The ripple effect - Madonna Magazine

The ripple effect

Sr Myree Harris 09 November 2021

An image is seared on my retina. In a television studio, days after their forces entered Kabul, a young woman, a respected and trusted news anchor, interviews one of the Taliban leaders. She is calm and direct in her questioning. Her courage in remaining in her role and taking on that interview is hard to overestimate.

To me, that woman exemplifies hope. She is living out her hope that the Taliban will allow women to continue in such a public role. She is demonstrating the kind of involvement in public life that Afghan women have undertaken for the past 20 years. Women have been in elected office as national and regional leaders. They have been airline pilots, academics, engineers, architects, Olympic athletes, prize-winning robotics designers, writers, poets, singers.

With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, there is a real risk that girls will be refused education and women banished from public life, with the loss of their basic human rights.

Do something

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ (Edmund Burke 1795). It is simply not enough to hope for the best. If I become aware of an issue of need or injustice, the challenge is to do something about it. My contribution may appear small, but it can start a ripple effect. It is the Amnesty International principle. The letter I send on behalf of a prisoner of conscience may accomplish little on its own. When another hundred people send letters, they pile up on the desk of a political leader. At the least, that prisoner receives better treatment; at the best, he or she may be released.

I was once invited to speak to Year 12 students about to graduate from a secondary school. My suggestion to them was that they identify their special gift. It could be speaking, writing, forming friendships and networks, or organising. Then identify some issue about which they were passionate. Put the two together and then find like-minded people and collaborate with them.

For example, I knew I could write effective letters. Becoming aware of the appalling conditions in boarding houses for people with disabilities and of the abuse and neglect of residents, I co-founded in 1995the Coalition for Appropriate Supported Accommodation (CASAA) for people with disabilities in NSW. As convenor, I wrote repeatedly to the Premier and relevant state ministers until a $66 million reform program was put in place in 1998.

A total of $58 million annual funding continued until replaced by the National Disability Insurance Scheme in 2018. We continued working until effective legislation, the Boarding Houses Act 2012 was enacted. As a member of an expert advisory group, I try to ensure that legal protection and monitoring remain in place.

Hope springs up

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up. The most effective change always starts from the grass roots level. Roberta Lynch, a Chicago labour organiser observed, ‘It’s about action. You feel that things can happen, the possibility, the hope. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.’

When Dorothy Day was asked why she was making so much trouble for the authorities, she answered, ‘I’m working towards a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently.’

William Wilberforce worked for most of his life to end the slave trade in the British Empire. He gave a three-hour speech on abolition in Parliament in 1789. For 18 years, he introduced anti-slavery motions. He and his supporters just kept working. In 1807, slavery was abolished but it did not free those who were already slaves. It was not until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured.

There are about 15,000 in modern slavery in Australia and 40.3 million worldwide. In Australia, it is most evident in forced sexual exploitation, migrant farm labouring, domestic work and forced marriage. The Modern Slavery Act 2018 passed by Federal Parliament, and backed by state legislation, requires the reporting by companies of risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.

Show care

On a personal level, the challenge is to care about the people who provide the products we use. We can find out which clothing companies ensure safe manufacturing conditions and pay a living wage. Tea, coffee and chocolate with the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance labels show that workers are paid justly. The latter also includes sustainable agricultural production.

We cannot do everything, but we can do something. In the words of Jessie de la Cruz, Chicano-American farm worker and community organiser who fought against injustice for the working poor: ‘I feel there’s gonna be a change, but we’re the ones gonna do it, not the government. With us there’s a saying, hope dies last.’