When I was a naive 13-year-old at my first ever Asian Roller Skating Championships (more on that here) I recall something that the Japanese coach said in somewhat broken English about our young team – “Still Young”. At the time, we laughed it off as a euphemism which would roughly translate in the Queen’s English to “pretty poor show old chaps, lucky you’ve got time to improve”. On reflection, when considering the events of the past weekend of the Amnesty International Australia National Annual General Meeting (what a mouthful), those words have resonated with me in a way which has ascribed to them more importance than they have hitherto ever been given. I was invited to speak at the first ever Amnesty International Youth Summit and, though I did not know it at the time, this was a privilege beyond measure. It was here, at the youth summit that I realised, despite having reached the ripe old age of 23, I was “still young”.
At about 3pm I arrived in Canberra, the nation’s capital. Along with Brazil and the United States of America, Australia is one of the few countries whose capital, but for its political purposes, is a fairly insignificant place to be. It shows. The drive had been a pleasant six and a half hours of nibbling on chips and singing very badly to tunes on my iPod. I immediately stopped off at a tourist information centre to obtain a map of the city and get my bearings. As I soon learned, there isn’t an awful lot of city and thus, a minimum amount of fuss was required for me to get my bearings. On checking in to my hotel, I quickly arranged to meet with a couple I had known from my time in the Melbourne Uni Amnesty Group. They were a stereotypical Canberra couple, that is, one of them worked in the public service and the other attended ANU. The meeting took place in the lobby of University House, the venue for the youth summit, and as our meeting carried on, more and more people arriving for the summit began to congregate to go out for tea as a group.
We moved on to a small cafeteria of sorts on the ANU campus to “hang around” while the rest of the arrivals got organised. It was with this small, but interesting group of people that we played our first “ice breaker”. Going around the circle, there was Jeremy from WA who witnessed police brutality at a police station in China, Amy from Townsville whose (supposed) favourite bollywood actor is Amir Kahn, Andrea from Queensland who, if put on the spot to nominate the household appliance she would most like to be, would be a blender for the express purpose of producing vanilla milkshakes, Emma from Launceston who wants to teach English to school children in Tibet, Lauren who was photographed holding a very large fish in the parade at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Dave, a local, who introduced himself as Frank who has or hasn’t walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (I can’t remember), Bec who studys at UC but was quick to add that she was actually from Sydney (residing in John Howard’s electorate of Bennelong I was later to learn), next a person whose name escapes me for the moment but carried the nickname “monkey” because of her ability to scale ships masts on the “Young Endeavour”, Myself from Melbourne whose interesting fact was my sub-minute ability with a Rubik’s cube, Don from Melbourne (who is, incidentally, AIA’s youth coordinator) who got involved through the anti-apartheid campaigns many moons ago, Mark from Canberra whose interesting fact I cannot recall for the life of me, Krista, also from Canberra who has a good memory and, finally, Lawrrie another Canberrarian (is that a word?) whose interesting fact eludes me for the moment.
Well, with such an interesting spectrum of people, even in this small sample, how could we possibly miss the mark with this youth summit? With great difficulty it seemed. We all arrived at the venue bright and early on Friday morning raring to go. A few ice breakers later and we were into the full swing of things. Starting the day off was a panel and discussion setup which included the NSW community campaigner Lousie Ashford who gave a riveting talk about exciting new ideas in activism, Andrea McLeod (blender girl) who recounted her experience at the 2003 Amnesty International International Council Meeting in Mexico where she was a youth delegate, and there was myself who gave a thin-on-content thick-on-motivational-quotes speech about my experiences with the”Stand Up For Your Rights” comedy nights. All in all, these were received rather well, and the questions which followed were of a high quality and were indicative of not only an enthusiastic youth membership, but also of a smart one. What followed was a brief run down of campaigns given by Kate Lappin the project coordinator of the Stop Violence against women campaign and Desley Mather, the director of campaigning in AIA. The fact that we got these two speakers, the former being the coordinator of the current priority one campaign and the latter being director of campaigning nationally was heartening because it told me that AIA truly valued youth involvement. (which begs the questions, “why was I asked to speak?”)
What followed were the first round of workshops. Following the example of NAGM (well, not technically because the summit chronologically preceded NAGM), simultaneous workshops were run with the aim of managing our most limited resource – time, more effectively. The workshop I went to dealt with “Planning an enticing year of Amnesty events”, not that I had any real knowledge of planning events or running a uni group, I just thought it would be interesting. The report-backs were informative and succinct although we were behind time. The after-lunch workshops were similarly interesting. Again I attended one which was very personally relevant – “Effective Activism” which was spectacularly well-attended. One point came up time and time again and would feature throughout the rest of NAGM and that was the theme of web-activism and the challenges and opportunities that it presented. I was particularly proud of myself for being the first to suggest having a “wiki”-based online encycolpedic resource which could be collectively accessed and edited by anyone in amnesty much in the same way the wikipedia works. When we returned to plenary to report back and discuss the day, there was also a strong feeling for the formation of a national youth network of sorts based around an online community. Later that night, many of us gathered for pizza at the “Woodstock Steak and Pizza House” where much merriment (and pizza, phwoar) was had.
