The art of speaking out

A diverse Victorian community has a creative way of tackling racism, writes Carolyn Rance.

A diverse Victorian community has a creative way of tackling racism, writes Carolyn Rance.

Art isn't an add-on in life. It can have a fundamental role in building safe, healthy communities and promoting positive attitudes, according to the City of Greater Dandenong's co-ordinator of arts and cultural development, Sarah Dugdale.

When the council's new website comes online soon, it will include a link to a project that is using art to tackle racism. The project - Racism. Get Up. Speak Out. - features leaders from the Dandenong and Springvale multicultural communities talking about how they have responded to incidents of racism in their lives. Captured in print and on film, the stories will encourage people to act positively whenever they encounter racism.

Racism. Get Up. Speak Out. follows the Face to Face initiative organised by the council's arts and cultural development team in partnership with VicHealth and the Victorian Multiculturalism Commission, a project designed to encourage Springvale residents to take pride in their diversity.

Greater Dandenong, in Melbourne's south-east, has long been a magnet for migrants. The Enterprise Hostel at Springvale housed thousands of new arrivals from 1970 until the early 1990s.

Affordable housing, a thriving commercial centre and a large multicultural community continue to attract newcomers. The municipality is one of Victoria's most ethnically diverse areas, with 60 per cent of residents born overseas. Dandenong has large Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, British and European communities, while newer arrivals include people from Sudan, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Festivals and other gatherings emphasise the benefits of living in a culturally vibrant area, and varied cuisines and public art are already used to share messages and stories. "It's a great way to cross generational and multicultural boundaries. Art is a tool that can engage people in sometimes hard conversations," Dugdale says.

She came to Australia from New Zealand and worked at Knox City Council for three years before taking on her role at Dandenong three months ago.

"One of the council's goals is to develop a city of respect. Local government can go beyond just trying to demonstrate this and provide people with opportunities to explore, in a safe environment, any concerns they have," Dugdale says. "There is a clear understanding now of the impact of racism on people's lives and mental health. It's right up there with bullying.

"Part of creating healthy communities is to be conscious of issues of concern and to give people opportunities to speak out and feel empowered. Creative initiatives that encourage people to engage in issues in a non-threatening way should be supported."

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