From humble beginnings in north-west Tasmania, OXFAM Australia Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Helen Szoke was determined not to let her situation at that point in her life dictate her future.

She was determined to get an education and follow her passion in political science and public policy.

Throughout her illustrious career, Dr. Szoke has championed the right for everyone to have a say about what impacts on their life and having equal access to opportunities and a strong advocate for foreign aid and international development, human rights, gender, and race equity.

Dr. Szoke joined Oxfam in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Australia’s Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner and as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.

An alumnus of the University of Tasmania, Dr. Szoke completed her Bachelors of Arts (Politics and Psychology) and went on to complete her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the University of Melbourne.

The much recognised national initiative ‘Racism: It Stops With Me’ campaign, is just one example amongst many that Dr. Szoke spearheaded under her leadership as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. 

We had a chat with Dr Szoke during her recent visit to Hobart. 

There are a lot of impressive people that come out of Tasmania and make a real difference in the world

Q: What was your university life like when you were with UTAS?

A: I was here last century and it was a very particular time in Australia.  It was between 1972 and 1975.  That’s when Gough Whitlam got into power and then lost power.  I was from a family who’d come to Tasmania because my dad had lost his business in Adelaide so we were living in the bank homes, I think they’re called in Tasmania, up in Smithton and then in Wynyard so a pretty poor background.  I had gone to work for a couple of years and I can remember having this moment and thinking I really want to go to uni because I want my kids to be proud of me and my dad at the time saying it’s a waste of money, you’ll just get married and have kids.  Gough Whitlam got me to university, no fees.  

Q: What did you study?

A:  I did Arts, so undergraduate studies, and I did English Lit and Ancient Civilisations, we had then Politics and Psychology.  Politics and Psychology were my passions so I ended up majoring in Political Science and in those days, we had Bill Mollison at the university.  He went on to set up the permaculture movement.  He taught this thing called Environment Psychology.  It was a weird and wonderful course but it was really the politics that captured my heart at that time and my subsequent studies have all been in the political science side of things.

Q: What were some of the advantages, do you think, of coming to a regional university which is obviously smaller than the ones on the mainland? 

A: For me coming from north-west coast to Hobart was actually coming to the big smoke.  I’m just trying to think, the university maybe was 10,000 students in those days and we used to go across the road to the Ref, I think, The Refectory it was called.  It was the cross-pollination.  Basically, you weren’t isolated in your particular faculty disciplines and areas of focus.  It was small enough to be able to engage and to be involved and big enough to kind of give you a sense of being pretty important.  

Q: You’re a strong advocate for foreign aid, international development, human rights to name a few, why do you think it is important for people to get interested in these topics and in social justice in general?

A: I guess, for me, I had two drivers.  One was, growing up, my dad was a refugee after the Second World War and to some extent as our economic circumstances changed I felt the stigma of being poor and of being different and felt that that was unjust so I had that sort of personal experience.  And then, of course, once I began at university, I began to see that actually my circumstances were pretty good but there was a whole lot of other things that really needed to be challenged. 

The other thing that I think is important in Tasmania is that Tasmania is small but it is very multicultural now and there are pockets of resistance to that still but I think we need to take the journey with our global brothers and sisters to understand what’s happening in the world at the moment.  Under any circumstance or measure, there’s some huge global challenges and so we want the young people coming through to have a framework for understanding that and hopefully an ability to influence that in one way or the other.  

Q: There’s so many issues affecting the world at the moment.  Would it be fair to say acting locally and thinking globally is one of the concepts that can be used?

A: Sure, yeah.  As you say, there’s rich pickings in terms of deciding whether you want to get involved in something because there’s a lot to be involved in and people will gravitate.  I mean, some people will have the environment as their primary concern, other people will have social justice, other people have animal rights and so it goes on.  I think they’re all legitimate.  I think it’s good to keep connected locally but not to keep your head down.  We want people to look out into the world and particularly now where the world is a click away on our smart phones.  There’s so much information that young people can access which was very different to my day and so we’re exposed to both.  I think local communities also need input from young people. 

Young people don’t need to work in the aid sector to do that, they can go and be a doctor or an accountant or a teacher or a public servant but if they carry with them a sense of conviction about the fact that they can contribute to making the world a better place

Q: How can people help in terms of Oxfam itself?  Are you planning to have a bigger presence in Tasmania and how can people get involved apart from financially contributing?

A: Oxfam is an influencing international non-government organisation.  We don’t see ourselves as a charity, we see ourselves very much as an activist organisation.  There are many campaigns that we’re involved in.  One of the simple ways that people in Tasmania can get involved is actually by participating in the online campaigning that we do.  We have an active presence around climate change.  At the moment, we’re got a big spurt on coal and the impact that that’s having on emissions and Australia’s ability to achieve its own targets.  We know that that’s an issue that’s very close to the hearts of Tasmanians.  

Q: What does justice mean to you?

A: Justice means two things for me.  The first is that people feel that they are able to have a say about what impacts on their life and that’s the empowerment principle and that deals with whether it’s around gender equity, diversity, cultural diversity, whatever the case may be but I think it’s really important that people feel that they can influence what happens to them or to their community or to their family or to their country.  The second is having equal access to the sort of opportunities that will allow people to live the life that they want to lead and that means that in countries like Australia, even though we’re a wealthy country, we really need to think about what are the social protection systems that ensure people do have access to education, that they do have access to being able to go to university, that they can have the liberation of education to then decide what they want to do with their lives economically. 

To see the wonderful work that OXFAM Australia does and to be part of their campaigns visit their website.

If you are interested in making a genuine change and passionate about social justice and human rights, criminology, police and forensic studies, come and join us at the University of Tasmania and study for a Bachelor of Justice Studies degree.

Be the positive change in a changing world.