PEOPLE: Liverpool Councillor leading grassroots change in South-West Sydney

Charishma Kaliyanda is a councillor at Liverpool City Council and Community Engagement Officer at Headspace, a non-profit organisation for youth mental health established by the Australian Government. We speak to her about what these roles mean to her and the change she has seen in South-West Sydney. Here’s the story!

Can you tell our readers what a normal day looks like for Charishma Kaliyanda? 

Oh, God. I think I’d start off by saying there’s no such thing as a normal day, so for counsellors, some may be retired and so their counsel work is kind of like their sole focus or they sort of almost can treat it as a bit of a full-time job for other counsellors. They may have a main job or a main occupation, or they may run their own business or something like that. So council’s commitments will definitely then kind of sort of identify what they do for in terms of their usual day. So for me personally, Monday to Thursday, I work in my kind of my main role or my day job, if you can call it that. And so on Fridays is the day that I usually have allocated to kind of work on council projects and other types of things. And on those days, I can have, you know, a number of different meetings, whether it’s with residents or different members of council staff or other partners or stakeholders around different issues. So to give you a snapshot of what that might look like. I might start off the morning with plopping down to a local café or, you know, a local business to have a chat with a resident about with, you know, with the business person about an issue that they’re facing, which could be related to development. It could be related to neighbours, it could be related to their plans for expanding their business and potential sources of council support for that.

I could, you know, from there, I could stop by and speak to a resident about an issue that they’re having in terms of, you know, whether it’s infrastructure that they want to see in their neighbourhood issues with a particular park asking for, you know, a pavement infrastructure, those sorts of things to be implemented in their neighbourhood. One of the most interesting meetings I’ve had in the last few weeks is to pop out and speak to a resident around having sort of informal bike tracks in a neighbourhood so that, you know, the young people in that neighborhood could, you know, actually have something to do during lockdown? Obviously, more regional and broader facilities were closed for the better part of two to three months, and so lots of local kids had to set up infrastructure in their local neighbourhoods. But that created a conflict because council has a duty of care to make sure that any anything that’s set up, whether it’s formal or not, is safe minimises risk to the community and therefore it responds to complaints and things like that. So, you know, just basically where that had a chat to them got a sense of what was going on from their perspective and was then able to come back and facilitate a meeting with council staff in both environment and community and culture to get a process around where to from this set up.

How important is diversity to you and in the work that you do?

I think it’s very, very much at the heart of what I see a counselor’s role as because, you know, for most councils, you have between nine and 15 representatives of sometimes hundreds of thousands of residents. And whilst as a, you know, as a group, as a council, you may not necessarily be able to meet each and every single constituents specific perspective, or you may not necessarily be able to kind of, you know, have the same lived experience as them. Diversity and inclusion means that as many different types of perspectives and lived experiences and ways of thinking and being are incorporated into the decisions that are made ultimately by that council. So the role that council that you know, a group of councillors has on setting the vision and the direction of a city for up to 10 to 20 years into the future is huge, right? When you look at some of the challenges that some of our residents in Liverpool are facing now. Those decisions were made 10 years ago. They weren’t made in the last couple of years. They were made 10 years ago and they were made by the people who were sitting around that table at that particular time. So in terms of the people who are sitting around that table, if they are a diverse group of people and I mean in terms of cultural experiences, age experiences with ability or disability, I mean, in terms of gender and sexuality, we need to be able to get as close to a cross-section of our broader community as possible so that we can account for those decisions and the impact that those decisions have on our community. Because if you don’t understand the impact that the policy and the decisions that you make have on our community, that’s when you have people falling through the gaps.

Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?

