I'm reading
Claudia Bowman is a good neighbour
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Claudia Bowman is a good neighbour
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Claudia Bowman is a good neighbour
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I really believe the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept."
Conversations
2 September 2015

Claudia Bowman is a good neighbour

Photography by Rupert Glasson

Meeting Claudia...

Claudia Bowman is a mum, a cheesemonger, a wife, a friend and the superhero you’ve never heard of. Moved to action by the struggles and injustices that surround her, she regularly lobbies government and local council and appeals to the hearts of those within her orbit to care, to make a difference and to reach beyond their own apathy to change the status quo. Her fire burns with compassion, and comes from knowing the profound difference a helping hand—and a persistent voice—can make.

Claudia and her husband Matt are raising their three kids in Kings Cross, one of Sydney’s most densely-populated areas. True to type, Claudia has played a pivotal role in making the community more friendly for its diverse demographic: winning a High Court case to revamp a neglected playground, campaigning for more public seating and pedestrian crossings, even getting living standards lifted for Department of Housing tenants. All of this happens because she’s the woman who writes hundreds of emails after the bookkeeping is done and the kids are in bed.

In 2012, a tragic event occurred around the corner from Claudia’s home, while her three children were sleeping safely. A young Belgian backpacker named Kirsten was brutally raped in a dark alley after being in Australia for only three days. She fled the country deeply traumatised. What Claudia did in response would transform everyone involved and become an example of how one person can bring healing in times of great pain. A documentary was made about it for SBS called Kirsten Comes Back.

As we chat with Claudia over Skype she is sitting in her kitchen, quick to point out the unwashed dishes stacked behind her. “Look! I haven’t cleaned up since breakfast!” she says with a slightly nervous laugh. “But I’d rather be productive and have a messy house than not do the stuff that keeps me up at night.”

Claudia probably wouldn’t call any of the things she does “community work.” For her, it’s just what you do as a human being: you talk to your neighbours, understand what their needs are and, if you’re in a position to do so, try to make their lives a little easier.

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

DUMBO FEATHER: What do you think it means to be a good neighbour?

CLAUDIA BOWMAN: I think it means getting out of your own head and perhaps appreciating life from another person’s perspective. Someone around you. My neighbour, my beautiful neighbour who lives next door, she’s had an accident. And so I’ve been helping her get to her physio session every Tuesday and Friday. And look, it’s only 100 metres up the road, but we walk at snail’s pace. She’s had her hip done. I tell you, I have never walked at snail’s pace anywhere in my 32 years! It’s very unusual, and I can feel her frustration. But that is a very realistic speed for a lot of people in my neighbourhood. We live across the road from a nursing home and a hospital where a lot of people are going for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. But I’d never seen my neighbourhood from the perspective of someone elderly or injured before.

And now, since I’ve started walking my neighbour to her physio, I can suddenly see all the problems they face in their day-to-day. There’s a pothole there, uneven pavement, there’s no disabled access, there’s a step at a crossing. There’s not enough seating options for elderly or injured people on this particular stretch of path. And suddenly I feel the anxiety that my neighbour feels when she approaches these hurdles every day. So from helping her in the past two months I can suddenly see a whole lot of projects that need doing. Which means I’m on the phone with local council, on email, asking for this and that. My husband thinks that I look for problems to fix. I regularly protest that I’m not. I just can’t see past them.

And I think you’ve really hit on it there—that by stepping into someone else’s shoes, we’re motivated to make change, to act in kindness.

All the opportunities I’ve had to help others are literally from walking around and getting to know people, and listening.

I once saw one of the local mums at the supermarket and noticed that her demeanour had changed—something wasn’t right. So I asked her, “Are you okay?” and then she completely opened up to me. She was walked out on by her husband, left with two small kids and no money. She had broken English, no qualifications and no family to fall back on. What was I supposed to do with that information? Give her a hug and continue on shopping?

Some people might.

