our twenties we have allowed the creation of a more conservative and divided Australian political climate. The clouds of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War loom large in the background of One Nation’s return.
We are helping build an Australia that closes its borders, daring to defy our national anthem: ‘To make this Commonwealth of ours/Renowned of all the lands/For those who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share.’
Not a great wrap sheet.
AT THIRTY-ONE, I’ve never been more frightened for the world that we are creating. At times I feel helpless, but always I try to crack through the apathy and take control from these forces, exercise some of the power at my disposal. These words hurt to write. They hurt, because I feel them when I look at my little sister and brother on their tiny devices. I want to throw the phones in the bin, plug the landline back in, and let everyone take a breath. These kids are addicted: tapping away at the dinner table, desperate to get their next hit of dopamine delivered in the form of a message or a like.
Social media had a glory period – a time when the possibilities seemed endless. In 2005, when YouTube launched, the AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), which I founded, reached fifty thousand views on two videos alone. People simply hit the front page of YouTube, searched for education and non-profits, and found us. It was a clean search. No major algorithm or gaming principles. Instagram, before Facebook bought it, grew massively because there was an element of fairness: if you followed someone you were guaranteed to see what they posted. Now there’s an algorithm and sponsored posts – the fairness and many of the possibilities have gone.
On 22 June 2016 I was sitting in Anaheim, Los Angeles, at the VIP party for VidCon, the largest online video conference in the world, being held for the biggest YouTube stars on the planet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was uncomfortable. At night I’d hang with the stars, sneaking into VIP parties with a mate, and during the day we’d hear lectures from Silicon Valley experts. One of the themes was the need for more content. More more more. Hadn’t we heard that line before? ‘So just remember guys, create more, post more content – four videos a day, twelve posts a day. You’ll be rewarded. Everyone has a voice. Make sure your content is native to your phone when you post it, this heightens engagement.’ Native content also has the bonus of providing the social media organisations with the rich data that comes when someone posts from their mobile: where they are, what they are looking at, what drives them to engage with the topic.
I looked around the room thinking, ‘Man, where did the journalists go? Who stole the mic from the people trained to help us understand the world? The people who were held accountable by moral guidelines, by a desire to search for the truth?’
I don’t use social media. I find I get sucked into a vacuum. I don’t like how it makes me judge my value from what others think about my screen persona. It just feels weird. Plus it’s addictive.
We live in an unprecedented period of human interaction, fuelled by the internet. Social media has created a new class of power, power that is driven by data – our data, our lives reduced to clicks and likes. A power that buys and sells us without our even knowing it. Our data is our life, and that information is used by ‘Mr Algorithm’ to tailor information for us, to draw our attention to things we already like.
Our main sources of information are selected by the data that defines us: location, ethnicity, sense of humour, lifestyle, sexuality, gender, education, detailed analyses of our behaviour patterns drawn from thoughts and countless choices. We are told more information is available than ever, but every moment Mr Algorithm gets cleverer and we receive an even smaller slice of humanity.
IMAGINE A TEACHER standing in front of a class and only telling them what they like to hear, and what they already know. Hardly the way to advance human civilisation and thought.
But I still believe in my little brother and sister and their generation, the kids in countless classrooms. And I believe in you, my friends and peers – my generation.
I believe that you have a huge capacity for thought, empathy, knowledge and understanding.
I believe that you can process videos and stories for longer than two and a half minutes.
I believe you can read and comprehend complex articles.
I believe you are innately curious and that you want to be challenged more.
I believe you are desperate to be pushed to your limits.
I believe that we have to experience hardship for true happiness. And I believe you know that.
It’s only when we commit to work at it, to endure hardship, that we will be able to come together. We are not better alone. We are not better when a small group of white men hold power. We are not better when people of difference are made to feel bad because of their difference. You and I are different. We all are. And it is difference that makes human beings so special. It gives us the chance to fly, to sing, to imagine.
I want to see a world where difference unites and inspires us. I want to see a world where ideas, imagination and depth are rewarded.
There are battles etched throughout human history where demons have stood at the gates of power beating down the better angels. That time is once more upon us. It is time for good people to act. And I’m putting my hand up. I’m all in. No holds barred. Good people are the silent majority – our better angels can fly, but we’ve got to show the same work ethic, drive and purpose as the power hungry who currently have control of the world. The people who say they know what’s best for us, and get rich selling our lives.
THOSE OF US who live in comfort need to quickly start making ourselves a little more uncomfortable. It’s a big, confronting combination of thoughts, but I think it’s exactly what we have to grapple with – especially those of us leading and educating others. This is what drives us at AIME. We provide a structured mentoring program for Indigenous kids in Australia, which in 2017 we are set to launch around the world, with one fundamental tenant: to educate, we must open up the minds of kids, not close them down. We must challenge and make them uncomfortable, especially those who have even more difficult roads ahead. And we must teach in a way that gives agency to our students.
