I'm reading
Rosie Thomas is an empowerpreneur
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Rosie Thomas is an empowerpreneur
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Rosie Thomas is an empowerpreneur
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
19 June 2019

Rosie Thomas is an empowerpreneur

Interview by Mim Kempson
Photography by Mim Kempson

Rosie Thomas has been my mentor since 2017. Every few months we meet up for coffee to chat about business and grand visions. Well, that was in the beginning. These days, our conversations have become far more personal. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my work as a writer and narrative therapist, it’s that our political missions are always informed by our personal stories.

Rosie and her sister Lucy founded PROJECT ROCKIT, a youth leadership organisation that has been challenging dominant narratives around identity, particularly what it means to be a young person in the age of social media, since 2006. They started out by running workshops in schools across Victoria. Now, PROJECT ROCKIT is an online platform that offers programs nationally and is a growingly global youth-led social movement.

In this conversation, which took place on her birthday, I asked Rosie about the dominant narratives she’s been confronted with throughout her life and work. These are the socially and culturally constructed narratives that tell us how we “should be” based on things like gender, mental and physical health, race, sexuality and other factors that often precede us in shaping our identity. I also ask Rosie about her recent decision to be more transparent on social media about living with a chronic illness, and we throw around some ideas about how we might be able to change the world.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

 So Rosie! I wanted to flip the tables around and ask you first if there’s something that you’d like to begin our conversation with?

Well this might at first sound a little strange ‘cause we’re just sitting in my living room and I’m not presenting on a stage, but it’s important to begin by acknowledging the land on which we meet and the traditional custodians of that land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. It’s important that we acknowledge that their sovereignty has never been ceded and that if we have any hope in healing, if we’re to move to a place where as a country we can be proud of who we are, we have to be really truthful and take ownership over the past and present.  I want to pay my respects to those elders past, present and emerging. And also say this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

Thank you for starting us on that note. That immediately brings into my mind this image of PROJECT ROCKIT and your amazing team of people.  I wondered if you could tell me a little about your personal story of how you’ve come to value diverse cultural narratives and how that’s inspired the team of people you have today?

So PROJECT ROCKIT today is Australia’s youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice but it hasn’t always been that way. It started out with my sister Lucy and I. So not super diverse in terms of cultural background, and I really acknowledge the fact that PROJECT ROCKIT was started by two inner city white young women. I actually prickle when I hear the word “diversity” thrown around, especially in a workplace context. I think it’s one thing to say that you’re diverse as a workplace or an organisation, but it’s a very different thing to say that you’re inclusive. What we’ve learnt growing the representation of our organisation is that you have to make changes structurally from the inside out and that requires a real commitment.

PROJECT ROCKIT continues to become more relevant, powerful and long-lasting as a tool for social change because we aim to hire and grow our team in a way that represents the young people we serve. We are committed to growing the org from the inside out and making the necessary changes from within. That’s a really humbling process and at times it’s been difficult. There certainly aren’t a lot of people to look to, to ask for advice – or advice we can trust. We really threw everything on the table and said, “This is here to be changed and we have to listen.” We regularly have to put ego aside, lean in and hear really tough feedback about how we need to change as an organisation. We’re definitely not done. No one’s ever done, but already we’ve noticed such enormous changes within the organisation and our impact in schools.

This makes me think on both an individual day-to-day level and on a business level. You know, growing up, at least speaking for myself, we can be prone to continuously exposing ourselves to our default circle of people, which generally means people that look like us. What are your ideas on how we can actively step outside of that but also maintain integrity and not do it as a tokenistic act? How can we diversify our perspectives of the world and do it authentically?

I’m happy that you’re asking me because I can think of so many people who I care about and I want to do them justice. This question needs to be answered in a way that hopefully helps us genuinely check our privilege, seek education around the issues we’re unfamiliar with and not place the labour back on people with certain lived experiences who are, frankly, already doing so much work. I say that as a queer woman too. Sometimes I love educating those around me about what it’s like to be a queer woman. And other times I’m like, “Google it.”

