With purpose and passion: Strathcona Medal Winner 2015

Congratulations to Joanne Knight (1996), who was awarded the Strathcona Medal 2015 at Strathcona’s 92nd Annual Presentation Night on Monday 30 November. 

The Strathcona Medal, awarded annually, stands alone as Strathcona’s method of recognising someone from within our School community of past students who has demonstrated excellence in her chosen field and exceptional service to the wider community in the spirit of the School motto ‘Bravely, Faithfully, Happily’.

Joanne completed her education at Strathcona in 1996, followed by honours degrees in Arts and Law at Monash University.

She is an experienced lawyer who has sought justice for refugees and disadvantaged migrants, and has led lawyers in seeking law reform for human rights and fairness. As a lawyer and then Associate, Jo worked with Erskine Rodan & Associates leading test cases and a successful High Court challenge in migration and domestic violence law. In seeking law reform, Jo led teams of voluntary lawyers as Section Chair of the Administrative Law and Human Rights area of the Law Institute of Victoria, proposing legal reforms and appearing before Parliamentary Inquiries.

Joanne has also managed the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Ecumenical Migration Centre, and governed on a number of not for profit boards, including as the founding Chairperson of Oaktree for its first six years – a youth led movement to end poverty – as Deputy Chair of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seekers Project, and as an advisory member to the Board of Mission Australia.

She is currently TEAR Australia’s National Advocacy Coordinator, campaigning on aid and climate justice. Her passion is for positive change for those facing injustice or poverty.

We are proud to name her as the 2015 recipient of the Strathcona Medal.

Joanne’s acceptance speech on Presentation Night, 2015

Thank you for this acknowledgement. It’s an honour to be here.

Let me tell you about some of the things that awakened a sense of justice in me:

  • My aunt, through her downs syndrome, opened up a compassion and appreciation for difference in our community.
  • East Timorese resistance leaders who I met through my church, opened up political action, and brought my formation of faith and justice together.
  • Strathcona staff encouraged me, and opened my eyes to world systems and causes to problems that I wanted to tackle.
  • At uni, I studied the big picture of world politics, law, developing countries and human rights. But it was only when I spent time in India with people who were actually poor, did I feel humbled and realise my role was to use my skills and seek change back in the West. So much of what they struggled with stemmed from the lifestyles and greed of the West, and this gave me clarity about my purpose in the justice story.

Over the years I’ve worked on different justice issues, using different skills and leading in different ways. I like to think of advocacy like a toolbox where different tools solve different problems.

As a lawyer, I sought justice for refugees and disadvantaged migrants. The tool I was using was the law and the courts, working within the system. I wanted to use my skills helping people caught up in laws that will go down in history to our shame. The lessons I was learning about leadership were the need to be smart, a creative and strategic thinker, and above all else deliver results, not just talk.

In my board leadership of Oaktree, the tool I was using was more outward facing – enabling mobilisation of the masses and moving poverty from a concern on the margins to the mainstream. The lessons I learnt in leadership, which was a baptism by fire and not always easy, was the belief in the power of community, the importance of big picture vision matched with implementation, the importance of taking risk, having fun, and working hard. I’m blown away by how possible it is to take action together and succeed, and be part of a story that changed our nation. It’s nice to reflect on how much we are a product of those we have collaborated with. Aside from the outcomes directly from Oaktree; the transformation of people in that movement has been incredible, with Oaktree alumni leading campaigning and digital activism globally.

When I have volunteered with fellow lawyers through submissions for human rights law reform, the tool I was using was subject expertise deployed to fix the system. For me, it was the start of a journey outside the system to bring change. I learnt the power of united purpose and ambition as we worked as a team, and the importance of humility as we worked anonymously under the umbrella of the Law Institute.

Exhausted from juggling law by day and Oaktree by night, I moved to managing a refugee community centre. I learnt the lesson that I needed to work on constructive long-term settlement of refugees, after the fight for a visa was over. The tool I was using was managing and enabling others, stepping back myself from the frontline. I was energised as we worked creatively and innovatively with refugee communities, and facilitated them to advocate themselves for change. The lessons of leadership from that time were of the importance of hope and inspiration, caring for each other as a team, an entrepreneurial spirit, and patience – as change, and settlement, takes time.

The final tools I want to share with you are tools of strategy, planning and governance, to enable good organisations to flourish and build up civil society. Whether it’s a lean start-up, grassroots service delivery, or big organisations changing course– I have been energised by working with different tools to help them thrive. My current roles strategising aid and climate campaigning through coalitions, is very rewarding. I also get to focus on tools of movement building to activate ordinary people to live out and speak up for change, so that our politicians hear from a growing movement of constituents, of the need for a more just and sustainable community.

The challenge I would leave with you, as the current Strathy students, is not what you want to be or study – but what sorts of problems do you want to solve? From there, the tools you’ll need in your toolbox will start to make sense. Start with your purpose and passion. The rest will follow.