These things stay with me. I lay in bed and feel so unsettled. I was raised by a single parent so I know how small acts of generosity can make a huge difference. I thought, Okay, what Ying needs is to reclaim her independence. We need to look at what she’s got and turn that into something she can actually make money on. I knew for a fact she could make fantastic dumplings—so with the help of people in the community we got her a website, a professional photoshoot, a business card and a brand. We got her access to one of the local cafes that didn’t use their kitchen in the evenings. And I told everyone I knew to start buying her dumplings. In the end our only problem was she couldn’t make enough dumplings to meet demand! And it just elevated her spirit to see what she could achieve. It also distracted her from her grief and really connected her to the community.

So have you had formal training in social work or community organising?

No, but I’m a student of life. I’ve done a lot of travelling around the world. While I’ve known a lot of privilege, I’ve also had a lot of raw, very real-life experiences. No hard knock story by any means, but I certainly haven’t had a sheltered life.

What do you mean by that?

Well, you know, I’ve experienced personal tragedy, loss, injustice, incredible travel, near-death experiences. I look around and I honestly believe that life can be incredibly unjust. And there’s so much that needs to be done. So I look at where I am now—the luck, the health and the happiness—and I very clearly understand how privileged I am, and that nothing can be taken for granted.

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

I think there’s almost a sense of responsibility with being on terra firma.

But I do find it hard to switch off sometimes. I find it hard sitting here in my home having a beautiful meal with beautiful beer knowing that next door someone’s seriously struggling, sleeping rough and probably hasn’t had a really good feed in god knows how long.

Is it a good thing do you think—this feeling you have of not being able to switch off?

Look, I do switch off at times. I absolutely do. I’m so activated now, you know? It’s just that you can’t unsee stuff. I have been awakened to all the injustice. You can’t unknow stuff. Sometimes I look at people who are asleep. They are totally asleep in their life. They’re not connected with themselves, with their environment. They’re certainly not connected to political issues. Sometimes I look at them and think, How beautiful your existence! How amazing to be walking through life without this moral compass! It’s not that I see my disposition as a burden. It’s just there’s always something to be done.

It’s interesting to hear you describe it as an “awakening.” Was it something specific that set you on this path?

It was getting something done. Seeing an improvement. I also think it’s just a culmination of life experiences as I said, and actually being confronted with very real examples of injustice and thinking, I’ll just wait to see if anyone says anything. Oh my gosh! No one’s awake here! I’m going to say something. It’s the old, “If not me then who?” I love that. And my husband often says to me, “Let someone else shine a light this time. Let someone else take charge.” And I’ll go, “I am not sure that’s going to happen.” Some people have much bigger problems, of course. Local government issues pale in significance when you’ve got a sick child or you are caring for a sick parent, in an unstable relationship or you’re a single mum juggling a million things. But luckily those problems aren’t mine. So if I am in a position to, why shouldn’t I give back?

Do you remember the first time you did something for your community?

It was a series of little things. But one of the first that’s notable I guess would be the Junior Jivers. It’s basically a parents and carers group that gets together every Monday and we entertain the children. And we provide an opportunity for parents to connect with their children and also with others in their community. It started after I had my first child, who’s six now, and I was walking around the neighbourhood and saw lots of other parents doing the same thing. I found out about this weekly playgroup and that they were going to shut it down so I rallied a group together to keep it going. And we did and it was addictive.

Oh yeah?

Yes. It’s an incredible feeling to bring people together in that way. Being generous of spirit has such amazing trajectory. And yet people are so cynical about it. They’re so sceptical of anyone who wants to connect.

Why do you think that is?

I think many of us are used to living in false communities. We’re all so busy, juggling work and kids and life, and people can be cautious—they don’t necessarily want to be too familiar with their neighbours or fellow parents in the playground. People want to avoid drama, fallouts, they don’t want to be familiar. But then there are people who are looking to get involved and it’s great to give them that chance. I believe people can be so profoundly positive when given the opportunity. They just don’t necessarily have time to find that for themselves.

Tell us about some of the other community work you’ve done.

