Wendy Sarkissian – Marg Barry Lecture 2016

This presentation was delivered by Wendy Sarkissian on the occassion of our 40th AGM Celebration & Annual Marg Barry Lecture on 12th October 2016 in the Strangers Dining Room at NSW Parliament House.


Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage: Marg Barry lecture, 2016

By Wendy Sarkissian PhD LFPIA

For Karl Langheinrich (1948-2016)

I pay my respects to the Gadigal people, the custodians of the land on which we meet and to their elders past, present and emerging. It’s important to me to recognise that this is unceded Aboriginal land. I bless and thank them for caring for this country.

My theme today is that we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Here is an extract from my favourite activist song to set the scene:

Holly Near, Change of Heart, 1997

Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage
They may not know I’m watching, I may not let them know that
Something changes in me that will last me for a lifetime
To fill me when I’m empty, and rock me when I’m low

Something changes in me anytime there’s someone singing
All the songs I’ve never forgotten, let out voices sing them strong
Something changes in me anytime there’s someone standing
For the right to be completely all the good things that we are

There’s a change of heart
Anytime there’s someone counting
All the lives that won’t be thrown away
There’s a change of heart
Anytime you join the choir, be a voice up on the mountain

Or see a fire … in the rain.

I chose this song to begin my Marg Barry lecture because singing the song of who we are is one of the surest ways to refind our place in the world. I’ve been a fan of hers for decades. So, what’s Holly Near saying here? I believe she’s telling us that courage has a ‘modelling’ effect. Those who stand up for what matters powerfully affect others, embolden them, and build their courage–and help it grow.

Today we’re honouring a woman whose courage knew no bounds. I mean that! Marg Barry literally sat down in front of the bulldozers. I met her several times and frankly, I was intimidated. And impressed. I was a social planning consultant starting out in Sydney. In Adelaide, before I moved to Sydney in 1981, people warned me that they played ‘hard ball’ in Sydney. They weren’t kidding when it came to Marg Barry! I regard this woman as the big Mother Goddess of Courage.

At her retirement and then a short time later at her funeral, people characterised Marg in these ways: a woman possessed, physically fearless, immune to bullying, standing up to heavy-handed intimidation tactics, working ‘with’, keeping at it, having the famous ‘Glare’ (her humbug detector), and speaking truth to power. I rang Andrew Jakubowicz the other day and asked him to describe her courage. He told me about tenacity, systematic application, and Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pudding (tins used for ashtrays by her mother). I think Holly Near would call Marg Barry ‘Fire in the Rain’. (Keeps burning when all seems lost.)

I’m speaking to you today from a place of asymmetry. For decades, I have been trying to reconcile my asymmetrical life and find ways to be–both as an activist and as a consultant (and a sometimes academic). This is a very tricky business. There are many opportunities for betrayal here. I’ve seen it on all sides. I’ve seen activists betray bureaucrats and, of course, bureaucrats betraying activist. (Lots of that.)

But I believe we need to be vigilant so that we don’t slip into risk-adverse behaviour as a pattern of response. By ‘we’–I mean all of us–whatever side of whatever fence we feel we are on–on any given day. And those of you who are not consultants need to hear this shocking news: most consultants are absolutely terrified of activists. Did you know that? They’re envious of your courage and terrified that they’ll be unmasked and shown for what they really are. (Scaredy cats.) We all have horror stories of betrayal–and that fear reinforces the fear and limits opportunities for partnership. And, of course, the institutional representation of cowardice is risk management; melded with what American social analyst Daniel Yankelovich calls ‘the culture of technical control.’[1]

I want to tell you a story of a project I worked on last December where cowardice, fear, and risk management took the upper hand, despite the best intentions and dedicated counter-attacks of two experienced and sophisticated consultant-activists, me, and my long-time and brilliant co-conspirator, Steph Vajda.[2] I call this failed project ‘The Earth Goddess and the WhisperOut’, a term coined by my late husband, Karl Langheinrich. Steph and I had co-authored a book a few years ago called SpeakOut, which introduced an innovative interactive community engagement process called the SpeakOut.[3] Karl was its greatest champion, having worked on scores of SpeakOuts with me and Steph (and others) all over Australia. Karl felt that this pathetic shadow of a real project was a ‘WhisperOut’ because speaking out was pretty much banned because of misguided fear. Community members were gagged by risk-adverse fear mongers. I thought maybe a ‘WhiteOut’ was a better term. In any case, we (and the local community) were effectively gagged.

