Megan Mitchell is Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, appointed in 2013. Megan has previous experience in both government and non-government roles in child protection, out-of-home care, youth justice, disability, and early childhood services. In her role as Commissioner, Megan focuses solely on the rights and interests of children, and the laws, policies and programs that impact on them.
I want to tell you today about my rugby league career. I also want to tell you a little bit about my role as National Children’s Commissioner, and the work I’ve been leading to build safe and inclusive environments for children.
As a kid I wasn’t really much into sports. I come from following the mighty North Sydney Bears. And attending swimming lessons on a Sunday morning. The best bit of which was the milkshakes, lime spiders and hot dogs afterwards.
I was more the creative type.
And it wasn’t really until my 20s at university that I began to embrace sport, and I took on soccer and cricket with much enthusiasm. And I took these on primarily because I thought they were pretty obscure and I might be relatively okay at them. And while I was enthusiastic, I was actually pretty average.
But in my late 20s I traveled over to the UK to do a masters degree in social policy at the University of York. And on a wintery orientation day I sought out the stand, the football stand, cause I thought, oh I’ll join a women’s soccer team. That will be good. I might meet people. But I find, to my surprise that at the football stand, there’s no women’s soccer team. But as luck would have it, right next to that stand was a stand for women’s rugby union that. And I thought to myself that’s pretty obscure, I might be okay at that relatively speaking. So I joined the York University Women’s Rugby Union team.
Now, it was—that was coached by two women who were ex-players and students of the university and they were excellent coaches because they understood where we were all going to be coming from and that we had never played a contact sport before. And I want to take you back there to my first training, they had us do this drill with my volunteer Shawn.
Okay, here we are. Now imagine you are in a wintery frosty university oval, in the middle of the night. So they got us to kneel down like this, and then they got us just to hit each other like this. But, come on, come on, do it. Thank you.
Okay, I can take it, thank you, thank you Shawn.
And they did this cause they knew we had never played contact sport before and this was a gentle precursor for us to tackle safely, fall safely in a tackle. To racking and mauling and of course the dignity of having our heads shoved up against each other’s asses in a scrum, which I never knew before happened, but I do now.
And low and behold I found my calling. I was a demon tackler. In fact, in my first game I broke an opposition players leg. Clearly she hadn’t been taught to fall effectively in a tackle I thought to myself as she was wheeled off in a trolley. And after that game I also remember my body being sore in place I never thought existed and I remember having to drink my pint down at the pub like this. I could not move my neck for weeks. It was like this.
Anyway, a year and a degree later I returned to Canberra. I still was pretty average at this game too, cause there I am being handed off by somebody.
I don’t know who took that photo and I will never forgive them.
And I did get to play cricket come summer which was great fun. So sports are a bit of thread of my at least later life. Anyway, I get back to Canberra and I find out by chance that there is a Women’s Rugby League Competition that has started there. And I think to myself, that’s obscure maybe I’d be okay at that. I know the rules, I followed the Mighty Bears when I was a kid, and frankly I never understood the rules to Rugby Union and still don’t to this day, although I watch it.
And I was okay at touch footing. You know, so I joined the Westbell Common, ACT Westbell Common Women’s Rugby League Competition and Team. And we trained hard, we gelled well as a team and we made the grand final. But as was the case with women’s sports back then, player safety and well-being wasn’t really a big priority.
And just before the end of halftime, I saved this try over the line where a rather large women fell on me and my head hit back the ground, the back of my head hit the ground with an all-mighty thump. The next thing I remember is coming to in the dressing rooms amid great grand final celebrations. We had won the grand final, but I had played an entire half completely concussed. I had run around like a mad thing. I had tackled everybody in sight, even people on my own team. I had been known to ask where am I? What is this business? Where are we? What are we doing? No one had thought to take me off, including the coach or even check how I was.
Thus ended my rugby league career. I never really wanted to play again. And I think this is a lesson for all of us about how people need to be safe in these environments especially when they come from a history that hasn’t had a lot of sport in it.
Things luckily have changed a lot since then. Player safety and priority and well-being is absolutely prioritized and we see so much more diversity in sport. We have women’s comps in previously male domains that are very high profile and national like cricket and soccer, league, AFL, union, and these are watched, they are televised and watched in great numbers. We have sporting heros speaking up about their sexuality and being comfortable about it.
