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Jess Scully is a leader with a vision
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Jess Scully is a leader with a vision
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Jess Scully is a leader with a vision
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
18 June 2021

Jess Scully is a leader with a vision

Interview by Eleanor Gammell
Photography by Jacquie Manning

Jess Scully is the embodiment of hope. Every time we connect, the conversation expands immediately into a bold, audacious vision of what more we could all be doing. Over wines and whiskey sours, our conversations have punctuated various jobs over various years and the joyful urgency she brings deepens every time. Jess is infectious. As we chat over our Covid-inflicted Zoom call, she sits in the courtyard of her home in Sydney, and her partner Pat pops into the screen to say hi with Jess’ daughter Elinor for a quick cuddle.

Used to seeing Jess on the stages of city halls and theatres around Sydney leading public discourse, I’m heartened by this beautiful snapshot of domestic family life and the reality of a vivaciously authentic leader balancing both. Those we think of as truly wise aren’t generally wise because of epiphanies and light-bulb moments. They’re wise because they carry something innately profound within them from childhood.

Jess’ fight for social justice started early and runs deep. Her insatiable determination as the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney has her seeking out regenerative opportunities the world over. She is determined to do nothing less than pivot our communities from an extraction economy to a regenerative one – and it’s not just lip service. Jess is in the work: talking to the people, focussing on the care economy, inviting citizen juries, rebuilding policy frameworks, elevating storytellers, revisioning our cities. She straddles the dreaming and the doing. It all begins at the community level. It’s not enough to comment on politics from the cheap seats as so many of us do – it’s about elevating the civic conversation and involving a truly representative community to rebuild policy from the simple ripples created when we each hone in on what it is we care about and see a better alternative for.

It’s a gift to us all that Jess Scully is in the world, and her book, Glimpses of Utopia is an offering to inspire a hopeful vision for what the future could be and what our children’s generation deserve.

This story originally ran in issue #64 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

This story originally ran in issue #64 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #64 of Dumbo Feather

So I want to begin by framing this moment we’re in. It’s been a year of brutal intensity for a lot of people – environmentally, emotionally, physically, economically and politically. It’s also been an intense moment in the reckoning that change is needed more than ever to a system that was built to sustain itself. What has been coming up for you during 2020, and how have you been processing it all?

I think it’s been so disruptive and traumatic for a lot of people all over the world. It is a year of reckoning in that our lifestyles have caught up with us and the unsustainability of everything we’ve been doing has been exposed. I have always thought that just more energy, more work, more connections and more, more, more, being out more, being more visible, that’s what I needed to do. That was the only way that I could contribute. I had to just keep working and picking up projects. And when you hit a wall like this year, I think it’s what a lot of people would experience with an illness perhaps where they are forced to reevaluate how they live. It’s happened for me on a personal level, and I think it’s also happened to our society in that we’ve realised a lot of the practices we had and particularly the economy that we’ve had has been about endless growth, about extraction and also about drawing people from overseas to spend money. Being very outwardly focused has diminished all of the sudden. We’re having to turn to our inner reserves of strength, whether that’s as individuals, as families or as smaller local communities or even as a country. And we always knew that this way of life couldn’t last forever. But suddenly it’s gone from being this abstract idea that happens at a certain point in the future to something that happens overnight. I think despite the disruption and the trauma of that, we’re lucky in Australia that we get to take that moment and be more considerate about what the next phase looks like. Because so much of this is inherited and it’s just happening through inertia of the system that we have. We haven’t actively chosen this. And now we get a moment to decide whether we choose it, whether we’re going to opt back into it.

I want to hear about your journey to arriving at the glimpses of utopia you’re shining a light on today. Let’s rewind to a time that you were the age of the school children you now visit to talk with about a better future. You grew up with a mother who had fled from Chile under Pinochet and an Anglo-Indian father from Bangalore. What did utopia look like for you as a first generation Australian girl growing up in Fairfield, Sydney?