About this time, a consultant working on the same project (a woman about my age) took great pains to explain to me the difference between being a consultant and an activist. Like oil and water, they would never mix, she declared. Activism has no place in the life of a planning consultant was her stern advice. If you haven’t had this experience, I can warn you (from my position as an elder in the planning profession) that it never goes well for you when someone starts to tell you ‘how things work’. Have you had that experience? ‘Wendy, I am just going to explain to you–just for your own good, of course–how things work around here.’ Sadly, these interactions are often gendered. In my case, I was being lectured by an elderly woman!

Brown Town

Let’s call the country town we were working in ‘Brown Town’. Don’t try to work out where it is. It’s not important. The consultants we were working with have rolled out similar studies and consultations in a dozen towns with similar effect. The issue here is cowardice, not geography. In this tragic story, Steph and I are working in December 2015 to plan and run a SpeakOut for an integrated transport study for Brown Town. We’re tasked with refining excellent community engagement contributions from community members provided in an initial workshop I’d run in October (which was great–very creative, wise and generous participation by a wide range of invited community members/stakeholders). Our aim was also (as with all SpeakOuts), to strengthen the community’s capacity to understand and respond to transport issues in this car-dependent country town.

As I said, I’ve worked with Steph Vajda for years and we’ve been in all sorts of professional places together. We’ve tried just about everything and we’ve also experienced (together when he managed my business) the most massive betrayals. We even had a one-legged, duplicitous developer client who turned up with a huge amount of cash in a paper bag. And who later managed a strategic bankruptcy that took out my small consulting firm. True! Steph never hides his activist side and is now working in the Northern Territory as a film maker and cultural facilitator, mostly with Indigenous communities.

Anyway, there we are–Steph and I–in a caravan park in Brown Town, planning our transport SpeakOut. We’re sharing a run-down, ramshackle, barely two-bedroom caravan while our consultant team members stay in the town’s best accommodation. We’re working on the informational panels that will go in each of the ten SpeakOut stalls to help participants understand issues, such as Peak Oil, automobile dependence, climate change, the social, financial and ecological implications of car use, parking, and so on. I do have a doctorate in environmental ethics so I am always trying to get those issues into the conversations—front and centre. Not to mention that these issues have now become front and centre even in mainstream media. We’ve moved a long way from, say, ten years ago when we presented a one-page overview of some of the more ‘radical’ environmental prediction to a client in North Queensland. She broke down and cried, claiming that she hadn’t considered all of those issues together before. She had to take a full day off work to recover.

Anyway, back to Brown Town. We’ve left lots of time for the client to approve these information panels before we need them printed and displayed at each stall. Well, you can imagine what happened. All of our community education panels were rejected as ‘too provocative’ or ‘too radical’ in a concerted effort by our fellow consultants (including two traffic engineers and that older women) and the client. The client was new at the job and very gun-shy (a colloquial but perhaps accurate term for risk-adverse). Essentially, this cowardly foursome banned all our attempts at raising community awareness of transport issues, especially environmental impacts. It is important to say, as well, that some of these panels wouldn’t really have been raising awareness, as much as putting obvious environmental factors on the table for discussions—factors that many in the community would already know to be real.

Here are some examples of our radical material:



them. No number of edits would suffice. Expecting some push-back, we selected only material from mainstream and accepted ‘experts’. Not Greenpeace. Certainly not Sea Shepherd! Our most relevant and reliable source was Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University, a world authority on cities and automobile dependence, whose last-but-one book was launched at the White House in Washington.[4]

With all our capacity-strengthening and educational material pulled (or reduced to meaningless and simplistic platitudes), we were left with some banal ‘conversation starters’, such as in the panel below.


