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Be Inspired By ‘Democracy In Colour’ Australia’s First Racial And Economic Justice Organisation

By Sophie Oddo
18th Jun 2021

At Urban List, we believe it’s important to recognise trailblazers who align their values with actions, which is why we’ve teamed up with Bank Australia to share the inspiring stories of Australians who have joined the clean money movement and aligned their bank with their values.

Implementing positive action to help make the world a better place takes courage, strength and tenacity. But to encourage and help others to do the same, well... that’s worth celebrating.

Here, we chat with social activist and Bank Australia customer, Tim Lo Surdo about his passion for empowering collective action against inequality through his organisation Democracy in Colour

CAN YOU Tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Tim, I’ve recently turned 27 and I am the founder and National Director at Democracy In Colour. I was born and raised in Brisbane, my Mum is Chinese and my Dad is Italian... so your quintessential story of Australian multiculturalism. 

I studied law and was always very interested in political advocacy and social change. I was always interested in aligning my work towards my values and helping build the sort of society I think most people everywhere want. One that is fair and just and sustainable. 

What inspired you to create Democracy In Colour?

I grew up hearing the stories my parents would tell about the racism they experienced growing up. Back when my Dad was growing up, it was fashionable to bully Italians. He got bullied for the type of food he brought to school and because his parents couldn’t speak English. I saw my Mum regularly get racially abused in public when I was growing up and then as I got into high school I started experiencing it myself. My name became “Chink” and “go back to where you came from” became the weekly mantra of the playground. My house was egged, fruit was thrown at me from passing by cars—there was a whole litany of experiences that showed me early on that people were prepared to treat me differently because of the colour of my skin. I just thought that we as a society could do a lot better than that.

As I got older, I started hearing other stories from other friends and family members and also started engaging more deeply with this country’s history with First Nations people. Seeing the atrocities, both historical and current, that this country has and continues to perpetuate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made me think... We have a real reckoning and a real challenge with structural racism in this country. I wanted to do something about that and so that was the driving motivation behind starting Democracy In Colour.

The other part of starting Democracy In Colour was we saw a couple of key gaps in the anti-racism space. Social change is an ecosystem and a core role that was missing in this space was the political advocacy work. We wanted to create an organisation that contested power on the issues that mattered to communities we are a part of and work with. The second gap was that we wanted to be an organisation that was actually led by people who experienced racial injustice. Democracy In Colour is a racial and economic justice organisation led by people of colour who experience racial injustice. The third gap was that we wanted to tackle racism from a structural end, so that’s why we’re also an economic justice organisation that works on issues of economic fairness. Structural racism manifests itself in our broken system of inequality that causes a lot of pain for a lot of people. 

Tell us about the organisation; How does it work?

Democracy In Colour is a racial and economic justice organisation led by people of colour. We do three main types of work. Firstly, we run campaigns around economic fairness and anti-racism that seek to achieve material change for the community that we work with, based on what’s important to them, their lives, and their families.

The second is to aid communities that are impacted by the issues that we work on to try and build their political power and more strongly connect them with the decision-makers in the political business and social space. This helps to ensure their voice and their leadership is heard by those people and reflected in this country’s political agenda.

Lastly, we do a lot of training which is designed to strengthen the political voice and leadership of communities of colour. We run a lot of training programs that are about how you can become an effective change-maker and campaigner in this country. How does our political process work? How can you get involved in it? All those sorts of questions.

What kind of change do you hope to see in society with the help of this platform?

I think our driving passion is building a society that honours the inherent dignity and humanity of all people, and that’s really what it all comes down to. Building a society that sees people with dignity and humanity, not contingent on anything else. 

What makes ‘Democracy In Colour’ so important?

The urgency of the issue we’re working on. This country incarcerates the most Indigenous people on the planet. This country is grappling with a destined custody crisis right now. It’s been thirty years since we had a royal commission into Aboriginals in custody and it has been thirty years of inaction with none of the core recommendations being implemented. Thirty years later there’s been more than 407 Aboriginal deaths in custody with no convictions—so nobody has helped to account for more than 407 people being killed in our justice system. That’s a big problem. 

Indigenous people have a life expectancy that’s ten years less than non-Indigenous people. We’ve got a second stolen generation happening right now—Indigenous kids are ten times more likely to be taken into out of home care than non-Indigenous kids. Then of course we see sacred sites that have been sacred to First Nations communities for tens of thousands of years, destroyed at the hands of mining companies. Australia is the only commonwealth country that doesn’t have a treaty with its First Nations people.

Then COVID is a great example of some of the everyday racism that people of colour face with a surge in anti-Asian racial abuse because of the racialised nature of the coronavirus. We’ve seen a lot of the communities we work with being spat at, racially and physically abused in public—a clear correlation with the narrative around COVID-19. There’s a whole litany of examples I can give you as to the state of racial injustice in this country. That's why organisations like Democracy in Colour that centre building a society that affords equal opportunity for everyone—I think that’s what makes them so important.

What are your goals for the future of the organisation?

To continue to grow. We want it to act at a scale that’s commensurate with the size of the challenges that we face and we’re far from that because the scale we face is enormous. We need to grow resources to meet that challenge. We’re living through multiple overlapping crises right now—we’re facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the second world war, the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, we’re tearing our planet apart hurtling towards climate catastrophe, and of course we’re in the midst of this once in a generation global public health crisis that threatens decades of humanitarian progress. 

This is a time for bold ideas, bold initiatives and audacity because we don’t have time to play small or tinker around the edges. We’re trying to bring that thinking to Democracy In Colour and really scale the organisation to a size that meets the challenges that we are facing. We’re only about three years old and so we are also trying to build sustainability and mature processes.

How can everyone else help to do their part to work boards justice and equality for all Australians?

Well, I think nothing precedes purpose. So the first question we all need to grapple with is ‘what is our purpose in being involved in diversity, justice and equality?’. If our purpose in doing that work is because we feel socially obligated to do so or because this is what we’re expected to say or do—then that’s just going to result in cosmetic actions. It’s going to result in saying the right things at the right moment but not actually doing anything. 

If your purpose in doing this is because you genuinely believe that one aspect of your identity benefits from structural disadvantage in this country—that you have some relative privilege in this country and you want to utilise and leverage that privilege to breakdown systems of structural inequality—then that’s going to result in you doing the hard work. 

It’s having the hard conversations with friends at dinner parties and at family gatherings when there aren’t any people around to pat you on the back. It’s utilising your position and privilege at work to tackle structural racism that might be happening. It’s showing up to rallies when there isn’t a big moment—when it’s not plastered on your TV or newspapers—but showing up regardless. It’s doing that hard work and sometimes that invisible work. I think it starts with a deep introspective around why you want to do this in the first place and making sure that it’s grounded in purpose that’s around impact. Impact on the world and building a society that honours the intrinsic humanity of all people. It’s not about trying to validate an identity you might have of yourself.

This article is sponsored by Bank Australia and proudly endorsed by Urban List. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who make Urban List possible. Click here for more information on our editorial policy.

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