I didn’t really have much of a conception of how anything really worked. But I had a sense that decisions were being made and that I had to get somewhere else in order to understand how those decisions got made. I had the experience of seeing inequality when we lived in Chile when I was 10. Coming from Fairfield and Liverpool in Sydney, I realised there that not everyone gets the same opportunities and that not everyone gets the opportunity to have their voices heard and have a say in the decisions that are made on their behalf. When I got back I think I became more acutely aware of that divide in my own city. And realising that I was on the other side of that divide. I have the most distinct memory of being 13, my first year in high school. I went to a high school called Hurlstone Agricultural High School which is a selective agricultural school with borders. It was such an eye-opening experience because I came from this very multicultural background and suddenly was thrust into this very suburban context with a bunch of country kids from regional New South Wales who had their own completely different priorities and culture and ways of living. I realised how incredibly diverse the world is. So I have this really embarrassing memory from being a teenager, I think I was probably a little shit. I remember telling people, “Oh, I’m not going to go here for very long because actually I’m going to Sydney Grammar next year.”

[Laughs].

And I didn’t know that Sydney Grammar was a boys school! But I’d heard the name and I’d driven past it at some point and saw this like sandstone thing in the middle of the city. And I was like, “I want to go there.” This little social climber was confidently telling people that she’s going to a boys school in the middle of the city. And it took me years to work out what I had actually been saying. What I think I was getting at was I wanted to have a voice. To understand how things worked and how decisions got made. I think that was one of the reasons why I studied law because I was like, “Oh that’s the rulebook.” If you just learn the rules then you can figure out how to change them! But I just had no idea. All I can think is that I had this really deep, embodied sense that not everyone was having their voice heard and not everyone got to have a say.

Big lessons for a little girl. So as a child then and as a mother now, and a partner and a leader, how would you describe the values most dear to you?

I think fairness. There’s this sort of traumatic moment in childhood that we never talk about which is the moment when you realise there’s no arbiter of fairness. And when you say as a kid, “That’s not fair!” You kind of expect there to be a resolution or a judge somewhere who’s meting out what’s right and wrong.

A fairness referee!

That’s it! Then when you find out that there isn’t one and it’s just people and we just have to work these things out and sometimes unfair things happen to people, it’s crushing. I think that’s something we need to spend more time with kids on. When I think about the stuff that I get really wound up about, it’s the unfairness of our lifestyles having an impact on people who have not had anywhere near the carbon footprint that we’ve had. And they’re the ones who are going to feel it the most. People in the developing world, people in the global south, people in the future, people who have lived closer to nature. They’re paying for my terrible shopping habits, you know. The unfairness of it is so grating. Then I think in a local context the unfairness of the way we have designed our systems to privilege those who already have access or to trickle up to those who already have wealth. I still haven’t quite worked out that there isn’t an arbiter there making decisions on fairness and unfairness.

You need someone to send them to the sin bin and say, “That’s enough for you. You’ve had enough. You’ve benefitted enough from this.”

Exactly! “I’m cutting you off!”

So I believe you and I were sipping whiskey sours in a bar in Chippendale when you told me you were going to soon meet with the mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore.

Ooo that was so good! Was that then?

Yeah, and I had a sneaky suspicion that meeting might evolve into a big new chapter for you. From working in music mag publishing, curating in the creative arts, founding the phenomenal success that is Vivid Ideas Festival Sydney and now being the deputy mayor of Sydney, it’s clear that public life is a huge component you embody in being of service to something greater. To being in service of this idea of fairness. I’d love to hear your reflections on your contribution to public life and how you think this platform and your proximity to both policy and people is affecting meaningful change, or has the potential to affect meaningful change.

