COVID-19 shows why Communities in Control is more important than ever

Posted on 26 Nov 2020

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Against the odds, the 2020 Communities in Control conference was one of the liveliest ever.

An annual highlight of the calendar for community leaders – normally held in Melbourne in May – the two-day event was forced online by COVID-19 this year and rescheduled for November 16–17.

CIC 2020 resources: Videos, transcripts, podcasts, program
(Find full transcripts, audio and video here soon)

Any doubts about whether the online conference would generate the buzz delegates have come to expect were quickly quashed as 600 enthusiastic participants tuned in from every corner of the nation alongside a handful of friends from over the Tasman.

The opening minutes saw a tsunami of insight, fury, optimism, action, intelligence and emotion – and that was just delegates diving into the live conference chat.

From the welcome to country to the rousing Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration by Paul Bongiorno, every contribution from the 17 speakers and hundreds of delegates built on the promise and premise of the event: that when communities are in charge of their own destinies and are able to set their own priorities, Australia is a happier, healthier and livelier place.

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Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty welcomed 600 delegates from around Australia, and a handful from New Zealand.

When Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty took to the stage from Our Community House in North Melbourne, on Wurundjeri country, his address set a tone of hope rising from despair.

“This year’s conference title is ‘Connection, Creativity, Community: Finding Hope in a Climate of Crisis’, and when we settled on that title last October, little did we know what further crisis was about to hit us,” Mr Moriarty said.

“And throughout this whole series of crises, when it sometimes seemed that hope was nowhere to be found, I remembered we had Communities in Control coming up, and that it would be the best place in the world to find hope – amongst like-minded souls who had a passion for people and society.”

The conference was largely free of technical glitches, although WHYLD Community Group delegate Meryl Knoll had to overcome one of her own. When storms took out the power supply in Victoria’s Yarra Valley the night before the conference, she was forced to crank up a generator to ensure she didn’t miss a beat of the electrifying event.

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Uncle Jack Charles kick-started the event with a Welcome to Country to remember.

Indigenous recognition sets the scene

The first guest was Uncle Jack Charles for the traditional Indigenous welcome to country, which was streamed live from Our Community headquarters.

The “grandfather of Aboriginal theatre”, actor, musician, author and all-round larrikin is a member of the Stolen Generation who has navigated homelessness, heroin, jail and redemption on a path to helping others.

It was Uncle Jack’s first visit to Our Community House, but he felt welcomed himself when he spotted its new two-storey-high mural featuring North Melbourne AFL player Tarryn Thomas “taking a knee” below the words “Treaty Respect”.

“It’s a wonderful acknowledgement,” Uncle Jack said.

His charming and heartfelt welcome did so much to impress delegates that Mr Moriarty swiftly invited him back for a keynote at next year’s event.

Minutes later, and with another acknowledgement of Australia’s Indigenous heritage, the first of many tears flowed as award-winning singer Katie Noonan opened her performance from Gubbi Gubbi country in Queensland with an emotional rendition of ‘A Song of Hope’ by poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

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Award-winning singer and songwriter Katie Noonan sung to the crowd from her home studio.

Conference talent focus on actions, self-care for leaders

Neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr was the first of many whip-smart presenters who shared information that community leaders could act on immediately, such as research showing that the best leaders were those with “clear purpose”, “strong values” and “pragmatic optimism”.

First-time delegate Nicola Mackay summed up the mood of many in the fast-flowing chat.

“This is my first CIC and I feel flooded with relief that I have found my tribe. To be (virtually) surrounded by smart engaged and compassionate people who are making the changes we need to see is heartwarming”.

The next sessions drew on the powerful experience and knowledge of women who are tackling the effects of climate change head-on.

Professor Hilary Bambrick, on Gubbi Gubbi country on the Sunshine Coast, laid out some of the irrefutable evidence on climate change and its effects on current and future generations. As she pointed out, the COVID-19 emergency has shown that Australians are able to act on threats in a way that is “swift, decisive and based on evidence and expert opinion”.

Adjunct Professor Susan Pascoe AM was a commissioner in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Speaking from Our Community House, she stressed that there were solutions available that would both address climate change and help with the COVID-19 recovery.

“There are more jobs in a renewable recovery than fossil fuel. It’s very powerful stuff. If we want to do the right thing by the Australian community, that’s where we move.”

The emotionally charged address that followed, from Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action president Jo Dodds, will stick with delegates for a long time.

Ms Dodds’ description of devastating bushfires and the destruction of scores of homes in her street in Tathra, NSW – on the lands of the Yuin nation – was a powerful prelude to a simple plea and warning to others.

“Do not wait until the fire is at your door before you do something to bring change.”

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Adjunct Professor Susan Pascoe AM (L) discussed the steps we must take to combat the ongoing bushfire crisis in Australia, before Jo Dodds (R) shared her lived experience as a bushfire survivor

Delegates had barely caught their breath when journalist, mental health advocate and author Georgina Dent described her journey to a nervous breakdown and back.

She spoke from Cammeraygal country, in Willoughby, NSW.

Again, emotions ran high as delegates recognised symptoms they’d seen in others and, in some cases, in themselves. But the main message – here and throughout the conference – was one of hope.

“Escaping the clutches of anxiety was unbelievably liberating,” Ms Dent said.

She encouraged others not to suffer in silence, declaring, “If you are struggling with your mental health, seeking help is not a weakness; it’s a strength.”

And all of that happened before lunch, during which delegates dabbled in video networking bingo, connecting at random with like-minded delegates.

