A Conversation with Tim Lo Surdo
Interview by Kamna Muddagouni
Tim is the Founder and National Director of Democracy in Colour and currently works as a senior organiser at United Voice. Previously, Tim was the Head of Campaigns at Oaktree, has directed national campaigns for an advocacy organisation in India, and has also organised young people in Queensland for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
We talked to Tim about social justice, white supremacy, and founding Democracy in Colour.
What brought you to campaigning, specifically in a social justice space?
We live in a patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, neoliberal system, which is at its essence a system that prioritises profit over life. My advocacy is rooted in my belief that this system—one that requires perpetual extraction, consumption, violence and oppression to survive—is unacceptable. It is rooted in my faith that a better world is possible: one that recognises the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s rooted in my understanding that power concedes nothing without a struggle, and that if you think something is unacceptable and you have some measure of relative privilege, you should do something about it.
I think there is nothing inevitable about progress. There are two forms of power: you can have organised money or organised people. The forces of organised money are on the side of propping up the status quo. If we want to do something to shift that balance, it is crucial we do so with people what the other side has been able to do with money. We need to bring people together and provide an environment which shows people that we have intrinsic agency and we have intrinsic power–especially the communities that our current system disproportionately attacks.
In terms of coming to this set of values, what has influenced your views and led you to this stance?
I think we are a product of our experiences. For me it started with growing up hearing the stories of my parents—what it was like for them to live and work in this country. My mother is Chinese and my father is Italian. I was born in Brisbane. When my dad was growing up, it was all the rage to target and bully Italians. I heard his stories of going to school and being bullied because of the food he ate, or because his parents couldn’t speak English. I grew up hearing from my mother her experiences of racism but I also witnessed it firsthand.
Beyond that, I experienced racism myself. One of my first memories of explicit racial abuse was in high school. When your first name becomes chink, or ‘go back to where you came from’ becomes the weekly schoolyard mantra. When fruit gets thrown at you or when your house gets egged. When people stare at you in awe because you speak English in a reasonably coherent manner. When you say Brisbane when people ask you where do you come from, and the response is always no, where do you really come from?
Growing up with these sets of experiences, you realise people are prepared to treat you differently because of the colour of your skin. As I got older, I started to realise our struggles are interconnected. While people might not have experienced the same pain I felt when I experienced racism, I think the vast majority of people know what it is like to feel alone, to feel like you have your back against the wall and the whole world is against you. I started to realise that injustice tends to manifest itself in many forms.
I felt deeply affected by these experiences and questioned why it is that we live in a system that is geared towards propping up the interests of a tiny elite at the perpetual expense of the opportunity and dignity of everyone else. And to me, changing society—so that others didn’t experience the same injustices my family, my friends and people I deeply loved had experienced—meant needing to work towards a more fair and just society for everybody.
Growing up both Italian and Chinese, did you have a strong connection your parents’ respective identities?
No. I still don’t have a strong connection to their cultural identities or to being biracial. I don’t look biracial: I look Chinese. So sadly, the Italian side of my heritage is not something I’ve felt connected to because it is not how I have been seen by society.
It’s also how I feel with my Chinese heritage. When I went to visit my family in China, I can’t speak the language and I don’t understand all the cultural cues so I feel like an outsider.
So you end up in this situation where you’re treated like a foreigner in the country you’re born in, and you feel like a foreigner in the countries your parents are from. It’s this experience of being a perpetual ‘other’—of never really fitting in anywhere.
Can you speak a little to your experiences campaigning, and how they have contributed to your ongoing effort to mobilise others against inequitable and unjust social structures?
I think probably the start of my interest in campaigning and advocacy was when I was in Year Ten, when I got involved in my school’s Amnesty International group. I remember raising money, running small campaigns at school and speaking at assemblies about campaigns.