I would say for me personally, one of the more challenging things is sort of balancing being one of the people we’ve speaking for people and it’s always going to be a dynamic balance because it no situation is going to be exactly the same. So you can’t use the same formula again and again. So you’re going to have to wait way things up as it comes. And so I personally, my value is very much around sort of equity and equality, and I I don’t see myself as part of a hierarchy with residents or with other people or those sorts of things. And so, you know, when that when you then have situations where people sort of like, oh, you know, counsellor or this or that I personally feel a bit uncomfortable with standing on ceremony a little bit. However, there are times where the elected role that you have calls on you to make decisions and actually kind of represent your community and that sort of thing. And so when it comes to being taken seriously in some of those forums I’ve had to it’s been an evolution in terms of finding my voice, finding how I’m able to relate to the other people that I’m part of that decision making collective with because we do come from different ideological perspectives. We do come from different political backgrounds and that can sometimes cause preconceptions or tension between people. So if I can, if I can do one thing differently about my term, something I would probably have done in sort of the first couple of months is actively seek out my counsellor colleagues and kind of establish a bit of a a bit of a conversation with them around how they work, what motivates them and just get a foundation of a relationship.

I think for a lot of people, that can be a very daunting thing, and that was very much a daunting thing for me. So I felt quite judged in some respects by some of those people, whether it was on the basis of my age or my background or my gender, or, you know, or like my political affiliations. I felt that I felt that they perceived me in a particular way because of those sorts of things. However, in kind of reflecting, I think it was a bit of perception on both of that ends. So to sort of, you know, come at that that relationship with a slightly different approach would be something I would have done differently. That’s it. It’s not just about my council colleagues. Sometimes I can be in conferences, I can be in other meetings and things like that where I where people think that I’m a staff member rather than a rather than a councillor, which is kind of interesting because it’s usually the dude in the suit that gets mistaken for the person who holds authority or the person that kind of is the is the decision-maker in that in that context. And so going back to that initial response I had, it’s very much that tension between, you know, you do you are the response, you are the responsible decision-maker. So you need to own that and you need to kind of put yourself forward in that way. But also like, you know, standing on ceremony and kind of like having that hierarchy, that traditional hierarchy is not something that comes naturally to me.

ADVICE FOR THE YOUTH

I would say, although it seems really challenging to reach out because the worst, the worst thing that someone can say to you is No. I’m sorry, not the way I think they. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I would call it the worst thing, but like the the the only the only bad outcome or the only kind of negative outcome that can come from you asking the question if someone says no right, but for every know you get, you might get five other yeses. So just in the process of reaching out, making some of those connections and just, you know, starting a conversation with someone, you might go down a path that you totally didn’t didn’t imagine. And I feel like this is true, not just of young people who might be interested in politics or representation, but it’s true of young people who are interested in a whole broad range of different fields. I work with a lot of young people in my day job. And so in health, and so something that I commonly speak with them about is Gen Z are amazing at calling out people for poor behavior. And yet, you know, the scariest thing for them is making an appointment with a GP. Right. Like, it’s this it’s this really kind of fascinating, I find it so fascinating, fascinating dichotomy of being so like bad ass and empowered in one sense. And yet on the other sense like something previous generations sort of take for granted and like, Oh, this is super easy is a real challenge for Gen Z. So I feel like although it can, it can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes the most rewarding thing that you can do, actually.

Let me let me go back a step in terms of like summarizing all of this precursor. So in terms of the advice, sometimes the most rewarding thing that you can do is pushing through discomfort. So if maybe it’s better to frame it that way. Okay. Because like and just in terms of like like fleshing that out a little bit is very much around, like acknowledging that yet sometimes all the time reaching out to people can be like, really uncomfortable. It can be something that doesn’t feel natural to you. And that’s fine to acknowledge all of that, but then weigh it up against something that you’re genuinely interested or passionate in. This is why whenever like, whether it’s on LinkedIn or emails or whatnot, I genuinely try and prioritize responding to young people or champion causes that young people championing causes that young people come to me with. Because I love when young people in our community have thoughts, have ideas, and have things that they really want to say different and then act on it. And I want to support that as much as possible. So just like me, there are so many other people who have a very similar mindset and, you know, not everyone. That’s not to say everyone that you reach out to is going to be like that, but the chances of someone actually kind of going, Oh, hey, like what you’re saying is, you know, is really like a valid perspective, and I want to learn more. The chances of reaching out to someone like that is much higher than reaching out to someone who’s going to be like, Hey, look, sorry, I have different priorities.

