Connecting to Aussie Action Abroad ~ Episode 97 ~ My Conversation with Graeme Kent OAM

Connecting to Aussie Action Abroad

Mark [0:00] I’d like to welcome Graeme Kent OAM to the World Heart of Connection podcast. I’m your host Mark Randall. Graeme is the founder of a charity called Aussie Action Abroad. It’s been operating since 2011. It’s a charity that has a 100% focus on supporting projects in Nepal. It has a board of five members and everybody’s a volunteer. Graeme, welcome to the podcast.

Graeme [0:26] Thanks, Mark. It’s great to be with you.

Mark [0:28] Graeme, can you just give us a little bit of ~ how did you become connected to the idea of Aussies Action Abroad?


Connecting to the Duke of Edinburgh Award

Graeme [0:40] It grew out of the fact that my career has been in youth work and in community development. And early in late 1999. There are a group of guys came to me. I happen to be the CEO of the Duke of Edinburgh Award here in Victoria. And they came to me and said they wanted to run a millennium expedition. And a millennium expedition just really being celebrating the Millennium with young people as an expedition.  We looked at Kilimanjaro and then decided that was too dangerous. And then we decided, let’s go somewhere else. So, we went to Nepal. So, in 2000, we went to Nepal, that led to the next 20 years of our involvement in communities throughout Nepal. And then in 2011, we parted ways. As my role of the CEO, Duke of Edinburgh Award changed. I then created Aussie Action Abroad, because I had a firm commitment to the Nepali communities in which we were working with and wanted to continue that and therefore, you know, that’s continued to be now for an exciting 20 years.

Mark [2:01] What’s the connection to the Nepalese community? The Nepalese peoples? What do you believe is that heart of affinity for you to them?

Connection to the Nepalese Communities

Graeme [2:12] I think it’s about and obviously, Nepal has got some amazing mountains and landscapes, all that sort of thing. But the reality is that there are 29 million people. The breadline is low, there’s half the population is below the poverty line. So, you’ve got some serious situations or people living in some pretty dire straits. They have earthquakes, landslides, flooding, civil unrest, all that sort of thing. But throughout all that has been an amazing resilience. I know it’s a word that’s overused a fair bit, but we find that the Nepali folks are incredibly resilient and I able to look beyond the immediate circumstances and find their way up on the other side. So, there’s been that sort of connection with people, which is for me is been significant.

Mark [3:14] How do you grow and connect yourself in all this sort of work?

Graeme [3:19] I guess that I have a really strong support group around me in that, as you mentioned at the start, we have a strong board. And that board is made up of participants and past leaders that we’ve had in Nepal. So, I use them obviously as a sounding board. And as an opportunity to share our vision and our ideas and what you want to do.  And obviously I have – not obviously but I happen to have a very strong family that is supported me in everything that I do. You know, I might be away for three or four or five months of the year sometimes. And my wife and my 3 daughters and their families have supported me to do what we need to do.  But at the same time, you know, I guess that the thing that makes it work and it gives me the support to do is hire Nepali staff that we employ when we’re on the ground. They’re now family and friends that we’ve had for that length of 20 years.

Mark [4:26] Is there a difference in connections between cultures?

Graeme [4:33] Clearly there – 83 – 84% of the population is Hindu. And then about 14% that are Buddhist. And you’ve got, a growing number of Christian communities. So, between a Christian and a Hindu, there’s quite a disparity there of beliefs and understandings of Gods or Goddesses or one God, whatever. So, you’ve got some interesting stuff that happens throughout that journey. And of course, there are certainly some people that we’ve had that have to practise Buddhism here, particularly, that want to get to Nepal and experience on the pilgrimage sort of experiences. We know we’re not on about and we’re not certainly a Christian based organisation. We’re not on about conversion. But we’re there because of humanity and because of our concern for people. And along the way, we just happen to have the opportunity of sharing our cultures, sharing our faiths, sharing their background and beliefs in a positive and supportive way.

Connection to Humanity

Mark [5:45] And Graeme, where did your connection to humanity come from?

Graeme [5:48] I guess probably growing up in my genes.  I had grandparents and parents that were very much involved in community service. In the early days, and I’m just over 70. So, when I was growing up, we grew up in a Christian family in a Christian environment. I grew up with the YMCA.  The YMCA here in Ballarat was doing some very strong youth work and community work.  That led me to the career that I have in youth work. And it was about working with young people that led me to make a firm commitment.  I saw a need and a role to play and a leadership role in, supporting people to grow to the best of their ability.  And to work through the challenges that they might have. My role has been very much a supportive one, and advisory, of advocacy, when whatever it might be. It was very much focused on ensuring that our participants and the people we work with are given the opportunity to direct the traffic on which they’re thereon.