I don’t think campaigning—or more appropriately your sense of your own power, agency and your ability to enact change—is something you study; it’s something you realise and experience. My first true experience of realising just how powerful I could be through collective action was when I volunteered for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
We’re taught these narratives from birth that you find power and leadership walking the corridors of Parliament or in the boardrooms of ASX 200 companies. But that kind of power is literally burning our planet and creating extreme inequality. And the leadership that props up that power is based off weaponising our differences and using people of colour as punching bags to cover for the inequality it produces.
I started to understand through these early campaigning experiences that the power our decision-makers depend on comes from the consent, cooperation or apathy of everyday people. So if we can transform consent into disruption, cooperation into resistance and apathy into collective action—that’s real power that has the potential to bring about structural change. If we can do that, there is nothing we cannot achieve together.
What is Democracy in Colour and how did it come to be?
Democracy in Colour is an advocacy and campaigning organisation for and by people of colour. We run campaigns to tackle structural racism, hold our leaders to account on the things they say and do around race, and strengthen the political voice of people of colour.
There are three reasons Democracy in Colour started. Firstly, racism is a deeply personal issue for me, my friends and my family–and it’s the same for everyone else in the organisation. We are in a rare position as an organisation as the people who run and drive the organisation, experience the issues we advocate for—whether that experience is in the past, presently or they will in the future.
Secondly, the last couple of years have been pretty terrifying for people of colour. We’ve seen an emboldened racist fringe, increased fear mongering, the rise of racist extremists, and more. At the same time, we’ve seen a brutal economic and political system screw over people and planet with increasing ferocity. And it’s a system that creates a fertile environment for merchants of fear to weaponise our differences – getting us to point the finger of blame at each other in order to mask structural problems. Australia has always had a deep problem with racism. Ours is a country built off genocide and propped up by decades of devastating assimilation policies, black deaths in custody, Indigenous incarceration, restrictions on immigration, brutal refugee politics, and a racist political discourse.
Finally—we wanted to fill core gaps in the racial justice space – we want to bring more anti-racism campaigning (as opposed to education and service delivery work), more people of colour led advocacy, and more work that unapologetically seeks to build the political power of people of colour.
It seems you have a palpable sense that something is going horribly wrong, and that people of colour are the targets.
We’re starting to see the political and economic system that most of us have grown up with crumble around us. It is in this environment that political con-artists are telling people that the answer to their systemic ills is their neighbour who doesn’t look like them. And the only way a system that screws everybody over survives is by convincing them to blame each other as opposed to the rules.
Neoliberalism – our current political and economic system – is institutionalised racism. Its power is contingent on chronic fear. Its survival is predicated on pressing the boot of oppression and division down on the throats of communities of colour.
...and that concludes this week’s lesson of ‘White Supremacy 101’.
Haha, yeah. The racial justice and social justice space in Australia is largely made up of organisations that provide education or service delivery. These organisations are really important. But what I think is missing in Australia is political advocacy that speaks truth to power and isn’t tethered to the leash of government funding.
There is also a gap is the absence of people of colour leading advocacy work that they have agency and control in. And the third gap is building a political constituency that fuels change. We initially decided to crowd-fund to address the lack of funding available for political advocacy work but also to remain fiercely independent–so that we remain accountable to our mission and members only.
In Australia, social justice organisations are often plagued with ‘White Saviour Syndrome’. These spaces can be uncomfortable for people of colour to work within, because the only reason POC are called up is they fit within expectations of a community that should be grateful and speaks within parameters that are comfortable to listen to.
I think that’s what’s so difficult about operating in a white supremacist society. From birth, people are socialised and conditioned to view the world in a particular lens, and this feeds into how the social justice advocacy space in Australia operates. Organisations rarely go beyond their own self-interest when they want to ‘engage’ with people of colour or impacted communities. People of colour are often the non-consenting actors in some sort of poverty-porn, or their bodies serve as public relations tools for an organisation that cares more about aesthetics than justice.
