Big ideas: changing the world

2 September 2010

Written by: Meghan Lodwick

At different times we’ve heard our parents redundantly tell us to ‘finish school, go to uni, get a job, find a partner and have children’. They are endearing guidelines meant to help kids meet goals by following the footsteps of their closest role models.

Former rapper turned actor, Will Smith, once said that ‘parents just don’t understand,’ a statement the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, Adam Smith, took to heart.

Last night, the Melbourne Writers Festival held Big Ideas: changing the world, an event that saw Smith and World Vision youth delegate, Chris Varney, explain why the absence of young people’s voices in the community is becoming increasingly detrimental.

Both against ageism, Smith and Varney began a mission to better their environment in early adolescence. Along the way they found that helping others led to a greater impact on the community at large.

‘Thriving communities give young people equal rights to contribute,’ Smith said recalling his uncomfortable childhood and apparent square peg syndrome.

Born to a Collingwood football player and nurse, Smith’s success was measured by that of his father. ‘My career path was to play for Collingwood and become the youngest person to win a Brownlow,’ Smith said, who, at 29, is one of Australia’s youngest CEO’s. Instead he bounced around 15 different jobs in his early teens before volunteering with disabled kids and eventually becoming a philanthropist.

Varney, an arts/law student at Monash University, met a similar kind of grief growing up. Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at an early age, his parents decided to keep his disability from him, ‘they didn’t want me to be labelled, not knowing was probably the best behavioural therapy I could have received.’ Yet, Varney also felt out of place during his early years at school and took to volunteer work which boosted his confidence.

‘What I was doing was worthwhile and I was interested in it,’ Varney said of his work with the 40 Hour Famine and as the 2009 Australian youth representative to the United Nations. Smith and Varney became used to the fact that they didn’t fit the mould which helped them build their own success.

As young people have more and more information at their fingertips and the ability to be more globally aware, their say becomes more relevant to the future.

Smith and Varney agree that the way kids are taught in school needs to be altered to better fit the information age. ‘The transfer of information from teacher to student is no longer needed, schools need to teach kids how to navigate through an overload of information, to make better choices using new resources as an advantage to become better members of society,’ Smith said.

Varney also agreed that choice was an empowering tool for a young person and that being able to effectively contribute to society would be rewarded with a sense of purpose.

As long time active members in their own communities, Smith and Varney saw their potential to act which transformed into wider impressions. The ability for a young person to engage with their own community is an innovative way to bring about change which can benefit more than the individual.

Being active is practical. As information is so easily attainable nowadays it becomes easier for young people to figure out what they are most passionate about. The idea of following a specific format and building a life modelled after previous generations becomes outdated as more and more young people see that sticking to the norm may not suit their personality.

‘There are alternative pathways to conventional standards, it’s about finding a niche,’ Smith said as he recalled his days of failing and eventually dropping out of university. ‘My father used to say “to defer was defeat” yet when I began to win awards for my philanthropy work, he couldn’t have been more proud.’

Meghan Lodwick is a Master of Global Communications student and a member of the upstart editorial team.

Other New News 2010 reviews on upstart: ‘The funding journalism conundrum‘ and ‘Journos and pollies: lessons learned from Election 2010

Have you recently seen an event? Click here for more details on the Melbourne Writers Festival and how to contribute.