You know it’s hard for me to just list these things. I almost feel like I’m promoting myself. “Aren’t I great because I help my neighbour walk up to her appointment.” “I’ve done this for that person” or “I’ve helped them with that.” I’m not doing it for that.

I know, but…

It’s like, “Oh, cringe!” I think if I was reading that I’d be like, “Who is this girl who’s listing all the good things she’s done?”

I really hope people don’t think that. I don’t think that. And maybe it’s the way I asked that question. It’s just your story is important, someone making a difference in their community just by doing small things, by connecting with their neighbours.

Yeah and I love those unsung heroes. Like the cafe owner who keeps the keys of the local tenants. Who, if you’re not home, will receive your delivery. Who, if you need something but you actually don’t have three dollars on you, will spot you. And who knows everyone’s business. And the posties! We’ve got some fantastic posties. They’ll come past and say, “Oh Claudia by the way there’s a parking inspector down the road and you’re parked on the wrong side of the street.” “Oh. Thank you!”

[Laughs.]

It’s that camaraderie. And it’s security. Elizabeth Bay/Rushcutters in Sydney where I live is still perceived as being an area that’s dodgy, lots of passing traffic. But you can’t walk around like a victim. And we shouldn’t have to when there’s so much connectedness. I am here, present. I’m not going to emit fear. I’m going to treat everyone I meet in this neighbourhood at face value. I don’t care about your personal information. Let’s connect on this level in this moment.

Yeah! Which brings me to talk about Kirsten, the young Belgian backpacker who was raped in your neighbourhood last year.

You know, I was so shaken and traumatised by that news. I couldn’t believe that literally 200 metres from where I raise my three children this young woman had been raped. She’d just arrived in Sydney and still had jetlag—it was the first time she’d left her hotel. It was her first big trip after school which she had been saving up for. I went straight back to the time when I worked two jobs to save up for my big overseas gap-year trip and thought, Imagine if that had happened to me on my trip. I really just wanted to reach out and make contact with her.

Why did you feel such a sense of responsibility to her?

I really believe the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept.

When you choose to live in a certain place, a little bit of that neighbourhood becomes a part of you and a little bit of you becomes part of the neighbourhood. There’s a sense of responsibility in how you contribute to your area and how you react to things. I can’t control what happens in my neighbourhood but I can sure as hell make sure I don’t accept it.

I knew from the news articles she was travelling alone. I wanted to reach out and offer her support, whatever she needed. It felt natural as a mother and female to make contact with her and let her know that she wasn’t on her own. And I know so many people in the local community that could have helped her. We could have offered her accommodation, support, dinners out—perhaps we could have had an opportunity to turn around her stay. I tried to get in contact with her through the hospitals and the police station, but for privacy reasons I wasn’t able to.

The photo taken in the alleyway where Kirsten was attacked.

"When I saw the picture, I felt this kind of warmth. I focussed on the people. I didn't really see the alley anymore. It was my first positive experience of Australia."—Kirsten for Kirsten Comes Back (By Rani Chaleyer)

Were you concerned you were being invasive?

I didn’t want to overthink it. I understood completely she might not have wanted contact from a random person in the community. I understood it was hugely traumatic for her. But it was important to me to reach out. I guess it was about flipping the lack of control I felt about what happened into taking action. I couldn’t affect what happened, but I wanted her to know I was a resource of positivity that could be tapped into. And I’m connected to so many other awesome people in the community who would also want to help her.

So in the end you didn’t get the chance to offer support before she left the country. But you created an opportunity that galvanised the whole community into taking action.

Yeah. It felt so natural to want to make a stand against what happened. I sent an email out to the local database and said, “This is outrageous—who wants to join me by meeting at the place she was attacked? We’re going to protest this and take a photo, and hopefully we can get in contact with her to show her our love and our sense of sorrow that this happened in our neighbourhood, on our watch. And maybe even bring her back here.”

How did the community respond?

