Introducing Ula Majweski
Ula Majewski is the Campaign Lead for Oxfam Australia’s food, climate and land justice work. For the past decade or so, she has worked as an advocate, campaigner, researcher and communicator within the environmental and international development sectors in Australia, Indonesia and the Pacific.
I was over the moon excited to have an opportunity to chat with her in 2016 about the work that Oxfam is doing and what we can do to help her and them on progressing social change and important issues.
If you’re a reader, you can find a full transcript of our interview below. Or if you’re an audio person, you can listen to our discussion on the Dream For Others podcast.
For those who are not familiar with Oxfam, would you please introduce us to the organisation, its mission and how it is making a difference?
Oxfam is a worldwide international development organisation that aims to mobilise the power of people against poverty.
Unfortunately, we’re still living in a world where one person in three lives in poverty, and it is a world that is characterised by profound inequality. We have a situation now where the world’s richest 62 people own around the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. That’s a statistic that can stop you in your tracks.
We’ve still got a situation where we’re producing enough food to feed all 7.4 billion of us, but one in nine people are still going hungry every single day.
So Oxfam is determined to change this world by mobilising the power of people against poverty. Around the world, we work to find practical and innovative ways for people to lift themselves out of poverty and really thrive.
We do this in a whole bunch of ways. We save lives and we help to rebuild livelihoods when crisis strikes. We campaign and conduct big advocacy campaigns so the voices of the poor have the capacity to influence the local and the global decisions that are affecting them. And in all that we do, we work with partner organisations and alongside communities around the world to end the injustices that are causing poverty.
Those stats are terrifying, shocking.
They are. I think some things are getting better, but some things like the concentration of power are actually getting quite a lot worse. I guess our work, and the work of all the wonderful people in communities around the world that are really trying hard to tackle these systematic problems, are incredibly important and becoming more important by the day.
Definitely. Is this partly how you got into this work? Because I’ve read that you’ve been interested in advocacy work for a long time.
I’ve been with Oxfam for almost three years now. I suppose my background over the last decade or so has been very much focused solely on environmental and social justice issues. I worked for a long time as a forest campaigner based in Tasmania – so working to try and protect some amazing forests here in Australia and also overseas.
I’ve dipped in and out of development work. I lived in a remote part of Indonesia for a year. I worked with a wonderful, very small grassroots women’s advocacy organisation in Sulawesi, which was an incredible experience – just some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met.
Then I came back to Australia and did some more work around forests. I was increasingly becoming more interested in social justice and people power campaigning.
Then I moved to Vanuatu. I was working on a wonderful climate project with a huge amount of incredible people (from climatologists and humanitarians to animators and film producers), working on this incredible project that was a little bit of climate communications and a little bit of disaster preparedness. We made fabulous animations that are still being used to support communities, individuals and organisations in provoking conversations about how they can get ready for a time when there’s way too much rain or not enough rain.
Then I came back to Australia. I’ve always admired Oxfam’s work, and I’d worked with Oxfam in collaboration on some projects, and it just seemed like the place where I really wanted to to be – because at the heart of what we do at Oxfam is a very strong gender justice component and also a rights based approach. So we believe that everybody has human rights and we’re working really hard to uphold rights and work in partnership with people around the world. So yes, now I’m here and I love it.
It sounds like you got to carry through a lot of your past experience and passions into the work you’re doing now and still work on issues that you’re passionate about.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m passionate about a lot of issues. And I’m really lucky that I get to come to work every day and work in areas that I’m most passionate about and that’s food, climate and land justice.
Food and climate justice is very close to my heart, especially after living in Indonesia, Vanuatu and the Pacific. A lot of my friends ask why Oxfam, as an international development and aid organisation works and campaigns on something like climate change? And it’s a really good question. I think in many ways the answer is very complex and very tricky, but in many ways it’s very simple – because climate change is all about people. It’s not an environmental issue. Climate change is a people issue.
I think what we’re seeing very clearly is that climate change is transforming the hunger challenge around the world. Families and farmers across the globe, and some of the communities that are in incredibly vulnerable positions, are being really hit by the brutal impacts of climate pollution. We’re seeing climate pollution fuel the extreme weather, we’re seeing farming being played havoc with, we’re seeing increased hunger for millions of families around the world. As we’re seeing pollution increasing, we’re seeing more intense droughts, more intense floods, and really full on storms like tropical cyclones intensifying and making it a lot harder for families to grow and buy enough food to eat.