That must have been four or five years ago now? What I want to do is tell people who are not the usual suspects, people who aren’t independently wealthy, people who aren’t already enmeshed in the system, who don’t look like the usual suspects, I want to tell them this is for you too. Having a say in public life or in politics is for everyone. It’s a responsibility and it’s also an opportunity. I’m hopeful that by just being there I can help show people that that is real. That you can be nine months pregnant and become deputy lord mayor. That you can be a mother of a young child and be doing this work. It’s going to be really hard but actually everyone benefits by having a new perspective in that role. I also think it’s really important that we have people who are from the creative world involved in more of the policy-making and decision-making roles in our society. For too long we have privileged a very narrow band of human enterprise, which is about making money, as the people who are most qualified to make decisions about how we run the world. That’s how we’ve ended up with the world that we have. What if we had more people making decisions whose goal was the creation of beauty or telling stories or growing food or caring for older people? We would have a richer public life. A richer discourse. And we get better decision making because suddenly you wouldn’t have this very narrow financially-driven set of decision makers making decisions with that possibly invisible bias colouring their vision. So I think what I bring to that just by what I’ve done before and who I am is really powerful. I came up with a mission statement for my career maybe like 10 years ago, and it’s helped me explain and make choices for myself for a very long time. It’s to move Australia from an extraction to a creative and knowledge economy.

Wow.

As soon as I came up with that, so much more of my life made sense. It’s made it so much easier for me to make decisions about what I would put my time and energy into. And it’s this insanely over-the-top ambitious thing to say. I’m sometimes astonished at the audacity of the statement. Imagine if we believed more in ourselves, that we had more to give the world than just some old rocks and some stuff that might be lying under a water basin? Imagine if we said, wow, the people who live here have amazing stories to tell, incredible skills, global connections. They have a diversity and a depth of storytelling and range of storytelling that goes back 60,000 years. So part of it is about an attitude and mindset shift to reassessing what our strengths are and what resources we have to exploit. What our primary industries really are. That’s the thing I want to contribute. I’m also passionate about cities and I think cities have the potential to be an engine of inclusion and an economic opportunity for people, as well as places that can make environmental change and have impact.

The dedication you have in Glimpses of Utopia is for your daughter Elinor and the future her generation deserves. I understand entirely the new sense of urgency for a better future that motherhood brings. It’s something about a shift from personal to collective legacy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your rite of passage into motherhood and how it compelled you at this time to be shining a light on the glimpses of hope you see happening around the world.

So I’ve been having all of these really predictable revelations where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh! The future we make today will be passed down to future generations, and she’s part of that!”

And she’s so cute!

And she’s so cute! I just instantly felt this tremendous sense of responsibility, and then you start to see risks outside your door. The first three months of Elinor’s life we could barely go outside because the air quality was toxic from the bushfires. So it all was incredibly real incredibly fast. The idea that she wasn’t going to be facing these challenges in 20 or 30 years from now, she’ll be facing them from the day she was born. And that is already a reality for kids all over the world. It just hit me in the face. You’re both more energised and also more frustrated because you think, Oh no! This is really urgent! We must do something about this right now! Then you realise people have been urgently trying to do something about this for 30 years or more. What makes me think that I’m going to have more of an impact? For me the process of writing this story was to help people have something to opt into, not just opt out of. Naomi Klein describes it, when she talks about the Green New Deal, as a big bold “yes” to go with the climate movement’s “no.” And that’s what I want to offer. Are there are alternatives already in place that we can opt into? That makes the goal of systems change that feels sometimes impossible more tangible. Because I’ve seen it, I’ve touched little pieces of that systems change.

You’re calling out for a 21st century operating system, to upgrade our policies, our processes and our public sphere. From that idea of utopia you talked about before from your own childhood, what does it look like for you now as we step into a new operating system? What is your utopia? Is it that mission statement?

It’s that mission statement but it’s more lived at a local level. It’s about people feeling like what they have to contribute is important. We’ve all got the right to question policies and interrogate them, and to have an opinion on how money is spent on our behalf. Utopia for me is everyone feeling empowered and engaged. And that they have something to contribute to solving the problem. It also looks like people being able to contribute and make decisions at a local level but with an eye to the world. It is shifting our value system to be more human and holistic. Because our value system today disregards such a huge part of what it means to be human, to be physical beings who care for each other and need care, who are part of an ecosystem.

The idea of eudaemonia is something Aristotle talked about in terms of the individual flourishing. But what you’re talking about is eudaemonia on a societal level. The idea for interdependent flourishing. 