It lights me up to work in an organisation where I get to have the most incredible conversations every single day. At one point we had to stop the PROJECT ROCKIT ship and reflect, “Right, this is not a utopia and it’s important that everyone has realistic expectations about this.” Because, PROJECT ROCKIT exists in the world and the world is not perfect. At times we make mistakes. Committing to unlearning our prejudice takes a lot of humility, respect and unconditional positive regard for one another. I’m learning that it’s about creating a call-in culture where we’re all dedicated to self examination and improvement but all through the lens of compassion and helping each other grow. I hate the saying, “I don’t see difference.” As a team of individuals we explore so many different identities and lived experiences, engaging with what it means to be non binary, or a person of colour dealing with racism at school and in the world. At PROJECT ROCKIT it’s normal to introduce ourselves with our pronouns. Again, it’s not like, “Done, diversity ticked.” Something that we have written on our walls is “unlearn prejudice.” It’s something that we consciously try to live and breathe every day. We’re really trying to walk the talk from the inside out. And I’ll be blunt, sometimes we fail. Last year there was an enormous upheaval for us as a result of having grown our team to be really vocal about improving diversity while in reality, PROJECT ROCKIT was still a pretty ‘white’ organisation. That was a humbling experience to realise that we needed to make really active and urgent changes. We chose to put the business on hold so that we could dive deep into listening to people, being careful not to exploit their ideas or identities. We chose to open up dialogue in all levels of the organisation and created a space for questions, feedback, criticisms, concerns and ideas. This was by far the best thing that we’ve done. And we see it in our workshops. I’ll give you an example. One of the takeaways was that we needed to review our content. It’s PROJECT ROCKIT’s bread and butter. It’s the story we’re representing and telling. So we brought the team together to do four “hack-a-thons” throughout the year where we threw all of the content on the table so we could pull it apart and make sure that it did a better job at really speaking to different identities and lived experiences. We had really honest feedback, and as a result there were real changes. I was shadowing a workshop. It was one of our newest and youngest presenter’s very first workshop. Not only did she absolutely nail it, but also created such genuine rapport as a proud Muslim woman presenting to a bunch of grade five-sixes in Werribee. During the workshop and during the breaks she was bombarded by students who ran up to her saying, “I speak Arabic too!” and connecting over positive references to their shared culture. Things like, “My parents are really strict too!” I’ve just never seen PROJECT ROCKIT engage young people in that way.

You’ve just provided a very real and practical example of how the way in which you hire people directly impacts your business, your service and the change that you make in the world. Are there any other examples of the benefits of doing so?

It’s not enough to just hire… I feel funny in my guts even talking about hiring for diversity. We don’t hire for diversity. We hire for talent, vision and commitment. We have 140 applications per round of presenters at PROJECT ROCKIT now. We want to make sure that we’re representing the young people we serve in schools every day. We also want to make sure that if you’re a junior person at PROJECT ROCKIT, your voice is heard. Yes, experience is valued, but opinions are equal. We don’t want to ask for feedback then not action it. We want to really listen and use those voices to mould PROJECT ROCKIT. We are a social movement that’s led by thousands of young people who are standing up against bullying, hate and prejudice. It starts with the young people that we hire to create that change.

So, what about your own personal life? Has there been a specific person or experience that’s really changed your perspective, the way you then moved forward?

I was really challenged last year in many ways, and I’m so grateful for the courage it must have taken for a first year presenter to raise their ideas with the co-founders about what areas need attention and improvement for us to be genuinely more inclusive. There’s a team member of mine who I want to say is more of a life coach [laughs]. Their name is Dani and they have had the most profound impact on my life. And they’ve really taught me that when it comes to unlearning prejudice, improvement, self-discovery and committing to change, feedback really is a gift. I know it’s a bit cliched, “feedback is a gift” but you should see the way Dani practices that. When you have feedback for them, they light up. They lean in. They look at you and they’re like, “Yeah? Tell me more. Tell me more.” And it’s completely transformed the way I hear feedback. I think that when it comes to diversity in the workplace it can be really easy for a lot of companies or individuals to take things personally. That, to me, is the enemy of progress. When it comes to creating change in the world, it’s not only about us. It’s about our impact.

You were saying earlier that PROJECT ROCKIT sometimes comes across as this utopia. There’s an outside world that isn’t exactly representative of what’s happening in there. I wondered if we could talk a little about your personal life, how it has informed the narrative that you bring to PROJECT ROCKIT. I know that you’ve been in a long-term relationship with Stella. Perhaps it was around the time where you and Lucy were coming up with the idea of PROJECT ROCKIT, but what was happening when you were discovering your sexuality and founding PROJECT ROCKIT? Can you tell me a bit about what your life looked like then?

