My Australia Story: James Jegasothy

For many university students and young professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds, the challenges of building a successful career in Australia can seem daunting, and perhaps insurmountable. 

Is “working hard and being passionate” good enough to help you find a dream job in a new country? New life, new path, new beginning… how can you achieve success in your career?

Mr James Jegasothy, Executive Director Office of Multicultural Interests, will share his career journey as the featured guest in the third instalment of My Australia Story conversation series.  

Having come to Australia as a refugee, James is passionate about achieving equitable outcomes for vulnerable people and communities. Informed by his personal history, he has more than two decades of experience working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities and has held strategic leadership and governance roles in government, for-purpose, and community organisations. He has degrees in law and politics.

James is the Executive Director at the Office of Multicultural Interests (OMI), Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, providing leadership and strategic direction while advising the Minister and State Government on policies and programs to achieve the full potential of multiculturalism. Before joining OMI, he was State Program and Stakeholder Coordinator at the Australian Red Cross, Migration Support Programs where he led a multidisciplinary team to provide culturally appropriate services to asylum seekers and new migrants. Before arriving in Western Australia, he worked in refugee advocacy to support detained and community-based refugees and asylum seekers to gain access to legal protection and humanitarian support.

James has also held the strategic leadership roles of Board Director of Rise Network, Vice Chair of the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees, Secretary of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA, WA State Manager of Welcome to Australia, and Commissioner on the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission. He has travelled to the United States with the State Department to explore issues of race in law enforcement and has provided pro-bono strategic planning and change management assistance to grass-roots organisations.

Don't miss him in our February session, moderated by Associate Professor Maggie Jiang from UWA School of Social Sciences.

My Australia Story is a face-to-face conversation series that provides a platform for remarkable people who have immigrated to Australia as first-generation to share their life and work experience with the public. Initiated by Associate Professor Maggie Jiang at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia,  this initiative is proudly hosted by WA Museum Boola Bardip.

By purchasing a ticket and providing the personal information requested, you confirm that you acknowledge and agree with the WA Museum's Privacy Statement, Terms and Conditions and that we and our event partner the University of Western Australia may contact you regarding the event and other offers. 

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Audio file
Friday 23 February 2024
  • Episode transcript

    Museum Intro: 

    Welcome to the Western Australian Museum, Boola Bardip, talks archive. The WA museum Boola Bardip hosts a series of thought-provoking talks and conversations tackling big issues, questions and ideas and is delighted to be able to share these with you through the talks archive. The talks archive is recorded on Whadjuck Noongar country. The Western Australian Museum acknowledges and respects the traditional owners of their ancestral lands, waters and skies. 

    Maggie Jiang: 

    Good evening colleagues, friends and guests. My name is Maggie Jiang. I'm from UWA School of Social Sciences. We are very delighted you could join us on a Friday evening for My Australia Story public talk series. This program is a joint effort between WA and the WA Museum. Can I begin by acknowledging the owners land on which we meet today and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging. 

    The My Australia Story initiative is to share the stories of individuals who have chosen Australia as their home and have built successful careers. We hope this program could serve as a wellspring of inspiration for individuals from all walks of life, surpassing cultural boundaries. Our objective is to spotlight the remarkable resilience, achievements and contributions of first generation Australians representing diverse cultural backgrounds in this country. 

    Now, following the resounding success of our first two sessions, we are here tonight for the third chapter of this journey. For those joining us for the first time. Let me briefly explain the structure of the sessions. So for each episode, we invite a speaker who will share the stories of the career and the insights they have gleaned on the path to success. 

    We'll leave about ten minutes for Q&A, providing the opportunity to engage further conversation with the speaker and some further opportunity for networking at the end. This program would not be possible without the support from UWA and the WA museum. We are very fortunate tonight. We have senior leaders from both organizations here with us tonight, Mr. Alec Coles, CEO of Museum and Professor David Sadler, deputy Vice Health Education at UWA. 

    Now Professor Sadler is going to introduce our distinguished speaker for this evening. Please join me in welcoming Professor David Sadler to the stage.  


    David Sadler: 

    Thank you. Thank you. Maggie. so, good evening and Kaya, everyone and it is my absolute pleasure to talk about, James. and in this sense, I want to before I start to also acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Whadjuck Noongar people, but also the partnership we have here, with, the museum and especially, the presence of Alec Coles, the CEO but obviously, I want to welcome you all. So James Jegasothy, who has the role of the executive director in the Office of Multicultural Interests in the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries. Probably the longest job title I've ever seen. James, came to Australia as a refugee. And he's passionate about achieving equitable, equitable outcomes for vulnerable people and communities. 

