From Greens to Grassroots

 


Dominic Golding (front) at a meeting while on placement with Colleen Hartland (Greens)Dominic Golding (front) at a meeting while on placement with Colleen Hartland (Greens)

My name is Dominic Golding. I am currently 40 years old. I am a Vietnamese adoptee with mild cerebral palsy and a hearing impairment. I grew up in Mount Gambier in rural South Australia, raised by Anglo-Aussie parents. I had a very white, Anglo upbringing at home, which was followed by going to a very Anglo-centric University/drama centre in Adelaide. So, when I first moved to Melbourne six years ago, I encountered a lot of things that I’d never configured into my awareness of social inequality, particularly within the Vietnamese community.

My professional career in Victoria began in Footscray, working with the Vietnamese community. It was through this work that I started to deepen my awareness and passion for a range of issues. These include the impacts of poverty on communities, the incarceration of Vietnamese women, who are over-represented in women’s prisons, problem gambling, alcohol and other drugs, youth unemployment, homelessness and police harassment of young people of colour in the West, particularly African and Vietnamese youth.

This is how I moved from being an artist to taking on a more community active role in advocacy, to try and empower individuals and families to address the structural barriers that they face. To do that, I felt that I actually need to make the mainstream services see that what they’re doing reinforces barriers. There is a need for them to question how the money that they get shapes the programs for the communities they are supposed to be helping.

I started my Masters of Social Work at RMIT in 2013. As part of this degree, I wanted to do a placement that would engage me politically. At the time, no other political party had put forward a position for social work placement, except for the Greens. I wanted to work with refugees and asylum seekers. Because the Greens have a relatively compassionate policy around detention and refugees and asylum seekers at the Federal level, I thought they would be a good party to start understanding the process of devising policy and capacity building of the community.

I was based at The Greens office of Senator Colleen Hartland, in Seddon. The Victorian Greens is the third major political party in Parliament. Hartland is a Senator in the Victorian parliament and represents the Western Metropolitan Region. The boundaries stretch from Sunbury, Werribee right back into Footscray. My specific focus was to liaison with African-Australians and Vietnamese-Australians under 40 years of age. This took several forms, including interviewing community members, staff at some community-based and service organisations, and other campaign tasks, such as engaging people at community events, holding information booths and door knocking.

The Victorian state election was a great opportunity to advocate on social policy and to gauge public responses to them. As an intern, getting appointments with older community leadership was close to impossible. This would have required more time to build trust to “sell” them the idea of forming a team of culturally diverse door knockers. The Greens wants to be recognised as a player in the field of local politics of Footscray—which is a Labor heartland. Race voting is not seen as productive engagement from younger adults, but is from older people, hence why the Liberals have a young Vietnamese candidate for Footscray.

What I had noticed is that the Greens, whose many social policies I otherwise support, still mainly has a middle class and white membership. When I attended their events, that’s who their main members were. They’re well-educated, they’re white, most of them have children, they’re 35/40 year olds, they’ve moved into the now-gentrified areas of Yarraville, Kingsville and Seddon, and themselves seem to have had little engagement with culturally diverse communities, though they may otherwise really support multiculturalism.

In other words, even though inclusion is part of the Greens’ Multicultural policy, cultural and linguistic diversity is not adequately reflected in the staff and membership of the Greens. Are The Greens culturally aware in their approaches? For example, I was asked, in my placement, to do door knocking for both Vietnamese and Chinese communities, without properly reflecting the specific cultural or linguistic needs of either community. The Vietnamese vote is not the Chinese vote. They both have different issues and are defined by different migration journeys. As a Vietnamese adoptee, I was conscious of the intersections of these forms of difference, but it seemed that other Greens staff members were not. While I do not speak Vietnamese, or read it as an adoptee, Greens staff still gave me Vietnamese language material to check over. Kee (ed. 2013) has written “very often we are not aware of our own culture until we come across situations that are not within our frame of reference. It is possible for us to operate from our own assumptions and world views and become oblivious to other assumptions and world views”.

To contrast, on the Politico website, Lois Romano’s article highlights the importance of Spanish-speaking Hispanic volunteers to Obama’s door knocking strategy for voter engagement.

