National News

Caritas CEO Kirsty Robertson: Lead with integrity and focus on needs of the poorest

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Media and Communications

Caritas Australia’s new CEO Kirsty Robertson has a long personal history with Caritas, and recalls giving to Project Compassion 40 years ago. The CEO shares her vision for Caritas, her aim to lead with integrity and keeping the needs of the poorest at the centre, and why her appointment as CEO feels like a homecoming.

Could you tell us how you reacted when you were appointed to the role of CEO of Caritas Australia?

My first reaction—and I think it’s the reaction of a lot of women—was is this something that I can do? I have a two-and-a-half-year-old little boy, and so for me I wondered: was this something that I would be able to juggle personally? But then with some self-reflection I thought, Caritas is an organisation that’s been part of my story for over two decades. Something inside of me that just said, this is the job for me. Right woman, right time, right place.

Not many people could claim that level of experience with a single organisation. Two decades is a long time.

My association with Caritas actually started long before that. I first put my money into a Project Compassion box as a primary school student and that really changed the course of my life, both personally and professionally. Even as a little kid I realized the power of the work that Caritas did. The stories that you hear through Project Compassion made me realise that there was a whole other world out there with people that we’re connected to. And Caritas provides that connection.

And do you remember the story that attracted you to that Project Compassion donation that gave you that first link to Caritas?

It was in the 1980s, so I should look this up to check that my recollection is correct 40 years later! But I definitely remember a yellow Project Compassion box. The slogan was something to do with Dignity, not Charity. And that prompted a conversation with my mum about the idea that we’re made in the image of God and therefore we all have inherent dignity, and people can’t take it away from you. We have a responsibility to help others realise their dignity, and that was a very early conversation for me that has stuck in my mind. And over the years, that has guided me. People talk about their careers, but I feel like this is my vocation and that I have a true calling to serve the poor. And Caritas has over 50 years of doing this work; of authentically amplifying the voice of the poor.

What’s your vision of how Australians can partner into that work, into that mission of Caritas Australia?

The vision is for people in Australia to realize that there’s limitless potential for us as individuals to partner with Caritas and contribute to the realisation of God’s kingdom on Earth. People often ask, ‘Is the world we have right now the world that God intended?’ Ours is a world where we have over a billion people who will go to bed hungry tonight. And 2,000 people that will die today because they didn’t have access to clean water. I don’t think this is the world that God intended. And so one of the wonderful things about working with Caritas—and indeed for people to support Caritas—is knowing that you get to change that. You get to be part of the story of creating a more just world. And I don’t think there’s anything more important to do with your life than that.

What’s your view of the role in education in raising awareness of poverty and injustice in the public consciousness?
I think education is vital. Firstly, we want to prevent people from being in a space where they feel like they can’t do anything. People—particularly young people—today are bombarded with negative stories in the media about terrible things that are happening in the world. And so I think there’s a real mandate for Caritas Australia to be out there and saying, you can make a difference. We are in a unique position to show how people in Australia are putting their faith into action and changing people’s lives.
There’s also a real urgency here. There’s a human face behind these statistics: there’s a name, there’s a mother, a father, a daughter, a child. People just like us who have hopes and dreams for the future. That’s why support for Caritas Australia—and education about social justice—is so vital. Because at every moment there are people all round the world relying on us. And I think it’s really important that people feel that urgency.
What were some of your most formative experiences in your work for social justice?
I was really lucky to have been given an excellent Catholic education, and that education inspired me in service to the poor. But it also fostered a curiosity, a thirst for learning that remains today. One of my first memories was my first trip to Timor-Leste, with an organisation called Force Ten, which was made up of Caritas and the National Council of Churches. I was in my early 20s and I remember standing in the middle of a field holding a carrot with a local woman who had just proudly pulled that carrot out of the ground. She was saying how having this garden had changed her life because her kids were healthy now and could concentrate in school. But also it had changed her life because it gave her back that feeling of self-sufficiency. It made me realize that it doesn’t take much: it’s these very small transformations in people’s lives that can truly change the way that they see themselves, and the way that they see their future.
A number of my formative experiences have been those visits and those experiences on the ground. That’s often where I’m more comfortable, actually. You can’t help but be inspired when you hear some of the change stories that have taken place as a result of Caritas Australia’s work. I read recently that the reach of Caritas is more than 1.5 million people globally, and the impact that we’re having is significant. Caritas Australia represents the goodness of humanity, and that story of love and compassion is a story that not only our world desperately needs, but one we as individuals also really need.
In recent months, Caritas had the ‘Women for the World’ events in Sydney Melbourne and Canberra. Empowering women in developing nations is quite a focus for Caritas. By any measure, women are disproportionately affected by poverty, and therefore it’s something that Caritas Australia rightly focuses on. Women are much less likely to be involved in decision-making in communities around the world, much less likely to receive an education or have access to health care. And they’re definitely much less likely to own land. In today’s world, poverty and gender are inextricably linked, and therefore we consider it part of our mandate to focus on that space. The ‘Women for the World’ events are fabulous, because they allow us to promote the work that we do in that space.
Part of Caritas’ strategy is to create an agile agency capable of responding to the needs of the poor as they change and emerge. How are we seeing the needs of the poor change and emerge over the years you have been working in social justice, and are you anticipating them changing any further?
There’s definitely been major shifts in the two decades that I’ve been involved in this work. Firstly, there’s been shifts in where we find the poor. We used to find the poor in certain geographical areas, often in rural and remote communities. Now we’re finding the poor in the cities, and we’re starting to see a shift in demographics. These countries that used to be experiencing poverty across the board now have an elite and a middle class, as well as impoverished people. All these things are impacting on our understanding of how to respond to people in need.
People are also on the move globally like in parts of Africa, in the Middle East, where we have especially huge movements of people, and this again creates new challenges in our understanding of how to serve the poor. That said, underlying all of those changes, at the end of the day our mission is grounded in faith and also in perseverance. For us, it doesn’t matter where the poor are or how difficult they are to reach: we’re in service to them. That’s why we need to create an agile agency, because we need to be able to deal with those changes as they emerge. And they’ll continue to emerge.
The other biggest challenge facing organisations like Caritas is a change in our Government’s understanding of the importance of aid. And that definitely will have an impact on our ability to serve communities. That is something that Australians can do something about by speaking with their local MP and saying, ‘This is something that’s really important to me’.
Does Caritas Australia have a focus on any particular areas?
We definitely focus on some regions. I used to be the Pacific Program Coordinator at Caritas, so I have a special heart for that work. In 2009, there was a tsunami in Samoa and I had the privilege then of being deployed by Caritas Australia to be part of the team responding to the tsunami. These are our closest neighbours, and these are places where climate change is really affecting people’s lives. And so we definitely have a mandate to keep them at the front of our thinking.
Climate change, and the threats caused by it, is a major factor that is affecting the work that we do. And there’s a need for us to do disaster risk reduction, and trying to make sure that communities are prepared for these disasters that do keep affecting them and their lives. I know, having been deployed into Samoa, just what an effect it has on communities, to have infrastructure destroyed and to experience a loss of life. It takes decades really to recover and rebuild, and communities are having to do that every couple of years in some parts of the world.
But people should know that they can make a difference, and Caritas Australia is a way that they can put their faith in action, and contribute to the realisation of God’s kingdom on Earth.
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