The energy on the day was amazing. Despite the rain we had people gather at the spot where Kirsten was attacked. And right before the photo was taken there was actually a clap of thunder and the clouds opened up. And suddenly there was light at the end of the dark laneway. I profoundly felt that what I was doing was right. But someone else there said, “I just don’t think you should send this, it could be too confronting for her to see this place again, it could do more damage.” Their position was perfectly rational and sensitive and was politically correct. But it didn’t sit right with me.

There was a lot of concern around contacting her, and I fully appreciated that. Certainly sending a traumatised rape victim a photo from the spot they were attacked risked bringing up some very confronting memories. But I was coming from a pure place.

I feel like too often we are so limited by our concerns of getting something wrong that we end up not doing anything.

I did what I felt needed to be done deep down—what I hope someone would have done for me, what I hope someone would have done for my daughter.

And how did you eventually get the photo to Kirsten?

I sent it to the Embassy of Belgium in Canberra. I wrote: “On behalf of the Kings Cross Parents & Carers Community, I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to the young Belgian tourist that endured such a horrific ordeal in our neighbourhood.” People can do that anytime—write to an embassy if they want to. To my huge surprise, they contacted me with an email from her a couple of weeks later. I just started crying. For her to have received it at all, let alone writing a response, was mindblowing. When I told the community she was returning so many people got on board offering accomodation, snacks from the local deli, new kicks from the shoe shop, Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. We all felt really excited and honoured that she had put her faith in us to come back and give our neighbourhood and our country another go. I still can’t believe how courageous that was. And she had an amazing time. We all did over that month.

Wow.

My instinct told me to go past the fear of offending her. And I have no problem putting myself out there. It’s not that I don’t care what people think, but I’m happy to take a risk doing what I think is right, and be cut down, rejected or criticised for that.bowman-makes-a-difference-in-her-community/#sthash.f5VeNdxJ.dpuf

I’m keen to know what you were like growing up.

Ha! Well, I was the middle child of four children to a single parent, and Mum will tell you that I was the police of everything. I was that annoying child keeping tabs on everyone and everything. Argumentative. A young Claudia might have thought she would one day be a lawyer. I’ve always been somewhat of a justice junkie. And I’ve always seen a lot of injustice, particularly in the family environment. “That’s not allowed!” “Why are you doing that?” So I think I was always questioning right and wrong. I remember moments of feeling frustrated as a child and being completely helpless and powerless to actually make any change.

That’s so interesting.

I guess. Your reaction makes me realise that maybe it’s interesting [laughs].

[Laughs]. What’s funny is that you say all these things as if they’re the norm. You don’t see yourself as doing anything that special. You see that each of us has the capacity to effect change like you do.

Yeah, I mean I watch the news and feel distressed. I can’t do anything about ISIS, Syria, children in detention. It drives me wild, and apart from signing petitions, going to rallies and waiting for the next election cycle so I can vote again, the only thing I can do, I guess, is look to my local area. And that’s something everyone can do: think global, act local.

And it starts, as you say, with getting to know your neighbour.

Yeah, you just have to offer bite-sized opportunities to engage in a conversation out the front of the house. Ask them a question, have a laugh at the kids. Kids are wonderful for that. ‘Cause they’re so open and warm. Gardening out the front is great. People stop, you know. They stop! Some just walk past but others want to say “hi.”

You’re right. I think deep down we want to have that chat, we want to be acknowledged. We go about our days thinking, Do they want to talk to me? Don’t they? And we just choose “don’t” because it’s safer and it’s easier. But deep down we want to have a connection with our neighbours.

Yes and I want my kids to experience that. This is where a lot of their life decision-making processes will stem from. I want them to see what community can give, the security and the support it can provide. Like, if something happens, I get sick, I hope there’s enough connection in the neighbourhood, enough goodwill, that people will step in and look after my kids.

That’s why we build communities! For that support when we need it in our hardest times.