How did this fracas turn out, I hear you ask. Not well at all. Woefully, actually. I’ve lost count of how many SpeakOuts I’ve planned and managed—maybe thirty or forty, since Andrea Cook and I pioneered the model in 1990. At least ten with Steph. This was by far the worst SpeakOut either of us ever experienced. We resigned from the project that very day, immediately after we’d taken everything down. And it wasn’t just our moral high ground that suffered. The few collected community members’ responses were simplistic, as most of our carefully designed and tailor-made interactive exercises failed. Some stalls failed to gather any meaningful responses. The project manager (a traffic engineer) said (somewhat astutely but ominously), something like this: ‘We’ve reached saturation point with these people. We’re not getting anything new from them now. It’s clearly time to put an end to this consultation.’

Why did this happen? Well, you can imagine we debriefed this experience up the wazoo. All night, the next morning and for weeks to come. I’m still making sense of it nine months later. ‘Just plain scared’ was the best we could do. The three consultants and the client were just plain scared of any and all of the following: ‘the community’, activists, academics, experts, radicals, educated people, their elected members in the Council, a wider, educated, sophisticated discourse, opening things up, a grown-up conversation about sustainability in a country town. All of that. And more. They were terrified; it turned out, of being seen as ‘green’.

OMG! A green community transport study! What next? I’m not just speculating about the ‘green fear’. I experienced it directly. I confess that I did have a deeper agenda. I did want to green our study. I wanted to experiment with greening a SpeakOut and also adding a bit of levity to a process that was becoming embarrassingly bog-standard, boring, and uncreative. So I brought my Earth Goddess costume and made an excellent hat with a tiny solar panel with flashing green Christmas-tree lights. I looked a bit like this (though there are no extant photos of me in the actual tailor-made Brown Town hat).


Karl made an excellent Earth Goddess badge, complete with a safety pin, for me to wear on my chest.


I had a basket to go over my arm filled with lovely little stickers that Karl also made. He’d laminated fifty of them and added a sticky bit so that participants I gave them to could ‘vote’ with their hands, but placing their green sticker on the SpeakOut topic or comment that was most important to them—from an environmental perspective.


Amazingly, even though only the Council manager, Steph and I had keys to the room we were working in, the whole basket of stickers disappeared minutes before I was to put on my costume and being doing the rounds of the SpeakOut stalls, undertaking my on-the-spot ‘greening’. Equally amazingly, the full basket reappeared minutes after the SpeakOut ended. Clearly, someone hid our green stickers. Nobody could say how or why. Nobody saw the stickers. I know that I am in the service of the Earth Goddess so I am sure I did not do anything wrong. I signed up to be her agent decades ago. The Earth Goddess must have been waiting for me to tell you this story as I honour Marg Barry. Perhaps that was the real purpose of my failed greening of our pathetic SpeakOut.

This is a very sad story, I am sure you would agree. Made all the sadder by the fact that we both are old hands and we should have known better.

We need a new story

In this story, we were stymied at every turn. We could not make our SpeakOut authentic, capacity-strengthening, educational–or green. I strongly believe that we need a story for community planning and engagement where everyone focusses on and models courage because fear catches on and we can’t afford to catch something as dangerous as fear. We need to remember why we are being courageous in these risk-adverse professional and activist contexts. And we need to build solidarity around acts of courage. This is because community capacity-strengthening takes courage and it’s essential. There is no point in sharing our ignorance about complex issues. Our issues (in modern-day social planning) are much too complex for that. In ‘Brown Town’, for example, people want a car-free CBD and they want to park near the CBD shops. An apparent contradiction! They need skilled and targeted professional help to understand both the implications and the alternatives. Or they will simply get more CBD parking lots. (Maybe that’s what the traffic engineers wanted in the first place?)

The day after this tragic SpeakOut, December 12th to be exact, I find myself weeping in Brown Town airport watching the wall-mounted TV. It’s showing–on a national news program–the triumphant hugging and cheering of the COP21 conference success in Paris. The historical international agreement, requiring all countries to take action! They managed that! After all the failures of international climate change negotiations, Al Gore is crying. I’m fully sobbing now. Nearly 200 countries brokered this ‘grand bargain’ on climate change after two weeks of grinding negotiations. As a proud Canadian, I was delighted to see Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, highlighting international issues. Even American John Kerry had this to say: ‘Remember, the Earth has a problem.’

