Leadership? It must be up to us. Graduation speech for Torrens University design programs

Thank you so much, Uncle Ray, for welcoming us onto your country here on the sovereign land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

How thrilling to be where you are right now. You’ve challenged yourself in entirely new ways, met some amazing people, completed a degree and how you’re here. How important to be here, now, together.

Because right now, the world needs you.

We need new and impactful and compelling ways to communicate the ideas that will change the world.

We need to transform our public spaces, both offline and on, into environments that welcome the different, the generous and the visionary. And we need to overcome the fearful, hostile ways that have resurfaced in our culture. We need to do that fast and we need to do it together.

Because there’s one sure-fire way to make sure that we continue disrespecting First Nations culture and sovereignty, that we continue destroying the environment, debasing the media, trashing public health and education, deriding cultural diversity and undermining artistic courage. There’s actually one really very easy way to achieve all of that – and it’s not even very hard. Just close your eyes. Do nothing. Keep quiet.

You, instead, every one of you, you’ve signed up to make that change. To communicate that change. To be that change.

Here you are. Ready. You’re here for good. You’re not just here to do good things. You’re here for a lifetime. You’re here for the planet’s lifetime. You’re here for good.

Education is the first step, and you’ve taken that step. A design education and an arts education offers us creative frameworks for a lifetime of good. Resourceful, critical thinking that leaps confidently into the unknown – that’s what creative education teaches.

I’ve seen first-hand how poor education in a politically hostile environment can lead to lifelong anxiety, racism, sexism, homophobia, agoraphobia, all of the phobias and fears – and even violence. I’ve experienced all of that first-hand because that’s the kind of household I grew up in. Anxious, fearful, and violent.

My parents were only able to complete four years of education because the entire first decade of their lives was war. Nazis occupied my father’s house. Nazis burnt down my mother’s village. WW2 and the Greek civil war that followed devastated the nation, tore families apart, imprisoned and tortured thousands, destroyed cultural, communications and supply networks, and starved villagers to death. One in ten Greeks died. Those who survived were either magnificently resilient with a passion for life, or debilitatingly traumatised, passing those traumas on to the next generation. My generation.

Like many of you, I’m part of that first generation in our family to go to uni – part of that generation who continue trying to do our best to choose resilience over fear.

I wanted to immerse in the world of ideas, so I studied philosophy, media and law. I wanted those ideas to propel our thinking and expand our world, so I studied art, design and architecture. I wanted to design the frameworks from which new thinking and new work could emerge, and I’ve since led many arts organisations, as was mentioned in that generous introduction. I’ve worked as a mechanic, a cleaner, a bookseller, a journalist, an academic. I’ve spent good time in Greece harvesting olives, repairing fences and herding goats – and let me tell you, that teaches you a great deal about leadership! I’ve even worked on a massive interdisciplinary architectural project at the Bauhaus – and I’ll be back there later this year to celebrate the centenary of the most influential school for creative thinking the world has ever known.

And when we study things and disciplines we also find that we’re learning about ourselves, our values, our bodies. What matters to you? I mean, what really matters most? How will you keep finding those little tactics and practices for critical reflection in your life? How will you make sure you’re not hijacked by somebody else’s agenda before you’ve made the time to articulate your own values? This is what graduation means: all of this ceremony, all this recognition, your friends, your family… Graduation is a moment of transition. A moment of truth. A turning point. Graduation is a recalibration of your body, your mind, your entire being.

Resilience strengthens our bodies – and as a woman with disability that’s something I have to factor into my movements every day – but resilience is not enough.

I don’t just want to counter the kinds of cynical inaction that benefit the already privileged. I don’t just want to become more resilient to fear and hate. I want to make a personal commitment to the future we design together.

That’s a personal commitment, and it’s a creative commitment, but it’s also a political commitment.

Political not in the partisan sense but in the public, the civic, the space in which decisions are made that affect us all. Political in the sense that I live my ethics publicly.

My political work is really just a set of conversations. Amplifying the voice of the artist to enrich the national conversation. Contributing the arts perspective to policy scrutiny and budget analysis. Identifying artists and colleagues who are keen to engage in those discussions and inform the decisions that affect our lives. Yes, we elect people to make decisions on our behalf, but increasingly politicians are speaking to fewer and fewer people, and a smaller and smaller diversity of people, to make those decisions.

Leadership isn’t something we can delegate. Leadership isn’t something we offload. Each one of us has the power to advocate for what we believe in. Nobody can take that away from us. When the easiest thing in the world is to do nothing, we need to ask ourselves whose interests are served when we don’t do our best to create our future with courage.

Leadership? It must be up to us.

The people I admire most are those thinkers and makers who don’t wait to be told that leadership is up to them, who don’t wait to be told that that the future is theirs to create. The language, the objects, the tools, the institutions and the vision that comprise our world – we don’t have to accept these as ready-made. We make them. We live them. We create and we lead.

That’s the kind of person I try to be.

I’m doing by best.

The rest is up to you.

 

 

Today I was guest speaker at the Torrens University graduation ceremony for design students across multiple programs. ‘Here for good’ is the ethos of Laureate International Universities, of which Torrens University is a member. Image: from The Gesture Project (2015) by Nathan Gray, part of the St Arnaud Street Museum program. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.