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Diversity in action

Following the trail of diversity in the Australian Capital Territory.

Profile: Omar Musa

Wendy Dawes

Queanbeyan wunderkind Omar Musa is busy. Having just returned home briefly after a trip to Europe, Omar is about to pack his suitcase and jump on another jet plane to America and India on an extensive book tour (oh, plus a string of dates performing in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney before that).

The book in question - Here come the dogs - is currently short-listed for the ACT Book of the Year, and was described by the Canberra Times as possessing "of an originality and daring that does not mind nearing the reckless … A striking debut.' 

It is Omar's fierce and unapologetic honesty about the experience of growing up in regional New South Wales as Malaysian-Australian that runs as a consistent theme across his many creative endeavours.

"My sense of identity has come from growing up in a mixed household, growing up in between worlds: Asian and Irish-Australian, religious and secular, country and city," says Omar. "I think that people are too keen to adhere to a rigid idea of what identity is. I am more interested in fluid identities, about living on the hyphen."

It is this unwillingness to cage himself in racial stereotypes and cast others with the same forge that sees his voice resonate with many. But not all.

"My name is Omar bin Musa," Omar emphasises. "In the post-9/11 world, I have experienced a lot of discrimination, whether it be on the street or online. I don't want to dwell on it, but I will just say that there is a certain, considerable segment of Australian society that reacts very aggressively to the idea of a man with a Muslim name speaking his mind fearlessly and freely."

Despite the tired Queanbeyan-versus-Canberra hoopla and amidst the packed schedule of an artist on the rise-and-rise, Omar found time to lend his voice to the "Diversity goes with our Territory" campaign - which leads one to believe he sees in it a valuable message that needs to be spoken. 

"One thing I like about Canberra is that it doesn't seem to be as ethnically broken up as a lot of other Australian cities. It's all very mixed," said Omar. "Having said that, like any city or country, there are always going to be problems with tolerance and racism, so it's something to be eternally vigilant about."

Omar suggests the arts as a conduit to an inclusive society.

"I always look at everything through the prism of the arts," he explains. "I would like to see a concert/poetry slam/exhibition that shows the myriad stories of Canberrans from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds."

Perhaps when he has a bit of time to spare?

Bianca Elmir

Wendy Dawes

Bianca Elmir encapsulates the tired cliche, 'larger than life', in a way that is neither tired nor cliche.

Currently in training for the Brazil Olympics as a boxer, she taps into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy to fill in any gaps in her diary as a boxing coach, youth worker and occasional circus performer (most recently at a fringe festival in Melbourne).

"I like helping others," she explains. "Whether through community liaison or working for the Greens; I enjoy working with children, Indigenous people or others who find themselves to be disadvantaged for some reason."

Her eclectic career reflects a similarly diverse and interesting background. 

"My cultural heritage is mainly Australian, having been raised here since I was very young, but I have Lebanese forebears, who have been Muslim," she says. "Lebanon is at the cross-roads of many cultures, so that also means I have a very mixed genetic heritage – probably European, Eastern and North-African."

"I have lived and/or worked in Australia, Lebanon, Africa, Spain and even South East Asia (where I have done a deal of boxing training over time). I feel very much a citizen of the world, yet I still love my grandmother’s traditional middle-eastern cooking."

It's apparent why she was an ideal candidate for this campaign. 

"In the main, people regard me with interest because of my mixed background," she acknowledges. Bianca also admits she has been fortunate to have not been the target of much racial vilification during her life.

"I do feel that if you have an open attitude and accept others then they will accept you," she says. "This is what I try to do every day – not stress the differences but the commonalities between us all and regard the differences as enriching, not conflictual."

Which is not to say she has not seen the pain caused by discrimination of others.

"I am aware of others who have experienced prejudice," Bianca says. "And I do have great empathy for people who experience prejudice – I go out of my way to stick up for people I feel are put down in any way or form."

Having travelled so extensively, Bianca says in her view, Canberra fares well when it comes to being an inclusive city.

"Canberra is very diverse and people here are better educated on average than the nation as a whole so, yes, society here is more inclusive and tolerant – that goes with being educated," Bianca says. "That does not mean we cannot do better and help all people who live here to reach their potential."

Her advice to achieve this, is "more cooperative projects, cross-cultural and cross-sector, that draw upon the rich diversity and talents of our population, especially with young people."

Nic Manikis

Wendy Dawes

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Nic Manikis, Director of the ACT Office for Multicultural Affairs, sits behind a desk, seemingly swamped by reams of paper filed in various trays. Behind his left shoulder, there is a basket labelled with, 'Too hard'. And yet, the man sitting behind the desk doesn't seem like the kind of person who would find much too hard, so one can probably assume the pile in this tray will eventually succumb to his bright-eyed gaze.

Nic is passionate about his job, and passionate about his city. Of Canberra, he says, "It's my home, my work, my playground, my community, my heard, my city."

Born in in Cooma, NSW, Nic grew up in Queanbeyan and southern NSW.

"My cultural identity, I'd say, is very much typical Australian," says Nic. "I spent summers down on the south coast as much as possible with family and friends, fishing and swimming and having barbies.

"In winter time, I played rugby union and would go out with mates or head up to the snowy mountains region for skiing.

"My cultural heritage on the other hand is very much steeped in Greek tradition," he explains. "I have a large extended family and we are proudly of Greek heritage.

