We had the pleasure to interview Ashleigh Streeter-Jones for Season 2 of our Her Move Meets Series. Ash’s repertoire is second to none; she was named the youngest ever ACT Woman of the Year in 2018 and as a listee on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. She has advocated for youth and gender equality on an international and domestic level and recently launched her newest venture, Raise Our Voice Australia. It is a training program to boost female and non-binary voices in public decision making. Above all, Ashleigh was passionate, insightful and honest in our conversation. Thanks again, Ash!
Register for interest here for Raise Our Voice Australia in 2021!
HM: Tell us about your university journey and how that led to where you are today?
A: I was very lucky to be able to grow up travelling. When I was 11, my parents took my younger sister and I to South Africa. It was on that trip that I distinctly remember coming face to face with extreme poverty and injustice. As an 11-year-old, it was quite confronting for anybody, especially being a young and powerless person, but I made a commitment at that moment to orient my career to try and solve some of these big, world problems.
So, with that context, I went to Monash University and did an Arts degree, which I absolutely loved and majored in politics and international relations. During this time, I realised I wanted to be more active and help solve these problems I had seen. I applied for an internship with World Vision Australia. I do acknowledge it was an unpaid internship and I do acknowledge that not everybody has the opportunity and privileged circumstances to undertake an unpaid internship, and I feel as though that is not discussed enough. It was through that internship with World Vision and getting involved in their youth campaigning region.
HM: So, after World Vision, what was your next move? I know you jumped from a couple of master’s degrees, how did that progress?
A: I did! After completing my undergraduate degree, I had a bit of a panic. I got very involved with World Vision work and VGen’s World Vision movement. As part of that, I went on an immersion trip to India. Immersion trips are not voluntourism, you go into the community and to see the mechanisms of international development, with the idea that you brought these learnings back and use them to strengthen your advocacy. I found that very confronting. Looking back, it really impacted my mental health. I can put words around it now, and know that it is called ‘reverse-culture shock’, and it is where you have such a confronting experience in one culture, that you do not adjust well when you get back home. But I did not know what that was at the time. I found myself feeling very low and frustrated at the ways a lot of people in Australia regarded money. This was not anybody’s fault; it was just the result of seeing something that was quite confronting. But because of that I really threw myself into volunteer work with a community of people who were on the same page.
After completing my Undergraduate, after a period of being unsure of my next step I enrolled in an Honours Degree in Politics at Monash University. I was trying to combine the international development with the international relations and politics side. So, I looked into Women in Peacebuilding, particularly Women Peace and Security and UN Resolution 1325, and how that was applied through the comprehensive peace agreement process between Sudan and South Sudan. I loved that.
HM: What are the practical challenges that accompany volunteering?
A: There are a lot of people who are volunteering; however, goodwill does not keep a roof over your head. So, we are also trying to balance this with paid work. I also think as young people, we are faced with so many challenges all at once. You cannot just have a degree anymore; you have to have experience to get experience. Even to get that unpaid internship you sometimes need experience. You are suddenly looking back and thinking I should have started when I was fourteen! We are placed under these pressure cookers of what success and failure looks like, combined with seeing everyone else’s highlight reels, it is a bit hard to be authentic for when times in life are not going well.
HM: How have you tried to mitigate the lows and balance the highs? Essentially, what do you do for self-care?
A: That is a really good question, my mental health had never dipped as badly as it had over that patch of time as I have such high expectations of myself. I also have a chronic pain condition and have suffered from severe sleep issues in the past, so I have come to realise my physical health is very linked to my mental health. Especially after a severe patch of burnout a few years ago, I was running a social enterprise and working a full-time job plus doing other volunteer ventures on the side, I was critically burnt out and it was very unhealthy. This was a time when we were getting good recognition and awards were coming in, but at what cost?