Having recovered (sort of) from Friday night’s gluttony, NAGM-proper began. In a moving and very appropriate way, our national president Russell Thirgood opened NAGM firstly with a welcome from the indigenous people of the land and then with a tribute to the late Amnesty founder Peter Benenson. The first day of NAGM was a training day, full of fun workshops for all the “Amnesty Family” as Russell so aptly put it. My first workshop was strategic activism and involved many fun activities involving paper plates being used as stepping stones. Strangely enough, I gravitated, in my choice of group, towards people who had been at the youth summit. This theme continued throughout the weekend with myself often sitting with and speaking to prdominantly youth activists during the tea breaks and meals. In addition, word had spread about my involvment in the aforementioned comedy nights and I was subjected to a lengthy interrogation by a Queenslander to the end of helping to get their own comedy night off the groud. To be fair, I quite enjoyed the interrogation, even if it was by a Queenslander. Other workshops and sessions included discussion about refugees and a preview of the snazzy new AIA website which will be online sometime in August.
Later that night, we had the much-anticipated NAGM dinner, our chance to tart-up. The food was of a buffet style, which suited me just fine, given my reputation for having an insatiable appetite. I sat with a table populated by people one could only describe as youth (still young, remember). Not wanting to be caught waiting in a queue, Jules the victorian youth delegate and myself sat back, relaxed as everyone else fell over each other to get at the food. When we later approached the food tables, we were just in time for the tables to be restocked with food, so we filled our plates up with a non-trivial amount of food and went back to our seats. Jon Stanhope, the chief minister for the ACT was the first speaker. He spoke about many things including the introduction of a bill of rights in the ACT, the first state/territory in Australia to do so. He was followed by Michelle Grattan, the senior political reporter at “The Age” a Melbourne broadsheet newspaper. She spoke for quite some time about Australia’s political climate and the importance of Amnesty’s work in the bigger picture. She also fielded a great many questions from the floor which were very interesting, but in my mind (and I was a little ashamed to think this) was holding up dessert. The day’s activism had really tired us out and, despite having planned to the contrary, we decided to have a quiet night in. We sat about and played cards and watched Australia lose to South Africa in the Rugby before retiring early at about midnight.
The next day was meant to start at the absurd time of 8:30am. I got to breakfast at about 8:30am, I wasn’t late for the start. There were various reports given from the NEC some of which were quite interesting (some of which were the opposite of interesting). Among the many things that happened in this more “official” part of NAGM was a slideshow presentation by the national treasurer (ex Victorian prez) Anna Skarbek, the giving of the “June Fassina” award for long-standing meritorious service and a short note from Ian Gibson, Australia’s very own International Executive Committee member (of Amnesty International). For some reason, what Ian said really spoke to me, he made the point that Australia is in a strong position, in every sense of the word – financially, members-wise, leadership-wise, and he felt that we were in the unique position where we can afford to take risks, to “trailblaze”, as he put it. He was absolutely right, we had a great leadership and we also had the benefit of a wide age-spread at NAGM. The youth are often referred to as the future of the organisation, but I like to think that we are an integral part of the present as well. Later in the day, the resolutions generated some very interesting discussion and debate although the nature of resolutions themselves seems very ad hoc. My attitude towards resolutions in general, while I appreciate that they serve a very important role in the running of an organisation such as Amnesty, can be summed up thus in my joke resolution (disclaimer: to those whom I inadvertently attack personally, please don’t take it personally, it IS intended as a joke).
After lunch on Sunday, the participants who were in attendance at the youth summit were asked to take part in a short filming session with the intention of providing footage for a short video aimed at other like-minded youth. Interestingly, the male members of our group were strongly encouraged to do a spiel for the video and were also “stategically placed” in photos to make it look like there are more guys – this was done with the purpose of attracting more males to Amnesty International (which currently is about 2/3 female). I would’ve thought that making it look like there are less guys and more girls would do the trick… but hey, what do I know, I’m just another male ballet dancer. Due to technical difficulties, this task spilled way over time and we unfortunately missed the first round of workshops after lunch. We did however manage to catch the last round of workshops and a nifty video about Economic, Cultural and Social rights, a very new and exciting area for Amnesty International to get into. My workshop was a presentation on Amnesty’s views regarding the use of force, a very touchy area especially recently considering the polar-opposite cases of Rwanda and Iraq. After going through that whole thing in a somewhat rushed manner, NAGM was finally officially over. Phew.
Afterwards, I sat around at the bar and chilled with some of my cool new friends Mark, Krista and Darrel from the ACT, Jeremy from WA (police brutality at a police station etc…) and Jules from Vic (alright, they weren’t all technically new friends). I drove the six and a half hour trip back to Melbourne a little sad for having left such a concentrated environment of energetic activists and also a little anxious about starting what should be my last semester of uni… maybe ever. However, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead, most notably “Stand Up For Your Rights” – the comedy night, and I feel that I not only learned a great deal from NAGM but that I also contributed a little bit to the movement and that NAGM was just a little bit better for my having attended. In a world so full of uncertainty, I am glad to be in a position where I can say that I am “still young” and be able to count that as a strength. Uncertanties aside, one thing is certain, I am very much looking forward to NAGM in 2006.
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