Absolutely. And you know what, we can’t flourish alone [laughs]. Like, we’re social animals, and I’ve never known any person who was perfectly happy while everyone around them was miserable. It’s just not possible. I wish I’d actually written that in the book. That actually it’s not just about individual flourishing, it’s about what we owe each other. Eudaemonia has an aspect of that because there’s an element of living a life with meaning and purpose. I think it’s very rare to live a life of meaning and purpose that doesn’t touch other people. Or have a responsibility to other people. One of the things that makes a lot of people feel happy and valued is if they are in service to other people or they have a connection to, or they’re needed by other people. So it’s really easy Eleanor! You just have to, like, shift our value system!

It’s easy when there’s someone as audacious as you! I think your audacity is a bridge for people. And that’s what you’re offering – a bridge for involvement and participation, which is an enormous gift.

That’s nice to hear. It’s really hard to fight against imposter syndrome or a feeling that you’re not qualified or entitled to have that view. There was more than once as I was writing this that I would stop and say, “How dare I? Who am I to say these things? And to make these prescriptions for society?” I guess the way I framed it for myself was that I have the privilege of having access to more visions, and I have the privilege of being able to research things and dive into them and spend time wrestling with ideas in a way that many other people in the world don’t. So I have a responsibility to put that privilege to work.

So you basically surveyed the world for the best ideas to re-centre the citizen. Measurement tools like Jacinda Ardern’s wellbeing budget. The city of Sydney’s wellbeing indicators. Redistribution methods such as universal basic services and policy frameworks like the Green New Deal you mentioned earlier, which put social justice at the heart of policy decisions. So why do there seem to be so many barriers to implementation for the elevation of living standards? What can you see in the clockwork that we can’t?

Well, the system we have today is working perfectly to get the system we have today. It’s a self-fulfilling system. I spoke to a bunch of university students last week and one of them asked, “What makes you think that governments today will implement any of these policy choices?” And I said, “Absolutely nothing tells me that governments today will implement these policy choices. But they work for us. And we have to tell them that we want this.” What we have lacked, with the great groundswell of people who have the lived feeling that something’s not working and that something’s not right, are the options to put forward and say, “Let’s do this instead.” So we have to change things at a fundamental level and to do that we need alternatives that can replace many aspects of the systems that we have today. Sitting still and expecting that by electing the right candidates or voting with your wallet you are going to get that change is not going to happen. I’ve been thinking so much about, well, what can people do from this point? Each of us has areas that we’re passionate about or hit home to us more than others. Whether it’s care or land or the environment or local communities or whatever it is. Find that one thing that resonates with you and that you have a deep engagement with and then find the alternative that will work that you’ve seen in action. And then be a voice that tells everyone you know that that alternative exists. Figure out how you can be part of the change of getting that alternative into play to become the dominant or to become one of a more pluralistic range of approaches. Because it’s going to take each of us picking which of these seeds we want to plant and figuring out what skills we have to nurture it for this alternative reality to take hold. I think the system that we have today, it’s working for the people who it’s working for and those people are the ones with the power and the influence. They tend to be more privileged and they tend to be more culturally homogenous and they tend to be male. So we need to diversify who our leaders are so that we get a broader range of decision makers with a broader range of perspectives.

If the system is working for you, you have to be an exceptional individual to be motivated to deeply rethink it! So rather than waiting for the old guard to kick the bucket before the next gen of leaders who believe in a regenerative future can emerge, how do we get to this place of values-based deep rethinking at the top level? Because valuing the human, reforming finance, restoring the commons, rebuilding for equity, they all require strong empathic values-based leadership.