    And this is, of course, informed by his personal history and two decades of experience working with cultural and linguistically diverse communities. He's held strategic leadership governance roles in government, for purpose and community organizations, and, like me, has degrees in law and politics. James is the, sort of person, if you like, that provides leadership and strategic direction in that role as the executive director, and advises the minister in state government on policies and programs to achieve the full potential of multiculturalism... 

    and how needed is that? 

    Prior to joining OMI he was state program and stakeholder, coordinator of the Australian Red cross, migration support programs, where he led a multi-disciplinary team to provide culturally appropriate services to asylum seekers and new migrants. 

    Prior to arriving here in WA, he worked in refugee advocacy to support detained and community based refugees and asylum seekers, and their search for access to legal protection and humanitarian support. 

    James has also held, strategic leadership roles of board directors of Rise Network, vice chair of the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees, Secretary of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA, WA state manager of Welcome to Australia and Commissioner, Commissioner on the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission. 

    He's also travelled to the United States with the State Department to explore issues of race in law enforcement, and has provided pro bono strategic planning and change management assistance to grassroots organizations. It's an impressive, resume and one that I think, very much sits at the heart of the concerns of this, My Australia public talk series. So please join me in welcoming James. Thank you. 


    James Jegasothy: 

    Thanks, David. I'll' first start by acknowledging traditional owners of the land on which we're meeting tonight. The Whadjuck People of the Noongar nation and pay my respects to the elders past the present. It's a privilege to be here on Noongar Boodjar  

    I'm glad that giant head is gone. (laughter) That was going to be very intimidating. Evening. So that's... I'm thankful for that. 

    All I can really offer that some observations, lessons that came from mistakes and maybe some insights that have rubbed off along the way. I don't quite think I'm at a point in my life or my time, where I can look back and, you know, hark at any sort of universal truths or life philosophies, but I'll share where I've been and where I've found myself and I'm certainly grateful to all of you for coming out here on a very hot Friday afternoon. 

    For simplicity, I'll start at the beginning in Sri Lanka. Until 2009, Sri Lanka was in a three decade state of civil war. Such violent states of being don't come out of thin air. The country had been subject to colonization many times over. First, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and even the French had a bite. But post-independence, state sponsored discrimination and persecution abounded. 

    A series of violent anti Tamil, anti minority pogroms took place in the 50s, and pogroms of riots and massacres of one ethnic group or another. These continued through the early 80s and further devolve the country's ethnic and linguistic divisions, and by the 80s the intermittent conflict had become war between the Shri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. 

    I was born as that war ignited. At that time, my father, John Jegasothy, was a prominent minister in the Methodist Church and my mother, Shanti, was a pioneer in the banking industry. Dad was a little modern, a leftist. He played guitar, sang pop music, had long hair, rode a motorbike. Mum was a banking exec, something unheard of for women at the time in that region but perhaps also here that matter.  

    Men would make her cups of tea. Not a common state of business life in the 70s and early 80s. These were independent people, successful and remarkable in their own right. By the time I came around, we were in a difficult place. It was a terrible time for everyone of course, a time of violence and trauma for so many people. 

    My mum still has the scars of when she was on a bus, and she was attacked by a violent mob on her way to work. Dad was a reverend. He was already dedicated to spending his life with the poor and vulnerable and, well, their lives tend to get worse during times of war.  

    More than this, he was a leader. He was chair of a human rights organization in the east of Sri Lanka. He negotiated with rebels and the armed forces. He was a voice for the persecuted. He helped move villages and families under threat. He stood up to mobs and led peaceful resistance. In time, of course, this put him into the firing line, and eventually he was blacklisted by both the rebels and the army. 

    Threats to his life were numerous, but he wouldn't leave his mission or his people. But there are lots of intense stories of this time, but they're not really mine to tell. I certainly can't tell them in the same way that my mum or dad would. I was a child. Like other children in such circumstances I was impacted, of course, but to some degree I of course saw things as a child while everyone would hide while the military convoys went past our house to intimidate communities, I would run out the front and stand by the gate, if only to gawk at the massive machinery.  

    My parents tell me that one of the commanders used to bring me in, probably an act of compassion or probably just, you know, wonder at this crazy kid, Watermelon just to soothe me. There are photos of my third birthday were, instead of what in Australia would have been a women's weekly swimming pool cake, I had requested a military personnel character with little army men on top. And of course, I don't mean to make light of all these things, but this is the world as it was to me then.  

