I’m a little late for Refugee Week which would have been the ideal time to post this review, but this book has a timeless message…
Breaking the Boundaries is a collection of vignettes from Australian activists. They come from all walks of life. As it says in the introduction…
What becomes clear as you read the stories is that activists come in many guises: teenagers, grandmothers, lawyers, children, parents, ex-politicians, workers, students, grandfathers. They can be the man next door or the woman in the shop you frequent. They can be a farmer or a newcomer to our shores. They are everywhere. (p.1)
There are high profile activists like Julian Burnside (who resists the term, considering himself rather an advocate for refugees who was stirred to action by a tragic case brought to his attention) and anti-nuclear activist Jo Vallentine, former Senator for Western Australia elected as a member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. And then there are people you’ve probably never heard of, like Phoebe and Savannah Brice, a couple of Aboriginal kids who wanted to fly the Aboriginal flag at their primary school and didn’t have a flagpole to fly it from.
All kinds of activist issues are included. At the end of Jenny Scott’s story, there’s a short poem:
I did the thing I feared the most.
Excuse me while I cheer.
Now here I stand a stronger soul,
And all I’ve lost is fear. (Anon., p.83)
Jenny’s story is one of great courage: she came ‘out’ as transgender in 1993.
‘But to be transgender and ‘out’ in itself leads to a politically activist life. I have lectured often since then and believe there is no greater divide in this or any society that the human species has created than gender. No other human construct has so destined some to great power and others to great deprivation. Throughout history in families, communities, societies and nation states, with few exceptions, ‘sex’ and its apparently inseparable partner ‘gender’ have been the primary deciders of place, privilege and power.
It was my lived experience of this construct that convinced me in 1994 nothing could change for transgender people without positive visibility, visibility that would prove the lie of those who would vilify and discriminate against us. (p. 81)
Some stories bring a lump to the throat. Mel Irons just wanted to help when she saw the devastation of the Tasmanian bushfires of 2013. She set up a Facebook page to coordinate assistance, and gives the example that many of us will remember seeing on ABC TV: there was an oyster hatchery in Dunalley which stood to lose everything and the jobs of 35 people because there was no power to keep the baby oysters’ at the right temperature to survive. The call went out for an electrician, an electrical engineer and a big, big generator and the next day Mel was able to report that they have been able to save 80% of the livestock and the workers’ jobs were secure.
The catalyst for action is sometimes a profound sense of empathy emerging from personal experience. Lolo Houbein became an activist in transit out of Holland during WW2 when the truck driver stole their identity papers. She spent her entire life in Australia working for causes that matter, everything from collecting for the Red Cross to sending clothes to Tibet and tree-planting for the planet. Lorna Hallahan’s experience as a disabled teenager after suffering bone cancer brought her into the unfamiliar world of a rehabilitation centre:
I learnt about the meanness of those charged with the care of dependent people. I learned about the fear and the rebellion of the cared-for; and what it takes to hang onto dignity in a world that sweeps you aside. I left vowing that I would never forget these people. Once it looked as though I might not die, I set a new life goal to become a social worker because that was the closest profession I could find that linked values, knowledge and action. (p.123)
These are inspirational stories, stories that give the lie to pessimistic belief that it’s all too hard and nothing can be done.
We need to ensure that each new generation learns this message: that they can make a difference…
Editors: Yvonne Allen and Joy Noble
Title: Breaking the Boundaries, Australian activists tell their stories
Publisher: Wakefield Prss, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press
Available from Fishpond:Breaking the Boundaries: Australian Activists Tell Their Stories or direct from Wakefield Press