In 2017, Melissa Li sat in her local Starbucks with friends discussing the racial propaganda used in the recent US election campaigns, and decided she needed to do something about it. Now, in the aftermath of the Christchurch and Sri Lankan attacks, the work of her organisation is more important than ever before.
Throughout her life, Chinese-New Zealander Melissa Li has had limitations placed on her for her race. At just 16 years old, the founder and director of political organisation ProvokeWoke is encouraging people to see racial acceptance as more than a status on social media. She’s giving them the skills to make a real difference – starting with her fellow youth.
The media has exposed millennials to racism and the reaction it receives. Most recently, Li says young people have seen racism from Australian political leaders.
“We saw Senator Fraser Anning and his comments after the Christchurch attack, and that was something that had a lot of impact in our generation, that sparked a lot of conversation,” she says.
Fraser Anning released a public statement blaming the New Zealand mosque shooting on Muslim immigration. Millennials and politicians shamed the comments, and a discussion was started about racial inequality and tolerance.
“One of the problems we were noticing was that even though our generation was kind of ‘woke’, and we kind of knew what was going on… what do we then do with that knowledge,” Li says.
‘Wokeness’, Li explains, is understanding social justice issues and seeing the way that they impact society.
“It’s really hard for young people to sort of make some sort of tangible change, without the education necessary to be able to do that.”
Although there has been an increase in support for racial equality across social media, Li worries that this is only surface level. With politicians becoming social justice warriors in the wake of national disasters, we are forced to decide whether this is a genuine effort towards change, or an attempt at appealing to the youth’s trends.
“I feel like most of it isn’t genuine at all,” Li says. “A lot of people have united in being anti-hate and trying to spread positivity and love, therefore, these politicians are like, ‘okay, let’s capitalise on that’.”
“It’s not authentic and they’re really not doing anything to physically make Australia a more multicultural place.”Melissa Li
Brand marketing has also played a role in spreading the ‘woke’ trend.
Labelling a business as socially aware through campaigns for International Women’s Day allows them to boost sales in a way that seems ethical.
Companies such as Cotton On and Net-a-Porter have teamed up with female celebrities and artists to collaborate and celebrate women through ‘You Go Girl’ branding. Proceeds from the sales were donated to women’s charities, including Women for Women International and the Cotton On Foundation. Both sales and prices soared, with Victoria Beckham’s ‘I Am Her’ tee-shirt being sold for $267.
“You see these women throughout the ages really trying to garner more rights for our gender, and the end product in 2019 is some company coming along and say(ing), ‘okay, now it’s cool to be feminist, let’s exploit that’,” Li says.
“Maybe you’re pro-women, but if you look at these firm’s supply chains, and the fact that a lot of these t-shirts are produced by women in Pakistan or Thailand who are literally working for 30c a day, their pro-feminist, pro-justice, pro-equality messaging isn’t really reflected in their internal operations or the way that they make their revenue.”
But is being fake-woke better than not being woke at all?
In a society where ‘wokeness’ is a social status, many millennials, brands and politicians use the label to get ahead. However, while they aren’t making a tangible change themselves, they are spreading awareness of the issues among their audience and giving free advertisement to the cause.
“Even if they are in it for the wrong reasons, is that necessarily a bad thing? They still present a lot of value to our organisation and they’re still contributing, and so it’s kind of a hard line to walk,” says Li.
The shooting of a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019 showed evidence of racism on an international scale. Following this, a Church in Sri Lanka was attacked on Easter Sunday, and was framed by the media as a revenge attack. These events gave many politicians and brands an opportunity to openly present themselves as ‘woke’, but also showed those who still used racial stereotypes to generate fear.
The Christchurch and Sri Lankan attacks have shown the importance of rewriting the racial narratives driven by the media, and Li is determined to give millennials the skills to do this. Through ProvokeWoke, young people are encouraged to be agents of change instead of followers of a trend.
“Instead of having our identities and our stories be shaped by political fear-mongering, and the way that the media portrayed us, it would be better if we could then step up and take autonomy over our lives and experiences, and tell it as it is,” Li says.
“We aren’t just stats, we aren’t just headlines and narratives, but we are physical people with individual lives and hobbies and passions.”Melissa Li
Joachim Rillo is one of many students using ProvokeWoke as a platform to share their voice. The platform gives young writers a chance to discuss race and equality on a public and international level.
“I realised the power of my voice and wanted to help those less fortunate than me to develop their own political voice,” Rillo says. “I remember seeing a co-worker from one of my jobs post about applications for ProvokeWoke, and I read through their goals and I immediately fell in love.”
In order to make a real difference, knowing about inequality is not enough. Young people are not able to change the world without learning what to do with their awareness, and ProvokeWoke is teaching them. Young people are targeted through councils and schools and taught the skills needed to combat this hate speech.
“How do we take this anger about what’s happening in our current context and political sphere, how do we translate that into physical action, and how do we ensure that other young people are involved in that process?” Li says. “The whole organisation is basically just that, making sure young people are empowered, and educated to be able to take that first step. Take a leap of faith and go out and do things.”
Cherise Ricciardo, Ku-ring-gai council’s Youth Services coordinator, believes these seminars are making a difference in how young people engage within the community and it’s values.
“Over the last couple of years, we found that there wasn’t much engagement… young people wanted more flexibility in how they engage with the council,” Ricciardo says. “ProvokeWoke have been involved in co-designing and co-delivering with the council’s International Women’s Day and Refugee Week celebrations.”
“For international Women’s Day we had about 110 people from local schools involved in the event. ProvokeWoke did the MCing, they were involved in a youth panel talking about women’s rights, celebrating young women, and creating dialogue around the value of women in the community. For the refugee week event, we had about 90 people in attendance.”
The need for equality is being recognised across the world in the aftermath of human disasters, and Li and her team have become faces for action. Organisations like ProvokeWoke are giving millennials the opportunity to make this change, because there’s more to changing the world than changing a profile picture.
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