Seeing the world differently with planning, data, and… a pirate

In the tradition of unconventional speakers, Peter Colacino, the policy and research executive director at Infrastructure Australia, speaking from Gadigal country in Sydney, revealed how the organisation is rethinking the way communities are built, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

For the first time the organisation has set out the value of “social infrastructure” such as schools, hospitals and parks, and in a talk ranging across every piece of the puzzle, Mr Colacino said the pandemic had led to a spike in telehealth services and greater demand for local and regional parks, waterways and cultural centres.

Centre for Social Impact CEO Kristy Muir – in Dharawal country, NSW – explained a new measuring stick being used to gauge good both nationally and internationally, the Social Progress Index. As Australia travels the long road to recovery following COVID-19 lockdowns, “We will only see resilience and recovery if we can address our social progress,” she said.

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Self-described pirate Tom Nash discussed the pros and cons of our use of technology

No one will forget self-described pirate Tom Nash, a man who lost his arms and legs to life-threatening illness but went on to reinvent himself as a successful DJ.

If any delegates were tempted to feel sorry for a man who drives a car using hooks for hands, and walks on artificial legs, they were soon set straight. His feelings about pity are the same as his feelings about topknots: “Not interested”.

On the other hand, his intense curiosity about our relationship with technology and whether it helps us or controls us was compelling. Speaking from Gadigal country, he offered startling insights into artificial intelligence.

“Artificial intelligence is not another branch of our tree of life. It is its own tree. Once it gets going, machine learning will evolve in a completely different way to the way we’ve evolved. It doesn’t require human empathy or other emotions to move forward. I don’t think it’ll take on any of our traits, biases included.”

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Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood opened day two of the event live from Our Community House.

Understanding inequality and the battle to fix it

With plenty to consider from day one, delegates fired up again on day two for Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood, described by Our Community chair Carol Schwartz as one of the brightest minds in the country, and in the news recently for blasting the federal budget’s “blokey” focus.

Speaking on Wurundjeri land at Our Community House, Ms Wood spelt out the “dimensions of inequality”.

In one telling example, she showed Australian wealth as a ladder. Most Australians weren’t even on the first rung, while mining magnate Gina Rinehart towered 10km above the ground.

She said shifting the obsession with economic growth required a different mindsets, changed measures, and new ways of decision-making. She pointed to the “wellbeing budget” unveiled in 2019 in New Zealand, which went beyond the usual GDP measures to look at issues that really mattered for community wellbeing, such as health, housing and quality of life.

“There’s plenty of models out there to do this. What you need is the political will to embrace it.”

Picking up the baton for economic alternatives was Lateral Economics CEO Nicholas Gruen, who has long argued for smarter governments. In his presentation from the Our Community House studio, he explained that decision-makers needed to be more plugged into the workers who generated know-how.

“What’s fundamental about getting a system with know-how is that we need some healthy relationship between the arteries and the capillaries of a large system,” he said.

The woman who lit a fire under big tobacco

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Dr Bronwyn King and her colour-organised bookshelf on the virtual CIC stage

Dr Brownyn King, a radiation oncologist turned anti-tobacco campaigner, had the crowd worked up with her entertaining and inspiring tales of fighting against an industry that will kill more people than COVID-19 in 2020.

Her mission to pull the plug on tobacco investment – and to save millions of lives – started accidentally, when a meeting with a superannuation rep led her to the shocking discovery that her super fund – like many others – was cashing in on the tobacco trade.

The audience was enraptured by her description of recruiting an actual princess to her crusade, launching her initiative at the United Nations in New York, and her continuing battle to win the hearts of big influencers.

Before she’d finished speaking, some delegates were already checking their super accounts’ tobacco investment stance, while others were furiously taking notes on her campaign methods.

Her top tip? “Ask for exactly what you want. Don’t water it down. If you really believe it’s the right thing, it probably is.”

How posters (and posts) can reshape the world

Artist Peter Drew (from the Kaurna lands in Adelaide) joined former ABC host and Victorian Law Foundation chief Lynne Haultain (on Boon Wurrung land in Victoria) in a lively conversation about why the artist had decided to wander the country “with a pot of glue and a rolled up bundle of posters” for a campaign questioning what it means to be an Aussie.

As Mr Drew explained it: “The art that I like speaks to me in an intuitive way, cuts through the theory and speaks to a large amount of people. Posters are all about that.”

From low tech to high, Lucinda Hartley from data analytics firm Neighbourlytics talked about data that has the power to remake our cities for the better.

Drawing on freely available location-based data, Ms Hartley said modelling showed there had been a renaissance in local economies and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the needs of communities had been there all along.

“The best spaces will be ones that are community led and have [digital] fingerprints that show evidence that communities are in control of those spaces.”

The Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration: Paul Bongiorno

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The 2020 Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration was delivered by Paul Bongiorno AM

As always, the final keynote of the event was a call to action, with the memory of long-time Our Community friend Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first female premier, burning bright in social commentator Paul Bongiorno’s address from Ngunnawal country, aka Canberra.

Mr Bongiorno took aim at a political climate that attempts to crush dissent, and channelled Ms Kirner’s own insights into what can be done to ensure that social justice will prevail. He leaned heavily on her legacy to point the way ahead.

“At the outset the fact that you are all here with me, virtually, means we are at least at the same departure point – the one outlined by Joan Kirner herself in her 2012 oration: 

“‘We are ready; we are passionate; we are brave enough to continue to work together to shape a socially just nation.’”

It was the rallying cry that had reverberated through two days of extraordinary presentations, and Denis Moriarty summed it up again in his parting words.

“Go change the world.”

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Behind the scenes: Conferencing in 2020. A very different experience.


CIC 2020 resources: Videos, transcripts, podcasts, program

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