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"This is something that our mob have been doing for a very long time: looking after our land."
Conversations
3 September 2017

Amelia Telford is protecting country

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Hilary Walker

Mele-Ane Havea on Amelia Telford

There’s no doubt about it—Amelia Telford is a force. On the day of our conversation, a typically overcast and steely Melbourne morning, she bounded into the office sporting a backpack and a broad smile. It was as if the sun had come out.

She opened her arms to give me a hug and asked that I call her “Millie.” I warmed to her immediately.

I’d heard about Millie before, a young climate warrior who was all of 20 and already making huge waves with her organisation Seed. The list of accolades rolled on: National NAIDOC Youth of the Year, Bob Brown’s Young Environmentalist of the Year, the Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year. Each one of them had recognised Millie’s deep commitment to building a more just and sustainable future for young people.

I was curious to learn what had inspired this young woman to postpone a medical degree and start Seed, Australia’s first Indigenous youth-led climate network. With support from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Seed educates and empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to lead climate campaigns and projects across the country. Since 2013, it has mobilised more than 120,000 young Australians to connect and join together in the fight for climate justice.

I assumed Millie would be smart, driven and passionate. And, yes, she is all of these things, but what strikes me most in our conversation is the obvious weight of responsibility she feels. I once read that climate change is the perfect moral storm, largely because its biggest impacts are felt by people who are not proximate to us—the marginalised in society and, of course, future generations. When we can’t see it, the author noted, we can easily ignore our moral obligations. I realised that many of us tend to live as though our choices don’t deeply impact future generations. Millie, however, is well aware of the fact. Weaved into our conversation is an acknowledgement of generations to come and a deep respect for those past. The awareness of these connections that is a lived reality for her.

Ultimately, it is her community—her connection to family, culture and land—that both propels Millie to do the work she does and makes her feel supported when things become challenging. By the end the conversation, I’m convinced that it’s these deep connections that allow her to carry this load and do this work with joy. The sense of connectedness rubs off on me and despite talking about big and difficult issues, I’m left buoyed by the conversation, feeling somehow stronger. If this what the future of leadership in Australia looks like, then there is plenty to be hopeful about.

This story originally ran in issue #52 of Dumbo Feather

AMELIA TELFORD: I’ve been very emotional recently. So just warning you! [Laughs].

MELE-ANE HAVEA: No worries. I’ve been really emotional too.

Yeah. It’s been a crazy start to the year. There’s a lot of stuff going on for people. A lot to process.

Yeah. Talk to me about that.

I think it’s just a heaviness that so many of us share, particularly young people. And then particularly young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or First Nations people around the world. There’s a lot of shit going on, and it’s hard to know what you can do about it sometimes. And it’s hard to know whether it’s possible to change it and how to do that, who to do that with. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by people that give me hope.

This story originally ran in issue #52 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #52 of Dumbo Feather

My job is about connecting with young people who are doing everything they can to create change and to stand up for our communities and our culture.

But I come across so many people who just don’t know what to do. And that can lead them to being really disempowered and ultimately disengage.

Kind of paralysed I think in the face of really, really scary problems.

Yeah. And climate change is like an umbrella issue that is connected to so many of the other issues going on that will continue to make everything else worse until we do something about it. These are injustices that our people have been grappling with for generations. But when you look around, it’s everyday people who are coming together to take collective action and—with what I’m going through at the moment—I have realised how important those people are in just supporting one another. To just take care of each other. To not get overwhelmed by these scary problems and know that there are people who share the same feelings and passions. And channeling all of that into action.

Yeah. The necessity of community. Do you have a community that you turn to? Is it Seed? Is that your family?

There are so many communities. Which I feel so lucky to be part of. I have one of the absolute best jobs in the world and I love connecting with people who also feel this way. I get to be part of building a generation of young people who are standing up for country and for our people, and so for so many of the young people involved in Seed it’s more than just activism. Our network is like a big family. We often use the phrase, “Biggest mob” [laughs]. And then within that I have my community and family back home in northern New South Wales, and also a community of sisters who I call my tiddas, who are strong Aboriginal women, that I lean on and they lean on me. And we have fun together but we also know that life is pretty tough sometimes and you need people around you who give you energy. Because we do a lot of things that take away our energy. Dad always says to me, “You can be doing work for sustainability but you also have to sustain yourself in the journey.”

Good advice.

Mm. Totally.

So you mentioned home, can you tell me a bit more about your upbringing and where home is. Is it Bundjalung country?