Sure. To take you way back to when I was a 16-year old, I’ll paint a picture. I was very confident, self-assured, but obviously fragile as well. I felt like I needed to fit in but was being told that I needed to stand out. I was also a bit of a shit-stirrer, which is part of why I started PROJECT ROCKIT I think. When I was 16, out of the blue—as I had never really been attracted to girls—I fell absolutely head over heels in love with a girl. Later on, I met Stella when I was about 23. She lived in Perth so we did like this dreamy but torturous one year back and forth, long-distance relationship. Perth was a different place back then as well! And I remember walking down Northbridge in inner city Perth on a Saturday night, holding hands and I would have been like goo-goo-gaa-gaa-eyed because I was so in love. This dude walked past and sort of propositioned us. I remember all I did was roll my eyes and he turned around and piffed a water bottle as hard as he could at our heads. We ducked and ran around a corner. It was a hard throw and in very close range. I remember feeling so overwhelmed by the terror of it and having my bubble burst. I describe my relationship with Stella over the last 10 years as ebbs and flows of that experience whereby on the most part my bubble is full of so much love and respect. Then things like the plebiscite rear its ugly head and we’re made to fight for our existence and fight for human rights. I was so overwhelmed with love and support from everyday people who don’t usually associate themselves with fighting for social change. On the other hand, I find it really conflicting that the whole of Australia could throw its weight behind something like the plebiscite then not exercise that same compassion, that same level of urgency for say the equality of First Nations people. To me, there should be nothing more urgent or important in this country.

I guess on the whole I just want to say that yeah, my identity is something I’m so proud of. It’s something that I’ve definitely grappled with over the last 10 years. My sister also identifies as bisexual. At times I wondered whether I was just copying her. How bizarre is that? I thought this because, first, I admire her so much and, second, I didn’t really have any other bisexual role models. Maybe it came out of feeling a bit of internalised shame and doubt. The terms that I use to label my identity, my sexuality, are entirely used to help others understand who I am. Working in schools every day with young people, it’s bloody refreshing to just see labels being rejected entirely. I understand and appreciate that for some people labels can be really liberating to be connected as part of a community. We started PROJECT ROCKIT wanting to shake up the messaging that young people were receiving. We didn’t want to go into school and talk about, “bullies and victims,” because we saw those labels as so unbelievably damaging. Instead, we wanted to help young people shed damaging labels so they could be free to be themselves.

Something I wanted to talk to you about is the whole spectrum of support we can receive growing up, in learning about our own sexuality, in building a business, in becoming an adult. When I was younger I assumed that we all had the same support. I felt very supported until I suddenly realised one day that not even my family owe me anything. That was quite confronting to me, recognising that my own hardship was my own responsibility. That was quite isolating. Like you, as a young city white girl also identifying as queer, I do carry a lot of privileges. However, support is one privilege that we can’t see when we look at someone. We can’t see what family they have around them or their socio-economic status necessarily. You and I have had conversations in the past about the random miracle of having an amazing sister.

“Random miracle of having a sister.”

Yeah! [Laughs].

I feel like that’s my album title. [Laughs].

Yeah! It’s very lyrical.

Yeah. It’s my memoir.

Yeah! And so speaking for myself I’ve had to be quite creative in finding alternative support networks. I wonder if there’s anything you’d have to say to people who don’t have a supportive family or grow up in a lower socio-economic status?

Well the first thing is yeah, sadly, as human beings and throughout the course of our life sometimes we have support and sometimes we don’t. I’ve gone into different communities across Australia and met young people often at their most vulnerable, feeling misunderstood, unseen, undervalued and alone. One of the big things that pops into my mind is the power of the digital world right now as an incredible tool for connecting us, opening doors and shining torches on gaps and cracks. We can find people that understand us who we might never have known existed in our offline communities. I recently joined a group on Facebook called the Castleman Disease group. So I have a rare disease called Multicentric Castleman Disease, which we can talk about in a moment if you like. I was diagnosed when I was 18 right after finishing my year 12 exams. For the first 10 years of my diagnosis I was like, “Right, let’s get on with the show, I don’t have this disease, it doesn’t exist, nothing will change about my life.” As I started to feel the impacts of the disease I’ve gone, “Okay, I need to find out what this thing is.” There’s only a handful of people in Australia who have it, so I’ve never met anyone with the disease. In fact, outside of my specialist I’ve never met anyone (doctors included) who have even heard of the disease so it’s pretty rare! So, on this Facebook group I have met people from all over the world who are always there to talk to. Social media, for all of its failings—let me be clear, those are human failings, not technology failings—is a beacon for absolute connectivity. It has a powerful ability to bring people together and make them not feel so alone, sometimes in our greatest time of need.

And recently on your Facebook you decided to share how you have this disease. Apparently it was your first time ever publicly revealing it in the 10 or so years you’ve had it. What changed? What made you suddenly want to share that with everyone?

