Q&A: Tim Lo Surdo on how to bring a voice to Australia's communities of color

Tim Lo Surdo, founder of Democracy in Colour. Photo from Twitter

On the day Australia’s virtual guarantee of winning a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council was revealed, a new advocacy organization was launched in Canberra to fight structural racism in Australia.

The launch of Democracy in Colour on July 13 highlighted the ongoing issues faced by indigenous Australians, refugees and all people of color in Australia.

“This isn’t the first groups of its kind in Australia,” Roxley Foley, an activist and spokesperson for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, explained at the Canberra launch. “I think it’s amazing we are harnessing and capitalizing on what is happening here at the moment, but we need to stop and recognize that you are coming into a movement that has been very long existing.”

But the organization provides a new element, in being led and directed by people of color to campaign for issues directly impacting them and their daily lives. Through grass-roots level activism, local leadership and rapid response campaigns, the group hopes to fight injustices. And among the voices will be refugees and diaspora communities, often silent in Australian politics.

Australia's fight for a seat on the UN human rights council

Australian officials are working hard to secure one of two seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2018-2020 term. Yet at home, there is increasing evidence of human rights abuses in the treatment of refugees, indigenous Australians and children in detention. And it has human rights experts debating if Australia's questionable record will impact the final vote.

Not only providing a voice, but amplifying it at a national and international scale, is important in fighting structural racism in Australia, according to founder and national director Tim Lo Surdo. On the day of the launch, he spoke to Devex about the organization and its objectives.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

What will your organization bring to the political and advocacy landscape to create change?

It starts at a political level — the government of the day should not be announcing a 21st century version of the white Australia policy. Immigration tests should not be a university level English language test that many migrants that are here today would have failed and would now.

Demonstrating that they have to “integrate into Australian society,” which no one can seem to define, as well as completing a test about “Australian values,” which again no one can seem to explain what that means, should not be happening. That sends a clear message to people in Australia and around the world exactly what type of fear, hate and divisiveness have taken over our politics.

When we have record-high inequality, record-low wage growth, when we are dealing with a climate crisis, when we are dealing with housing affordability crisis and our government decides the priority is trying to weaken the racial discrimination act — that is sending a very clear message to migrants here and overseas what this government’s priorities are.

“It’s exciting to see a space entirely owned and led by communities of colour, created to agitate and organize around our own political priorities and agenda.”

And it also shows that government is being controlled by extreme right wing fringes.

Any difference we make is hampered if politicians are spewing racist rhetoric. We have a political discourse that is so low to the ground — in the dumpster. And this is what we need to focus on and change.

The type of work we will first be doing is running campaigns to highlight structural racism. The second thing we will do is hold political, corporate and cultural leaders to account for the things they say around race — primarily through rapid response campaigns.

The third thing we will do is try to build a political constituency around communities of color. We want to build and strengthen the voices of people of color. And we do this through leadership training, capacity building and training.

Over the next month, we will be launching a campaigning scholarship for young Muslims in Victoria and we will be training, over three months, a cohort of 20 in everything you would need to know to be an effective change maker — from media to organizing to political engagement and more.

We aim to run campaigns around police accountability and abuse of power, black deaths in custody and indigenous incarceration rates, and the new citizenship laws.

Where there is a gap in the needs of people of color, we will try to fill it. Where there is existing work, especially among grass-roots organizations, we will seek to add to it.

Democracy in Colour has a young leadership group and quite a youthful supporter base. Is encouraging younger Australians to become involved in politics important?

Democracy in Colour is comprised of all sorts of different folks — including young people and older people. For some of the younger people in our organization, the issues we are discussing are important. We are seeing a war on young people in Australian politics, not just people of color.

There is a lot of disillusionment with politics, but around the world — including in the United Kingdom and the United States — movements to encourage participation and leadership from young audiences in politics and to speak to the systemic issues affecting our society.

Politics as usual won’t cut it, and we do need new voices to change political directions.

What has been the response to the establishment of the organization?

We’ve had a lot of positive responses by people of color.

I think people of color who participate in advocacy over time become disillusioned and disenfranchised with how politics works. It’s exciting to see a space entirely owned and led by communities of colour, created to agitate and organize around our own political priorities and agenda.

What have been the inspirations for the model and methods you are using?

I think we have drawn inspiration from a variety of spheres.

There is a lot that we can draw from grass-roots campaigns within communities. There are plenty of examples in the U.S. with Black Lives Matter, Color of Change and 18 Million Rising — these organization are led by the impacted communities.

But we can draw a lot of inspiration from what is happening in Australia with indigenous groups over generations, showing great resilience in the face of implicit and explicit state violence.

“We are seeing a rise in fear mongering, race baiting, racially motivated violence and perverse politics globally. When we are seeing all of that, it is clear that this work is urgent and has never been greater.”

For myself, there were three broad reasons why I decided to get involved.

The first is that everyone within the organization deeply feels the issues we are working to address. It is comprised entirely of people of color. And every person of color has at least one story of racism that comes with living and working in Australia.

The second is that the last couple of years have been particularly terrifying. We are seeing a rise in fear mongering, race baiting, racially motivated violence and perverse politics globally. When we are seeing all of that, it is clear that this work is urgent and has never been greater.

The third reason is that we want to fill core gaps we see in antiracism campaigns. This is a space that has had a lot of work in educating, but we want to see more campaigning that is not tethered to the leash of government funding.

And we also want to see more people of color-led work — traditionally this tends to be dominated by white folk. We want to build the political constituency and build political voices for those overlooked.

On the first anniversary of Democracy in Colour, what are you hoping you will be discussing in terms of your achievement?

The outcomes of the campaigning scholarship are an achievement we will be promoting. But we are also hoping to expand that around the country in 2018 to make it national, available in more cities and train more folks up.

We’ll be running a number of different campaigns during that time obviously — we are a grass-roots, member-led organization, so what those campaigns are will depend on the direction of our members, as well as outside political influences.

But among the campaigns we expect will be the exploitation of migrant workers and police profiling and abuse of powers.

We have a lot of plans and work to do.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.