Yeah so I’m a Bundjalung woman. So from the Minjungbal clan of the Bundjalung nation. All of Dad’s family is from around Tweed Heads area. And we also have South Sea Islander family, so from some of the Pacific Islands. We grew up in northern New South Wales, right on the coast, and so the salt water and the beaches are a huge part of our identity. Growing up we went to the beach pretty much every day. And my parents instilled in us the importance of respecting the land. We understood that the land has provided for us for generations. It was when I started witnessing a lot of changes in the local environment, a lot of coastal erosion and then learning about climate change at school that I started connecting the dots. I realised that there’s this huge issue impacting people’s lives and culture and livelihoods, and

the impacts of climate change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t just the severe weather events, it’s the actual destruction of our land from the industries that are fuelling the crisis

—the digging up of country for coal and gas and oil. I became more and more aware of what was being lost and what that means for our younger generations who make up the majority of our population. I realised that in Australia and around the world it’s Indigenous people who are on the forefront of these issues.

When you say that, do you mean facing them?

Yeah. In so many ways. So whether that’s on the frontline of the battle against Adani, it’s indigenous people whose land is threatened by a huge new coal mine. And then in places where those fossil fuel projects are already existing, it’s those communities that are having to witness the destruction of their land. And not just see it, actually really feel it. Our land is part of who we are. And there’s a lot of pain when you see your country scarred like that. It’s not reversible. We talk about rehabilitation and I think that’s something that’s really, really important, it’s an important part of healing. Some of that destruction is irreversible. But then we look at our communities up in the Torres Strait who are witnessing sea level rise and having to consider what happens when the sea rises so much that you can’t live there anymore, it’s devastating. There are so many ways that our people are facing the burden of it. And communities have been fighting for a really long time but I think it’s only recently that we’re starting to mobilise and come together and realise how much of a leadership role Indigenous people need to play in the movement to create a more fair and sustainable world.

"I was able to go from having that feeling of being on my own, being one of the only people that cared about climate change, to realising there were young people right across the country in their schools or universities or communities who were doing stuff just like me."
Amelia Telford

And so Seed was kind of born of that idea, and that awakening in yourself, it sounds like?

Yeah. So I was at high school when I first connected with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. I had been involved in the environment group at my school and started taking notice of all of the issues that were going on. At home there were proposals for coal seam gas extraction, and so I got involved in the environment group at my school which led me to hear about an event that was being hosted by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition called “Power Shift.” It’s an event that they host every couple of years which brings together thousands of young people from around the country to learn about climate change, learn about what they can do about it and start taking action together. I was really lucky to get some support from the organisation and we started organising in our school and with other schools in the region and we managed to get a double decker bus of about 60 students up to Brisbane to the event, which was really, really awesome. And it was an amazing event, you know. I was able to go from having that feeling of being on my own, being one of the only people that cared about climate change, to realising there were young people right across the country in their schools or universities or communities who were doing stuff just like me. At the same time I realised that I was in a room full of over a thousand young people but one of only a few of them were Indigenous. I started to wonder why. And I was really lucky to be introduced to Anna Rose who heard about a speech that I had done at the event and all the organising we had done in our school. And she really listened to me when I said there’s a huge gap in this movement in terms of a voice and a platform for Indigenous young people to get involved and take action. And so I finished high school and was going to go off to university but was lucky to be supported by Anna and the organisation to find some money and a role for me to start building a program that could support Indigenous young people to take action on climate change. It took a while but eventually in July 2014 we officially launched Seed, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network. Which was massive. And it is new and it’s the first “network,” but

this is something that our mob have been doing for a very long time: looking after our land.

For generations, thousands and thousands of years, we’ve looked after this land sustainably and I think what the young people that I was starting to connect with, what we were talking about is that this is how we look after our country in a modern context: by preventing the big fossil fuel industries from destroying our land. By educating our own people about the issue of climate change and by supporting each other to do something about it and to realise that this is an issue that’s connected to so many of the other urgent issues that are on people’s doorsteps right now. Whether it’s access to housing or clean drinking water, education or employment. Climate change is connected to all of those. And so once we launched as Seed with our own name, our own brand identity and ability to have Indigenous young people leading and forming something that was for Indigenous young people, from that moment we just started growing really, really rapidly and connecting with young mob right around the country who wanted to be involved. The young people that are directly involved are our volunteers, you know. We have over a hundred in every state and territory. And we’re a really powerful voice. So the work that we do is around standing up and protecting our land, but also building the capacity of our young people to have the skills and the confidence and the tools to take action.

I love how you describe climate change as a threat, but also as an opportunity. To create a more just and fair world. Can you talk about that a little bit?

