Humanity in uncertain times

This was originally published by and for Pro Bono Australia, By Maggie Cogan. Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

It’s no easy task leading a charity like Amnesty International Australia (AIA) through a pandemic. 

Vulnerable communities are set to bear the brunt of COVID-19, and already financially-stretched charities are struggling to stay afloat during the current economic downturn. 

But for Klintworth, who has over 30 years of NFP leadership experience, staying calm and focused during this unprecedented time of quarantine, social isolation and fear, is paramount. 

Joining Amnesty in late 2019, she believes that educating Australians on the humanitarian issues right in front of us, such as the treatment of Indigenous Australians and refugees and asylum seekers, is the first step to making a real difference for these communities.  

In this week’s Changemaker, Klintworth talks about staying calm in crisis, why she loves her job, and the importance of grassroots advocacy. 

What was it that made you want to work with Amnesty International?

My career up until this point had been working with direct service delivery organisations. Over the years I’ve worked for some amazing organisations that do amazing work, but it had become obvious that as the demand increased on services, the sector really had no capacity to do anything other than focus on providing quality frontline services and had no resources to do advocacy work, which I believe actually effects systemic change. 

So I started looking for an opportunity to advocate, lobby and be involved with creating world reaching change around systems and Amnesty was an obvious organisation of course.

What are you hoping to achieve in your time in this role?

I would like the Australian community to have an increased awareness of what human rights are and to know what their rights are and how they need to be protected. I want Australia to have a Human Rights Act that protects the rights of all people across Australia. I think when we’re better educated around what our rights are we will be in a great position to have a global voice to ensure that we’re addressing the human rights impacts around the world. 

On home soil there’s obviously a number of vulnerable communities that Amnesty International Australia feel strongly about. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still have significant human rights violations and I believe that it’s our responsibility to lead the way in advocacy for those populations. We also have a lot of work to do in the refugees and asylum seeker area, both onshore and offshore. We still have more than 450 people living in unsafe conditions offshore as a result of the country’s offshore processing regime, and it’s absolutely critical we do something about getting them out of those unsafe conditions. 

The spread of COVID-19 is impacting vulnerable communities across the globe, what do you think is important at this time for social sector leaders like yourself to do? 

This is a time that we need the voice of the charity sector more than ever. We need to lead with compassion, and that’s something that our sector does particularly well. 

We’ve seen people, particularly at the beginning of the crisis, responding out of fear rather than compassion. The charity sector has a real opportunity to lead a compassionate conversation, but also to have a focus on relationships. Despite the fact that we’re distanced in some ways with our working situations at the moment, we really need to foster that connection between people. 

At Amnesty we talk about being stronger together and I think the Australian community rallying together is going to get us through this difficult time. It’s a great opportunity for us to refocus our attention away from what differentiates us and instead turn our attention to what unites us. There are vulnerable communities that are experiencing the impact more than others. We’re seeing serious human rights issues emerging such as our rights to access healthcare, and we’re seeing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, rural and remote communities, and many vulnerable communities really struggling to ensure that those rights are upheld. So it’s an important time for us to be both obviously paying good attention to the health impacts of COVID-19 but also making sure that we don’t lose sight of the human rights impacts, and that we are advocating for all of the community – particularly those that are vulnerable.

What are some of the things that you love most about your job?

I’m enormously proud of the history of Amnesty International and also of the Australian movement. I’m in a really privileged position in that I get to hear regularly from people who’ve been affected by our work.

Last week for instance I was speaking at the Adelaide Festival and a gentleman approached me afterwards to let me know that he had been imprisoned in Bhutan for 28 months as a prisoner of conscience. He relayed the story of his wife visiting and how while they weren’t allowed to speak, he was scratching the name Amnesty into her back, to try and give her a secret message to make contact with us. He said that the moment he heard Amnesty had picked up his case, he knew that he was going to be okay and that he was no longer alone. 

That’s an enormous privilege to come to work each day and know that the work you’re doing is life changing and life saving. It also means working with really passionate and like-minded people. There is not one person in our organisation that is turning out for a paycheck. Every single person is here because they want to change the world. And again, that’s a real privilege to be part of such a dynamic environment. I also love working with Amnesty, I’m not just part of an organisation, but I’m part of a national movement and a global movement united by the same calling to protect and defend human rights. 

Now that everyone is in lock down do you have any tips for staying focused and healthy? 

What I’m really trying to focus on, and what I would recommend to people generally, is to really ensure that they are balancing their work while they are stuck at home.  

I’m trying to make sure that I’m taking breaks and I’m getting some fresh air outside, but I’m also allowing myself to engage with the good news stories. There’s a lot of social media floating around at the moment where you can see clips of amazing stories of humanity at its best across the world. Making sure you connect with those positive stories to balance out some of the messages we’re getting in the media is so important.