I think increasingly we’re seeing terrifying reminders of what is at stake if we do allow the big polluters to keep damaging our climate. We’ve seen catastrophic bushfire season here in Australia. I live down the coast in Victoria and have seen this very close to my house over summer. We’ve seen shattered temperature records. We’ve seen the bleaching of our reefs. And that’s here in Australia, but further abroad we’re seeing devastating events like tropical cyclones leaving so many of our Pacific neighbours hungry and homeless. For me, this cuts very close to the bone because when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, so many of my friends were directly impacted by that. We are seeing things increase in intensity.
Climate change really is a story of profound inequality and injustice. Big polluters do affect us all, but it does hit some much harder than others. I think what we’re seeing very clearly is that people who have done the least to contribute to climate change are being hit the hardest by its devastating impacts.
So for our Pacific Island neighbours, this is really a matter of survival. We’re seeing more catastrophic cyclones, more intense weather, and rising sea levels. On one hand you have this, but then on the other hand, we’re seeing incredible leadership from our Pacific neighbours, and from our First Nations people here in Australia, and from many inspiring communities around the world from Mozambique to Bangladesh. These communities are showing the most profound leadership and courage. They’re really proving that a cleaner and a much fairer world is possible for all.
I think the most inspiring thing about this is people are just taking matters into their own hands. They are really fighting back against the big polluter companies who are putting their food, their water and their air at incredible risk. They’re fighting back to protect their families. So we’re seeing this incredible work playing out all around the world which really gives me a huge amount of hope. Our Pacific Island neighbours are really lighting the way forward to a really bright future with their incredible leadership and really smart climate solutions.
But then at the same time, unfortunately here in Australia, our government is still comprehensively failing the climate leadership test, which is really problematic because the rest of the world is moving. I mean, last year in Paris, we’ve reached a landmark climate agreement. I mean just this morning it’s come into force properly. And so we’re seeing all this amazing progress on a global level, but in Australia our political leaders are refusing to get with the program. Our current targets are just abysmal. We are behind the pack and we really need to shift this very urgently because we’ve got everything to gain by really embracing a pollution free future here in Australia.
So I think what’s becoming more and more apparent, is that across the board, Australians are really calling out for climate leadership, particularly in the lead up to the election where there was a huge majority of Australians saying the time to act is now. So we do know that we must ramp up the action here, we must ramp up our actions on pollution globally. There is so much that everybody can do.
I can see how it can be very inspiring to see what people are doing, but also equally or more frustrating to see what is not happening at home. So what are some things you think we can do? I know we have bloggers, business owners, everyday people and people with platforms in the audience. What do you think we can do to help progress those causes?
There are so many things you can do. The thing that really excites, inspires and activates me is that things like climate, land and food justice – and fighting for a fair world for all – is all about people. When we act together and when we act collectively, our voice is incredibly powerful. We still have time to turn things around, but we need to act now. We all have the capacity to be amazingly powerful change makers in our own communities, schools, families, amongst our friendship networks, and more broadly. So that really excites me. We can do this. We absolutely have the power to create a safer, cleaner world for everybody. But we do need to take action.
There are ways that people can take action. I’m getting a bit excited now. We get to work with so many wonderful people. We’ve worked with bloggers, creatives, photographers, writers and musicians who collaborate with Oxfam and more broadly with our partners to really create change. So everybody wants to do things in different ways.
I worked with a lot of people who are very time poor and want to take actions that aren’t taking up a huge amount of time. They can do that. There are so many digital actions you can take. You can take 20 minutes to call a decision maker. We’ve got a wonderful initiative here at Oxfam call OxJam where musicians and local change makers are jumping on board to host lounge room gigs or backyard gigs to raise awareness and also raise support for the work that we’re doing at Oxfam.
I think we can all campaign for change. We have an amazing community network of activists and campaigners across the country which is really going absolutely gangbusters at the moment. So we’re seeing these wonderful community based groups just taking action in different ways to put pressure where it needs to be. So it’s everything from meeting directly with their local politicians through to holding wonderful public events that raise awareness to get people onboard and put the pressure where it needs to go, whether that be on our government or some corporate decision makers.