There’s energy side of it, and we’ve been on this trajectory for a while. Politics and business are obsessed with coal and gas, and money that comes with it. And we know that the burning of fossil fuels is one of the largest contributors to climate change and we absolutely need to cap our emissions as soon as we can. But the great thing is there are so many other sources of energy out there. From the sun and the wind in Australia—we’re one of the sunniest and windiest countries in the world. We have such a huge opportunity to move towards 100 percent renewable energy. And for Indigenous communities this is a massive opportunity. ’Cause we have communities that are amongst the most vulnerable in the world. A lot of people, when they think of poverty, think overseas. But we need to look in our own backyard and realise that our First Nations people in some places are living in incredibly poor conditions. And some of those communities depend on dirty diesel generators that are unreliable, expensive and just unsustainable. And the opportunity that solar panels and solar battery storage and all of that provides is huge, you know. Not just the energy but the ability for our communities to have self-determination. To have forms of independence so that we can be in control of our own lives.

But I think the other opportunity that is a challenge, [laughs], is that climate change can connect us. The impacts aren’t evenly distributed. It’s people of colour and people in low socioeconomic communities, women, people who are typically on the margins of society that often face the most severe consequences. But it’s an issue that impacts everyone. An incredible Canadian Aboriginal woman who I met a few years back, Crystal Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, the way she explains it is that if you need to drink clean water and breathe clean air then it’s your issue. And so ultimately it’s everyone’s issue, which means it’s an opportunity to connect beyond differences. And so Seed has been able to come together despite all of our differences and act.

Yeah. It’s a uniting force.

It has to be something that brings us together. The longer we stay divided, we’re not going to get anywhere. And that’s for all of society but it’s also for our own mob. A challenge sometimes is that non-Indigenous people assume Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people think the same. But there’s diversity within our community as there is within any community. And that is about diversity of opinions as well. There are mob out there who want some of these mining projects to go ahead, that’s reality. But we need to be thinking long-term. Our people have always thought generations and generations ahead of us. And unfortunately the bullying tactics that the fossil fuel industry uses, they focus on the things that will divide people, the short-term job opportunities and financials, the money it can provide. We need to think about our young people, our future generations and realise that right now, this is one of the most pressing issues that we’re all facing.

I want to go back to power. But not in the way you spoke about it. There’s a quote that I love that I read from you, I’m going to read it back. I’m going to read yourself back to you.

[Laughs]. 

So you said, “I’ve been reflecting a bit recently about how the world that we live in today is constantly telling my people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that we’re powerless victims destined for disaster. We hear it in the media, in government speeches, and the statistics talk for themselves. However when we tell ourselves a different story, a story of powerful resilient people who are building our own solutions, we can revolutionise the way we see ourselves.” And I thought this was such a beautiful articulation of the power of storytelling. And the power of the stories we tell ourselves.

Totally. We come from a long history of incredibly resilient people. And pre-colonisation but also post-colonisation, like, our people have gone through some of the most horrific experiences, and there’s a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of ways that colonisation still plays out in a modern context. People often don’t realise that. But at the same time, the strength and the resiliency of our people to get through that and still be here surviving is astounding. And I think that’s about the story we tell. I think that’s really what keeps so many of us going. As young people we look up to our elders and our old people and those that have kept the fire burning for so long and are starting to pass the baton over to us. And that’s where we draw strength.

What gave you the strength to do what you did at such a young age? In terms of organise at your school and talk at this event in Brisbane and then recognise the problem and find a solution?

It comes down to community and family. And for me if I didn’t have Mum and Dad and close family around me believing in me and supporting me and challenging me, like, Dad didn’t really know what I was doing. I was going to do medicine at uni. I’m really passionate about the health of our people. But what I also realised is that climate change is impacting our health. Whether that’s physical health, the threats from diseases and not being able to drink clean water, but also our mental and spiritual health. I realised that addressing the root causes of climate change was going to be more impactful, in my eyes, than becoming a doctor and addressing the issues in that way. And so I had Dad challenging me for a while! [Laughs]. And not being really sure about what it was that I was doing and being like, “When are you going to go back to uni?” And a lot of my family. My pop and aunties and uncles always asking about when I was going to go back to uni. ’Cause so many of our mob haven’t been through uni. You know. Like, I’m a part of the generation that has access to education more than so many of our older people had. It was never not supporting me. It was just challenging me I guess.

And so having the support of your community, whether that’s direct local community or the network of young people across the country, there’s definitely power that comes with that. And huge responsibility. I think that’s the thing that drives people—we just feel so responsible for our people and for our land and culture. And we need to do something about it. Mm.