How do we create Inequalities?

Mark [7:03] Where do you believe that the sense of inequality comes from within our communities?

Graeme [7:09] I think we still have lots of we certainly have a long way to go before we get and address some of those inequalities.  In Nepal, for example, we have a very structured organisation or community that is very much about higher and lower caste people. They have a whole caste system that, I struggle with because they really see us as being a living God.  We happen to have all the answers, we have to some money, we must be rich.  And therefore, they put us up on a pedestal and I really struggle with that.  Because it’s about for me, we’re all on a level playing field and we all want to be around the table discussing the same issue, on the same direction together, not me, leading the charge. So, the Nepali government has recently made the legislation that they want to redress all that and not have the lower caste and the untouchables. To the higher castes have had that separateness but the reality is that women are treated badly. Young kids are treated poorly, there’s still an expectation that the women cow tail to their men. There’s certainly the whole bureaucracy of Nepal is on about corruption. Do I say that loudly? But the reality is that you know, that’s all there. And we, in our role, must be able to work with communities that showed that people of all levels and all abilities can be actively engaged and involved in their planning, action and their future.

Managing my Triggers to Inequality

Mark [9:04] When you experience that sense of inequality, does that ~ can that sometimes press your buttons a little bit?

Graeme [9:11] Sure does.  And it’s about just taking a deep breath in some instances.  Sort of saying, this is just not on.  For example, today, my wife is down sewing, some hygiene packs for girls. Hygiene packs that we make, based on an American program called “Days for Girls”. And the hygiene packs are really on about giving to girls who happen to need some pads during their menstrual time. And the reality is still is, that in Nepal and other countries and I presume – treat girls badly just because they happen to have a period. So, what we do is through our education programme, through our health teams that we take these hygiene packs in, they do a training programme, they are given a pack and then all of a sudden they’re allowed to go to work. They’re allowed to go to school and to continue what they’re doing. Whereas in the past, they’re being locked away in a shed, they’ve been isolated, they’ve been cut off from the rest of the world, just because they happen to have a period. So, that pushes a few buttons, even though I a bloke – I had three daughters and growing up with all that. But at the same time, you know, they were now in here, you know, 2020 – 2021 and we’re looking at a community and an organisation that treats their women badly because I happen to be in that situation. So, that’s one aspect that that certainly pushes a loud button for me and one that we want to try and support young women to grow and develop and be engaged in their community, just like everyone else.

Mark [11:01] When it presses your buttons when you’re over in Nepal, how do you process that? How do you manage that? Because if you react to that, then the system might go, ‘hey hang on a minute’ you might not get a visa if you overreact to it, how do you work with that?

Connecting to the Agency’s Mission

Graeme [11:16] We work – our organisation is very much on about community development as a philosophy and as a practice in which we deliver goods. So, we don’t do anything without partnering with agencies to deliver a programme. So, we just recently identified that 20 years we’ve worked with 71 different organisations. We think that’s exciting because many of those are mothers’ groups in communities.  You might have a community of about four or 500 people, and they might have a Mothers group. And then our health teams, with health workers might be nurses or doctors or osteopaths or physios will go into those communities after we’ve had some consultation, and they will run some programmes that talk about women’s health. And, introduce the hygiene packs to girls, and so on. So, it really enables us to educate, to share and to make the change, but done in a way that is supported by the local community. So, our buttons that might be pushed, might take some time for them to be realised that change can take place. But I’m fully aware and conscious of the fact that that might take a couple of years to work its way through but I’m comfortable. And I’m happy to wait for that process through to see the result because I know it works.

Connecting to the Heart of Change

Mark [12:55] It’s might sound like a weird question to you. What happens into what happens in your heart when You observed the change taking place over a couple of years?

Graeme [13:06] There’s certainly been a few times when I have broken down, I’ve cried. And I’ve been really touched by the fact that some things have changed. And, that’s the sort of stuff but, in our world of community development or working with people that’s hard to measure.  We had a young guide, a Nepali guide that was with us that worked with us for many years. I had a phone call from the group leader that was up the mountains, and he explained to me that the group leader was drunk at 10 o’clock in the morning. So, I grabbed this guy and said to him, that he no longer had work. He was put taken off the expedition at the time. And I said we won’t re-employ you and we only employ them for the duration that we’re in the country.  That we won’t re-employ you unless you clean up your act. So, two years later, he came back to me and said that he had been off the grog and he had cleaned up his act. So, we re-employed him. And he came up to me and grabbed me and he said, thanks for saving my life because I knew that I was drinking myself to death. Now, that’s the sort of stuff that happens. And now, I can reflect on my career and there’s certainly a number of those examples that I could share. Because it’s really about the impact that we have on people’s lives, that really touches you, because you know, that, been a really significant impact that you’ve had because you happen to have faith and belief in that person at the time.