    But then something changed during a battle involving a violent crossfire just outside our home. My little brother, who was 18 months at the time, suffered febrile convulsions. Again there is a colourful story, probably better told by someone else, where in order to save his life and take him to hospital, my parents used a cloth nappy as a white flag and rode past the opposing forces. 

    It was at that time, while he was recovering in hospital, that my parents came to a terrible conclusion. They could no longer protect their family and they had to leave. On the one hand, we were lucky. This was a different time for refugees. The Australian government was granting humanitarian visas to Tamils in danger if they had sponsors. This was a policy brought in previously with the Indochina Wars. 

    But this wasn't something my parents wanted. No one wants to leave their country, the place where they've built their lives, where you have your family and friends, your history. Mum had spent years not only dealing with ethnic discrimination, but a gendered culture. She had defied her own father, who forbade her from studying math in high school, to rise up, to climb the ranks of a bank. 

    And dad was a relied upon leader, responsible for supporting many and especially displaced people. And in a very Christian way, I mean, he's a reverend, he often describes their departure as like a shepherd leaving the flock. Of course, there was pressure from his supporters and mum's family, everyone knew they could be killed at any time. And so after some months in hiding, we set off to Australia. 

    In fact, it was KLM, the Dutch airlines, that brought us over. They even upgraded us to business class. Again, it's a very different time for refugees. But first we headed to Canberra. We were otherwise your classic suitcase, a bunch of photos and a few dollars.  

    I'd never seen so many white people. I'd never really known anyone who wasn't brown. It was probably the simple culture shock. We first had lived in these typical migrant apartments. We didn't know much about living in a Western country, and we were a little lost. But we were lucky to have a neighbour across the hallway who introduced herself and became a real support and guide for our family. Her name was Elena Augutus and she was a Ukrainian migrant herself, but we all knew her as Granner. 

    She showed us how to live here. She showed us how to shop and made us food. Ukrainian style meatballs were a favourite. She even gave us our first TV. We'd never had one before.  

    For her, it would have been strange too not that she showed it to these Sri Lankan refugees in their strange ways. And we remained close until her death many years later. 

    Canberra was a short stint and as a family we began our real Australian journey in Parkes in central New South Wales. 

     If you're not familiar, it's the home of The Dish. There's a movie about it. I can recommend it. And now it's also the home of the Southern Hemisphere's largest Elvis festival. I haven't been, but if you're a fan. 

    Why, Parkes? Well, Mum and dad were looking for some peace -a time to process what they'd been through and a time to adjust. A time away from politics and perhaps even those things in people that reminded them of their loss. Multiculturalism hadn't quite reached the small regional centre. There were perhaps three non-Anglo Saxon families in the town...ourselves, a Chinese family and a Greek family. 

    One owned the local cafe and fish and chips, the other the Chinese restaurant. Parkes was a classic country town of the 80s. Wide sidewalks, friendly faces, no traffic lights, no drive thrus. The cinema was inside a leagues club, a troubling history with local First Nations people. Underlying racism and a distinct, monocultural identity. We arrived as refugees with little money but a lot of guilt and grief. But we were embraced by the town, and we embrace the community.  

    The town had its problems. Among other things, it lacked opportunities and support for young people, especially those affected by drugs and alcohol and family issues. My dad, being a priest and a trained counsellor and community leader, all the things that got him in trouble in Sri Lanka brought some much needed leadership to the community. 

    After all, he had experience working with little resources and in a war zone. He was well equipped for the challenges at hand. He brought together local government, community and the police. He organized field days for young people, present employment and training options. He brought people together. We bought farmers and local businesses to solve social issues for community programs. 

    With all his fresh ideas, he even ended up on the regional tourism board, which is a pretty crazy thing for someone who had just arrived as a refugee. He broke down barriers and the town embraced that difference. Different ideas, different ways of working, and even different cultures. In accepting the leadership, this very different person brought and embracing this change I'd like to think they also challenged their biases.  

    I have fond memories of those days. It's where I learned English, where I made new friends, where I was made to feel like I belonged again, especially after the experiences of leaving Sri Lanka. And we lived in one of those really Australian homes. You know, the kind of thing you'd see in a Country Practice if you remember the show: red brick tin roof and uneven veranda around the outside and outdoor toilet. 