We have national and international forums where people with disabilities can display their sporting skills. And many sporting figures now also are open about their struggles with mental health. And we see a lot of diversity and people from different cultures in our sporting fixtures. On the screen is the Western Sydney Tigers, the first women’s AFL team, established in Sydney. Now part of the GWS Giants and part of the AFL Women’s Fixture. And a team that inspires a long with all the other girls playing, or women playing that competition, inspires women and girls all around the country to get involved in sports.
And you know this diversity, seeing this diversity helps our young children to think that they can too play sports, no matter what they look like or where they come from. Not all kids feel that they can play sport or even want to. And why is this?
It could be for a range of reasons. It could be because of what they experience within their families and communities. Things like hemophobia and racism, bullying, sexism, disability discrimination. It could be because their family couldn’t find the money for the fees or equipment. They mightn’t have transport to get to training or a game. They might not feel safe. They might not have enough confidence.
They might have mobility or communication difficulties. Or indeed their cultural norms might in fact clash with the cultural norms of the sporting code.
So what can we do about this? How can we make our environments and our sporting clubs and organizations accessible and welcoming for kids? Well one way is to embrace some of the work that I’m currently leading in partnership with the Commonwealth Government.
This wheel of safety represents 10 principles for child safe organizations that we’re hoping that will be endorsed later in the year.
They represent all the things an organization needs to do from the governance to how it does compliance to how it makes it’s policies known to people to make sure that the places that kids are are safe and inclusive.
Principle four in particular is about equity and diversity, because being safe is also about feeling a sense of belonging and feeling like you can actually knock on the door in the first place. And while that principle actually relates to all of the other principles it really deserves it’s own recognition and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
Now we’ll go back actually on that one. So what can you do in your clubs and in your organizations and in your networks to reflect on how you can be more inclusive?
What strategies do you have in place to promote equity and diversity in your organizations?
Where do you go to sell your messages? Do you go to local festivals, events and schools? Do you know what the profile of your community looks like? For instance we know that 28% of a Australians were born overseas. 10% of children and young people. What are the backgrounds of your players? Your administrators, your volunteers and your coaches, what do they look like in that regard?
What strategies do you have in place to help alleviate financial issues or transport issues, and how adaptable are you with dress codes for sport? Incidentally, that’s why I joined the girls uniform agenda just recently as a supporter. Because who can start a career as a champion cyclist in a getup like that?
One of my roles is to promote awareness of children’s rights. And it’s really joyful as part of that, I might just get a little bit of water, that I get to talk to kids a lot. And including as part of this project on child safe organizations, and basically in the end children want to be respected and they want to be listened to. Like all of us. And that makes them feel safe. So giving kids a say is not only empowering for them, and gives them a sense of their rights, it is also safeguarding for them.
And on this screen you see some of the things that they say they want organizations to promise to them in order to keep them safe, well and happy. Things like treating everyone equally and fairly. Being inclusive and welcoming. Helping them with their hopes and dreams. Making places happy and comfortable. And clean they say as well. Being good at what you do, I think that’s a really important one, because they don’t want you to be lame and hopeless, they want you to be the best coaches, the best administrators, they want to be able to rely on you.
Providing access to good technology and care and they mean, if they get sick or hurt, they want to make sure that somebody will look after them. Understanding them as individuals. Making sure there are lots of ways to have a say, because kids speak up in different ways, so they need multiple ways to make sure they can be heard. And they don’t just want you to listen, they want you to act. Such is the wisdom of children.
So, at the end of the day, sport is such a beautiful, global, phenomenon. There’s so much universality to it. It’s practice observed and enjoyed all around the world. As you can see for me it’s been a go-to place for me to connect with other people to get a bit fit and to have fun.
And it brings people regardless of their backgrounds, their abilities, their cultures, together. It helps us, gives us enormous health benefits, mental health benefits and social benefits. And teaches us to work together.
So, as influencers in the places that you will inhabit, you can exert that influence so that all children have the same benefits that we’ve all had. And by becoming champions of diversity inclusion you also become champions of children’s rights.
That’s my challenge to you. By the way, about 10 years later I returned to the UK to subject myself to another bout of study torture. And I finally got to play football in the home of football. Thank you!