Updated: Apr 26, 2020
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
LIZ: I think persistence is important. I think valuing your experience is really important. You know, you need to care. I don't sort of mean that in a motherhood way. But when you see injustice, you sort of got to feel it in your gut. That kind of drives you to try and make a change.
PREMA: This week, I speak with Liz Scully, chairwoman of the new Parramatta Women's Shelter that's due to be opened this month, September of 2019. Parramatta is an outer suburb of Sydney here in the state of New South Wales, Australia.
LIZ: I'm a mum living in Ermington. in western Sydney. By day I'm a Communications Officer. But a little project I've been involved with on this side is I'm part of the board to establish a new women's shelter in Parramatta. We've been active for a year or so now and I've ended up becoming the chair of the board. We've got some really fantastic women working together to try and make it happen.
PREMA: Liz's involvement in her community started on election night in 2001.
LIZ: There'd been a fairly poisonous public debate about immigration issues that were associated with the Tampa crisis in relation to boat people. At that time, we had been following that and we sort of felt that the Labor leader of the time, Kim Beazley, had maybe not responded. Perhaps compassionate away, we would have liked to say. And I guess that seeing that happen and then seeing us lose this election, we sort of thought, well, you know, like it's all very well to be an armchair critic, but maybe we should try and get involved and see if we can push things in the direction that we'd like to see.
PREMA: Liz and her then-boyfriend, now husband, turned up at their local grassroots party branch. Soon after that. And Liz has been an active member of her community ever since.
LIZ: I think that's the really beautiful thing about this structure of grassroots political movement because you end up every month sitting down with a bunch of people who live in the same area as you, who actually hopefully don't have a huge amount in common with you because you really that's the idea of representation. You want to be the broad community and collect all the things that matter to all sorts of different people and share them and come up with some really good ideas to improve the community that we live in. That's what I love about it, actually.
PREMA: Liz is trying to contribute to helping with a growing problem not only in Parramatta but in many parts of Australia.
LIZ: Homelessness is something that you see as part of your daily life, and it does make you think a lot about people in need in our community and want to do more to help. I'd also been sort of following some of the issues around women's shelters. There were some reforms that had a fairly negative impact on the sector.
PREMA: The impact of these reforms on women's shelters was important to Liz. So she held a community forum to gather valuable insights and resources from across the community and within the sector. Armed with information and contacts, Liz took a leap in her journey when she read in her local newspaper about a community initiative.
LIZ: A community organisation called Wentworth Community Forum, I fundraised fifty thousand dollars and they wanted to give it to establish a new shelter locally. Council came in and matched that funding to kick it off, and then they did a shout out to the community for people who'd like to move it forward as a project. So that's how I got involved. I read about it in the local paper and got excited. Looks I'd been looking for a way to help and went along to a meeting there. All these other people there who wanted to help, too, which was, you know, heartwarming and quite inspirational. So eventually some of us stayed in and started the board to get it moving. And that's kind of where we are now. I suppose this project became the Parramatta Women's Shelter. We're trying to provide more crisis accommodation for women who need it at the moment. One in two women are turned away when they say crisis accommodation. We know that domestic violence is the main cause of homelessness for women. These issues are obviously really interrelated for women. I think between when I say 15 and 44, family violence is also the main preventable cause of death. So it's sort of you connecting the dots. It seems like a logical thing to try and work to provide more places for people to be able to seek safety and some refuge in a situation like that.
PREMA: Existing services aren't enough to provide for women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Parramatta Women's Shelter has come under the auspices of an umbrella organization, the Women's Community Shelter.
LIZ: They are a organisation that runs, I think this will be their eighth shelter in New South Wales. So what that means for us is that a lot of the thinking about the day to day operations of shelter has already been done and they do have experience rolling out new shelters. That means that we're not completely starting from scratch in a way, and we have some really good support, both financial and in terms of their expertise. So that's been fantastic. And that sort of made it a lot more. And I think it means that once we're up and running, we will have that ongoing assistance that we'll need, is you we sort of meet the new challenges of being an operational shelter.
PREMA: There are a lot of benefits from having an operational framework and expertise. Nevertheless, each shelter still faces its own challenges.
LIZ: There's a lot of fundraising that's needed to open a refuge and to keep it running in an area like Parramatta obviously. Property prices are much discussed. That's something that maybe adds like some complexity to providing some more accommodation to people who needed the beds that we'll be able to provide through our project. They won't go anywhere near what is needed, but something it's still something that I hope will make a meaningful difference to some of the people who'll be able to stay there.
PREMA: The board comprises people from various backgrounds and Liz is certain their collective experience and commitment will go towards building a solid foundation for the shelter.