    Spiders. As kids, we were lucky to live next door to two brothers who are a similar age to me and my brother. Walter, who was known to me as water, and Thomas, who I call boy. You know, obviously, as I said, you know, English was new to me at the time, but for everything gained. There was some loss. When I first arrived in Australia, I could only speak Tamil and this little regional centre there was not many other Tamil speakers and my parents, with so many other challenges that come with settlement. They wanted me to focus on English and integrating into this new local community. Gradually and sadly, I lost my ability to speak and even think in Tamil. But for my parents, I guess the saddest regret was when I stopped dreaming in Tamil. 

    Look, it was clearly a formative time and I let much about bringing people together about what was possible with community leadership, and of course, about being Australian spiders and all.  

    I'm going to skip forward a few years and a few different locations in life, but a little bit into high school. We moved to the inner west of Sydney. Now Sydney is a hyper multicultural place. However, on a scholarship, thanks to dad, I had the opportunity to attend a prestigious all boys boarding school. Unsurprisingly, it didn't quite reflect the breadth of Sydney's diversity. In fact, it was pretty multicultural, particularly multicultural. They didn't really care a lot about refugees and among other regular high school dynamics, there were issues when you didn't come from a background that didn't involve wealth or you weren't Caucasian.  

    There was a fair amount of outward racism among the boys. I mean, looked very young. They didn't know much about the world, but you'd also find it in the systems and in the authority. Once the chair, the school board came to address the whole school about the recruitment of a new principal, he was a classic board chair, tall, white hair, clean cut. His name was probably Peter. He's.... He stood in front of the crowded room of students and teachers and noted each and every country where the applicants came from America, Canada, England, Pakistan, Ireland. And after a short pause, he said, you'll be happy to know we didn't pick the person from Pakistan. It seems unbelievable thinking about it now. And look, I applied all the sports I did athletics, I took up all the education opportunities. I made lifelong friends, all of whom were my groomsmen at my wedding. But you can imagine it wasn't an easy time.  

    Of course, I was a product of my upbringing. I raised objections, I caused issues. I even got some of the boarding masters to apologize to students for their racist treatment. I'll save that story for later. With my dad, who had worked at the time with the New South Wales Torture and Trauma Agency. I managed to get a program started where these previously uninterested students would donate Christmas presents to children in immigration detention. And for my final year, artwork, I did a portrait of Philip Ruddock, the then Minister for immigration. Not a flattering one, but strangely, it did hang in the schools business centres for many years later probably without noting the irony.  

    Sydney was also, of course, a formative time. And outside of school, there was a lot happening. Indefinite detention was the policy of the Australian government. Dad had become, unsurprisingly, a well-known, well known for his refugee advocacy in the state, and I had been joining him in visiting asylum seekers at Villawood Detention Centre. These were the days of razor wire hunger strikes and well-publicized deaths. 

    By the late 90s, the Howard government, following public and legal pressure, started to release refugees into the community on temporary visas, but without much in the way of support. These traumatized, vulnerable, and often institutionalized people were essentially dropped into the world alone.  

    It was only natural for my parents to then decide to open up the family home, a sort of house but halfway house for people released. 

    In fact, I think maybe the first person released from detention in Sydney came to live with us. We would take people into our home and find them accommodation, find them jobs. Dad engaged them with counselling and social support. And look, it was always a tough rental market in Sydney, even at the best of times...but if you have limited English, no rental history or local employment record, it can be impossible. 

    Dad solved this by putting his own name down as a co tenant to secure a lease, and as a reverend. Not many people knock you back. Especially in western Sydney. You can imagine this double life. This juxtaposition of where I was at school amongst the privilege and then living with people who had nothing. These experiences pushed me into studying law. I had been interested in the arts and sciences, studying maths and chemistry and visual art before that, but it was clear to me that I wanted to work in the area, and it was clear that things weren't getting better for refugees.  

    And this is what led me to work in refugee advocacy alongside my dad, largely supporting people in immigration detention and those who ran into issues settling in the community. 

    Okay, I'm going to say something a little bit sideways, and it's going to, if you don't mind, the timing is not quite all the same. But look, life is moving at a rapid pace. It was a dynamic and intense time for refugee politics in Australia. My part seemed quite set, but life also has a habit of forcing you to pause to take stock, and perhaps take time to deal with aspects of your past, your own trauma. 