Want to follow and support Charishma Kaliyanda ?

I’m probably most active on Instagram and Twitter, so I have to like I have my kind of combined Instagram, which is basically like bits and pieces of different parts of my life and things like that. And then I have my council, Instagram, which is very much around like what I do on council and the things related to local community stuff. 

–         Instagram – @ckaliyanda + @cllrkaliyanda

–         Twitter – @ckaliyanda


About the diversity champion:

(she/her) As a registered occupational therapist and elected representative, I am passionate about working with individuals and communities to fulfil their potential and engage in the activities they want. I have over 10 years of experience working with young people, particularly in the university sector. Currently, I work closely with the Youth Reference Group to further the aims of headspace – the youth mental health initiative. I build relationships with various internal and external stakeholders to facilitate access to help for young people experiencing distress in south-west Sydney. As an elected councillor, my focus is on balancing the growth of Liverpool’s population with appropriate social, economic, cultural and physical infrastructure. I want to ensure that residents have an effective advocate to improve their quality of life into the future.

Image description: Charishma is smiling at the camera with a coffee in hand, wearing a pink blazer

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VIEW: Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people – Yasmin Poole

Age diversity is often discussed in creative and innovative industries, but what about sectors such as policy and government?

As the rate of change fastens – from digital technologies and climate change, to flexible ways of working and globalisation – experts say there is a drive among younger generations to tackle these challenges head-on and with an open mind, in comparison to older generations. Yet, representation of young people in parliament and, consequently, representation of issues they are passionate about, are lacking.

While it may seem inevitable that people of a certain age and with a certain number of years experience under their belt are better suited to politics, countries like Finland are showing this simply isn’t true and age diversity is not only possible, but also an effective way of governing.

Yasmin Poole is passionate about being and empowering the voice of Gen Z to be heard in parliament. In this interview, she shares why age diversity at the leadership level matters, and how governments and societies can benefit from involving young people in policy development.

  • Why is age diversity at the leadership level important to you?

It’s firstly important in terms of representation. It’s a rare sight to see a politician under 30 in Parliament House. Yet, young people are majorly impacted in policy. We were the first to lose our jobs after COVID-19 and will have to deal with the economic fallout for decades to come. We’re also affected in other areas of policy such as health, education, employment and housing. We’ll also be dealing with the looming impacts of climate change. Despite this, youth voices are often unheard.

Aside from that, I also think many underestimate how well young people can prepare us for the future. Younger generations are open minded, risk taking and curious. Those are traits we need more than ever – as 2020 has demonstrated, the business as usual approach is long gone. If we want to create a prosperous and forward-thinking society, we need young people at the table too.

Take COVID-19, for example. It has essentially forced the world to learn how to live online and think outside of the box. Yet, young people can be the leaders here. We’ve grown up in a time of rapid technological innovation. We’re poised to be the most entrepreneurial generation. Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people. Adaptation and change are our normal.

  • What are some examples where you’ve seen a positive impact from diversity of age in leadership?

I’d say a good example of positive impact was when I led the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress, which was their first ever youth advisory board representing over a million young Victorians.

We found that the mental health system in particular is poorly designed for young people. While the government had funded youth mental health support, services were largely only available 9am-5pm weekdays and closed on weekends. This was totally inaccessible for the majority of young people who were at school. It seems like a simple observation, but shows how youth policy is often created without understanding what young people want and need.

Since our recommendations, the Victorian Government has committed to ensuring every public school has a mental health counsellor – a really encouraging step towards making services accessible.

That example taught me the power of government co-designing policy with young people. I think a big part of youth disillusionment is simply because we feel unheard. If government can better engage with young people, it will only lead to better solutions.

  • Have you ever felt that sometimes age does matter in the workplace? Why or why not?