LIZ: What we've got this fantastic young woman, Tara, who's a young lawyer who has been our secretary. And we've got a lady called Jill, who's a retired primary school teacher who's really involved in this are optimists, which is like an association, like a women's service organization. We've got an amazing young woman who works at Parramatta Council, and they're sort of a social impact team. We've got some really dynamic women from Our Lady of Mercy College. So the deputy principal, Mary Woods on the board and one of the teachers. And Mary heard there's a young woman who's on parental leave. She normally works at a white ribbon. So she's really experienced in the field.
PREMA: And the particular demographics in Parramatta also present challenges in terms of cultural competency.
LIZ: We do have some other shelters operating locally, like I know the immigrant women speak out, started a shelter roughly two years ago in the local area. So there is some good expertise around in terms of like other organisations that we can pick the brains of, which I think is always a valid thing to do.
PREMA: Liz and her team are continuing the good work that's been done before them and growing support for vulnerable women. Raising awareness around the issue is a critical part of their work.
LIZ: The visible face of homelessness likely is probably more of a male rough sleeper population, so they might not be as much awareness about women who are in quite risky situations. Couch surfing or living in cars or, you know, like living as unwanted guests. Women's homelessness can be less visible. So I think there probably is a little bit less awareness of some of the challenges that women face.
PREMA: While providing support is crucial. It's important to educate and talk about the issue to understand why women, in particular, are driven to homelessness. More shelters aren't the answer.
LIZ: With women's refuges, you'd kind of wish that we didn't name them, wouldn't you? I think it's really important what we're doing to make a very real need in our community. But I think that's also why the conversations are really important about why does this happen. And so we've had some good support from all of them, say, which is a girls' school in Parramatta. I went to talk to their students on Women's Day and at the end of the presentation had a queue of students waiting to chat with me about the issues. And there was a group of two or three girls who wanted to talk to me about like what did I think the causes of violence towards women were? It's essential that we're always thinking about, you know, why does this happen and what can we do to promote change?
PREMA: Liz is encouraged by what she sees in the younger generations.
LIZ: Feel a lot of hope. When I say how engaged really young people are with these social issues, they're really switched on. And that's really exciting. I think a lot about these issues because I'm a mom of sorts of pre-teen kids, like when's the right time to talk to them about some of the bad things that happen in the world and so forth. It's actually important to have those conversations. They've been with really little kids. I think about, you know, how people deserve to feel safe at home and what respectful relationships look like.
PREMA: Liz feels that all of us living in communities can go the extra mile to foster connections, which means developing empathy and perhaps creating a more compassionate society overall.
LIZ: I kind of feel like we can actually change ourselves somewhat the way that the community operates around us. So even if it's sort of making sure that you try and introduce yourself to your neighbours or smiling at someone at the school gate like you actually are having an impact. I kind of think back to I used to work in the chemist shop down the road from here and like something that I would often think about is that I could maybe be the only person that the customer talked to in the whole day. So you kind of want to make sure that it's a positive experience for them. In terms of like at a broader level, I think really good places that people can get together. Safe places that are affordable, because I know sometimes, you know, like I'm not talking about coffee shops necessarily, I'm talking about, you know, parks and opportunities to engage with other people.
PREMA: Liz is confident that she can lead the change personally in life.
LIZ: I feel like I can kind of I can work to connect people in my community to build a better understanding between people who might sort of feel like they don't have a lot in common. Maybe I'm being a bit optimistic, but I feel like there is a lot of life and living in a really diverse community, something that I absolutely love. So I find it a really friendly place to live. And I guess I try and make it as friendly as I can for other people.
PREMA: And Liz is encouraging everyone to get involved with community or grassroots efforts.
LIZ: I also feel that sometimes you have more capabilities than you think that you do with this particular project. I'd gotten involved with it and then they were looking for someone to chair the board. So I was busy running for parliament. Last year I was like, you know, I'll leave it to somebody else to step up and do that. And I did. And I waited and I waited. And then they were sort of shouting out all over the place. And then a woman I know who didn't even know I was involved with the Parramatta one rang me up and said, hey, they're looking for a board for the Parramatta Women's Shelter, why don't you do it? And I realized I should have put my hand up much earlier in the pace. But I kind of I hesitated. And I think you go to back yourself as a woman.
PREMA: I believe the same of myself. Remembering to back myself can be an uphill battle.
LIZ: And I hope that the world has changed. But in the past and you know, even when I was a kid and I think, you know, you and I probably roughly the same age, like it wasn't necessarily maybe encouraged as much as it should be. But I feel like it is really valuable in life to kind of value your experiences and your skills and be able to communicate to other people what you can bring to a project. But I guess also it's kind of that sense of like Mary MacKillop, the Australian saint and had this famous quote. She's never saying aid without doing something about it. And they're like, there are lots of some things that you can do to address a real need. So it might be starting with something that you feel comfortable with. In my case, you know, like organising a forum about it and sometimes other things will flow out of the action that you take to begin with.
PREMA: Liz took a small but significant step to get involved in the broader conversation and community. Back in 2001 and today, she's helping to provide a solution for many vulnerable women in Parramatta. What small steps can the rest of us take?