Is the Heart of Youth & Community Work Missing?

Mark [14:54] Have you noticed over the course of your career that the heart of youth work, the heart of community work has been taken out of the essence of community work?

Graeme [15:05] It’s interesting that when I read Robert Re’s interview with you a couple of days ago. He mentioned the fact that people came to him as people who want to do some leadership training. Some of those were voluntary and some of those that were selected by their bosses at work.  We know that there are people that have that voluntary capacity to be able to do and to achieve. And our role is very much about guiding and supporting them through that. And, along the way, you know, we know that the youth work scene and the community development scene – but certainly the youth works scene in Victoria.  It is one that we put a lot of money into those young people who have fallen over the cliff. But we don’t put a lot of money to those that are still on top of the cliffs that need strong leadership to ensure that their individual skills their capacities are grown before they go off the cliff – in a metaphorical sense.  We need to be able to as governments and agencies need to be able to put more support to young people before it comes across the situation. Because we know that our history of youth work, that those young people that are supported, that are encouraged,  that are given the opportunity to, make decisions to be part of the planning to do all those sorts of things come through in a way that, their leadership skills grow and develop.  Their personal skills grow and develop because they’ve been given the opportunity to be part of that decision-making process. And over the years, we’ve taken a lot of that away. And that’s sad to see. And I’d like to think that maybe, out of this COVID situation that there are some young people that are standing up – that are being listened to and are taking on as being responsible young people who have a voice.  Who has an opportunity to say what they want to say, and having ownership of that direction in which they want to take?

Noticing the Changes in Youth Work Over the Years

Mark [17:30] What do you believe has facilitated the change over the course of your career?

Graeme [17:38] I think, for me, I don’t know where there’s been too much change. I spoke to a young lady last weekend, who was doing International Studies and asked a similar question about what’s changed over the years. I don’t know whether there’s terribly much difference between the young people 20, 30, 40 years ago and the young people today. I think there’s still crying out for some love and support and some concern and some appreciation for who they are. And I think the emphasis has changed to our structured youth clubs, our structured sporting organisations, our YMCA’s, our youth clubs. Our church group says camps and guides, all those structure organisations have changed dramatically because of the culture we now see of fast food and recreation. And, we just want to be able to commit to a short space of activity, move on to something else because it’s electronically available. Or it’s, I’m bored with that, or I don’t see any future event. So, the role of the youth worker, the role of the community worker is still I think the story.

So, I think that, for me, the reality is that, there’s probably not a lot of change except that, the leadership and direction from agencies and organisations that support youth work and youth provision, is really crucial for future involvement of young people.

Connecting to Collaboration or Tendering Separateness

Mark [19:21] Are the youth organisations connected like they used to be connected? Or has the tendering process that governments choose to use cause youth organisations to compete?

Graeme [19:34] There’s probably again, there’s been a change in direction from a focus on the people and the involvement of young people, the outcomes for young people to a budget-driven activity. So, therefore, that change of financial survival from some of those organisations is certainly being an impact.  And therefore, we reduce the number of staff that are face to face with young people. I think that there are several organisations that are out there doing their thing. And probably not enough of them doing their thing with other agencies. There still is that sense of, we’re doing it, we’re doing it well, and we can do it ourselves. But, obviously, there’s strength in numbers and their strength in partnerships. And, my role over the years has been very much about bringing those partnerships together. And I would argue that the Youth Affairs Council in Victoria, has and will do some good stuff, but I think that people really need to see values in agencies like that, but are peak bodies. They need to take a strong role and they need to be funded accordingly. I think the State government funding has reduced over the years in that support of the Youth Affairs Council. Youth Affairs Council at one stage went through some changes of being representative of all organisations that were supporting young people to then becoming very focused on tenancy and tenancy support. I’m not aware of where the current situation is now. But my guess would be that there’s not a lot of communication between the existing agencies that support and provide programmes and advocacy for young people as much as they should be doing.

Connecting to Mutual Cooperation in Nepal

Mark [21:41] Can you compare the mutual cooperation between and connection between organisations, different here in Australia compared to connections in Nepal?