Definitely. I still think young people can learn a lot from older leaders – there remains a certain type of wisdom that comes with age. I was once told that “life is a marathon, not a sprint” and it’s always stuck in my mind. Older mentors have taught me a lot about leadership. A big takeaway has been that it isn’t always about how large your impact is or how fast you get to the end goal. One of the best bosses I’ve had used to check in with me every day and genuinely ask how I was going. Often, it’s the small things that make the very best leaders.

I’ve also found that, while youth can bring new ideas, we may not always have the connections to turn it into a reality. A big part of Youth Congress’ success was the support of senior government figures. They put us in touch with the right people to make sure we were heard – without them, our recommendations could have very well gone unnoticed. I’d love to see more programs like that which connect older decision-makers with younger people – it’d be a great way to turn ideas into action.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted your approach to leadership and role modelling today?

I’d say that growing up low income has played a big part in how I view the world. A question that’s always in the back of my mind is “whose voices are missing from the conversation?” I study in Canberra and, at many points, have looked around me and wondered who deserved to be here but couldn’t because of cost. While I feel really lucky to have the platform I do, I’m conscious that there are many young Australians that continue to be unheard and slip through the cracks.

To me, stepping into your vulnerabilities is crucial for authentic leadership. When I was 20, I was a panellist on Q+A – the first time I was ever in the public eye. It was pretty intimidating. But I realised that, in order to speak authentically, I had to share my lived experience. I talked about growing up low income and my parents’ story. Both experienced poverty over their lives – my mother used to sell food on the streets of Singapore and my father grew up homeless.

Stepping into your hardships, especially in a public way, is undoubtedly daunting. Yet, those experiences have given me the agency to stand up for what I care about. At the end of the day, I want to be the person that younger me would have wanted to see growing up. If I’m embodying that, I know I’m on the right path.


About the expert

Yasmin is best described as a ‘human megaphone for Gen Z’. She has represented millions of young Australians in advocating for youth policy reform, including being the 2018 Chair of the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress. She also led the global business development of 180 Degrees Consulting, a youth led social impact consultancy that spans across 30 countries. She is currently Plan International’s Youth Ambassador, focusing on engaging young Australian women in politics. In 2019, Yasmin was the youngest member of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence and Top 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians. Yasmin has been a panellist on shows such as Q&A and the Drum, with a focus on how we can include youth in the conversation to create change.

PEOPLE: Dai Le’s experience as a woman in the boardroom and political sphere

90% of women and girls believe female politicians are treated unfairly, and recent analysis of Prime Ministers has found a global trend in gendered media coverage of women whereby female leaders are more likely to be reported about regarding their fashion than their leadership.

It’s no wonder the next generation of women aspiring to become politicians are being “really put off”.

However, Dai Le, Councillor for Fairfield City Council, who stepped into politics more than a decade ago, believes women should feel empowered and supported to make a difference.  

In this interview, Dai shares her experiences on what it takes to be appointed to a board as well as succeed in politics, and how having the right people in leadership positions can lead to constructive and long-term change.

  • Having been appointed to several boards throughout your career, what are your observations and learnings on what it takes to become a board member?

Networking is very important – it’s who you know, not what you know. I’ve heard that said over and over, and the longer I’m in the industry, the more I believe it to be true.

But the situation isn’t simple. To get on boards, you need to be from the C-suite, and research shows that women are less likely to be making it to this level in comparison to men. So if boards are serious about diversity and inclusiveness, they need to re-assess their criteria for board members.

The system today comes down to network, which school you went to, where you grew up, and whose circle you belong in.

  • How can we break that cycle?

Focus on equipping the diverse talent we have with the idea of leadership, and the idea that they can step up and step in. It takes a long time, because women of Asian background do not step up and step in naturally – they associate this with requiring too many personal sacrifices. The mindset has to be shifted.

Secondly, there are systemic barriers. If you’re a women wanting to be in a leadership role in a business, that business needs to be set up to enable that. Organisations today have been built by and for men, so that needs to change.