Good question. I only pause because I’m horrified to think it was the first time I’ve really publicly shared that I struggle sometimes. First and foremost the premise behind the post was that I noticed that my Facebook timeline was becoming a bit of a highlight reel. Completely unintentionally. However, what I stand for is the opposite of that. I’m trying to support the message that as young people we can absolutely work together in banishing this pressure to be perfect – online and offline.

I monitor my disease by having a tri-monthly medical treatment. During treatment week things can get really tough. I battle exhaustion and fatigue. My mental health will slip. I’ll get really hard on myself. Let me tell you, as someone who’s a founder of an anti-bullying organisation, you’d be horrified at the twisted shit I tell myself! I feel like I’m failing. I feel like I’m not enough, I’m not doing enough, I’m not productive enough. On the other hand I’m like, I’m not sick enough. I’m in this constant push and pull between not being enough. And the other part is hiding it all, not sharing that with people. I constantly feel like I’m letting people down because I have to cancel plans or I have to say sorry. The idea behind the post, and I will preface it by saying that it was a silly smiling bathroom selfie of me with a drip. So it wasn’t a morbid post at all. I want to be so much more visible as someone that does battle with fatigue and exhaustion and chronic illness. My life’s not perfect and I definitely don’t want to portray my life as perfect.

Thank you for sharing that because on so many levels I can entirely relate. My social media presence can be deceiving too. I competed in body building, so one would think that I’m completely healthy and able bodied and…

I’ve seen your body building posts. They’re phenomenal!

[Laughs]. Another chapter. Sometimes my life looks amazing. The thing is, we’ve still got to deal with our own hardships. We can’t really reveal them before we’ve formed an understanding of them ourselves, right? When I was 20 I got diagnosed with secondary amenorrhea, which basically means I stopped getting my periods. I very soon developed symptoms of menopause. It was super overwhelming. I got hot flushes! I was in Montreal so I’d stand in the middle of the snow and it would just melt. I was moody, I got depressed and then of course like you said yourself it all tumbleweeds into mental health issues because you start drawing all these narratives about yourself not being good enough, not sick enough, not well enough. Six years later I find out that my bones are now disintegrating and I’m on the edge of osteoporosis at 25. I’m hoping it can be rectified, so it’s not necessarily a chronic illness. However, I am dealing with this kind of expectation that as a young person I’m supposed to be healthy. Adults will often say to me, “Wait until you get to my age!” And I’ll be like, “I have, I’ve been through menopause!”

[Laughs].

So this ties back to when you said you’d learnt a lot from juniors within your work. Something I’m passionate about is never making assumptions about someone’s knowledge or life experience based on how they look or their age. I want to ask you a few questions…

Before you do…

Yeah?

Can I say thank you for sharing that too. Yeah, that’s part of who you are. What I have learnt as I’m slowly but surely leaning my way into being more visible is that this is part of who we are. I can fight and I can do things in spite of my Castleman Disease, but being honest about it is also pride. I’m a survivor of Castleman Disease. I live my life with it. It means I’m resilient. Part of living with a disease is digging deep and sitting in the mud. I’m grateful for the learnings that I’ve had during those times. I just want to thank you for sharing that and say, that sounds really fucked.

[Laughs]. Right?

I think we need to acknowledge that too. That it’s not like, “It’s okay, we are our diseases!” But also like, “That’s fucked.” “Fuck you disease.” I sound angry right? I love my anger. I love being an ‘angry woman’. I’m so passionate now about being angry. I used to be so ashamed of my anger as a child. I used to be afraid of it. But now I can channel it into something. I have such great momentum and power behind me, as long as it’s honest. Anger for me acts as a clue for something that I care about, it’s a motivator, and in times like this it’s a relief. It’s a release even. So yeah, I want to say, “fuck you” to the disease and also thank you for sharing. And also let’s make a pact to be more visible.

Yes. Yes.

Are you down?

Yeah! [Laughs]. Let’s shake on that.

Yeah.

What’s occurred to me is that we’re so obsessed with jumping from the pain to finding a solution. While that may work in some instances it definitely doesn’t work for chronic illness. So sufferers may find that there’s this extra pressure. The very fact that we’re framing illness as a problem and stigmatising it is the problem. Therefore, rather than asking, “What’s helped you overcome it? What’s kept you positive?” I want to ask, “How have you honoured your experience?”

