The annual She Leads Conference will see women come together in Canberra on 1 June for a day of discussion, networking and action on women’s leadership. Women’s Agenda is proud to support the event again this year as Media Partner, sharing insights, advice and stories from some of the wonderful women who are speaking at the Conference. To find out more, or to register to attend, visit the She Leads website.
Below, Joanna Le speaks to Shen Narayansamy, a human rights lawyer and the Human Rights Campaign Director at GetUp!
Shen Narayansamy doesn’t like being called a leader, which is a bit of a conundrum for someone who is one of the driving forces behind human rights campaigning in Australia.
But it’s not out of sheer humility that Narayanasamy has come to this view.
“I think some of the most successful progressive movements have been based on an internal democratic equality and collective decision-making,” she said.
“I have a growing discomfort about the extent to which people see those in the public eye as leaders, and sometimes idealise or idolise them. I think it can inhibit the involvement of ordinary people to do great things in progressive movements.”
Narayanasamy is the Human Rights Campaign Director at GetUp! where she leads the No Business in Abuse campaign, targeting corporate involvement in mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and #LetThemStay, which aims to prevent the deportation of hundreds of asylum seekers to Nauru.
A human rights lawyer by trade, Narayanasamy takes a strategic and thoughtful approach to her role in influencing the public discourse about asylum seekers, ever conscious of the vulnerable people she represents, and the lives impacted by her advocacy.
“Sometimes the right opinion is consideration, and sometimes an opinion should change. By painting people as leaders or commentators, or having views that are always right, it can sometimes inhibit the reality of how knowledge is shaped and movements are pushed forward, which is through consideration first,” she said.
Narayanasamy believes that successful progressive social movements require the collective skills, experiences, and voices of diverse groups of people, each playing specific and important roles to facilitate change.
“It’s a great privilege to be paid to do the kind of work that I do, and lots of people don’t get that privilege. Lots of people do social justice work as volunteers and they are the kind of bread and butter of things that happen, and the change that occurs outside the media.”
However, Narayanasamy stresses that in the game of challenging and changing systems, intentions are far less important than actions, and being great at what you do is of the utmost importance.
“Good intentions are great, but you actually need to be good at what you’re doing, whatever it is. I think there’s a need for a really high standard of outcome in social justice work, and we should constantly be asking for that, rather than assessing people on how good their intentions are,” she said.
“I think critical to all of it is being able to understand that you have a pathway to change and know what that is. You have to be sure that on balance of probabilities, what you’re doing is going to result in the desired outcome, and that will lead to the overall change you want to see in the world.”
Narayanasamy advises that if you’re serious about making a career out of tackling big social problems, understanding how change actually occurs, and mapping a critical pathway through that is key.
“That’s the thing that I wish I knew when I was 16 going to high school walkouts against Pauline Hanson,” she said.
But you don’t necessarily need to start a new social movement, or even organise a protest to make an impact. There are simple and meaningful steps you can take to contribute to social issues that are important to you.
“GetUp! is a member-based organisation, so any women that are keen to get involved and care should join. Our members are incredibly, incredibly valuable and it’s their support that allows us to do what we do,” she said.
“If you are even a little bit interested in Australian politics and our system, and trying to make something better, I would highly recommend and welcome you into the GetUp! family.”
If you want to hear more from Shen Narayanasamy, register to attend the She Leads Conference on 1 June at QT Canberra here.