The hero you haven’t heard of: Gina Olivieri

JOANNA ROBIN | MAMA MIA | 29 DECEMBER 2015 

Each week we will be running Q&As with Australian women doing vital humanitarian and aid work. Women you may not have heard of.

Meet Gina Olivieri, Grassroots Engagement Manager at RESULTS Australia, an organisation working to eradicate poverty worldwide by training volunteers as effective advocates.

1. What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis

On any given day, my role could involve training, inspiring and supporting passionate, committed everyday people to use their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty. This may mean helping a group of volunteers prepare for a meeting with their MP, giving feedback on an opinion piece written by a volunteer for a newspaper, coaching Group Leaders to get the best from their volunteer group, or organising a volunteer trip to Canberra for parliamentary meetings.

2. How did you become involved in humanitarian/aid work?

I always had a sense that it wasn’t right or that people just like me were living vastly different lives to mine, based largely on where they happened to be born. I didn’t know what I could do about it, but by happy coincidence, I volunteered with Oaktree for 4 years after the State Director sat next to me at uni one day. Following this, I volunteered in South Africa, and knew this kind of work was what I wanted to do forever. I wanted to be an aid worker overseas, but another happy coincidence saw me take on my current role with RESULTS instead.

3. What are the most rewarding/challenging parts of your job?

It’s so rewarding helping people to be active participants in democracy. People are often really hesitant about speaking to their MP, or writing to a newspaper, or speaking at an event. It’s unreal to see people amaze themselves with how powerful their voice can be. The most challenging part is that advocacy is a marathon, a sprint, and a treadmill (all at once). A marathon because wins are hard to come by, and you’ve got to be in it for the long haul to really see results. At the same time, you need to be able to get into action at the drop of a hat sometimes – the sprint. And other times, you’re on the dreaded treadmill – slogging away, doing all the right things, but getting nowhere. The treadmill is excellent training for the marathon and sprint though!

4. In general, do you think Australians are generous givers?

I know that Australians are in general, generous givers. If you’re ever in trouble, you know your mates will help out. I think plenty of people will relate to my own experience of being the recipient of incredible generosity throughout my life. And that’s not just financially, but in terms of time, resources, space, support and opportunities. I also know that we rank pretty well in global measurements of private giving such as giving to a charity.

5. Do you think that the Australian government is currently meeting its global responsibilities in terms of aid?

No.

6. What are the most significant humanitarian crises we are facing, both at home and abroad?

I’ll state the obvious here – war, persecution and violence are forcing people to flee their homes to face an uncertain future, keeping children out of school for prolonged periods and disrupting regular health care and nutrition. Climate change has the potential to do the same, and is already starting to.

I’ll also state something less obvious – I’m concerned about Tuberculosis, an old disease with old, largely ineffective methods of diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Rising rates of drug-resistance should be of particular concern for this disease that kills 1.5 million people each year. In total, 58% of cases are found in our region, so this is a disease that not only affects our neighbours, but could increasingly affect us directly.

I think Australia is having a crisis of conscience at the moment. It saddens me to see us turning away from being good global citizens in favour of fear and mistrust.

7. What do you see as the most significant challenges for women in the developed and developing world?

Under-representation really bothers me. Not just on boards and in parliament, but how and where we see women in daily life more broadly. I think a lot could be achieved for equality if we just saw more, diverse women doing more, diverse things on the page, screen and airwaves. If we consistently see identical men and women doing identical tasks and taking up identical spaces, our ideas of what men and women can and should do won’t change much.

The challenges faced by women and girls across the world can be summed up by looking at what Sustainable Development Goal 5 aims to achieve, “Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls”. The goal includes targets like ending discrimination, violence and practices that harm women, and promoting things that are good for women, like equal participation in public life, equal rights to own land, and universal access to sexual and reproductive rights.

The fact we have to aim for those things shows us how far we have to go to achieve equality. Something that challenges all of us as women is the pervasive idea that things are just fine as they are. That women are occupying their natural place in the world, or even that equality has been achieved. It hasn’t.

8. What can everyday Australians do each day to make a difference?

Everyday Australians can:

    • Join their local RESULTS group and take simple, supported actions every month to help bring an end to poverty.
    • Learn something. Read beyond the headlines (they’re there to sell papers) and find out more about issues that move you.
    • Say something. Speak up, whether it’s to your friends, your local media, or your Member of Parliament. Too few people have a relationship with their elected representatives. If you want them to represent you, you need to tell them what you think.
    • Do something. Work out how your daily choices impact on others and our planet. Are your daily choices and practices in keeping with your values? Vote with your feet and your dollar.
    • Give something. Money, if you have it. Time, if you have it. Wisdom, if you have it. Skills, if you have them. Resources, if you have them. Everyone has something they can give, and someone who would benefit from receiving your gift.

9. Do you have any advice for young women who want to do aid work?There are many ways to make a difference. The traditional ‘aid worker’ role, based overseas somewhere sweaty and dangerous, is an incredible part of the whole puzzle, but only one part. The movement to end poverty and other ills also requires scientists to develop new ways of finding, preventing and treating disease.

It requires excellent journalists who report accurately and fairly on the state of the world. It requires advocates, lawyers, artists, parliamentarians, economists, accountants, tech developers and myriad other professions all applying their expertise to solving the world’s big problems. It also requires regular, everyday people, regardless of their job, making choices that are better for the planet and its people.

I’d also advise young women to get skills. Having a passion to help is great, and a great starting point for advocates, but having a real, tangible skill set is most useful if you want to be doing aid work on the ground.

Most importantly: do it! Whatever profession you pursue, ask yourself how you can use it to contribute to building the kind of world you’d like your great-grandchildren to live in.

This interview was originally published by MamaMia.

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