Right. It takes a village. We have a lot of single mums in the neighbourhood. And I saw what that was like for my mum raising four kids on her own, so I know exactly how hard it is. And I know how a small gesture of help can make a massive impact. We had some very generous people growing up. They’d come over and bring us lasagne. They’d take care of us when Mum had to do the shopping. So my real passion today is to help those single mums who just need a break. I’ll take the kids to the park for two hours so they can put on the washing or get the dinner ready. Or I’ll have them for a sleepover to give the mum a night off. Because I was there. I know that.

And Kelly was someone else you had quite an impact on. Tell us about her.

Kelly is a single mum, a Department of Housing tenant. We have kids the same age who connected over the years at Junior Jivers. She had moved and I hadn’t seen her in ages. She came to me and said, “I’m really sick, the environment I’m living in is really unhealthy. I’ve had pneumonia, I’m losing weight, I’m losing hair. It’s because we have a really bad mould problem.” I said, “No worries, I’ll organise some people to come over and clean it.” I got there and it was incomprehensible how bad it was. I called the Department of Housing and got nowhere. I was at my wits’ end. I made daily calls to the department, to MPs. I was trying to get attention to this situation and no one was listening. They were in a completely toxic environment—her four-yearold daughter had a cough that sounded like a dog barking. So with the community’s help we moved them into temporary accommodation, paid their costs, got new clothes, new furniture—people really got on board to help her out.

And you got her story on ABC’s 7:30 Report.

That’s when her life changed. I knew it was a big story from the start, and once I was able to get it in front of one of Australia’s best journalists, Quentin Dempster, and also The Redfern Legal Centre, her whole life changed. Kelly got compensation, she was moved to a new place. But most importantly, for the first time in her life, she felt validated. She had been heard.

When you live in a diverse community and really understand it, it’s hard to escape the reality that life is often profoundly unfair, difficult and sad. But when you see people around you suffer disadvantage or tragedy, you realise it’s an opportunity for you to use your own strengths in a way you might not have before, strengths you didn’t even know you had. There would have been a time in my life when I might have been judgemental towards a drug addict or a homeless person—thinking it was their life choices that got them there—and I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about why they do drugs, what sort of pain they were trying to escape. The exposure I’ve had to my community has made me far less judgemental and more appreciative of how life is for many different people.

You also have a cheese business. You’re a cheesemonger, which is pretty cool. I might be getting a bit romantic here, but I was thinking it’s kind of like a village role, right? You have the butcher and the shoemaker and the cheesemonger.

You’re clutching at straws [laughs]!

Oh, am I!? [Laughs].

Cheese straws!

[Laughs]. Okay, okay, I’ll settle down. But tell me how you got into selling cheese for a living.

Oh look, for many years my husband and I discussed the concept of success. “What is success?” And I was like, “It’s making money, climbing up the ladder and this and that.” And he was like “Nah. Success is being able to get up every day and look forward to what you’re doing, and in doing that earning enough money to pay your bills.”

Amen.

He’s a school teacher, passionate about the public schooling system. He’s a remarkable man that I draw great strength from. I love his catchcry: “What’s wrong with being average?” He says, “Why is everyone so fixated on being someone and going somewhere and trying so hard to promote something and loosing themselves in the process of stress and competition of it all?’ Family life and our health and wellbeing has always been his priority. He’s very whole. Very present. So having a partner who is independent and individual and easy-going has always allowed me the time to focus on these things in the community that keep me up at night.

And cheese is a passion?

Oh yeah. Hook, line and sinker. I’m crazy for artisan cheese. I had some exceptional, very unique, very random artisan cheese experiences overseas and I just thought, I should do something with this.

Wow.

I mean, I’m not killing it—I’m raising three kids in an apartment with a huge mortgage, driving a second-hand Subaru—but it allows me to follow my passion projects. I have a lot of people who say, “I don’t know where you find the time to do X, Y and Z!” And I think, Those are the things I need to find time for, they’re the priorities. I’m lucky also in that my husband’s home by four o’clock so I can work on evenings and weekends, ensuring that one of us is always looking after the kids. And he doesn’t care that the house is a mess when he gets home!