"I feel very lucky to have grown up in Australia but to also have had the opportunity to explore my heritage through speaking the Greek language with my family, enjoying traditions passed down through generations and being a part of the wider culturally diverse community we all enjoy here in the Canberra region."

In his role at the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Nic is exposed to the huge range of races, cultures and religions, which gives him a unique insight into Canberra's diverse community and how we fair as a city in terms of tolerance and inclusivity.

"I think [Canberra is tolerant and inclusive]," he says. "I'm proud of how we have embraced our cultural diversity and celebrate it throughout the year at events which show our differences as well as our similarities such as Ramadan and Diwali and, of course, the annual National Multicultural Festival, which in 2016 will mark 20 years. This year, we had more than 270,000 people at the event in Civic over three days."

Of his own individual experience, he is similarly encouraging.

"I can't recall anything in particular that made me sad or angry in terms of anyone commenting on my Greek heritage," says Nic. "I'm a very positive and upbeat type of person with an Aussie sense of humour. I'm sure if I heard anyone say something negative to me or others around me, I'd handle the situation by maybe using a bit of humour or just talking with the person to let them that's not right."

But, he adds, "Racism in any form, direct or lateral, is unacceptable."

Nic's advice for creating an environment where cultural diversity is simply accepted as normal is communication.

"There's so many things we can all do to celebrate our cultural diversity through this very special and important campaign. We can talk about it. We can promote it through our workplaces and community centres. We can provide encouragement to people to share their cultural heritage and embrace it."

Kelli Cole

Wendy Dawes

 

Kelli Cole is the Assistant Curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art at the National Gallery of Australia. 

"It has the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island art in the world with over 7500 works of art. The collection is diverse and connected to the past whilst engaging strongly with the present. It is both positive and political," Kelli explains.

Her hair, red, fiery and wild, seems to move with a life of it's own as she speaks. She makes direct eye contact, which is adversely challenging but friendly at the same time. 

"I am a Waramungu/Luritja woman from Central Australia," says Kelli. "I grew up moving between Alice Springs and Darwin with my Indigenous Australian/Irish mother and first generation born New Zealand/Scottish father."

Kelli is keenly "proud of her cultural heritage, in all it's diversity".

"It has given me the capacity and strength to embrace difference," she says.

But it hasn't been easy, Kelli acknowledges.

"[I have been challenged] as many others have been challenged; ‘[You] don’t look aboriginal enough so why [are you] claiming it’.  I tend to get this comment mostly when people are being racist, unjust or unfair and I get vocal.

"I grew up surrounded by language and culture coming from a family with over 70 first cousins from my mother’s side," says Kelli. "And I get extremely frustrated when people have disparaging views on Indigenous Australians and our lifestyles."

Kelli is describes the ACT as generally accepting of cultural diversity, but briefly notes, "There are always people outside your circles who surprise you with their comments."

Kelli describes the utopian Canberra as involving, "The acceptance and understanding of difference, and diversity being the accepted norm."

Walk Together!

Wendy Dawes

You could hear the drums from Reconciliation Place mid-Saturday morning, a steady optimistic beat echoing across Lake Burley Griffin. Soon, about 250 people could be seen making the walk across Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, carrying banners, flags, children and kites, and wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

It was not an angry protest, or a sombre funeral march - it was a unified act of kindness - just like-minded people making a statement that this country would welcome those in need, regardless of skin colour, race or faith. 

When united with 25 other groups marching for the same purpose in towns all across Australia, the simple message of those marching – #saywelcome – became a chorus of positivity.

Francis Owusu

Wendy Dawes

Francis Owusu is the founder and CEO of Kulture Break, a charity dance organisation that has encouraged the youth and children in Canberra to focus their energies towards a creative pursuit rather than negative alternatives, since 2002.

Francis says of his work, "When I reflect on what I actually do, I am amazed about how privileged I am. My passion is empowering people to help them move from one level of life experience to the next. And to get the opportunity to claim this as my work is so invigorating."

Francis Owusu's cultural identity stems back to Ghana in west Africa. His parents were born there but came to Australia as part of the diplomatic core – his grandfather was the High Commissioner to Australia.

"Ghana is a peaceful nation with a rich culture and we love music and dance. I would describe my Ghanian cultural heritage as lively, highly social and progressive," says Francis. 

Francis says he has not only felt vilified because of his heritage, but also because of his Christian faith.

"As an African-Australian I grew up with very low self-esteem because I felt I was treated differently – not because of what I said, but because of what I looked like. I suffered discrimination because I was seen to be different to everyone else. I felt like “a nobody” and tried so hard to be somebody else. My faith has helped me to recognise that I am a somebody who has great value."

He is positive about social change in Canberra. "I do believe Canberra is becoming more and more of a tolerant, inclusive society - we have such a diverse range of people living here. The multicultural blend of our city has definitely deepened over the past 20 to 30 years."

When asked what he would like to see as a result of the 'Diversity goes with our Territory' campaign, his answer was simple – to encourage more celebration.

He says, "The more we celebrate, the more we see what unites us – not what separates us. Life can get too serious so the more genuine celebration we can have, the better. And hopefully, this will also encourage more respect for each other."

"Canberra means 'meeting place'. I think of Canberra as a place of gathering for people from all over the earth with the opportunity to share, work and grow together."