There’s so many ways to get involved and there’s so many things that can be done to make this really urgent change. I think the most important thing is to always remember that we do need many people onboard in whatever way they can because if we don’t have that, then we are not going to be able to make the really crucial change that we need to see in the world.
So the acting collectively that you’re talking about before sounds essential.
Yes absolutely. It’s also really wonderful to be surrounded by an incredibly diverse community of change makers who are taking action in all these different ways. I come to work every day and feel like the luckiest person in the world, because it’s just this incredible privilege to be surrounded by so many inspiring and wonderful people taking action in all these different ways. We are seeing the results, we are seeing change happen, which is so so important.
I love how you touched on it at the start, as this is something I’ve been hearing a lot from advocates lately, and that is how important it is to talk about things at home – speaking up when someone at the dinner table says something and helping raise awareness in our everyday lives as well.
Absolutely. At Oxfam, we work on a lot of campaigns, we work on Indigenous rights, we work on tax justice – my particular focus is on food, climate and land justice – but I think what we’re seeing across the board (and with our wonderful partners and allies in Australia and globally) is that one of the key things we need to achieve is reframing the debate and reframing the public conversation so that the needs of people are put first and foremost. And I think we’re seeing – and it’s certainly not a new model, it’s a very old model – community organising working very clearly and actually getting political change. This is a grassroots organising, it’s grassroots conversations from person to person, and really discussing these issues, activating people, getting people to think in a slightly different way, and using that collectively in a really beautiful diverse way to push forward and point at political change. So it’s harnessing that collective power and working very hard to build an amazingly beautiful, big, bright, diverse and exciting movement with a variety of views and opinions about different things. It’s really harnessing that people power and using it to drive change forward. That’s what I find really exciting.
That does sound exciting. It also sounds like it encourages people to use their critical thinking skills when they’re listening to political debate and to the media, and to engage in dialogue about these issues instead of just believing what they’ve been told as facts.
Yeah absolutely. I mean I spoke a little bit earlier about the concentration of power and the fact that we are living in an incredibly unjust world. Our world is a world of inequality. I guess the power of critical thinking, if you are listening to the news, if you’re hearing opinions being put forward by particular people – think a step forward – who owns that company or where do their interests lie and how does that inform the way that debates are framed publicly?
I think it’s important for us all to not be a passive consumer, but be an active change maker. Think about things. Think about the information you’re receiving – how it’s set out and if it’s correct or if that sits well with you. And if it doesn’t sit well with you, then do something to change it.
Yes! One of the things that gets me really excited is when I see people who draw on their passions and their platform to progress change. I imagine that you would see examples of this in your work. You mentioned some around the musicians and bloggers. I’d love to hear some examples of people out there using their platform for good.
The bloggers space is a really interesting and exciting one. It’s a space that Oxfam has been moving into more recently – tapping into this really powerful community of progressively minded bloggers and working in collaboration and partnership. We have a bloggers group, which anybody can access and it’s about deliberately creating a community of people that do care about these really important issues and looking at ways that we can strategically get these very crucial messages out to different audiences and to people who may not potentially think about these things all the time. It’s a really vibrant and amazing bloggers group, which is ongoing and is very very exciting. As I mentioned, we do a lot of work with wonderful designers, photographers and artists. Plus the program OxJam with musicians that I mentioned earlier and is on my mind because it’s an incredible project. It has finished for this year, but it’s an annual event.
I think having a platform is a very powerful tool. It’s really interesting speaking to people about opening your mind up, looking at the tools you have at your disposal, and how you can truly create change with your particular platform and with your voice and with your worldview.
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s shaking up that old thinking that we seem to have that you can’t for example mix business with politics or issues that are political. Business has changed, especially within online business and blogging worlds, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity to start using those platforms for good.
Absolutely. At the end of the day, all of this is about people. It worries me sometimes when I hear people talking about ‘consumers’ for example. People aren’t ‘consumers’, they’re people. They might be people who buy things or eat things, but they’re active agents, they’re not a passive whiteboard that you can piff things at. I think it can be easy to just accept that – you know, “this gets fed to me and I’ll take it”, but that’s not the way it needs to be today. In fact, that’s not the way it should be. I think it’s just activating a few little synapses in your brain and then it’s a tiny little pivot in the way that you view the world. It’s taking control, and saying “I’ve got the the power to make some change here”. This is a wonderful thing and it’s so important and easy to do.