Graeme [21:54] I think that what we’ve driven in Nepal is very much an opportunity for community groups to come together and work together. And that’s probably been facilitated by us. In the projects that we’re involved in Nepal, in many cases have two or three partners that are working side by side. That hasn’t always been successful. But that would be a driving force for me to, to encourage that to happen. I work for the city of Ballarat for six or seven years as a community development worker. In one of our suburbs, I was able to bring together eight or 10 organisations to work around the table together to look at projects that were focused on that suburb. And, there were certainly some successes of that. So, we know that when there are joint efforts, combine thinking and multi-use of facilities or energies, we know that there are a stronger connection and support for the wider community in which they work. I think there are too many examples of that being the case as compared to an individual organisation is really battling uphill to survive financially, or to recruit or to get their message across because they happen to be one voice in a big world.

Do organisations need to ‘let go’ for Mutual Cooperation?

Mark [23:28] What do they need to let go of ~ these organisations need to let go of, to facilitate that mutual cooperation?

Graeme [23:37] We have a history that dictates the fact that we are a successful organisation, we’ve been doing it for X number of years and we’ve been able to prove that we can do it without anyone else. And that’s admirable and it’s certainly part of our culture and part of our history. However, If we are going to serve a wider community, in a wider range of activities.  I argued several years ago that, a building in Ballarat ought to be multifaceted for young people.  That young people come through the door for recreation, for help, or tenancy advice, for counselling, support, whatever it might be. Because I think that, a few agencies could have worked the other day they were going out of that building, providing a multitude of services for young people was whether it was a one-stop-shop. And I think that that’s the sort of thing that still needs to be explored and still needs to be developed. Because I believe that, again, that allows for strength. That allows for some connection that ensures that the young person or the client, whatever the client is – is able to seek services that make sense for them and is delivered in a way that is seen as a total package, rather than a bit and a bit there.

Connecting to Blissful Moments in Nepal

Mark [25:10] I just want to bring you back to Nepal to connect to ~ what’s like when you’re in Nepal and you connect to a beautiful sunset, through those mountains, what happens to Graeme in that space?

Graeme [25:28] Sorry, Graeme just reflects on how lucky we are. I mean, we just take so much for granted.  That now our current situation, we reckon with challenged, But the reality is that, the world that we live in, has incredible beauty. And your right, and when you see a magnificent sunrise or a sunset. In some of our areas where we are – where we’re remote and therefore the lights of the village don’t exist.  So, be able to see the night sky and all its glory, is pretty amazing. So, there’s an opportunity then to reflect on who I am, what I’m on about, what I’m trying to achieve, and who I’m trying to achieve that with.  And just be grateful for the blessings that were being given to enable us to do what we’re doing.

Connecting to the ‘All That Is’

Mark [26:27] When you connect to that night sky ~ what happens to your connection to the ‘All That Is’ as you’re connecting to that night sky?

Graeme [26:38] I think – there’s I don’t know – I mean, I think there’s probably a time of ensuring that there is a revision of what we’re doing.  Of looking at the larger global picture. Of looking at moving where we are from, our separateness to a connectedness. And, our logo that we have for our organisation is a globe that has a multitude of lines and highlighted dots. And for me, that’s really about that connectivity. And about that reflection about who we are and what we’re on about.  And I guess that reflects that in the night sky where I’m able to see a shooting star, equals idea.  Or it might be haziness which then says, well, how do we work through that sort of haziness in our day to day life? Or might be,  as you said, before, the sun rising and just all of a sudden realising that, we have the capacity to decide and deliver some exciting projects, with a team of people that are really committed to growing and developing.

Mark [28:00] And Graeme, I’ve got a real bias for the heart. When your organisation with your logo ~ in that interconnectivity, this is called the World Heart of Connection. Does that connection fundamentally then come back to the heart?

Connecting to the Heart & looking Inwardly

Graeme [28:21] I think we, have an opportunity to really look inwardly and say, what is our heart and we’re, we’re driven by that. And I think you’re right. It’s very much about coming back to the number of people that we’ve had. We’ve had two and a half thousand people go through our programme over the last 20 years. And for me to be able to, to reflect on that and see that my heart is about growing and developing people. My heart is about nurturing and developing their ability to drive their directions about which way they want to go, and about their future. And it really is about, having a sensitivity in my heart to be able to encourage and support and to love people no matter who they are. And to, love them from any perspective no matter what they believe, what they’ve done, and give them a chance to grow and develop.

Loving Unconditionally

Mark [29:29] To love them unconditionally?

Graeme [29:31] Absolutely.

Mark [29:32] Well done. Graeme, if those what would one piece of advice be for a younger Graeme, about to embark on his journey of life right now?

