Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In civics, one such person is Kon Karapanagiotidis, founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Kon Karapanagiotidis has been thinking a lot about the future lately. A future in which he is no longer needed as CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the refugee advocacy and support charity he founded 20 years ago. And maybe a future in which Australia's largest independent human rights organisation doesn't exist at all.
"The ultimate dream would be to close our doors because we're not needed, because people don't need to come to a charity for things that are and should be your fundamental human rights as a new Australian," Karapanagiotidis says. "I dream of a time where there is no more political mileage in poisoning the hotter imaginations of Australians around refugees."
Until that day, the ASRC has a twofold approach: to help people seeking asylum both survive and thrive in Australia. "The survive part is recognising throughout the pandemic that people seeking asylum have no safety net, and 82 per cent of people who we provide food to have no income... Of the 7,000 people [the ASRC is helping] at the moment, 2,600 have no right to work. None are eligible for JobSeeker throughout Covid. None were eligible for JobKeeper. Almost none are eligible for the new disaster payments from the Australian government. So our first goal is providing food security, housing security," Karapanagiotidis says. "We pay the rent of hundreds of families, to keep them from being homeless. We provide legal representation, legal advice, mental health support, we pay for the medicines of people that can't afford it, we have a full-scale little community health centre.
"The thrive part is what people seeking asylum actually want: not to be a burden, none of them want to be in a food bank. Where we want people to be is in universities, in your workplaces, in your boardrooms, in the halls of Parliament, as future leaders, and what we really focus on supporting people to thrive. And we do that through our mentoring programs, our women's empowerment programs, our employment programs, partnering with the state government to get thousands of people into TAFE, partnering with employers to put hundreds of people a year into work."
But Karapagiotidis says as essential as those services are, they can't be the end goal of the organisation. He likens self-perpetuating charities to the concept of perpetual war, popularised by former US president George W Bush. "Once you decide there is a perpetual war, you build a perpetual system and feeds that," he says. "And I've been thinking about it in recent years going well, if, if there's a perpetual crisis, we're always going to need to be here. What do you build around that? You end up investing most of your energy, your resources and your visioning, in how to sustain that perpetual crisis. Often unconsciously. We're always going to have people hungry, we're always going to have people homeless. So keep raising more and more money and more and more resources and build more and more branches.'
"Our prize is going out of business, which is terrifying to most CEOs and charities, because it means they don't have a job and they go out of business. But if you start thinking about, ultimately, the goal is not to be here, suddenly you start visioning very differently."
Karapagiotidis is actively working towards a ten-year plan for the ASRC to become obsolete, but he is also a pragmatist. "I'm not naive to the fact that it might be longer than a ten-year journey to be at a point where we are a compassionate, welcoming Australia," he says. But if it's not possible for the ASRC to close down entirely, its leader is actively working towards a change of leadership.
"How do we use our financial, social and political capital as a powerful, influential organisation to build the next generation?" Karapanagiotidis says. "How do we disrupt our own privilege? And how do we take it to actually help build that movement and resource and accelerate that movement? Because this is the challenge of charities. So many of us just become a business, we become corporatised. And it's all about protecting our brand and just growing without actually asking, what are we growing for? And what is our exit strategy? So we're in this perpetual crisis, instead of going, don't we want solutions? And then don't we ultimately want the people we serve to be leading those solutions?"
As CEO, Karapanagiotidis wants to come to a point where those with direct lived experience will take over his job. "Yes, I'm a kid of a migrant and I'm the grandkid of refugees. But one day, all the leaders of this movement are people with lived experience. What it exposes is when you don't have equivalent experience in a decision-making process, you don't get the best outcomes. You often get, not just not the best outcomes, but often harmful outcomes."
If his vision for the future is one without him leading the ASRC, what does he want for the future of Melbourne? "I would love Melbourne to be that truly inclusive city that it can be, which means that we have a livable income, a universal income, a universal safety net in terms of social housing, and universal access to the same things for all communities. That our newest Australians have the same rights and entitlements as every other Australian, and that your access and experience of this country is not shaped in terms of your aspiration, your opportunity and your ambition based on the visa that you're on, but rather based on your character, your potential and your capability. And beyond that, that there's a fundamental safety net because you're a human being. And that's enough."