AIME came from humble beginnings: I started it at nineteen, staring at some of the challenges we were facing, specifically at the disastrous gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The accepted narrative was that Indigenous inequality was permanent. I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now. The most alarming human challenges can be arrested with human solutions – by changing one life at a time and multiplying that change as quickly as possible.
In 2005 we started with the simple intention of connecting university students with Indigenous high-school kids. To connect those who had power with those who were being left behind. We wanted the kids to see their identity as a reason for success, not an excuse for failure. We wanted them to feel strong in two worlds. We wanted to unlock the magic of learning.
Since the first group of twenty-five kids, more than ten thousand Indigenous high schoolers and five thousand university students have now been through our program. It’s the largest volunteer movement of university students in Australian history. We’ve managed to close the education gap for this group: where just 42 per cent of the nation’s Indigenous seventeen to twenty-four-year olds participate in the workforce, training programs or further education after Year 12, around three quarters of the kids participating in the AIME program are involved in work or study – on par with the national average for non-Indigenous students. And more Year 12 students involved with AIME graduate with a 93.7 per cent completion rate, compared to 87.9 per cent for non-Indigenous Australians and 61.5 per cent of -Indigenous kids who do not have our support.
A key to AIME’s success is etched in the same approach taken in Dr Chris Sarra’s pioneering education work: high expectations. With relentless positivity we push the kids to reposition their psychological frameworks around identity so they can walk with pride – honouring their history, loving being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and being free to take on whatever shape a life on earth might look like. We give these youngsters responsibility, we expect them to work hard, to be disciplined, to be respectful, and they are rewarded with relationships and results. The ‘how’ piece is relatively simple: we expect the best.
From the first meeting we say: ‘If you want a pathway through school and into university or a job, you have to meet us halfway. If you are willing to step up, we’ll walk every step of the way with you, if not, the world ain’t gonna hold your hand, so neither are we.’ The youngsters then apply for a position, interview with us from as young as age twelve, and set themselves on a journey which sees them tackle ideas around identity, kindness, racism, imagination. They deliver speeches as the first Indigenous prime minister or leader of the new colony on Mars, they learn to fail – in fact they are encouraged to see failure as normal – leaving the idea of shame in their past. They push, they try, and they are rewarded with the gift of kindness, love and value. We see these kids.
It’s often the most disadvantaged, the misfits, who are yearning to be pushed to do more, to make an impact and challenge authority. When I look at a kid who is struggling to find herself or is getting in trouble, or can’t find her place, my solution is to give that kid power. Let her run the classroom, challenge her to become school captain, to lead, to bundle that energy into the creation of content, into the development of ideas. The most tormented minds are often the most brilliant.
BUT AIME HASN’T gone far enough. Most programs in the non-profit sector are ‘for’ someone who is disadvantaged. What if we’ve got it wrong? What if in fact the group we were ‘serving’ were the ones that held the solution? With 207,000 Indigenous kids in school, there is no way AIME could ever support them all. We could work with say, ten thousand kids, engaging around three thousand uni students as mentors. But we wouldn’t get close to the most important endgame, solving the problem: ending educational inequality for Indigenous kids. This is a big problem to solve, but we are kidding ourselves if we try to address an issue but don’t have an endgame where the issue is solved.
So we’re going to flip our model– see if we can mobilise the eight thousand or so Indigenous kids and two thousand uni students to become mentors for the other two hundred thousand. Ten thousand mentors suddenly at the ready. Kids leading the way, taking the reins. Think about it, if each one of our ten thousand can find a way to work with twenty kids each, we are there. This can happen through setting up mentoring programs for their local primary schools, or sister-school relationships with remote or regional schools. Running in parallel to AIME’s work are existing programs already doing brilliant work, plus those kids who are already rising on their own with strong families, building on the work of our ancestors who fought for the rights we have today.
If we are willing to face up to the complete challenge, we can actually imagine a way of getting it done. I love mentoring because it is one of the few structures that can provide an excuse for different people, who have no other connection through work, family or friendship, to come together and try to work through their respective hopes, dreams, challenges – to take an intellectual and emotional dance around the topic of life. Mentoring may just be the method to help us overcome the challenges of technology and isolation, to help us work out how to change the world. By reaching out to one person who is different and less fortunate, listening and offering knowledge, the world becomes a fairer place.
In 2017, our small army will strive to be trusted role models, to help make sense of the world as we know it. We will not only drive at the heart of Indigenous educational inequality, but will tackle inequality across the globe, because we believe:
It is only through human relationships that humanity will survive.
It is only through conversations with strangers and giving our knowledge to others that we will continue to practise empathy and kindness.
It is only through becoming better role models, and better mentors ourselves, that our kids will put down the phones, and open their eyes to a world that is hurting and calling out for help.
It’s time for mentors in my generation to rise and take the lead, to throw off the shackles of being on the receiving end of history, technology and inequality, and to find a new way – one respectful conversation at a time.