I put some more stringent boundaries in place. I am very strict on getting my ten or eleven thousand steps a day. I did that all through COVID-19 as well. It is such a small thing, but when you are walking and listening to music or a podcast or calling someone, you can take that time out for yourself. I no longer compromise on my bedtime. A good exercise to do is to ask yourself what change I want to make and what is the best way to achieve this sustainably. I heard a great analogy a couple of weeks ago when I was listening to the interview with Clementine Ford made with Julia Gillard on a podcast of ‘One’s Own’ –
“life is like a choir and sometimes you need to stop singing and take a breath and sit down, but it is ok because the rest of the choir is there.”
HM: How do you feel about the notion, particularly for women, that your goal needs to be quantifiable and your ambition cannot be too much and be within a specific realm?
A: I was reflecting on this actually last week for a podcast episode, about how we see having kids and even turning 30 as the beginning of the end. I think there are a few reasons for this. 30 Under 30 lists absolutely contribute to this pressure. This pressure to be ‘exceptional’ by the time you turn 30. If you have not been ‘exceptional’ by then you are behind.
As a young woman, you feel the need to get stuff done before you turn 25, before you turn 30! At those ages, you can still be exceptional as a young person, in your young person bubble, before having to contend with the rest of the world. I would be lying if I said those things have not caused me to stress and panic in the past. Even now, I am turning 27 this year and that 30 deadline is looking a lot closer than it used to. But that is ridiculous because I have achieved a lot and I have worked really hard -let alone the perception of a rush to do all these things before you have a family.
HM: Tell us a little bit about Davos at the World Economic Forum?
A: Davos is one of the largest annual meetings at the World Economic Forum and it brings together leaders across the public sector, private sector and members of civil society to examine and problem-solve some of the most pervasive issues globally. There is a lot of conversation centred on things like climate change, artificial intelligence and how to reset the economy in a more equitable manner. The last few years I have worked with Global Shapers, which is the World Economic Forum’s youth program. Every year they choose 50 young global shapers to attend Davos and I was very lucky this year that I was one of them. As a participant I was able to engage in the discussions with the panellists or in the breakout rooms and network. Essentially, we got to contribute to the conversations around solving some of these world problems.
HM: What sort of conversations stood out for you? What conversations were you looking to discuss and who to discuss these with?
A: My areas of interest are gender equality, intersectional engagement and how we can use the disaster of COVID-19 as an opportunity to do a bit of a reset of our global and social systems. How can we focus on this true build back better?
One of the best things about being in Davos is that the work being done focuses on getting more young and diverse people into public decision making. A lot of the conversations we were having were centred on the private sector and how businesses and investors use their capital for social good. But the message that kept on coming through was the importance of policy in directing engagements. For example, for action upon climate, the government can have a key role in saying they want companies to report their emissions, we want companies to pay carbon tax. Policy plays such an important role in norm setting. Therefore, to get inclusive and progressive policies, you need the next generation of young leaders stepping up.
HM: So, tell us more about Raise Our Voice and what you guys are doing?
A: Raise Our Voice kicked off last year and I must say it did take a while to get it off the ground, partially because of this really intense fear of failure.In the end, we launched an eight-week pilot program from September to October last year. I thought we would get about fifteen applications. We ended up getting ninety-two! Which was really surprising and a great validation of concept. It really told me that there was an appetite here.
The main feedback I got from that was that the participants wanted something tangible at the end. So, for 2021, I am currently in the process of creating a policy program where we take the same cohort to write a policy paper. I want to teach young people how to understand what makes a good policy paper, how to write persuasively and practice defending that policy paper. We want to build a community around these topics and develop a better understanding of public policy. Policy in a way can feel very elitist. We wanted to try to cut through the jargon and allow young people to see there is a space for them in public policy.
HM: Our final question which we always ask is what is your next move?
A: This year I am focusing on building Raise Our Voice. I have existed in this crummy cycle of burnout and I do not want that to happen again. Giving it 100% for six months then being unable to do anything for the next six months does not create lasting change. So, my main focus is on sustainability and how to build a team around this, being clear on impact measurement and using that as blinkers. So, if people come up to you with an opportunity, you use it as a framework. So, you ask yourself, does this opportunity get me to my goal? I am trying to be more strategic in how I make change happen for both Raise Our Voice and just as a person.