    For me, it was a case of encephalitis, a devastating virus that affects your brain. I first contacted it by the end of school. It was one of those surreal moments. I'd been feeling unwell but committed to playing in a rugby tournament, and after coming home and having a shower, I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke, I couldn't move my arms and legs. 

    You can imagine it would have been quite distressing. And of course not just for me. But as you can see I was helped, and with medical support and rehab I luckily got back my physical faculties over time and I recovered from this acute illness. The condition had more insidious and sort of long lasting consequences, especially if my memory and my concentration. 

    It had a deep effect on me for a number of years. I couldn't focus, my hand shook. I had a severe anxiety. I had panic attacks. I'd wake up in the middle of the night sweating and abject fear. Although it was linked to the encephalitis's effect on my brain, I feel some of the anxiety may also have been a result of the virus's impact on my life. 

    Some suggest it was also a combination of some residual trauma coming out. It's hard to imagine now, and I feel silly kind of saying it out loud, but I used to describe it as sort of the moon slowly falling and crushing me.  

    Critically it had a devastating impact on my sense of self. I was, of course, supported by my family and my future wife, Alex, and by various doctors, etc. but I'd lost something. I'd always found my worth in my practice and my achievements. I always thought I was bound for academics success. I was known for studying hard and performing, and I won awards and honours. My family was proud, but now my time in university was marred and dragged on. I struggled to concentrate, to complete assessments and forced to withdraw from subjects. 

    I also mentioned this because it had other dimensions, linked to culture linked to the migrant experience. Notions of success are tied to the experience of many migrant kids, whether pushed or supported by parents, It's something common. And personally, I had a great appreciation for the sacrifice of my parents that they made for us, they made me. I had a great sense of responsibility to sacrifice, to make up for it, to make them proud, to make them happy. I fear embarrassing them, especially to their community.  

    This is internal. Self-imposed, perhaps, but for a number of years I felt lost to it. Of course, I eventually recovered or found a way to manage, and I'd like to think it made me stronger, or at least more reflective. By giving yourself a break, a break from expectations, how to give yourself some sympathy. 

    It recalibrated some of my judgments, my understanding of success, of fruits, of effort, and an appreciation for the hidden trials of others.  

    I'm going to jump again a little. It's now 2012. My wife Alex and I are now here in Perth. Look, I'm not going to go into detail, but essentially, Alex hated her job as a commercial lawyer, so we moved for her to retain and pursue her studies. This time in medicine. Look. She's here. I don't want to embarrass her. She now works in palliative and geriatric medicine and is really amazing. So if you're planning on aging or dying, please go and see her.  

    I didn't know I needed it, but the move from Sydney helped me to move away from some of my past experiences. It provided a new place free from the objects that reminded me of my illness and my challenges, not unlike the choice that my parents made to live in Parks, That random country town, all those years ago.  

    Moving, of course, didn't mean I left my work. When arriving in Perth I took up with the Red Cross. I managed a program that supported asylum seekers who had just been released from detention, many of whom who had experienced significant torture and trauma. 

    It was an intensive six week support where we rushed, institutionalized people into the community, get them housed in private accommodation linked to services and living independently, all within 30 working days.  

    It was also a crazy period for Australian politics. We change prime ministers on a whim. Policy moving at an extraordinary pace and a constant flux. For refugees, the situation was better than it was when my family were first taking people in in the 90s, but it was hardly compassionate. Working in the area was tough, to say the least. My team were often wracked with vicarious trauma and burnt out. It was hard, high pressure work with unrealistic deadlines, but the team was dedicated, passionate and had grit.  

    If I want to draw just a single lesson, it would be about the incredible power imbalance we observed every day. Yes, between Canberra policy and the individual...but even between us not for profit workers and our clients. Though, we didn't quite make the decisions, we literally held the purse strings. In those days, we wrote and signed that fortnightly checks ourselves. And look, we were diligent. We work 24 hours a day. But we weren't perfect. Yet we received no formal complaints. Such is the imbalance.  

    I remember it's playing out in a really funny way. We would run leadership training for clients and I remember reviewing their self reflections. They would write things that they thought we wanted to hear, as if they were under some kind of scrutiny. They would write things like, Kevin Rudd is the best leader in the world. Who knows? He might have been. But the reverence was clearly coloured by fear. 

    I might just take another quick detour. Perth is great. A great place for a family. A great place to raise children and have a dog. You can park at the beach for free. There's minimum traffic. The sky is very, very blue. My little family and I really do lived a charmed life here. But these feelings are often brought to heel, especially when I'm talking to my parents.  

