In 2014, two Vietnamese high school students were suddenly taken from my local community and put into a detention facility. They’d received a letter from the Department of Immigration stating that their presence in the community ‘was no longer in the public interest’.
These boys were 16 years old and living in Australia as unaccompanied children seeking refuge from religious and political persecution. A week after the letter, immigration officers and federal police showed up at their house—just after they got home from school, while still in their uniforms—told them to put their belongings in a black plastic bag and took them to Inverbrackie detention centre just outside of Adelaide.
At 3 am the next morning, the two children were again suddenly removed, placed on separate planes—each accompanied by four guards—and flown via different cities to arrive the next day in Darwin, 2600 kilometres away. They were then taken to Wickham Point detention centre.
Over a dozen other children who knew they could be next immediately went into hiding.
Supporters protesting this outrage organised a rally at Parliament House in Adelaide and I was one of the speakers. Some students at risk of deportation had come to the rally. They wanted to show solidarity with their friends, but also to hide their identities. Some wore masks and others stood behind the pillars of Parliament House to make sure they were safe.
Consider this for a moment—children in Australia, here without their parents, were scared of what would happen to them if our authorities could identify their faces. I’ll never forget looking back and seeing them in tears as I took to the stage to soliloquise on the injustice and unnecessary cruelty of our asylum seeker system.
I remember thinking, ‘I get to go home after this. I’ll drive home, pick up my kids and take them to a playground. I’ll make plans with my wife about what we’ll do tomorrow, next week, in a few years.’
I realised that for all my fine rhetoric and passionate campaigning, I get to move on with my comfortable life. I don’t live the nightmare. Yet, we often use the nightmarish experiences of people living with the reality of injustice to sell a very different story to people of privilege like me: become an advocate, a donor, a volunteer, or join this campaign and you’ll feel fulfilled and know you’re making a difference. You’ll have wonderful, diverse experiences with like-minded people.
You’ll know you’re a good person. Do it long enough and well enough and there’ll be accolades, awards and a career. You’ll have influence and a great reputation. You’ll leave a legacy and be remembered for all you did to serve others.
There’ll be a return on your compassion.
We build charities, organisations, coalitions and movements around shared values and a vision for achieving measurable change for others. Our organisations and the broader movements they sit within—whether it’s the refugee movement, the union movement or the broader progressive movement—develop a common language, ideology and methodology for change.
Our activist groups and organisations develop their own cultural norms, rituals and rites of passage. We begin to recognise ‘our people’ by their adherence to accepted opinions, behaviours and relationships.
This is how the return on your compassion is apportioned.
I received my first death threat after I put out a statement, in my role as a local church pastor, in support of Halal certification for milk products. It came from another Christian, who said, ‘I am going to come to your church and pull your tongue from your body to prevent your blaspheming’.
You can imagine the response when the church I lead made the decision to accept LGBTIQ people into the leadership of our congregation.
So, what happens when the expectation that you’ll personally benefit from your involvement in making the world a better place is not met? What if the outcomes that you signed up to fight for could only be achieved at great personal or organisational cost?
What if saying or doing the right thing for the people for whom you advocate came at the expense of your sense of belonging, your financial security, your reputation or your status in the movement? What if the actions required to achieve better outcomes for others resulted in poorer outcomes for you and your family?
What if making the right decision for achieving real change in the lives of vulnerable people was different to making the right decision for the cash flow, mailing list and social media networks of the organisation you’ve spent so long building?
When you find yourself at the intersection of self-interest and transformational change, who wins?
As a pastor, I recognise that involvement in activist movements provides many of the same benefits as religion—ideological certainty, a framework for making sense of the world and cultural norms that convey a sense of belonging. These movements have their own list of righteous acts and evil sins. Purity is rewarded with regular affirmation.
As an activist, I’ve learned that breaking the rules is punishable by losing these benefits. Rather than losing your salvation, you lose your status as a righteous comrade.
Sometimes the words your movement wants to hear are not the same as the ones that will lead to the outcomes your movement exists to achieve. Sometimes the actions your supporters demand of you are not the actions that will change lives or society for the better.
When activism is practised like a religion, it becomes more important to be seen saying the right things, at the right time, with the right amount of vitriol than to be achieving outcomes for people. Despite our initially pure motivation, we can fall into the trap of elevating the importance of our ideology, our reputation or our brand over the importance of change for those who need change most.
What if the only thing we were dogmatic about was achieving real change for people, communities and our society? Would this make our organisations and activist communities safe places to discuss strategy, narrative, achievable goals and even solutions that might put us out of business but would definitely make life better for others?
My friend Jarrod McKenna says that ‘Some of us are so addicted to being right we get in the way of the world being made right’.
Let’s remember that it’s not an ideological position or brand we’re fighting for, where victory can be measured by trending on Twitter, shaming the opposition or scoring points in a debate. Winning isn’t about being the purest or the most righteous, and it isn’t about getting the most likes or having the biggest mailing list or market share. It’s about making meaningful change that is experienced by real people.
Can we avoid the seductive promise of ‘being someone’ or ‘building something’, and be willing to give it all up for the sake of improving the lives of others?
The question I had to ask myself after that day at Parliament House—and every time I’m confronted by the reality of other people’s nightmares–is ‘Do I want something in return for my solidarity?’ Do I need a return on my compassion?
Brad Chilcott, Founder, Welcome to Australia.