I’ve discovered through my coaching and work that a lot of the time people who are new to business or blogging are scared or lost about where to start. They often think they need a lot of money or a massive platform or audience before they can do anything or create change. But from everything you were just saying, we’ve got that power. We can start to do things now. And I suspect we don’t need a lot of money to get started.
No. No. You can do so many things with no money. I know this very well because in my beginnings I started to make that change myself and say “actually, I can make a change here”. I was in a campaign landscape which is similar but different – I was on the ground, not in a digital space at all. We had no resources. But you can make resources and you don’t need budget to be able to make change. It’s really simple. You just need a big heart, you need passion and you need the will and the desire to step up and get on board with this amazing movement that is happening right across the world. Jump on board with that because it is the most wonderful thing and you see your entire life and the entire way that you view the world shift fundamentally and it’s just a beautiful thing. It’s very very exciting. So I think money is not an object. It’s helpful, but it’s definitely not a barrier to making change and effective change.
The type of issues and injustices you’ve mentioned, are ones that people like to complicate sometimes, especially in the media or politically. I’m curious to know, how do you stay on top of issues and remain informed and up to date with current research.
Absolutely. We live increasingly in an age where there is so much information. It can be overwhelming sometimes. It’s part of my job, but before I even started working properly in this area, I have always liked to be informed. It can be tricky though. I get my information through a whole lot of different ways – mostly digital, but I do have a couple of go-to friends that I call up if something new is popping up and I need a synopsis. They are like those fabulous human resources who give me a five minute incredible download of a particular issue if I’m a bit time poor. But apart from those amazing and wonderful friends that I do use Twitter and follow influential people and subscribe to a number of expert people that help keep me up to date on particular issues. I’m on a number of lists where I also get a lot of emails and alerts when things are happening. Also the news obviously, but mostly digitally. I also read the paper every morning, because I’m a little bit of a traditionalist in some ways, so I do like to sit down and read the paper. And Facebook of course!
I love that. And I love that you mentioned Twitter then. I’ve been hearing a lot lately that in the coaching and online business worlds that Twitter is dying. I have no evidence to support this – but I feel that maybe in the online business and coaching space perhaps it is, but in the activist, academic and author spaces that the conversations are up-to-date and vibrant and challenging and open and I love it.
I got this wonderful set of emails a couple of months ago and they had the subject: “Twitter is dead, but no, not really, maybe not, maybe it is.” Some of my social media specialist friends tell me this may be the case, but I think for the moment in terms of getting really up to the second news, particularly if events are happening and you’re following the people who are going to be there and are tweeting a lot, that’s what I use it for – to get that up to the minute information. You can always get the excellent, long analyses afterwards, but sometimes that might take a few hours to come through. In the campaign space, you need to be on to it.
Don’t die Twitter! Please! I’m intrigued to ask you, who inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing and to dream for others?
There are so many people who inspire me. In my daily life I’m surrounded by amazing individuals who I work with directly, who I play with – just really wonderful, big-hearted, brilliant people who make my brain alight constantly. That’s in my immediate, physical space.
But I suppose the people who really inspire me the most are my colleagues and friends living in places like Bangladesh or Vanuatu or Fiji or Mozambique who are doing the most profoundly inspiring work – in many cases in the most arduous circumstances and in many cases very difficult and dangerous circumstances. These people are really stepping up. These wonderful human beings are taking a stand and saying this is not right and I’m going to do something about it. And those are the people who inspire me because we have a very strong heart connection. One of the great things about my job for me is that I get to connect with these amazing human beings all the time. I get to talk to them on the phone, I get to Skype them, I get to contact them quite a lot and hear about the work that they’re doing. When I’m feeling a little bit tired, I look at this work that is happening, look at the wonderful people who are making such profound change and have such huge hearts and are doing this with incredible grace and goodwill and beautifulness – and that makes me keep on going. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by these wonderful people.
As I was saying before, there is a growing collective movement globally, and you become part of a wonderful huge diverse family, and you do make these incredible relationships with people that you may have never thought that you would have in your life – and it is just the best thing ever.
Yes. Goosebumps. I imagine that amongst all of that though, you hear some pretty horrible and upsetting stories and may have even witnessed some things yourself that have been upsetting. Is that where you draw strength from in those situations – from this beautiful community of people that you’ve build around you over time?