    We recently had Winnie baptized. We had delayed it for a while because of Covid, and we wanted to bring the family together in Sydney for a reunion of sorts. You know, a lovely sort of small and special moment. As usual, after returning to Perth, I sent some photos to Mum and Dad on the family WhatsApp.  

    Just the good ones. The highlights were all the kids are facing the right direction and dad immediately responds with ''s a photo of the church you are baptized in'. Of course, it was blown up six months later, but here's what remained'. It's often like this. It's our memories and their memories. 

    When Winnie was two, I sent a video of her putting her shoes on by herself. It was cute, you know, with her little hands.... and dad responds with, oh, that's nice. It reminds me when you were three in the war, and whenever you heard a loud noise, you'd grab everyone's shoes and say, it's time to run. A habitual occurrence at the time. 

    Look, I say this with a smile, but it reminds you how lucky we are to be raising a child in this environment. These episodes of my childhood aren't always at the forefront of my mind, and the reminders may not always be welcome, but the perspective is certainly necessary. And sometimes these connections come the other way as well. Just a few weeks ago, on one of those very hot January weekends, I took Winnie to the new pool at Scarborough Beach. It's really nice there. Winnie isn't super into putting a head under water right now, and so we played a game where I would dive under the ropes and she would go over the ropes...but once, once, once across the ropes, she would jump onto my back as I resurfaced.  

    The game went on maybe a dozen rounds. Each time when we reconnected, she would whisper in my ear, I'll always be with you. I thought this was so sweet, even though she was essentially half strangling and drowning me. It was uh... It was very sweet. And I would respond with, 'I'll always be with you', too. Maybe she was just being silly, just letting me know that she could catch me. And even though we were just mucking around at a pool, this little episode 'I'll always be with you' brought up some real feelings. 

    This sentiment of being with your family, even when there's no risk of loss attached, no war, no illness. The sentiment is so strong we can't imagine it. But of course, at some point we make decisions and sometimes they're forced upon us, like the decisions that many refugees and migrants make, decisions that mean they won't see their families again. My parents were just a little younger than I am now when they made that huge decision, when they gave up their careers, their missions in life, their families to come here. 

    For dad, he would never see his mother again. They lost all they had built. They felt great guilt for those left behind, for the work unfinished, the lives at risk. Could I make the same decisions and sacrifices? Look, we talk about careers and education. But would we start again? For mum I know that she wouldn't want to talk about it even now. 

    What impact would it have on me now? I don't know if I would have the wherewithal to start again and then to, of course, go on and to give back the way that they did after such loss. I won't go into what it is. It's kind of in the title. For me, moving to government was only a semi conscious decision. I left Red Cross in 2014 to take up a three month secondment at OMI. I had spent a career trying to navigate government policy, arguing with government, advocating for people who found themselves in conflict with it. But I figured I needed to understand government better, to know what I was up against from the inside. And now, ten years into that three month secondment. I can safely say it's a great place to work. And I've certainly gained an education in government.  

    I'll admit that in the early days, the transition wasn't easy. I didn't feel as involved as connected to a mission. I was no longer on the coalface as it was. I would chase that closeness around the chapter of Welcome to Australia on the side. Some people in the room here. I was vice chair of the centre for Asylum Seekers, refugees and Detainees, and I volunteered with other not for profits or worthy organizations and all do their stories on another night. 

    But social policy and systemic change takes time. Government processes, forms and approvals all take time, and you don't really see the impact you're trying to have on a day to day basis. I had to adjust to this. The impact we are trying to make is strategic. It involves moving multiple Cogs across multiple authorities and different agencies. The real work is done mostly by community themselves. People who are mostly unpaid and often underappreciated. Our job is to be informed by them, by their insights and innovation, to empower them, to make sure they are recognized and to help facilitate change with them.  

    And having learned a little bit of the system myself. I hope that we provide a conduit with government, especially for those who feel that distance or power imbalance in their lives. 

    Look, it's not to say we don't get to work alongside those we impact. Just last week, I was at a lunch, Tanwar aged care, one of the organizations OMI is likely to support, and I got to meet some of the volunteers, many in their 80s. Although it wasn't quite Taylor Swift, I did get to hear a wonderful man in his 90s belt out some Vietnamese classics. Kong only started singing two years ago. He'd had two bouts of lung cancer and was encouraged to take out these community singing classes simply for his lung capacity and for his confidence. But now he loves it, and he loves to sing to seniors in three languages.  

