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Activism
Culture

All linked up (but not always with enough love or grace)

There was one (probably among many) critical and seemingly obvious point when viewing Adam Curtis’s documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Namely, that there are many important relationships, connections and consequences from all the actions and developments that shape our lives.

Adam Curtis’s television essay journeyed from Ayn Rand to global financial meltdowns to colonialism and its consequences via machines, sex scandals and wars. There may be links between all or some of these things. However, we will never know if or how connections work without public discussions.

The value of respectful acknowledgement and open discussion seems to be the thing.

The actions of community storytellers inspire many of us to see critical connections, in turn making it easier to speak out and take action.

These related threads linking human lives are often submerged under relentless flurries of activity or diminished by the endless news ticker announcing headlines or snippets that leave me asking how? Why? Or what is really going on here?

There are few answers to so many important questions.

For example, when famous Australian companies in clothing and textile recently closed local factories retrenching their predominantly female workforce, there was no discussion on what all the options could be to keep the workers in jobs and the company afloat.

What was clear was that the lives of many of the factory workers told stories of Australian post-war migration, working-class labour and collective support that went well beyond the factory floor.

In the words of a Unanderra Bonds factory worker:

It wasn’t just a job. It was my life, my achievement in Australia. I had a nest in Bonds.

One way some of the links get made, say between Australian factories moving offshore and Vera who was part of a team that made 3000 singlets a day, five days a week during 40 years of service, is through respectful acknowledgement.

The Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia initiated advocacy, support and creative, reflective activities before, during and after the workers’ loss of livelihoods and in many cases their way of life. The union well understood the link between local and global actions.

The acknowledgement of such a momentous act of shipping Australian companies offshore and how it had repercussions for not just one group of women workers, their families and communities but so many others is summed up in the words of a woman leaving the Bonds factory:

I feel sorry for the Chinese workers, I do. They work hard. They get paid so little. We don’t accept those conditions. They don’t have unions. They work like slaves.

A further tribute to women workers in the local textile factories came from Circus WOW.

WOW found inspiration in the stories of so many women who worked hard for a very long time to build lives and shape a community. WOW performed their elegant aerial work to honour the daily labour of these women in their performance Bonded.

Even if we never find out if there were ways to keep the women’s jobs in Australia and let them work till they were ready to clock off, there has been some acknowledgement of their valuable contribution. This public respect and appreciation means that the women’s stories will keep being told along the way with the political threads linking others to discussions on who creates a nation’s wealth and finally what happens to the people who made it work for so long.

When the big conversations about the economy and progress constantly echo around town, it is often the small-corner conversations that are also worth hearing.

Wollongong artist Maree Faulkner has a relationship with her town and many of its residents who have something to say including those who find poverty and circumstances muffle their voice. Maree’s world tells the stories of those swamped by development, shadowed by the powerful or the folk who simply want to savour the colour and beauty of an inclusive friendly place. Maree’s work regularly gives the ordinary minutiae of daily life a startling magical take that offers joy even on hard days.

Her Povo Art lets the inhabitants live a rich connected life voicing their take on the day’s events.

When Wollongong City Council staff and new Councillors recently invited community members to converge on the Town Hall for most of a weekend and develop a collective vision that would shape the Council’s 10-year Community Strategic Plan, over two hundred locals showed up.

The conversations focused on how important it was to have a safe, solid and fair future that includes everyone. The goals of industry and business were emphatically tied to the need for social connectedness. Feeling valued, being included, opportunities for education and creative expression were as prominent as good transport, the environment and employment.

It felt like some of the people who are always outside with their faces pressed against the glass were given an entry swipe-card and permission to speak. There were, of course, many others who never even made it to the window to look in.

Every day we see the relationships between actions in one place landing with powerful consequences in another part of community life. The Wollongong corruption scandal, for instance, was cleverly depicted in the play The Table of Knowledge, which finished each night with an informal Q&A with the audience.

A sad comment from one theatre-goer summed up how the culture of corruption that flourished in Wollongong city (and according to the final judgement was encouraged through a culture that allowed corruption to flourish) had changed the physical as well as political and social landscape.

I feel responsible like I should have known and done something. It’s like everyone will think the whole city is dodgy and the people here don’t care and let it happen.

It can feel so easy to get stuck in roles: outside looking in, weary from shouting over the din of progress, frustrated at the dodgy deals.

Radical change would be good, to Occupy and to irritate into action those who act as if there is no relationship between the top-end of town and everywhere else.

But it’s also good to celebrate those who provide the opportunity to make links – the documentary makers who inspire good conversations, retrenched textile workers who sew their stories in clay and the artists who show the various colours of their towns.

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

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