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Future Shapers Civic Sara Saleh
Photograph: Liza Moscatelli

Time Out's Civics Future Shaper: Sara Saleh

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

A celebrated poet and co-editor of Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity, Sara Saleh could easily feature alongside Time Out's Arts Future Shapers, just as several folks in that list could move over to the civics field. But our esteemed judges figured that the passionate human rights activist’s tireless work for refugee rights and racial justice saw her best-placed in this category.

Saleh is on the board of directors at progressive campaigning organisation GetUp! and represents the Bankstown Poetry Slam as a 'Slambassador', and she has also worked with Amnesty International. As the daughter of migrants with Palestinian, Lebanese and Egyptian heritage, she has dedicated herself to supporting important human rights issues in the world today, including those faced by her own Palestinian community. Her passion, empathy, intelligence and deep knowledge of cultural dynamics have underpinned more than a decade of tireless work supporting migrant communities and NGOs in Sydney and across Australia.

Do you remember when you first became politically active?

I think it’s probably common for a lot of Palestinians specifically, and Arabs more broadly, to learn to march before we walk. To chant for freedom before we talk. I grew up in a politically active family, and I’ve been very lucky to have that around me and to link that with my faith. That gives me a sense of purpose and the coordinates for how I navigate and negotiate my life. I’ve grown up resisting even the patriarchal traditions within my own cultural heritage, and more broadly, the patriarchy we see every day in Australia.

But one example I’ll give was the death of Muhammad al-Dura in Gaza in 2000. People might not remember his name, but they will certainly remember the image of this 11-year-old, who could easily pass for my family member, being shot and murdered and dying in his father’s arms. And there I was, at the same age, thinking about what to buy my best friend for her birthday party on the weekend. That’s the kind of thing that really instils that conscience in you from a young age, that there’s clearly some serious injustice in this world. How do you then reconcile that? What are your responsibilities and privileges?

Turning on the nightly news can be soul-destroying. How do you find strength and focus?

Thank you for asking that. Because what you’re essentially doing is you’re seeing me for the complex person that I am. A person that aspires and dreams and lives every day between the mundane and the little joys and difficulties. I don’t exist in opposition to trauma or as a reaction to it. Growing up in a family that is very strongly about oral storytelling, I’m very grateful to have the space, and the generosity, to be able to listen to and share these stories. My family, we’re fighters for social justice, and we understand the importance of language within the Quran, which is itself a form of poetry.

I draw pride and strength from people like iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, from my immediate family, and from within the connections that I’ve forged in the poetry community. And from being a guest on stolen land. I am learning from First Nations communities, from their arts, their poetry and their activism. It’s such an honour.

How does your poetry aid your activism?

Unhindered imagination, and having vision, is imperative for transformative politics. That’s how you change the world, by creating the language and setting up that ability for meaningful action to take place.  It’s not just an abstract. Poetry has a very real function in that. If you want to move people to take action, you need to awaken them out of their slumber to understand that the status quo doesn’t actually have to be the status quo. You have power. You don’t need to accept things the way that they are. This is all manmade and can be dismantled. In order to ask someone to believe something, you need to get them to enter the worlds of the misunderstood, misrepresented and mistreated. It demands trust and courage to be open to that change. And that’s also about vulnerability, right? That’s what transforms people, and transforming people is what transforms the world.

What does the future of activism look like in Australia?

My faith teaches me to be hopeful. Poetry is a hopeful art. Our communities are hopeful. And yet there’s a pendulum swinging that’s very dizzying between hope and, ‘Oh my God, shit, we are so screwed’. So it’s really hard. But I’ll say this, there has been an incredible increase in consciousness taking place, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement globally. These communities have been doing the work for a very long time. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. But now it’s at the forefront and there’s no pushing it back.

Australia needs to reconcile its past. And that’s only ever going to happen if we understand and acknowledge that these are stolen lands. We can go from there to building a culture that is not exclusionary, that is not hurtful, that doesn’t deny people their rights and their dignity, that is based on generosity of spirit and love. And that’s what First Nations communities teach me.

Meet our other Future Shapers

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