“Squarrell is among the thousands of Spanish-speaking volunteers for President Barack Obama in Colorado and nationwide, who for months have been quietly blanketing Latino communities — knocking on doors block after block, showing up at every festival and church gathering, camping out at high schools to register new voters. Soon the 28-year-old college researcher and her team of five will shift their attention to pushing voters to mail in their ballots in this early voting state”
(Romano, 2012)

The above passage clearly demonstrates the importance of having teams of volunteers of similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds and ability to engage with their specific communities, in order to sell to the community a specific political or moral stance embedded in the social policies of a particular political party. Getting Vietnamese people on board for some these issues was not easy because, for example, the “environment”, as defined by the mainstream press, is an alien concept for many. Culturally, the Greens are seen as “strange and Communist”, as one Vietnamese ex-social worker put it: Obviously something that many community members who had fled Communist Vietnam were wary of.

I had wanted to build 2 small, committed teams to do voter outreach through door-knocking and phone calls; one Vietnamese and one African Australian, similar to the Hispanic teams for Obama’s campaign, though relatively resource scarce. I soon found that it was one thing to engage community members, and it was another to get them to want to become Greens members, let alone to become active volunteers. Some people were even hostile to being contacted. I needed more than a short student placement to build trust and rapport with communities and organisations.

I found that many people have more of an interest in specific topics as opposed to being more broadly politically engaged, for example, around understanding our voting system or the various responsibilities of local/state/Federal government. Though it is sometimes assumed that people under 40 and university educated are more willing to vote Greens, this is not as easy an association when it comes to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD)) communities. Many young Vietnamese and African Australians are not being heard, and the major parties are often too reliant on self-proclaimed community leaders (usually male and older) as spokespeople for their respective communities, without having consulted their youth.

Census data alone is not sufficient in providing a picture of the community. The value of “outreach” is in getting to know more specific stories of migration, settlement and belonging, to acknowledge the lived reality of oppression and exclusion, and the various roles these factors play in participation in the democratic process. Many in the older generation tend to be tied to established political parties because that was the party of the day that granted them entry into Australia. For example, from my outreach work I learned that for older Vietnamese it is the Libs. For older Greeks and Italians it is Labor.

Point 7 in Aims of the Greens policy is:

“Government and government-funded services to be delivered in languages other than English, by bilingual staff where appropriate, and interpreting and translation services to be well resourced and widely available.”

Class, ethnicity and language are all intertwined when it comes to voting, and seeing who has your interests at heart.

Where Am I Now?
Many of my interviews with white social workers bought forward tensions and structural oppressions—between CALD communities and mainstream institutions and service providers. My discussions with CALD community members made strong points of the oppressions within CALD communities as well as barriers experienced from the mainstream. Oppression does not occur only as isolated incidents; it is about a whole range of incidents, habits, cultural mores, and sometimes clashing traditions which reinforce the domination of one group over another. I became disillusioned about my time-limited role during my student placement in seeking or representing the needs of such a diverse range of communities for a political party. I have become more committed to working in a way where I can actually do ongoing community development in the intersections of culture and politics.

I now work with RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, the first grassroots refugee and asylum seeker advocacy organisation in Australia which is run by people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. My role is to develop our Ability Rights program, which I am doing in partnership with a Diversity and Disability self-advocacy group in St Albans. This program gives me an opportunity to engage my own political passions at the intersections of disability and refugee advocacy, drawing on my own experience as an adoptee with a disability.

For more information about RISE, please visit: www.riserefugee.org 

To get in touch with Dominic Golding on the Ability Rights program which works around the intersections of disability, refugee and asylum seeker advocacy, please email: abilityrights@riserefugee.org

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Dominic Golding

Author: Dominic Golding

Dominic Hong Duc Golding came to Australia as a tiny baby in a cardboard box, evacuated from Saigon in April 1975, just before the city fell to communist North Vietnamese forces at the end of the Vietnam War. Operation ‘Babylift’ was a last minute effort to save some 3000 plus children and babies from orphanages in South Vietnam by flying them to adoptive families in the United States, Australia, and other countries. In 2000 he was involved with a site installation performance Memory Museum about Australia's involvement in war for the Adelaide Festival Centre. In numerous roles Dominic has worked with Australian Vietnamese Youth Media on Aussie Bia Om, Viet Boys Downunder, Banana Strip (2001-2004) and directed Walking Without Feet (2004) with the Vietnamese Community in Australia (VIC chapter) an art showcase by Vietnamese young adults with special needs Dominic has returned to Vietnam three times, each time a new show was developed, Shrimp (2005, 2007) which won the Drama Victoria Award, Mr.Saigon, Ms. Hanoi (2007) and now working on Umbilical which examines Operation Babylift and the role of women during the Vietnam war, this play was short listed for the RE Ross playwright development award (2010). Today he works at RISE a refugee drop in centre.