I remain committed to the idea that politics has to be a tool that’s turned to broader public good. I still think it’s the best way that we’ve come up with of making decisions as a society. But we haven’t got a broad enough range of players on the field. We have to get different kinds of people with different perspectives and different agendas elected. We also need to embolden and empower those people who are elected now to realise that there are a lot of us who genuinely want real change. Part of the solution is embedding more participatory forms of decision-making into the politics that we have now. That’s why I’m inspired by processes like citizens’ juries and citizens’ assemblies, because they’re a shortcut to getting that diversity but also to getting those more ambitious policy prescriptions. They also give politicians social licence to be able to be bold themselves. So when we had that citizens’ jury process at the City of Sydney, you know, we’re already pretty progressive. Like, we’re right out there in front. And they told us to go further. They told us we had to not just make a sustainable city but a regenerative city. That we had to put First Nations first and embed truth-telling in everything we did. They told us that we had to centre culture and nightlife. Things that we have hoped and wanted as part of Clover and her team, but sometimes wondered if everyone felt this way. They resoundingly told us, “yes,” this is not edge thinking. This is something that our community wants and we know because this quite representative group told us so. They arrived at that position by going through 2500 ideas that have come from the community and processing them into a grander narrative. The other thing that that process tells me is that you can’t do values-based thinking or leadership on people. You have to do it with people. You have to work with the community to arrive at the place that maybe they don’t have words for yet, but is where their hearts are at. They just have never been asked to go that deep. People are asked to get involved in consultation on whether they want a cycleway here or there or whether they like this play equipment or that play equipment. People aren’t asked to dive deep and do values-based thinking as citizens anywhere. And that’s what we really need.

Amen to that. I’d like to talk more about this year. What the instability of 2020 has done in terms of exposing and catalysing that need for change. Where has politics succeeded through all of this turmoil and where could they have done a better job? What are your political takeaways from this year? And we’re only in July! [Laughs].

[Laughs]. How is that possible? It’s been so many years this year! Look, I think all this year has done is accelerate the forces that were already in play. This year has just been someone pressing really hard on the fast forward button and zooming us 10 years ahead. And we could suddenly see that the water had been rising around us the whole time. That work was becoming more precarious for more and more people. That more and more industries we rely on are being staffed by people who are exploited or vulnerable in our community. That the housing market has made it a constant struggle to keep a roof over one’s heads for a huge part of the population. All of those things were just day-lighted. They were already a problem and now those cracks have been day-lighted by this process. What has been successful politically? I think the political leaders who have been honest, open and empathetic communicators have cut through and they have engendered trust in a way that was seemed impossible maybe six months ago. One of the biggest risks that we face at the moment is a decline of trust in politicians, but also in institutions and in experts. That has really damaging impacts. And when you see leaders who are able to build that empathy and trust and have honest conversations and trusting conversations with their communities, it’s inspiring. I think Daniel Andrews has done a great job at that. I think Jacinda Ardern has done a great job at that. I think in Finland Sanna Marin has done a great job at that. The other thing that worked well at the beginning in Australia was that it became really obvious very quickly that many of the essential workers who were really needed and who are quite often in a disadvantaged power dynamic were suddenly seen to be so crucial to society, and so the government had no choice but to have conversations with the unions and have more equal negotiations with them. The things that haven’t worked so well is that in the absence of really great alternatives and viable policy proposals ready to go from the world has seen governments in Australia fall back on the usual fixers when you’re faced with an economic crisis. So they have doubled down on construction. We’re seeing talk about a fossil fuel-led recovery as though that’s a thing that we want. We haven’t seen a concerted effort or advocacy for a care- and environment-led recovery and a creative-led recovery, which is far preferable from a human and environmental perspective. And the research is all there. You generate twice as many jobs from an investment in the care economy as in construction. Those jobs would be the kind of jobs that, as Ai-jen Poo from the National Domestic Workers Alliance says, “makes all other work possible.” It unlocks productivity for so many more people. It corrects the gender imbalance in pay. It means that we end up with healthier, more socially-connected and more educated populations, and you have more women who are able to engage in the workforce as well. So we’re seeing more of the same in terms of the way solutions are being designed. And there are so many better alternatives that are just waiting in the wings.

So much of what we’re talking about is connected intricately with environmental regeneration as a flow-on effect. Do you think that there’s an inevitability of this kind of systemic change for the better given the urgency of the climate crisis?

