The making of a leader

Post: The making of a leader

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“Never think the world is not yours.”

Benson Saulo first heard these powerful words as a young boy. And they still resonate so strongly that Australia’s first Indigenous consul-general to the United States couldn’t help but share his father’s message with students from Tamworth Girls Academy and Peel High School.

A proud descendant of the Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara Aboriginal nations of western Victoria, and New Ireland Province in Papua New Guinea, Benson was talking about role models as part of a wide-ranging discussion for NAIDOC Week.

“What he was saying to me was just … no matter what your skin colour is, no matter what your background is, no matter where you come from, never think that you’re not valid and important and valuable in this world,” he told the students.

“And I think that’s such an important thing about someone’s identity. We can almost try to get validated or feel valued by what other people think of us, what we wear, or how we talk, or what we do online, or things like that — we’re trying to get that validation from other people. What my father was strong in, and this is something for myself that I’ve learnt over time, is that … being true to yourself is really important.”

This philosophy has taken Benson in many different directions, starting with his first job as a school-based trainee with ANZ. “There’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see. And when I was 15 years old I didn’t see another Aboriginal face working in the bank. I was the third trainee, and the first one in Tamworth that came through, and so for me the bank didn’t seem like a natural place for a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy.”

But he did it anyway because he knew from a young age that he wanted to be the kind of person who helped to create “a new possible”.

Benson has done that many times since, representing Australia at the United Nations, establishing the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, which engages young Indigenous Australians to drive social action, and becoming a non-executive director of Innovation Unit ANZ, among his many achievements.

Early next year, he’ll take the next step in his incredible journey, moving to Houston with his wife and baby daughter where, as US consul-general, he will advocate for Australian trade. He’s also hoping to build connections with “First Nations mobs over there”.

When asked how he stayed connected to culture with the multiple roles he juggles in life, Benson said culture was always with him.

“When I think about the roles I get to have and the places that I get to go to, one thing for everyone here to remember, particularly growing up in First Nations culture, is that you don’t park it, you don’t put it to the side when you go and put on a suit,” he said.

“Culture is who you are; it’s the flesh on your bones, it’s the spirit that drives you, and it’s that continual and constant connection to the lands that you walk in.”

Benson was struck by the Girls Academy logo on the Tamworth girls’ t-shirts. Thanking Montana for the Acknowledgement of Country the Tamworth Girls Academy student gave at the start of the Zoom meeting, Benson said it was wonderful to see the girls wearing such a powerful symbol.

“It’s one of the oldest symbols on Earth in regards to people coming together,” he said.  “I think the powerful thing is not only in those symbols but in the fact that you’re wearing them —  these have been around for 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 years —  that you’re actually representing the ongoing custodianship of culture in your own lives.”

He describes NAIDOC Week as both a time for celebration and reflection.

“One part is actually the celebration of all things powerful and important for our people, from the role models that we see right across society, right through to our Elders who play an important role, right through to our organisations that support our communities,” he said.

“And the other side of it is also the reflection and when I think of reflection it’s not only our history; it’s being able to reflect and think about our future … how do we continue to open doors and support the people and provide encouragement to ensure that we can be the next role models for our communities.”

Asked to name his own role models, Benson spoke about the impact of his teachers at Peel High School, as well as his admiration and respect for his parents, Ruth and John.

“My Mum … she  grew up in a tin shed with dirt floors on the outskirts of Bordertown in South Australia. She was 11 years old before she was actually considered a citizen in Australia.

“So that idea of almost that lack of identity from an early age, not knowing where she stood in broader society, right through to seeing her own journey, her working life, but also being able to raise three kids and become a grandparent as well, and the lessons that she continues to instill in us, is very powerful.”

His dad was born on a beach in Papua New Guinea and landed in Sydney at the age of 19 in the middle of winter wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying one little bag. “He was the first in his family to leave the island, the first in his family to come out to Australia,” Benson said.

When he’s suffering from “imposter syndrome” and starting to think he’s not good enough or smart enough to be where he is at that time, it’s his father’s words that anchor him once more.

“I just have to reconnect and reflect and think ‘well, actually no, if I am here, then I am important and I’m valuable and I have got something to say.’ No matter how old you are, or how accomplished you are or what you do, we still have those moments when we doubt ourselves. So using the line of my father ‘never think the world is not yours’. The world is yours to own and to lead in the way that you want for your life.”

Asked what advice he had for today’s young leaders, Benson said it was important to be empathetic. “Be that person that lifts up the person next to you, be that person who encourages the person next to you because you’ll also find the person standing next to you or who has come before you, or is standing behind you, is wanting to do the same for you,” he said.

“And what’s amazing when you’re surrounding yourself with people that are lifting each other is that you can actually achieve far greater things together … If we’re constantly pulling people down, then we’re not creating role models, we’re not creating an environment that supports people. It’s actually up to all of us as young leaders to be able to step up and help people out as well.”

One of Benson’s former teachers asked if he might return from the US to become the first Aboriginal Prime Minister of Australia. “I don’t like showing all my cards at once,” he replied with a laugh. “Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, to see an Indigenous Prime Minister? It would be pretty amazing and if it’s not me, you know that idea of creating the new possible, that’s really important. So hopefully in my lifetime we’ll be able to see that.”

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