I want to talk to you about the terms ‘people of colour’ or ‘person of colour’. I was thinking about this the other day, that finding the language to describe a shared experience was really empowering for me even though it is not perfect or all encompassing. It wasn’t a term that I feel my generation grew up with as a categorisation. How did you come to feel an affinity with this label?
Like you said, it is definitely not perfect or all encompassing, and there would be many people of colour that do not identify as such. To me the term is less relevant than the shared experience. In Australia, to a greater or lesser extent, if you are a person of colour you are treated differently than a person who is white, and it is important to build a community around those folks and these experiences.
People of colour could be so powerful in this country. We operate in and are crucial to the success of so many different industries. Politically, people of colour form large chunks of key marginal electorates. Yet we are nowhere to be seen in our Parliament, we are nowhere to be seen on our screens, or in executive boardrooms. It is important to acknowledge that we can have this identity without claiming that we all have the same experience or diminishing or making invisible our differences to turn us into a mono-cultural invisible other.
An important part of Democracy in Colour is to work towards showing better solidarity within the POC community to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you are a settler in this country you continue to benefit from ongoing colonial violence and dispossession of land, culture and children – and I don’t think this is often meaningfully acknowledged and acted on in our communities. I think the same thing applies with being better allies to refugee and people seeking asylum communities.
It’s a learning and listening process, how to do this better because these spaces are plagued with organisations who fail to see there is an issue with how they do solidarity. If we want to cause structural change, we need to do solidarity well otherwise we’re not going to go beyond band-aid solutions.
What are some upcoming campaigns or projects for Democracy in Colour?
Based on input from our members, some of the early areas we’re looking into are: black deaths in custody, indigenous incarceration rates, police abuse of powers, and exploitation of migrant workers. We’ve just had our formal launch events in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. And we’re about to launch an intensive three month campaigning fellowship for young Muslims that will cover everything you’d need to know to be an effective change-maker.
You’re also studying Computer Programming. Is this a passion of yours or a skillset that you hope will complement your campaigning work?
I’m passionate about how technology and social change intersect. I think the internet has radically lowered the barriers to political participation and we’re seeing advocacy organisations use technology to reach scale in timeframes that weren’t possible before. That said, a lot of digitally facilitated campaigning can be superficial and driven by vanity metrics. I think there’s huge potential for technology to drive not just scale of engagement but depth as well.
Do you have any advice for emerging campaigners or people wanting to work in advocacy?
I don’t really feel like I am in a position to give advice – everybody is making it up as they go along, nobody knows anything. So my ‘advice’ is to not listen to people who have advice to give. The world doesn’t need more of the status quo or conventional thinking. Fuck the status quo and do what you believe is needed guided by your values and vision of what this world could be.
Who are you inspired by?
Everyday people who defy powerful institutions, multinational mega-corporations and vested interests to fight for a world where everyone has the chance to succeed. I’m especially inspired by the communities who are disproportionately targeted by our current system–who are asked to justify their existence on a daily basis–who get up regardless and fight for justice.
What are you currently listening to?
In music, I'm listening to Cat Empire and Jimbla; in podcasts, I'm listening to the Tim Ferris Show, the Ezra Klein Show and It’s Not A Race.
What are you currently reading?
How do you practice self-care?
Beyond my campaigning work, I go for runs and do mixed martial arts – Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s a great way of taking my mind off things, because if you’re not concentrating, you’ll get punched in the face.
I also do spoken word poetry. I’ve been doing it for four years, but I don’t write or perform as much as I’d like to. My work is focused around the idea of what ‘normal’ means, identity, body image and how these issues intersect.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I struggle a lot with the concept of being Australian. I don’t think it means much of anything, given that Australia is built on genocide, and more than 229 years of stolen land, culture and children.
The concept of being Asian-Australian doesn’t really mean anything to me, because the people who see this identity and interact with me based off it do so off their own preconceived notions of what that means and what I should be.