Graeme [29:46] I think it’s very much about having a go. The reality is that there are opportunities there. There are people that are willing to work together to achieve a confirmed and common goal.  And, your role is to, to help facilitate that. And to not be judgmental, not to the overriding in a where you are or not quick to react to a situation but rather sit back, observe and support.

Mark [30:24] And Graeme, what do we men need to do to improve men’s levels of connection? Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually?

Men Connection is about Opening Up More

Graeme [30:34] We’ve got to be a bit more open about who we are and what we’re thinking. I spoke to a men’s group a couple of years ago. And that was about, the example that we set. The role that we play, the supportive role that we have with our families, partners, and the way in which we treat people.  It’s not about control and management. It’s about a partner in its true sense. And, I think that men need to understand that, they’re not alone. That they’re not in a position where they need to hide some concerns but rather take the opportunity to share that.  That might be one to one with some mates or it might be also in a group. It might be in picking up the baton in some of those challenge groups that are available so that they can then get that support that’s required. So, it’s not necessarily always negative, but it’s also about taking the opportunity to show good positive leadership and done in a way that is supportive of each other.

Mark [31:51] Do we men just in drawing things to a close, do we men need to become more open-hearted for that to happen?

Men becoming more Open Hearted

Graeme [31:59] Excuse me. We certainly have a reluctance to get emotionally involved. We don’t show that openly. I don’t know whether you got across the phone, you know, a sense of emotion when I was talking earlier on.

Mark [32:23] Yeah, I did. I connected to that very well ~ when you’re talking before that being touched. It was very moving to hear how touched you were by it.

Graeme [32:41] I really easily. We…

Mark [32:51] There’s a lot of scratching coming through Graeme.

Graeme [32:54] Yeah, sorry that’s because my voice is scratchy.

Graeme [32:58] I mean we have always put our head up and sole back and say said how tough we are. I’m not that sort of guy and I get very emotional about some of the things that have happened in my career.  And I share stories that are years old that I still get touched by them. Because I know that, I’m moved by the fact that I’ve had some contribution to that person’s life. And I think that, too often, you know, men don’t realise that the role that they play, is one that, is as a role model as a person, that they see you as a champion.  Whether it be a footy player or the other sporting personality or a news writer or whatever. The reality is that all men need to be able to share some of the emotions more openly and, do it in a way that people respect and value that.

Connecting to our Hearts for Charities

Mark [34:07] And Graeme being the founder of the Aussie Action Abroad group ~ to create such an organisation and such a charity. Charities are coming from the heart. And it’s important that we honour and respect and give the positive acknowledgement of what charities do to for communities here in Australia and abroad. I just like to say, look, I’d really want to thank you for the work. I want to thank you for the work that you’ve done in youth work, putting your heart into youth work and community work. I can hear it in your voice. And the work that you’ve been doing is coming from your heart.

Graeme [34:58] Thanks. I mean, it’s certainly – what drives us – in what drives me in this world. I’ve said before, and I’ll probably say a couple of times here, is that I have really strong faith in people. And, I really believe that in my role is to support people to grow and develop. And it’s as simple as that. And that’s genuine straight from the heart and straight from an organisation that is founded on that.  And the people that I have around me, my board and others, I believe, have the same attitude. Because we really understand that we’re not here for the money, we don’t get paid. We don’t get a huge amount of money. We don’t get any government funding. We do – what we do because we see the need to support others within our world.

Connecting Aussies Action Aboard

Mark [35:59] Well done. Graeme where can people get in touch with you?

Graeme [36:04] The Aussie Action Abroad has a website. So, it’s easy just to Google that and head for that. Is that the easiest way to do it or if you wish a phone number.

Mark [36:17] And can people give ~ can people make donations through the web page?

Graeme [36:22] Yes, they can. There is an opportunity on the donate.  There is a donate site or part of the site which allows people to do that. And can I also assure anyone that does donate 100% of that donation ends up in Nepal. And it really is about, just last month, there was a landslide in a community that we work with. We put up a GoFundMe page with one of my ex-board members. We’ve raised money – we will then have $5,000 available to engage some local guys then Katmado that don’t have any work. So, we’ll send them up the country when we can. So, they get employed, they also contribute to the local community. So, every cent of that $5,000 was raised ends up in Nepal supporting the project there, none of it. None of any donation stays here in Australia.

Mark [37:19] Graeme, I’d really like to say thank you very much for the opportunity to connect with you for this podcast. It’s lovely to hear the journey that you’ve been on. And the beautiful work that you’ve done locally as a youth worker and a community worker both here and in Nepal, well done.

Graeme [37:40] Thanks to Mark, I appreciate the opportunity to.


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