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Interview

“Democracy is not a spectator sport": Tim Lo Surdo talks racism, capitalism, and activism.

Tim Lo Surdo has held many titles. He is a board member, has been an advisor to two state senators, coordinated grassroots campaigns with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), been the National Communications Director for UN Youth Australia, and currently stands as the Founder and National Co-Director of Democracy in Colour, which as he describes it, “is Australia’s first racial and economic justice organisation lead by people of colour” He also happens to be Oaktree’s former Head of Campaigns.

Equipped with his skills and experiences in campaigning, Tim founded Democracy in Colour to address three key gaps in the anti-racism space: a lack of advocacy and political campaign work, a lack of tackling racism from a systems-lense, and lack of People of Colour in these spaces.

“We saw a space that was overwhelmingly dominated by organisations that had little connection to those communities that are most impacted by the issues they worked on. We wanted a racial justice organisation lead by people with lived experience because we know that there’s nobody that understands the problem better than those who are impacted by it... We need to centre the voice and leadership of those who experience the issue most deeply and profoundly.”

Tim continuously brings our conversations back to spaces and systems when addressing racism. Rather than looking at and targeting individuals, Tim says:

“You hate the game not the players, and we are all players in a broken game. That’s not to excuse bad behaviour but it’s important to contextualise it, because if you don’t understand the problem, then you have no hope of re-constructing it.

“The problem isn’t racist people or sexist people, the problem is we live in a patriarchal, heteronormative, predatory capitalist and white-supremacist society...we’re trying to fundamentally deconstruct and dismantle systems that get good people to do bad things.”

Even when asked about personal achievements, Tim is insistent to bring accomplishments back to wider movements.

“Every achievement I’ve been proud of, it’s not my achievement, it’s only been possible because of the hundreds of other people to collectively make that thing possible. The only way to build enough power to reshape the systems we need to is to build this collectively. That rejects the hero myth that we need individual people to save us, whether that be inspiring activists or politicians, we do this together.”

When asked about good allyship, Tim reiterates this point about heroism.

“[It’s about] being careful to ensure that you are acting as an ally and not acting as a self-appointed hero, and being careful to use your privilege to create space for those who are impacted by an issue to show their leadership and centre their voices, as opposed to using this as a way to centre your own voice.”

Between 2015 and 2017, Tim served as Oaktree’s Head of Campaigns, which included running our work for National Elections. He had a lot to say about the importance of Oaktree.

“Young people are often taught how powerless they are, how disinterested they are, especially through the politics of social change...it’s organisations like Oaktree that provide such a pivotal opportunity for young people to throw off that stereotype.

“Oaktree would’ve transformed thousands of people who have gone through their campaigns and programs to have a better understanding of what they can achieve together, and then they go off and achieve extraordinary things in a whole other variety of areas.”

Tim’s work at Oaktree has a strong link to his work at Democracy in Colour today.

“I joined [Oaktree] because I believe in a world of equal opportunity where the dignity of everyone is recognised. I learnt technical skills around management and campaigning and leadership and strategy, but I really think the things that put me in the best place was how Oaktree shaped me in being more resilient.

“The experiences and attitudes that are required in creating and sustaining a start-up, like perseverance, endurance, persistence, you can only really grow and learn being out through similar experiences.”

And what can other people learn from joining Oaktree?

“Democracy is not a spectator sport...Organisations like Oaktree offer us an opportunity to take collective action with people who have shared values on an issue that matters to us.

“Social change isn’t inevitable, it’s not some inexorable march forward. It happens because everyday folks stand together, take collective action, and decide that the status quo is not good enough.”

Want to be part of our movement? Check out Oaktree’s Current Opportunities page for vacant positions here.

For more on Democracy in Colour, click here.

You can find Tim on Twitter here.