What do you want for your children?

[Gasps]. I want them to be resilient. You know, statistically speaking, they’re going to experience being seriously let down, victims of random accident, abuse, trauma. I mean they’re all just statistics. But I hope that what my husband and I can give them is a profound sense of compassion and love and confidence, and with those three things they can then find the resilience to move through whatever they’re faced with: past it, over it, around it. Just get through it.

There are a lot of homeless people in our neighbourhood. The kids see them sleeping rough. We see people with major mental health issues that are no doubt the result of some life experience. And

I think everyone should do a stint of volunteer work—two weeks, ten days, whatever—within their local council.

Yeah?

I cannot tell you how fascinating it is to better understand your local government. Oh my gosh. It takes you from being someone who complains: “Oh, council this, council that” to really understanding how much is required to run a city. You get this fundamental appreciation of how many people are involved. And how much thought goes into the decisions being made: art installations, grants, waste removal, amenities, facilities. And you start to understand how and when to ask for things as a community member. If there’s an issue you need to bring to the attention of some decision makers, you have to get them within a certain period of time. You need to be strategic about how you ask for something. So it’s like, “Does anyone agree that we need a park bench on Roslyn Garden Street?” I’ll scout out my locals and go, “Great, I can get 25 people.” And I say to them, “Guys if you feel really passionately about this park bench, could you please send an email to this councillor in the next three days?” And then the councillor will go, “We better look at this, we’ve got 25 emails about it.” It’s taken me many years to understand that it has to be a community effort.

So interesting. And what have you learned about mobilising people to take action?

Oh my god, so hard. So hard. I’ve learnt that you have to appeal to people’s interest. “Is this a concern to you?

Yes or no? If no, don’t worry, no need to read any further. But if it is of concern, can you go to this link and send this email?” Or, “Can you be here at this time on this day to show that we are of a similar thinking?” Like that fantastic company GetUp that provides people who care, but are time-poor, easy opportunities to jump on board.

What do you see to be the biggest challenges?

Equality. I’m very, very, very upset and concerned with inequality in our country at the moment. This massive gap we’re seeing in opportunities, wealth, rights. I’m very concerned about public housing. There are buildings in Waterloo that should be condemned. I would never live in the buildings—I would never want anyone that I know to live in the buildings— that they are still putting a coat of paint on and making people live in. Education, affordability of houses, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned with the dirty tactics of certain parties that are changing the rules to advance their own cause. So someone like myself, not having any political aspirations, feels so stressed and frustrated that I have to go, “You know what? Someone’s got to step up here.” If they amalgamate our council, which is exactly why they’re doing it, we won’t be able to afford to run a campaign. It’s too big an electorate. So we’ll only ever have Labor or Liberal.

Do you get angry? Being in the thick of it all the time, you must get angry.

[Laughs]. I sound angry! My husband would tell you I’ve got plenty of anger, plenty of fire. Look, I get disenfranchised. I do. But I try to channel that into something positive. So I do gardening. Come see. [Takes laptop outside]. That’s my little garden patch. And then in the tree, see, I’ve just planted those beautiful 25-year-old orchids. I do the hedges. And that’s our incredible Jacaranda. And that’s a maple that we just put in. So I garden. When I get really frustrated [laughs].

It’s incredible how therapeutic it can be.

Yeah! You’ve got to channel your anger into positivity. Because otherwise it’s carcinogenic, it’ll eat you up. It’ll kill you. Also,

it’s too easy just to complain and feel broken. You have to get active.

You have to write emails. You have to get on the phone. You have to talk to your neighbours. And that’s the only way you can actually deal with that disenfranchised state. I think people feel like they don’t have a place in the system. People don’t realise that we are all part of the system. They think you have to accept what you’re told. But you can rally against things! You can challenge decisions! You can lobby people! Unless people get angry and unless people start to take responsibility and find a place for themselves in their local government, state government, federal government, we will continue to be railroaded.

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.