Yes. So here’s the thing. The climate and the social crisis are the same. They’re the two sides of the same coin. We have to solve for climate justice. And we can because the jobs that have the least damaging environmental footprint are also the ones that have the best social and care outcomes. The investments that we would make in building up a cleaner and more sustainable economy would have great social impacts too. They’re the recovery jobs that we need. So we have to do these both at the same time and we already have an example from our very recent history of when we didn’t do that and we ended up in the position that we’re in today. It was the 2008 global financial crisis which came about at the exact moment the policy makers were engaged with this new idea then of the Green New Deal that had originated in the UK in 2007. In Australia we had been looking at a carbon emissions trading scheme. All of those things were about to happen. And were completely derailed by the global financial crisis. And rather than those new ideas being embraced and seen as a pathway out of that crisis, they were seen as something completely separate. Instead we saw austerity. We saw a bailout of banks and really damaging activity of the financial sector and we saw austerity being used to pay for that, which meant cuts to public budgets and to people and to care. And to local communities in particular. So we can’t afford to do that again. We have to make sure that both of those issues of social justice and climate action are at the root of any recovery. They’re the same issue. They’re both about the continued viability of humanity, right?

And what’s interesting to me is that so much of the glimpses of utopia you’re exploring are returning to more natural circular models. Whether it’s human-centred redesign of work, indigenous wisdom in the way we’re thinking about the country and carbon abatement, public-owned banking, doughnut economics, citizen juries, they all have an inherently circular model rather than the continual straight line of exponential growth that the current system is addicted to. There are no straight lines in nature, right?

Totally. And one of the things that surprised me was how few of them were new ideas. Like they were almost all, “Oh, that started in the US in the ’70s!” The idea of public banking, that banks were designed to be stewards of public money and had public benefit at their core – it’s actually from the founding of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1913. And I thought it was this new, fascinating idea!

Who would have thought?

Who would have thought it? So I think there’s something really reassuring about the fact that many of these ideas have been tested in the past. The benefit that we have today is that we can see what derailed them and we can build to protect them. I also think the resonance of seeing the same ideas emerge in lots of different contexts prove to me that there are elements that are universal, despite how different the context and community needs are in different places. And that everything, whether it’s participation in your workplace or the community you live in or the decisions that are made on your behalf politically, requires active citizenry.

I’m curious about how we re-ignite civic conversations so that we step into this power. How do we restart the civic conversation in Australia?

Well, I’m not a perfect practitioner of this. I struggle with it, and social media is a particularly toxic environment to try to have a civic conversation. I battle with how do I avoid being on team A fighting team B? And how do I avoid othering and demonising people who have different values to me? I haven’t worked it out yet. I think there are some great projects. My Country Talks project that I write about in the book is a beautiful example of sitting down with people who hold very different values to yours and coming to a place of understanding with them as human beings. But I need help on this front. I think we all need therapy on how we engage with each other.

I guess the beginning is asking better questions. Of ourselves collectively.

Yeah. And there’s a movement from Chile called the “mesa de unidad social,” which is, “the table of social unity.” And basically it’s this coalition of over 100 different community groups. And they helped focus some of the energy around Chile’s big uprising over the past year. What they did was they empowered people to have these conversations, their own self-directed town hall meetings where they asked people people really open-ended questions like, “Why do you think we got in this situation we’re in today?” And, “What do you imagine as another way forward?” “What do you want from this country,” basically. And that’s where we have to start. We have to start by asking people what their glimpses of utopia are, what future they want to opt into. Then the next step is asking, what are we all willing to do to get there?

Which is a beautiful way to wrap up, going back to Chile as such a pivotal place for you and your family and your thinking around a greater contribution. And visions for the future. How would you like your little girl to remember the legacy of her mother?

Oh that’s really hard because it’s such a tension I feel between wanting to be present and someone that she can totally 100 percent rely on, that I’m standing behind her in the playground. But the reality is, I’m probably on the phone when I’m standing behind her in the playground. You know? They talk about mummy guilt. And it’s used very effectively to sell products. But this idea, the tension that I wrestle with all the time is between wanting to do this work and be actively involved in my community and in building this future. And then being available to her now. I don’t know how to resolve that yet. So I hope that the legacy is that she knows that I’m present for her and there for her when she needs me, but that I’m also thinking about the world she’ll need tomorrow and making myself available to that world.

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