    You feel so energized. Having the privilege to meet so many inspiring people. And I feel incredibly lucky to have had this career and to be where I am now. Having lost my own language, I now get to support community language groups who volunteer on weekends to help people stay connected to cultures. Having been inspired by grassroots community Leader, I now get to honour and empower others. Having fled one government and then spent a career challenging and advocating to another, I find myself in the happy irony of working for a government agency seeking to create positive change. It's a charmed life. This is my story to date. Admittedly, it's one with a clear throughline. 

    It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how this child could become this man, how this history could become this purpose. You'd think the lesson out of all this would be something like follow your passion or make challenges your mission. The kind of thing you put on a mug. But I couldn't, with any sincerity, provide that advice to anyone. I've been incredibly lucky and privileged, and there is meaning in all aspects of life, not just in work, but of those working in cobalt mines in the Congo or those doctors who have migrated only to be working as doctors or cleaners. To follow one's passion is a privilege. But this is a device that devalues the experience of others, including many who have come as migrants to this country. 

    And it's not all about work or education. Often the meaning in our lives can be in spite of these things. If you take something from my story, it's probably not what impact I've had or any success I've had in my career, but the message can be found in the remarkable people who've impacted me, who have, through their kindness, their example, and their generosity, shaped my life. For me, it was what our Ukrainian grandma did when we first arrived. It's what water and boy, the boys next door taught us in parks and how we embraced by that small town. It's a 90 year old singer that inspires you. It's the role model that set an example and the partners who offer their patience and support. Right after listening to your speeches. Life has meaning in different places. In our families, our challenges, our neighbours, and in going swimming with your daughter. Thank you. 

    Thank you.  

    Maggie Jiang: 

    Fascinating story and fascinating storytelling. Thank you so much, generously, James, for sharing your migration experience and your personal journey. We will now open up the floor for questions that specifically relating to career development, personal journey. And if you have any question relating to that in that domain, please feel free to ask James. 


    Did your parents move back? Can you tell us something about that?  


    Thanks for the question. For a long time, you know, Richard, we didn't go back to Sri Lanka and for a long time it was dangerous for them to go back. And there was a lot of guilt associated with lots of feelings and emotions. And for a long time, we actually couldn't go back to where they lived. 

    So there was a point in time when you could go into Colombo, but you couldn't get to the east and the north. And even though some areas you, you know, they're controlled by the rebels at different times. And unfortunately, because dad had been blacklisted by them as well, we couldn't cross through. But later on, only in 2017 did we go back. Much, much later. And the sad thing for my dad is that we couldn't go back when his mother died. And I think that was in like, 2008, I think. But and that is, you know, it's real regret for them and it's a regret for us. But I mean, it's, you know, I think the nature of lots of people's stories when it comes to these things. 


    Who chose parks? Was it sort of one of the options? 


    Well essentially, essentially dad was a priest right? So essentially when we came, you know, it, he became a Uniting Church minister here after the Methodist there. And they said, 'you can go. These are the places where parishes are available'. Obviously, there's a lot more parishes in Sydney. But there are also, I shouldn’t say there was some barriers but there was lots of Sri Lankans in Sydney, and I think they found it hard to face all of that. 

    So they found this town and parks. They'd never heard of it before and they didn't know anything about it. 'The Dish' wasn't out yet. There was no Elvis festival. And in fact, when I said, dad was a pop singer, he sang the Beatles. So wouldn't have been helpful anyway. But, But because it was available, we went out there.  


    What's your experience being person of colour working in the public service? and what’s your sentiment about that?  


    Yeah, it's a very tough question. And look, it's not that the public service doesn't have some diversity. It's really about opportunities and what levels people are on and what authority people have. And different departments are different. I remember going to speak to one department about the Race Discrimination Commissioner, to former one. Tim was here and he was having a meeting about a few things, and one of the departments was saying, I won't name them of course, were saying 'we are so diverse'. You know, 'these are our numbers'. And I kind of said to them, you know, I, I won't say what i said because it will give away which department is, but I said 'so can I ask you, where are those numbers? Are they in this level? Are they doing these things or are they doing these things... and how many?' Well, what would be the diversity like in your corporate executive?' And of course, you know, they had to pause. They couldn't say, you know, anything. They kind of in the end just said, oh, well, look, we have one woman on corp ex, but she's temporary. 

    And, and, you know, not say anything about people from diverse backgrounds. But,  but again, that was in the few years and things have changed quite a bit, especially to have gender diversity. But yeah, it certainly can be a challenge.  

