April 19, 2017

Annabelle Pendlebury

As part of the Truth 4 Youth team, I was very excited to attend the first ever Victorian Youth Summit, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday March 31st. We entered a room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, with an expansive view overlooking the lush green oval that is Melbourne’s pride and joy. Around 400 young people were gathered and ready to share with the Victorian State government their views on key issues affecting young people.

It became clear as the day progressed that the grand venue was a reflection of the big ideas and aspirations filling the room.

Minister for Youth Affairs, Jenny Mikakos said the day was for the “government [to] engage with young people… what better way to kick off National Youth Week?”

Throughout the day, the focus was not only on celebrating Victoria’s diversity but enabling the wide-ranging voices in our community to inform Australia’s future.

The event commenced with a welcome to country by an Aboriginal elder, Uncle Perry. Next up was an impressive performance by Brent, Mitch and Benji from the Culture Evolves dance group. The talented trio mixed digeridoo and traditional dancing with hip-hop inspired moves. They demonstrated how “culture evolves” with time, but also highlighted how the traditions of our First Peoples should remain at the heart of the Australian way of life.

Brent summed up the spirit of determination and hope for the future that was present throughout the day. He said, in his speech following the dance performance, “Australia has still got a long way to go… Racism is everywhere. Erasing all that, so my son can live in a world free of [racism], is what drives me.”

Mitch said, “A giggle goes a long way. It’s a great opening, no matter the colour of your skin!”

After the fun and rousing performance by the three young men, the next item on the agenda was a Q&A Panel. The panel included 7 members who answered the audience’s questions on issues important to young people.

The panel soon developed into a lively conversation between speakers and audience members. The first issue up for discussion was mental health.

Kate O’Neill is a social worker (with a background in mental health) and was a speaker on the panel. Kate said mental health should not only be considered in a medical framework, but as a part of everyday life. “Taking care of [your] mental health is something you can do at every point in your life,” she said.

Tarneen Onus-Williams, a Gunditjmara woman, Support Facilitator at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service Co-op and Executive Member of the Koorie Youth Council, stated “A lot of young Indigenous people experience trans-generational trauma …[and] are dealing with that trauma everyday – this is a different kind of mental health issue to those [experienced] in the mainstream.”

Tackling discrimination was a key topic, with a huge number of questions texted in by the young people in attendance.

One of the panellists who addressed this was Omar Al Kassab, a Syrian refugee who has shared his story of hope and survival across many platforms including a TEDx Canberra talk and via school presentations with the Banyule Council and the CMY. Omar said it is possible to “counter stereotypes [about refugees] by helping them get engaged in the community… Many people like me fear getting involved, perhaps due to backlash. I think we should encourage those people. This is a way of meeting people, helping them to ignore the negative perceptions in the media.”

Meanwhile Tina Hosseini, Youth Commissioner for the Victorian Multicultural Commission, emphasised that our differences should be embraced. “It is important to showcase positive stories, to create positive perceptions of [multicultural] young people,” she said. “In Victoria, we have such a multicultural state… we should be promoting the idea of acceptance of everyone, because our differences are what make us unique.”

Tarneen added “If you’ve got a phone, you can educate yourself! Educate yourself about people of colour, transgender people, etc.”

Kochava Lilit, a queer/trans and disability rights activist on the panel, was quick to point out that only “privileged people can access those resources” and that it “may be more difficult for people with disabilities”.

Kochava was also vocal about changing the stereotypes surrounding non-binary people and the stereotypes regarding disability.

“First, with disability space, there’s a lot of things about the way we frame it that need to change. For example, in the mainstream media having a disability is often described as a ‘tragedy’”.

“Also, our understanding of gender is often very binary. We have a long way to go with this but there are a lot of ways we can work against [it]. For example, for English teachers that are assigning books in classes – what’s the representation like?” they said.

Other topics brought up during the panel included lowering the legal driving age in Victoria and youth unemployment.

After the discussion by the panellists, it was time for the breakaway workshop groups, to directly record what young people had to say on these matters.

The Minister for Youth Affairs said it was a day for young people to “advise the government on youth policy”. Indeed, at the workshop on mental health that I attended, the suggestions were flowing.

The room was alive with chatter, as everyone at the round tables canvased solutions to the challenges facing young people in terms of the affordability and accessibility of mental health services. Many young people strongly advocated for greater awareness-raising strategies, to alert young people of the assistance that is available in schools and in the community.

At our table, we discussed the newly rolled out ‘National Disability Insurance Scheme’ and its funding for mental health issues, along with funding schemes in schools and free counselling services at headspace centres across Victoria. However, it was widely regarded by the young people at our table that all of these options were largely unheard of or overlooked.

Solutions that were suggested aligned with what was said by Kate O’Neill during the panel, that “many young people want more strategies taught in schools.”

The inaugural Victorian Youth Summit successfully had young brains fired up and many solutions were devised. The next step will be implementing these ideas via the Victorian Youth Congress, which will present the issues identified at the Summit to the State Government.

If you would like to work on these issues with the Victorian Government as a part of the Youth Congress, you can submit an online application here.

-Annabelle Pendlebury

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