Emily Chantiri speaks to Scott Rankin, founder of not-for-profit organisation, Big hART, about driving social change through art and creativity.
Growing up on a Chinese junk boat on Sydney harbour, writer and director Scott Rankin’s younger years were anything but conventional. His parents wanted to give their children more than the expected traditional life experiences, and that desire drove his unusual childhood; the Rankins drifted between a boat and a boatshed they called home.
“One was an old boatshed in Woolwich and the other was an old Chinese junk boat,” says Rankin. “My sisters and I lived this idyllic lifestyle, it was fantastic. My parents were prepared to take risks with us.”
An award-winning theatre director, Rankin identifies his mother – whose life work centred on the importance of early childhood play – and his life on the water, as his inspirations.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother’s work did influence my childhood in the range of activities we did, particularly in terms of not allowing addictions such as so-called educational play or STEM to overrun the importance of imaginative play,” he says.
As a young teenager, Rankin was shaped by Russian dancer Njinsky, who in many ways revolutionised art in the 20th century and St Francis of Assisi. “Not in a religious sense, but in terms of his values and political savvy,” says Rankin. “He was a man of his time in a theological sense. He could talk to lepers or the Pope. He set an agenda for me to look for new ways to work for the rights of all people.”
Road to Tasmania
Life continued on the water for the Rankins until 1976 when the family was forced by police to leave their idyllic home. “It turned out that although we had been tenants for 21 years we had no rights to remain. I remember a sense of powerlessness, about how quickly things can change, and also a sense of injustice. This injustice can weave its way into your life very unexpectedly.”
Then, in the early 1980s while studying at the Sydney College of the Arts, Rankin was presented with an opportunity to work in the area of social justice, in the industrial town of Burnie in Tasmania. He deferred his studies and took the role to gain experience and work with the local youth.
“I came to work with young people at risk of unemployment and experiencing the effects of poverty. Burnie was a paper-mill town and it was during the time of the Gordon Franklin protests so Tasmania was very much in the news,” he says. “Strangely, I found Burnie to be a very creative place, the underbelly of Tassie. It was unusual and inspiring. Eventually, I bought a place here.”
In 1992, Rankin formed Big hART, now a leading arts and social change organisation. The company tackles community issues and produces documentaries, theatre and other art in communities experiencing the effects of disadvantage and marginalisation.
Big hART has won more than 30 awards and in 2016 the company received the Human Rights Commission’s Tasmanian Human Rights Award for Organisation of the Year. “There is a phrase we continually use at Big hART: ‘It is harder to hurt someone if you know their story.’ The biggest harm facing many social issues is often blindness in the community at large, in terms of difficulties people are facing,” he says.
Furthermore, he says changes often come naturally when the visibility of an issue is high and placed in front of key audiences involved in policy and long-term change, along with the aspirations of the broader community.
“If you can improve the visibility of a serious social issue, and assist those experiencing the issue to tell their story, you can show what it is like to walk in their shoes, improve empathy and perhaps drive better policy responses.”
Big hART board members come from a diverse cross-section of the community, which Rankin says was a strategic decision.
“In our sector, boards can mistakenly be set up through the lens of the business world, rather than a cultural or human rights lens that is necessary for a not-for-profit (NFP) organisation like ours.
“This can lead to an oversupply of people whose concerns and expertise are in traditional governance, or worse still, board members with limited expertise in values or culture. We were mindful to not fall into that trap.”
Rankin is driven by his desire to give a voice to issues that otherwise may not be addressed. He believes we are all capable of doing the same. “Life gives us this incredible opportunity to serve and contribute, to live deeply, maturely and explore your own character while making a difference to the planet, then pass the baton onto the next generation.
“Currently the Baby Boomers are the richest generation that has ever lived, and there is more money than at any other time in human history. We are taught you have to build a for-profit first and then make a non-profit contribution later,” he says.
However, Rankin believes the exact opposite of this approach would be revolutionary. “That’s what we do at Big hART. It would be fantastic if people could build NFP versions of their aspirations before they built their full profit version.”
In 2015, the company joined forces with Perpetual to kick-start a social enterprise strategy, SKATE, which is designed to generate funds and sustain Big hART’s vital community work. “We have also worked with other corporate organisations such as Woodside Petroleum to deliver innovative projects that benefit communities,” he says.
Looking back at his 25 years at Big hART, Rankin says the issue of slavery, which he believes is driving much of our economy, has touched him the most. He is particularly interested in ending slavery at sea and putting an end to sweatshops on ships.
“Every time we purchase something from a major retailer it has come to us via the sea. This is in some way contributing to the enslavement of someone else.”
Does he fear that humans are losing compassion or becoming hardened? “There has been a lot of work done around the issue of the overuse of media devices causing a drop in the capacity to be empathetic, because relationships are mediated through complex media platforms,” says Rankin. “But it’s not a question of removing media devices; rather it is about what can be done to build the opportunities for empathetic storytelling. There has been a pendulum swing back to authenticity and intimacy. It’s what we crave, so I’m optimistic.”
Working from a small cottage overlooking Bass Strait where he lives with artist Rebecca Lavis and their children and grandchildren, Rankin reflects on Burnie and his Big hART beginnings.
“Here we are, on the North West coast of Tasmania, in the poorest electorate, in the poorest state. It would appear to be the least likely place to run a national organisation,” he says. “Yet Big hART has strived and thrived, and is exporting its intellectual property nationally and internationally.
“It’s interesting to note that regional and remote areas can be great platforms for producing a differentiation to the ethos behind business; a counter-urban approach dragging younger people out of the inner cities and into rural areas, just as Big hART has done.”
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