And I suppose uni can wait, whereas this is urgent.

Totally. Yeah.

What do they think now, your family?

They’re really proud to see what Seed has grown into. And that’s not just from me, that’s all of the young people that have been involved in building Seed to where it is today. And they’ve been able to meet some of these young people and know how important this issue is. But I think, yeah, I really do draw strength from my parents and their relationship. Mum’s from New Zealand. She’s Pākehā. So she’s white. Her family moved to New Zealand from England. And Dad’s Aboriginal and South Sea Islander and so I think I really learnt about about racism first and foremost from the stories of Mum and Dad’s relationship and the challenges they had to go through to just be together. And have acceptance from their family.

So their relationship was almost like a statement of activism.

Yeah! I mean I don’t know if that’s how they thought about it. I think now that I’m in a relationship and have a partner who has two young daughters I’m starting to draw from the stories that I’ve heard of Mum and Dad’s relationship and realise how strong they are to have been through a lot of shit. It was love that brought them together and that has kept them together. And

I think love is something that we are sometimes maybe scared to talk about, ’cause it’s really fluffy and people can think that it’s a bit “hippie” and this and that, but love is about connection.

And whether that’s connection to other people or to the land, to your culture, to whatever it is, I think love is what we need to talk more about and to see more of and feel more in addressing climate change. ’Cause we’ve got to love our land and love each other in a way that’s not necessarily like being in love with someone. But having that connection that brings you together.

I love that.

[Laughs].

When we started you were talking about how it was feeling heavy at this point in time. And I think you so beautifully said that action is actually a way to move through that. I wondered if we could talk about some of the things that either you do or you encourage other young people to do to act?

Totally. One of the big campaigns that we’ve been working on since Seed launched has been to stop Adani from building the proposed Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland on Wangan and Jagalingou country up there. And this is a fight that’s been going on for a very, very long time. But it’s one of the biggest issues that we need to get to a point where we’re moving beyond coal. The president of Kiribati has been calling for a commitment from governments right around the world for no new coalmines, and to have a transition plan for shutting down existing projects and moving towards renewable energy. And it’s crazy to be in Australia in a country that is continuing and will continue to witness the impacts of climate change—droughts, flooding, heat waves, sea level rise, as well as the pollution and destruction of the land—it’s crazy that our government is even considering building this mine. But, you know, they’re not just considering it, they’re basically doing everything that they can to get it off the ground. Whether that means funnelling them public taxpayer’s money or bullying financial institutions to give that money or stripping the rights of Indigenous people to have a say about what goes on in our country by making amendments to the Native Title Act. There’s this huge battle to get this mine off the ground and it would, if built, be one of the largest coalmines in the world. And would just destroy so much sacred land and water and culture and livelihoods. And it’s something that hugely impacts the Aboriginal people up in Queensland. But also will impact Indigenous people right around the world if the coal is dug up and shipped overseas and burnt. So this has been a fight that’s been going on for a really long time. And Seed, with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, have played different roles in the campaign. I think really excitingly we have worked incredibly hard to put pressure on the financial institutions, Australia’s big banks, to not fund this project. And that’s been really fun. [Laughs] you know, it’s been a bit crazy, but it’s been years and years of creative fun tactics. Getting outside bank branches right around the country, dressing up as Nemo and Dory signifying the Great Barrier Reef. And letting the banks know that their customers, Australian people, don’t want this mine to go ahead, don’t want the Great Barrier Reef to be destroyed. Don’t want a project to go ahead without the consent from traditional owners. And years and years of lobbying and harnessing the creativity and what I would call the cheekiness of young people. Like, Seed and AYCC have a grassroots network of young people right around the country. So

the banks were feeling the impact of young people in remote and regional towns and cities everywhere pressuring them. And eventually we saw each one of the banks distance themselves more and more from the project.

And come out publicly and say that they weren’t going to fund this project. And so it broadly looks like Australia’s banks, at least the big four—Comm Bank, Westpac, NAB and ANZ—don’t really want to go near this project. So right now Adani are trying to say that they’re getting closer and closer to having the money that they need, but we know that that’s just a front they’re putting up. And we’re not going to stop until the proposal for this mine no longer exists. And the country that’s threatened is protected.

And the reality with which Indigenous people in Australia—and around the world as you say—understand the destruction that’s happening to the planet, that humans have committed, I think that trauma’s actually. Trauma in terms of the land and the environment, but also in the generations of mistreatment. And I’m really interested in how we as a community heal from that trauma. Not just through environment rehabilitation, but through relationships and this divide that I see between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. You spoke a bit about the fact that we all face issues of climate change. We all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink. But how does that happen?