Absolutely. In our work we are confronted daily by, at a remove here in Australia, but not always at a remove actually, as there are some pretty horrendous things happening here to our First Nations peoples and other communities in Australia right now. But most of the people that I work with are living abroad and are confronting some horrendous situations of the most incredible magnitude. So on a daily basis we are seeing terrible things happening in the world to people that we know and to communities that we work with. But as you said, that’s absolutely right – sometimes you think the world can be a pretty ugly place, but then I turn around and look at these wonderful people who are doing so much work with such huge hearts to create change in the most horrific circumstances and you really see the human spirit and you see these brilliant smart people taking a stand and saying “I’m going to take a stand for my community’s land and my family’s air, water and food, and I’m not going to let people take this away from me or from my community.” That makes me stand up a lot straighter.
And that hope is then revived.
That hope is then revived and I think that is the most inspiring thing. The other part of it is living a balanced life. I think for us to be the most effective and the most powerful, and to be able to do this work for a long, long time – we need to make sure that we do a lot of work and we also play. I go surfing a lot and that’s my break. It’s keeping that balance – we’re working as hard as we can, but also keeping all of that joy in your life. I think this is really important to surround yourself with people who are joyful and doing wonderful things and then it all flows.
Have you found it difficult to find that balance? I know some people find it challenging when they are so big hearted and generous. Has that been something that you’ve had to tinker with over time or is it something you’ve been so conscious of from the beginning?
It’s definitely been a tinkering of quite serious proportions. I think I’ve got to a good spot now. A few years ago when I was doing a lot of environmental campaigning, I was working around the clock. I was pretty fired up about things and doing some great things, but was coming at things from a place of love, but also a place of anger and really going there’s so much to be done, we have to get going, you have to work 16 hour days, seven days a week. It really just got to the point of exhaustion and then a few things happened and I remember having a moment where I looked around and was like well if I keep going like this I’m either going to burn out and be completely useless or I’m going to become someone who I don’t necessarily want to be. So that was good, there were some good lessons.
While living in Vanuatu, I had a wonderful thing happen. We were on deadline for one of our projects and one of my friends and colleagues said she was leaving for the day. And I said “well okay but I’ve got to finish this.” And she said “well I’m not going to be doing any work on the weekend.” She said this wonderful thing, she said “we’re working for a better world, that’s why we’re doing this work. We’re working for a world where I can go and spend wonderful time with my kids and with my family and have this beautiful joyful time.” She said “if we can’t make space for that joyful time with the people we love, that’s the reason why we’re doing this, and if we’re not doing it, then we don’t really know what we’re working towards.” And I was like “yes, yes, I’m going now, I’m turning off the computer.”
Sometimes humans are not in a position where they can do that because of the horrendous things happening around the world. But if we can do that, and if we have the opportunity to spend that time while also doing really important work, then I think that’s really important so we can keep going and so we know what we’re working for.
It’s much more sustainable. I have one last question. What is next for you and for Oxfam?
There’s always new things popping up which is one of the great things about working as a campaigner. No day is the same. We’re working on the same issues that we’ve worked on for a while and we will continue to campaign and advocate for change in particular areas. I love being in this wonderful organisation so I’ll be continuing to plug away and try to make as much change as possible. We’re always progressing. We’re always looking at ways where we can be more innovative and find exciting new directions, while also doing the things that we know really work.
It’s an exciting time. I think there are a lot of shifts happening. I do have a bit of a cynical part of me, but I can feel a lot of change happening fundamentally. Things are shifting I think. While at the same time things feel like they’re getting pretty dark, but at the same time there are a lot of people who are really working and doing wonderful things to create change. So we’ll see how we go, but I think there’s movement and we’ll keep moving forward. We’re really trying to inspire and activate as many people as possible to jump on this incredible global movement for change because it’s crucial. We’re at a crucial time where things do need to shift in our world.
I can see how it’s so important to keep those two thoughts in mind. The first being how bad the situation is and how it is getting worse in some areas. While also recognising the hope, the change and the movement that is happening. It sounds like we need to keep both of these thoughts in mind and the balance of them in check.
Yes, absolutely. It’s a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes one of them takes more precedence over the other. There is urgency but there is also incredible hope at the same time.
Connect with Ula Majewski, Oxfam and their resources:
Oxfam Australia website.
Check out the Get Involved page on the Oxfam Australia website.
Connect with Ula Majewski on Twitter.