They managed that in Paris and we couldn’t even have a half-day informed conversation about automobile dependence in Brown Town!

How ironic. How tragic!


So, I’d beg you, the next time you get anywhere near a scrape like this, light a red candle. For courage. In fact, I suggest that a box of red candles be part of your community engagement toolkit–with the butchers paper, Velcro dots, masking tape, and textas.[5] And maybe this simple quotation from American spiritual leader-turned politician, Marianne Williamson needs to be on a sign, too, in your box: ‘As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’


ws10In the past few months, I have been undertaking unexpected, intensive, postdoctoral studies in courage because of an event that arrived like a bolt out of the blue. I came within inches of dying myself when my husband Karl was killed in a car crash in early February. Our car tumbled off a slippery rural road and tumbled forty metres into a small, tidal creek in northern NSW. I could not save him and he drowned in the creek in front of me. I escaped with minor injuries, swimming though an open window to safety. In September of this year, I decided to deliver my self-styled Victim Impact Statement to the local council that is responsible for the road. I do not have a legal claim against that municipality. My action was merely my way of honouring Karl and trying to ensure that nobody else would die in such a preventable manner. He was the third person to die in a car crash in that exact spot–in thirteen months! A guard rail would have saved his life. I wanted to raise their consciousness about local road safety and put flesh on the bones of bare statistics about road fatalities.

ws11While the Council’s General Manager was initially supportive of my initiative, the responsible manager was not, curtailing my statement in the meeting to the ‘circumstances of the crash’ and barring me from speaking about the impacts on my life in case they might upset the traffic safety staff attending the meeting. The manager wrote as follows: As you would appreciate, Council has an obligation to ensure the workplace health and safety of its officers. I am concerned that the meeting might cause distress to Council staff.

You see, if you don’t monitor fear and model courage in a systematic and committed way, you risk incurring and even accepting this sort of grotesque behaviour. This is what it comes to, in the bizarre end: a grieving widow prohibited from telling her tragic, heartfelt story to those responsible because of bureaucratic risk-management concerns. Telling her simple story to the very people who would decide that a guard rail was not necessary on that rural road. I’ll leave it to you to work out the ethics of this gross misuse of risk-management processes.

So, finally, here is my humble suggestion–for all of us who stand for justice and work for change. Let’s bring courage out of the closet in professional and activist life. Let’s look for moments when we can act heroically. Let’s speak openly about what matters. And let’s keep on walking forward. Because, as poet Mark Nepo explains, “… each time we take the exquisite risk toward being whole, toward living in the open, toward recognizing and affirming that we are, at heart, each other, we put the world back together.”[6]

Let’s put our broken world back together. We can do it by walking. For me, I’m:

Gonna keep on walking forward
Keep on walking forward
Keep on walking forward
Never turning back
Never turning back

Gonna keep on walking proudly
Keep on walking proudly
Keep on walking proudly

This presentation was delivered by Wendy Sarkissian on the occassion of our 40th AGM Celebration & Annual Marg Barry Lecture on 12th October 2016 in the Strangers Dining Room at NSW Parliament House.

[1] Yankelovich, Daniel. Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World (Frank W. Abrams Lectures. Syracuse, NY. Syracuse University Press.  See:  http://yankelovichcenter.ucsd.edu

[2] Steph Vajda, Ferment Collaborate (www.fermentcollaborate.org). I’m grateful to Steph for his help with this written version of my address.

[3] Sarkissian and Vajda et al., SpeakOut: the Step-by-Step Guide to SpeakOuts and Community Workshops. London: Earthscan, 2010.

See: http://www.sarkissian.com.au/publications/earthscan-community-engagement-books-by-wendy-sarkissian-phd/speakout and https://www.amazon.com/SpeakOut-Step-Step-SpeakOuts-Community/dp/1138147729 for details of the SpeakOut book.

[4] Peter Newman was rendered speechless (unusual for him) by this sad story. Now a close friend, he supervised my PhD and I learned all I know about automobile dependence from him.

[5] Of course, you will need special written permission, safety equipment, and supervision to light the candles indoors.

[6] Nepo, Mark (2007). Finding Inner Courage. San Francisco: Conari Press: 277.