First I want to be clear, upfront and honest with you. I haven’t honoured my experience. This is the new me. Fortune favours the bold, to be bold you have to be brave, and I know that to be brave you have to be vulnerable. As I said before, I was diagnosed when I was 18. I’d just finished high school. I was ready to unleash on life. I had a really scary misdiagnosis of cancer that involved operations and hospital. After I was in the clear for that I discovered that I had this weird disease that no one had really heard of. I ignored it for a long time until I couldn’t ignore it any longer because I started to re-experience it. It was at that point where I had a huge revelation, “Oh my God, this is actually for life!” I was like, “I’m going to have to change.” So yeah, I have had to learn ways to not just deal with the tough times but also ways of planning my life out a little bit. Like, I’ll be having babies at some point. One of the things though, a practical takeaway, is to say shit out loud. So whether it be the Facebook post, now that was a pretty grand gesture even though it was very much on a whim. I just had a bit of a word vomit and it created this impact. Sharing those thoughts out loud with people, having that honest conversation of, “Hey, here’s where I’m at,” so that the people can actually help you. Which is another thing that I’m learning: I can’t do everything on my own. When we stay inside our heads with this stuff, it only goes to the negative. It’s really hard to pull yourself out of that dark time on your own. We need to ask for help and say it out loud. So that’s something that I’ve really learnt, and also acknowledging to myself that I’m allowed to be sick. That whole, “I’m not sick enough.”

You’ve made me think of the profound impact that this narrative of anti-ageing and infallible beauty and body has on our society. It gives people, particularly women, an image of how we should be. Like I said earlier, this idea of if we’re young we should be healthy. This is influenced by capitalism, the media, what we see on TV. But what I noticed on your Instagram story recently was that you were sharing a few shots of the behind the scenes in hospital.

Yeah! Yeah.

And I really appreciated that because I know you’ve handled your illness with denial. Whereas for me it’s the opposite. I go into victim mode. I’m like, “I’m 25, this is the disease of an 85-year-old. Why do I have this? This is fucked. I’m doing all the right things.” It’s also a metaphor for life. Like, you can be a good person but good doesn’t necessarily happen to you. It’s not guaranteed. So where’s my question with this? I guess, do you notice some of these social expectations and pressures and how do you navigate them?

Yeah. First of all when I see social expectations and norms more broadly, the shit-stirrer in me wants to challenge them. So I want to apply that same shit-stirrer to the bullshit narrative out there about sickness and health or whatever. One great way to do it is humour. I think humour is an awesome mechanism for pulling ourselves out of a dump. With Castleman Disease, I get really bad anaemia. One of the symptoms, it makes me really forgetful. I start doing really weird things before the treatment. For example, I often walk to work, which is five kilometres away. I’ve done this a few times where at the end of the day I walk home from work, I get all the way back to St Kilda and as I’m putting my key in the door I realise I drove to work.

[Laughs].

Do you know what I mean? The next day I have to bloody walk to work! I do that kind of shit all the time. I’m choosing to laugh, and I’m starting to share that on social media too. I think humour is a great way to challenge those narratives.

Yeah, well in the art of comedy they definitely draw on tragedy to make audiences laugh.

Yeah. I’m dark like that.

I wanted to go back to the theme of anger. How have you used it in a way that kind of doesn’t fizzle out everywhere but is directional and intentional?

So to be brutally honest I wouldn’t say I’m, like, I am the master of channeling anger. I look back and I think, Oh my poor parents. I think anger as an emotion is something we’re used to hiding behind. I used to experience anger and it used to, as you put it, just fizz out there like a scattergun. Whereas now I try and listen to those emotions, try and tune into them and be like, “Okay, what is really going on underneath this?” To be really, really broad but blunt, it’s something that you care about. That’s good in a way, but it’s about making sense of it from there. I am angry and I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s helped me challenge the status quo both in my everyday life and also in building a social movement. But harnessing it has been a challenge. For me there’s a difference between anger and resentment. Anger is what I feel in the moment, resentment is what happens when I stew in it. Also, I want to say that sometimes, we can’t fix everything. And that all we can do is make sense of what we have. Ultimately, we can’t change other people entirely. We’re going to be impacted by those people. Sometimes it’s not fair is what I’m trying to say. I think you need to work through it and take your learnings and manoeuvre it into something new. I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t want to trivialise people’s resentment and them being treated unfairly. In terms of what we can do, like, as a world…

Giving you the big questions.

Well there’s a lot of people that’s got to give up a lot. And that’s the challenge!

That is right! Yeah.

I think this is the big challenge that we’re facing. We’re making people put their money where their mouth is. If they’re saying, “I want a fair world, I want an equitable world, I want a just world!” we’re all going to have to give up something, but it’s what we will gain for humanity and for generations to come that is truly exciting.

Mim Kempson

Mim Kempson is a Melbourne-based writer specialising in health and lifestyle, but her true passion lies in writing about topics surrounding sociology and psychology.

Photography by Mim Kempson

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

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