I think first and foremost we need to come together more. As I touched on, there’s a lot of tactics that governments and big business use to divide us. And, you know, they can be successful a lot of the time because we are stuck in our own politics and our own division. I think something that a lot of people face is the fear that if you step up and have a voice and an opinion that you might get shut down.

We need to be more purposeful in building each other up. And coming together.

And that’s a value and principle that we have at Seed. Whether that’s through the training and the skills development that we do, but also just being there, supporting each other and calling out when the negativity comes out, being able to actually address that and address conflict. And to know that sometimes that comes from a place of fear and feeling threatened and from our own insecurities. And so trying to move through that together. It’s not about coming together in a circle, holding hands and singing kumbaya. It’s about realising that we do need to work together. We haven’t got it right but I think working as a branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition we’re getting better and better at realising when it’s Seed’s responsibility to educate non-Indigenous people to understand the way that we feel and face these issues and when it’s not our responsibility. And so we talk with AYCC a lot about what it means to be a good ally. Like, to be someone who can support us but not put the burden on us. I think that’s something that more and more people need to be thinking about, how they can actually be a good ally, ’cause there’s a lot of people out there that want to support and do things to support, but maybe don’t realise that sometimes they can actually be creating more harm than good.

It’s a really complex question that I raised. And it’s one that I think about a lot because, although I am not Indigenous, I had family in the community here in Melbourne. I went to lots of marches, to Invasion Day barbecues and there was a lot of anger and frustration around me. On the other hand, I’ve often watched white Australian friends trying to connect to issues and not being able to, and maybe feeling shut out. And sensing that frustration. And I’ve watched this divide that seems to expand. And I’m just curious about what you see as a potential way forward. I know it’s a massive question.

It’s going to be a rocky path and will be filled with a lot of challenges and hurdles and navigating conflict. And for me, having such strong parents I don’t see that as a reason to give up. You know. A quote that you often hear is, if it was easy it would have been done. So if climate change was easy to solve and if coming together across races and differences was easy, it would have been done already.

"I think it’s about realising that we can’t come from a place of fear and our own insecurities. A little more self-awareness is what people need sometimes."
Amelia Telford

It’s hard. I think we have to acknowledge that first. But, you know, people get burnt along the way and I would hope that’s not a reason to step back. I think it’s about realising that we can’t come from a place of fear and our own insecurities. A little more self-awareness is what people need sometimes. And also realising that different communities are going to need their own space sometimes. So for Seed, when we worked together with AYCC, there is this understanding that there’s going to be times when Seed has to step out and we need our own space for us. And that’s a space that isn’t open to non-Indigenous people. But then there will be times when we come together. And we do things together. And that’s a shared space.

Why do you think those spaces are important?

Well for us, for so many Indigenous young people whether it’s at uni or at high school or in their workplace or wherever it is, so often we’re one of the only Indigenous people there. Or we’re token black or whatever! And so we need space to come together just as us. Because we need to be able to heal together, to come together to talk about our challenges, to explore our own differences as a group like I was saying, to support each other and to develop that self-determination.

To finish, I wondered if you have a vision for the future, for say 2040? Can you paint a picture of what that looks like maybe?

Yeah. It’s so hard because we draw on what we know. And so when we haven’t experienced anything like what you want to see, it’s hard to really articulate it. But first and foremost I think it’s a world where people just generally get along better. Where communities are able to thrive and be happy, across the divides. I think it’s much simpler than the world we currently live in. I think that’s a realisation people have sometimes. Like, it’s a complex problem but the solutions can actually be really simple. You can just go back to basics. Like getting along with each other, like connecting with each other and connecting with the land. It sounds really simple. But

I think right now people are just surviving. Our vision is for a world where people can really live and thrive and communities can be sustainable and happy and healthy and be powered by the sun and the wind, and also powered by each other.

Empowered to be in control of our own lives. I think it’s a world that is more fair and it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is or how much money you have or whether the problem is in my backyard or someone else’s. I think that’s how some people think about climate change, you know, if it’s not in the backyard of someone who lives in the northern beaches of Sydney, it’s not their problem. So it’s about realising that justice for one person is about justice for all. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have justice? That’s justice for everyone. It’s hard to articulate but when you think about it we’re on the margins of society. We face the burden of issues. And so if we’re living in a world that’s fair for us then ultimately it’s fair for everyone.

This conversation has been published to coincide with the Dumbo Feather Climate Challenge. Find out more about the challenge, and sign up here.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.

 

Photography by Hilary Walker

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