Sunday, 7 April 2013

The beginning

From Indonesia to Indigenous Australia

It’s 2010, in the tropical surf, off the coast of Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia, and a couple of young Australian men, waiting for a wave, are only a few steps away from being an instrumental part of shaping Australia’s future national identity, and it’s relationship with Indigenous Australia.

At 22, Drew Higgins has landed in Indonesia to take part in the AusAID youth program (AYAD), and is working on community economic development projects in Jakarta’s poorest urban suburbs, with trash pickers who collected rubbish and sold it for a living. Drew helped build a program that saw the profits raised from the trash pickers, be returned back into education for kids. He says humbly, “coming from the Northern Beaches in Sydney I reckon it’s fair to say I learnt pretty quickly how much of the world operated very differently to me. And I needed to learn to adapt to succeed.”

Sitting out the back of the surf with Drew, on a 6’6 ‘Soul Cruiser’ surfboard, was his 24 year old mate, Sam Refshauge. Sam had grown up in the inner west of Sydney, the son of former Labor Politician Andrew Refshauge, he’d lived a life with good opportunity as a youngster. Looking for a new challenge Sam also joined the AusAid program and found himself dropped in Jakarta, as the National Coach of the Indonesian Rugby Union team. “The boys had some serious speed, but I did have a couple of training sessions where I felt a bit like the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in cool runnings,” says Sam.

Amongst their day jobs, they surfed, and travelled many of the islands of Indonesia, and with an opportunistic flavor, once their contracts in Jakarta had ended, they spotted the Commonwealth Games were on in India, and jumped on the chance to go.

Fast-forward and the boys are now sitting in the shade up against a wall of a stadium between the gymnastics and the cycling in Delhi, India. The sentimentalism of the games has triggered a conversation between Sam and Drew around Australia, what was going on at home, what they’d done in Indonesia, and everything in between.

In that same week, the boys had both received an email from a group in Australia called AIME – a mentoring program for Indigenous kids that used young Uni students like Sam and Drew were not long ago. The email was letting them know that there were jobs going with AIME in 2011. Amongst the mayhem of Delhi’s Commonwealth games, sitting in the dust by a stadium watching people pushing their limits to represent their countries the boys decided to return home to try and represent their country with AIME. 

Back in Sydney after, applying for their dream role, they both ended up in the final panel interview going head to head. “I wanted to know why these boys who could have walked into any corporate job and made a motsa wanted to be here. They both blew me away with their honesty and integrity, and I also got a strong sense of loyalty from them. So I gave them both jobs, primarily on their character,” said AIME CEO, Jack Manning Bancroft.

Two years on, the boys have grown rapidly with AIME. They have ridden the wave and stepped up to the opportunities that have arisen as AIME has boomed from 20 staff in 2010 in 3 states, to over 60 full time staff and 30 part time across Australia, in 2013.

At 27, Sam is now the National Director of Program Operations, and oversees the implementation and delivery of the AIME program across 16 University locations, reaching over 40 different communities, providing the program to 200 schools, in 5 states, and engaging between 2000-3000 Indigenous high school kids, and 1500 University student volunteer mentors this year.

“I’m back home now, and the learning curve has been steep. But I’m just lucky to have the chance to do something special for the country. It’s great to be part of a new generation of young people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous stepping up to help us build an Australia we can be proud of”, said Sam.

And with a huge level of responsibility in terms of staff to manage, and the delivery of this program in his hands, how is Sam handling the pressure? “Loving it, but I must admit by Friday 6pm I think I now feel a little bit like one of those Jamaican bobsledders. I might not know what I’m doing all the time but I’ll keep pushing forward, and keep pushing myself to improve and be the best I can be. And fingers crossed, that gold is just around the corner.”

At 26, Drew is now working as the Creative Operations Director. If you’ve ever seen any of the AIME teams films or their online work, you’ll be amazed at the quality. And its done on a shoestring, with $0 marketing budget, Drew helps pull the operational levers between the creative mayhem that flows in the heads of the CEO Jack, the Creative Consultant Dave Kaldor, the Canadian film magician Matt Dwyer, Program Development coordinator Jake Trindorfer and web designer Jack Kirby-Cook.

“They are a crazy crew. I’ve been amazed by the passion and ideas that are generated within AIME. Everyone is so energized and inspired, it’s infectious, and we try and pull that all together into content for either the educational program, or our other mediums like YouTube, Facebook, or TV.

Sometimes I pinch myself a little and look around and how much ball we are playing. Jack keeps saying we are going to take this around the world and be one of the best businesses in the country, up there with Google, and it’s this year in particular that I’ve looked around and realized that he might be right. AIME’s proven to me the ability that anyone has to be able to step up and make a difference if they are focused, they have a plan, stay positive, and work ridiculously hard, then anything really is possible. I’m glad I’ll get to tell my kids that I was on the wave that helped end Indigenous inequality in Australia forever.”

AIME is currently recruiting University mentors for 2013, and is about to launch a new membership program.  Head to their website to get on the wave with Sam, Drew and the AIME crew.


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  2. Loved the story. Two very hardworking and inspiring guys right there :)