    And part of the challenge can be people just not really appreciating people's experience and the way in which we talk about various things, about colonization experience of people, what people might fear, and also perhaps in terms of understanding what impacts people from the outside when some event happens, for example, the things that happened in India during Covid, the massive amounts of deaths that happened, nearly everyone I know was impacted here because everyone had lost someone or knew someone or knew the suffering.  

    But working in areas where might not be the diverse, you might not know your colleague is being impacted in that way, especially living in, you know, in WA, as it were. So yeah, it's not easy. I could probably talk about it for a long, long time. But, but it's not to say there's not lots of opportunities, lots of people who are well-meaning, lots of people who've got the right hope in the right spirit. And of course, I've got to plug the fact that as the Office of Multicultural Interests and the WA state government, we do now have a Western Australian multicultural policy framework. I think Janine was on the ministry  council at the time. So there are lots of actions being taken, taking place.  


    Yeah. Okay. Thanks everyone. Thank you. Thanks, James for insights. 

    Now can I please invite Mr. Alec Coles CEO of WA Museum to share with us some concluding remarks? Thank you Alec.   

    Alec Coles: 

    Thank you all. Thanks, Maggie. But I do want to thank everybody for coming this evening. I obviously want to thank David, and acknowledge the partnership with the university, and I particularly want to thank Maggie because all of this was her idea, and, it's been such a great series so far and long may it continue.  

    And it's an absolute delight to, to work with you. And I also want to thank my, my team for their, their work. But of course, most of all I want to thank James. 

    There was so many things. I was writing things down on my phone, and I left it behind because there was so much I could have said. So many comments you made. also reminded me... I like your comment about, you know, the changing Prime Minister's, in, in Canberra. I remember seeing John Key, the New Zealand Prime Minister, once giving a speech where he said, you know, I'm delighted to be here, of course, if I was in Australia, you'd have no idea who was going to turn up kind of thing. But the experience you... and also I should say, very gratefully brought Alex along because although I'm not planning on aging, I am, as you can see, I'm probably going to need some of that assistance pretty soon.  

    Um, that was, you know, a beautiful story, beautifully delivered. And the kind of generosity and the warm  that you speak about. 

    And, you know, you say how lucky you are and you know, and look at are lucky. But, you know, I'm one of those boring people who to say that, you know, you do make your own luck sometimes. And the, story that you tell, the outcome could have been very different. And, for me, that's the measure of the person. I've known James for quite a while now so I'm very pleased to be able to give this this word of thanks.  

    There was so much that that touched me there, but particularly, it was your story. It was your parents story as well. And, the sacrifices that they made. And I thought the point you made at the end about, you know, would you would we would any one of us, be able to do that? and to remind ourselves of the, you know, the trepidation, you know, we just need to look around the world today, and, the way people are suffering and, you know, your family came through that, I loved your stories about your dad being able to, you know, bring you back down all the time when you got a good start, I had a father like that, actually. And, you know, but also that challenge you faced with the encephalitis and that story you told, which, again, I can relate to.  

    That, that time when you, you know, you felt you weren't good enough and you know. However stoic your, your father would be I think it's pretty clear they, they'd be very proud of what you've achieved. And I know this has been, been filmed, so I hope this will, you know, go, to other, you know, to other places from here.  

    I was just warmed by that story. So I've known you a long time, but I learned an awful lot about you. But I think we all, learned a lot more about humanity, actually. And the work that you do is so important, and it's so, fuelled and supported by your own experiences that it is about passion and it is genuine. And, I just feel very fortunate to have hear that tonight and I think we all did as well. So I think all of us would like to say a very big thank you, for sharing what was a very intimate story. 


    Thank you. 


    And I and I think in recognition of that, we have a small a small token of our appreciation we'd like to present to you . 

    That's right, that's right, that's right. Yeah. We both have to hold it same time. That's right. Yeah. yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much. Wonderful. 

    So the other thing I should say about James is what is it, 2014? You joined the government to understand how it works. I did that for four years before you. I still don't understand. So I’m going to come to you for some advice. But anyway. Anyway.  


    Yeah, I used to work in UK government, and I don't know how that works either. 


    Thanks for listening to the talks archive brought to you by the Western Australian Museum Boola Bardip. To listen to other episodes go to for more conversation where you can hear a range of talks and conversations. The talks archive is recorded on Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar. The Western Australian Museum acknowledges and respects the traditional owners of their ancestral lands, waters and skies. 

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