2014 Aus-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue alumnus, Benson Saulo explains how his dedication to positive social change stems from values instilled in him by his Indigenous Australian mother and Papua New Guinean father and how he draws strength from his heritage.

For the past few years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to engage young people across Australia and the world at various conferences, workshops and events. I am often asked to share my story and what led me to the path that I have been so blessed to follow, but in doing so I never begin at my story because the path that I am on has been made strong by both my parents, their cultures and their faith. I have simply made decisions in my life that have always been informed by strong values and passions instilled in me from an early age.

My mother is Aboriginal. She was born in Bordertown, a very small town near the border of Victoria and South Australia. It is through her that my siblings and I are connected to the Wemba Wemba, Wergaia, Jardwadjali and Gunditmara Aboriginal nations of western Victoria. My mother grew up in a time of great division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Until she was 11 years old she was classed by the Australian Government as ‘fauna and flora’ and not classed as a citizen of Australia. It is very hard for people to understand the impact this has on someone’s identity, not only being ‘state-less’ but not even being considered human.

She spent most of her formative years living in a tin shed with dirt floors in a paddock on the outskirts of Bordertown. The walls were made out of crushed kerosene tins, and most of their furniture and toys were collected from the local rubbish dump. It is true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Growing up in a time when it was government policy to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from families and place them in state schools and homes, my mother and her 8 siblings were fortunate to never be removed, but for my Grandmother it was a time of great worry, danger and suspicion. My Grandmother, who is turning 100 years old in September this year, remembers nights when my Grandfather was away shearing or on odd jobs, when she would have to open the door with one hand and a shotgun in the other.

Benson’s parents on their wedding day and his mother as a young girl (photo supplied: Benson Saulo).

My father is from New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. We don’t know how old he really is because he was born on a beach in New Hanover, so he got to pick a date for his birthday. Each year it changes depending on when he wants presents from us. His father was from Neikonomon, which is located in the mountains of West Lavongai, and his mother was from Lafu on the west coast of New Ireland. From an early age, my father always had a curious mind. He fondly recalls leaving school at a very young age and following his father around New Ireland, who was a medical practitioner. He speaks 5 dialects and would often disappear for weeks, sometimes months, walking and exploring different villages across the Province. I think this is why he is such a people person.

Their stories and individual journeys still amaze and inspire me. They met in a very small rural town called Cootamundra, in New South Wales, where they both attended Bible College. The story of how they both came to Bible College is a novel in itself; filled with courage, faith and determination.

Faith has always played a significant role in our lives, as well as being at the service of others. My father once told me that he didn’t like the term ‘a sense of responsibility’ because it means doing something because of an external requirement, but if service is your core, if having a servant’s heart is what forms the flesh on your bones then ‘a sense of responsibility’ is not required because helping others is just an extension of yourself. It has been this idea that has driven me in my life. It has brought me courage when pursuing opportunities or overcoming challenges, because there is an ultimate belief that my life has purpose.

This path has enabled me to work with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia to empower their voices on issues that impact them. Issues like climate change, mental health and suicide prevention. I see great similarities between the issues impacting Aboriginal people and Papua New Guineans. However, I am constantly inspired by young Papua New Guineans’ passion for developing their leadership skills to lead change in their communities and at a national level. They possess a powerful and united vision of the future of their country, and with the tools and systems in place they can be an effective voice of change.

I am thankful that I can connect with both sides of my family, and have the ability to implement learnings across the nations to hopefully create positive change for both my people.

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About the Author

Benson Saulo - Senior Consultant, PwC Indigenous Consulting - Lowy Institute

Benson Saulo

Senior Consultant, PwC Indigenous Consulting

Benson Saulo is descendant of the Wemba Wemba and Gundjitmara Aboriginal nations of western Victoria and the New Ireland Province of Papua New Guinea. Growing up in the rural town of Tamworth in New South Wales, Benson began working at ANZ Bank at the age of 15. Benson progressed in his career with the bank, becoming an International Officer, Business Banking Manager and Business Analyst by the age of 22. In 2011, Benson was appointed Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations. Benson represented Australian Youth at the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and was based in New York as an accredited member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Benson led negotiations on the Rights of the Child resolution with a focus on children with disabilities and also the Youth Resolution which focussed on the impacts of the financial and economic crisis on young people globally. In 2012, Benson became the Founding Director of the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, which engaged Indigenous young people to lead positive change in communities across Australia through youth-led social action initiatives. Benson is the co-founder of Mind Garden Projects, a not-for-profit organisation that sources and develops education resources to support schools, teachers and students across New Ireland Province in Papua New Guinea. Benson is a current board member of the National Commission for the United Nations Education, Science, Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Director of the Indigenous Leadership Network of Victoria and is an Ambassador for Welcome to Australia and YGAP’s Polished Man.