We need to assess how we can do things differently, and run tests to see what initiatives work and then proactively address any challenges these initiatives create.

If there are people in your team who seem not to ‘fit in’, who have a talent but could come across somehow different in their thinking, business leaders need to think about how to include these people and their ideas without ostracising them. A lot of businesses talk about being open-minded and embracing different ideas, but are not doing this in reality.

  • How do we change both the stigmas and realities of the difficulties of making it to senior leadership and board positions?

We need to have more conversations that include C-suite executives and middle management about what leadership is and what it is not; genuine conversations with genuine opportunities in place to ensure the leadership pipeline is inclusive, that is, looking at leadership from the lens that is beyond gender.  

When I curate and manage these types of conversations, I encourage involvement from every person in the room to create a safe environment for an open discussion. These types of forums help to highlight what the challenges are, and how the people in the room can leverage of one another, and not work in isolation.  

What we frequently discovered in these forums from the individuals from within organisations was a lack of confidence, limited mindsets, lack of networking skills, and low presentation skills. From these discoveries, we have worked with these organisations to develop targeted training and leadership initiatives.

I have often expressed to attendees that they have to persevere with these networking and leadership development opportunities, otherwise these initiatives and conversations disappear from people’s consciousness. People get busy, external factors and economic challenges take priority, and business leaders can easily find themselves putting this on the back-burner even after significant resources are put into an initial investment.

  • Would you recommend a career in politics to others?

Absolutely. While there can be frustrations, and certainly lots of hurdles, there are huge opportunities to influence how to shape our society, develop our economy, and plan for the future.

It can be lonely, though, particularly for women and people of colour.

I have been someone who stands out with my voice and my views, challenging the status quo. This can be difficult, but just like John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Don’t Quit, I believe “rest if you must, but don’t you quit”. I believe I can make a difference and need to persevere to generate change.

  • What’s your advice to women overwhelmed by stepping up and stepping in?

My tagline is ‘the difference is you’. The reality is, no matter how much meditation or mindfulness you practice, at the end of the day, you as an individual need to overcome your own personal barriers.

When looking at society, where you work and live, ask yourself, “Are you happy with society, the way politicians are elected, and the way your needs are represented?”

It’s easy to leave it to others to address these issues, but if society continues with that complacency there won’t be the best and most relevant politicians representing our communities.

When I looked at my community and asked myself if I was happy, I saw things that I wanted to change and improve, so I took a step back and reflected on how I could make an impact.

If you’re not happy with what you see, have the courage to seek guidance on how to initiate change step by step. Change comes when you have the numbers – you have to work together with other people with the same vision.


About the expert

Dai lives and breathes diversity and inclusion. Her mission is to help build an inclusive society where the leadership of mainstreams institutions and organizations genuinely reflect the diverse community we live in.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Dai spent many years in refugee camps in South East Asia before being accepted for resettlement in Australia. Her childhood experiences and growing up with a dual identity – being a Vietnamese in an Australian and western cultural surroundings, helped to shape her perception of life. It has also made her a passionate advocate for refugees and migrant communities.

She founded DAWN, a platform that gives a voice to diverse and inclusive talent who are shaping today’s society as well as the South West Entrepreneurial Hub (SWEH) a platform for business owners, start-ups and entrepreneurs living in Sydney’s South West, to meet, collaborate and share their experiences and learn from one another.

Dai currently serves as an Advisory Board Member to Multicultural NSW, a Government statutory body; She is also a director on the Local Government NSW Board. Dai was a former Ambassador for Fairfield Relay for Life and NSW Cancer Council Greater Western Sydney. Dai is also a councillor on Fairfield City Council, one of the most culturally diverse Councils in Australia.

A former award-winning journalist, film-maker and broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Dai was named one of AFR-Westpac’s Top 100 Influential Women in Australia in 2014. With over 20 years of change making experience, Dai is a strong believer in the use of storytelling to inspire, educate and inform.

Dai is also a breast cancer survivor.