Mel Thomas was born into family violence, and throughout much of her youth, had a front-row seat to unhealthy and abusive relationships.
As she explains in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, her father “drank too much”, gambled away money her family didn’t have, and “used his fists too often”.
On the podcast, Mel talks about the shameful epidemic of domestic and family violence that exists in Australia, and her personal experiences that have propelled her to create change for others. A survivor of family and domestic violence, Mel also says she was bullied by other girls in high school, and at age 19, she became a victim of street violence.
Then, 25 years ago, she walked into a martial arts class, and it changed the course of her life.
“I learned all the things that had been missing in my life. Accountability, real inner strength, and self-worth. I felt respect for myself. I felt respect for others, but mostly I felt a sense of belonging which I hadn’t realised was missing until I had it,” she shares on the podcast.
Mel is now a specialist in Hapkido, a Korean form of martial arts, and has two Australian titles under her belt. She’s also the founder of the KYUP! Project, an organisation she started to empower young Australians, raise their standards and champion their safety and wellbeing.
The KYUP! Project runs workshops all over Australia, in schools, communities and workplaces, aiming to end the cycle of violence at a grassroots level.
Mel explains that martial arts helped her to stand up for herself, and also taught her how to speak up for others when necessary. She believes the KYUP! Project’s workshops resonate with people, especially young people, because “nobody wants to be told what to do”.
“Kids don’t want a laundry list,” Mel says. “They want to hear real life. They want authentic stories, and they want authentic strategies and skills to actually get through situations that don’t feel right.”
The KYUP! Project began in 2013, but it wasn’t something Mel ever planned on pursuing.
“It wasn’t like I found my life’s purpose,” she said. “I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and keeping it real and saying my perspective.”
When the pandemic set in, Mel became increasingly concerned about the spike in family violence and the many people who were more likely to be trapped with abusers in lockdowns.
“I looked around and found out that 65 per cent of corporates don’t have any domestic violence policy,” she explains.“So I started talking to these businesses and how we could help people break the silence in corporates, and it’s been amazing.”
Mel says it’s essential that businesses have domestic violence liaison officers, awareness training, domestic violence policies that are properly implemented and financial support to help employees leave abusive relationships.
“On average, it takes women up to seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. We’ve got studies that show it can take 141 hours and up to 18 thousand dollars. So it’s a two-billion-dollar business problem,” she says.
“Businesses play a really important role in helping victims maintain their dignity and protect their privacy, and essentially rebuild their lives.”
Mel says that the KYUP! Project is now her ultimate passion, and she loves that she’s able to help others through her work.
“I’m very passionate about helping people, helping victims protect their privacy, and maintaining their dignity. And whether that’s at school or in businesses, or community groups, I love doing our self-worth and self-protection.
“I love doing these leadership workshops, where people are raising their voice and tuning in to our intuition – which we step over so much – and raising our standards.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family and domestic violence, you can call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
If you are in immediate danger, call 000.
You can hear more of Mel’s conversation with Shirley Chowdhary in the most recent episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast made possible thanks to the support of Salesforce.