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For the last seven years, Radford College in Canberra has hosted the Dirrum Festival, a gathering that celebrates engagement with and service to the common good. This year marked the first time the festival was held off the College campus, heading across to the University of  Canberra, a generous partner in 2019.

Taking the values of Dirrum Dirrum into the wider community was an intentional move. At its root is a culture which encourages young voices and leaders to find not only their place alongside exceptional and international speakers, but to shine. Strangely, it is the student voices that always cut through.

Each new student organising committee for the festival inherits this challenge: Recognise reality, see possibilities; Inspire intelligence, effective engagement; Lead for a greater and common good.

One of the speakers at the festival was the inspirational Australian nurse, Valerie Browning. Valerie has lived and worked in the remote Afar region of northern Ethiopia for more than 30 years. Her work is supported by the Melbourne-based agency, Anglican Overseas Aid (AOA).

AOA is currently supporting Valerie’s work through the enlargement of the Bargaale Dam in the Unduru region of the Afar. Water supplies there are increasingly perilous. The community harvests rain using cisterns and dams. With less reliable rainfall and fewer rainy seasons, these dams need to be bigger and more numerous. Enlarging the Bargaale dam will allow more water to be stored for longer.

A delegate to the festival summarised Valerie’s confronting talk as describing the move ‘from economy to humanity’. It was a provocative challenge, for until we displace the economy as our god, we cannot expect an end to the sickness we see in our environment, aged care systems, or relationships with the dispossessed.

A young delegate, who is a self-confessed teenage cynic responded by saying, ‘I’ve convinced my being that the world is beyond saving, there is nothing we can do anymore, no one cares and simply put, we are screwed. I attended the Festival as sceptical as ever. I found myself  for the first time in a long time seeking that fire inside me. Particularly, Valerie spoke to me, spoke to my soul, and rekindled that lost initiative to act with care and courage.

The festival also had impacts in other ways. Another young delegate exclaimed, ‘I love the way adults sit with students and people from the community and learn together. It’s very collegial’, and followed that up by saying, ‘I love the way the festival plotted a pathway between realism and hope’.

Bridging the gap between realism and hope was explained with brutal honesty by Ian Chubb in his talk ‘From my generation to yours: good luck!’

Ian was followed on the podium by Sophia Hamblin Wang who spoke about nudge theory – creating social change by making things easy to act on, or as she declared, making it profitable. Sophia described her company, which is only a few years away from providing industries with a way to convert a ‘waste product’ into a building material. Carbon dioxide becomes a product to harvest rather than a pollutant to mitigate. Sophia modelled what Chubb was seeking: young who can lead and build trust through vision, courage and persuasion. It was profoundly inspiring.

The theme of acting with courage was further emphasised in the talk by Simon Illingworth about moral responsibility. As a man whose choices as a whistleblower in the Victorian Police force have put him and his family firmly in the cross hairs of harm, he had the authority to ask, ‘what makes your life worthwhile? And in the face of temptation, corruption, cheap or illegal reward, what do you do? The right decision might just  be the one that requires courage’.

Courage and inspiration were virtues that were emphasised heavily at the festival. One delegate exclaimed, ‘With each other we can find the courage to do something about what matters’. Another said, ‘My children and I heard a very important, passionate and real story. We are richer having learned and now, we must act. With love, prayers and gratitude.’ It all made for a challenging and exciting few days of seeing how we can work together for our common good.

If you would like to donate to the enlargement of the Bargaale Dam through the work of Valerie Browning, you can head over to the website of Anglican Overseas Aid at https://anglicanoverseasaid.org.au/donateonline/

by Father Richard Browning, Photos by A. Lee