There are benefits to being an older activist, according to Di O’Neil, the convenor of the Grandmothers Against the Detention of Children Bendigo group.
‘We're friendly and approachable, which I think is a factor of our age,’ Di says.
‘I don't think we are as threatening as some of the younger people might be, in the minds of the people who might be watching us. So, people will talk to us.’
The public reaction to the group is mainly positive, Di says. ‘Many people beep their horns or wave to us or give a thumbs up.’
But, she says her group is also good at handling those who disagree with their views. ‘One thing some people haven't realised is that, because of our age, we haven't got very good hearing, so we don't always hear what they are yelling,’ Di jokes.
‘But really, we also have ways of talking to people who have different views. We're very okay with people having different opinions. We will listen to their opinion and then we will share the facts as we know them … which are slightly different to the facts that they have.’
Di, who is 73, has been involved in the group for the past five years. A former social worker, and grandmother of two, she felt compelled to join the Bendigo branch of the group when it first formed.
Women felt bound to act
A group of women sitting around a kitchen table wanting to take action on refugee policy started the national Grandmothers Against the Detention of Children group in Melbourne. There are now branches of the group in different parts of Australia, and 2,000 members in Victoria alone.
‘My background is in working on behalf of children and I was horrified, and am still horrified, at our current approach to dealing with asylum seekers, and particularly children,’ Di says.
Coordinating the Bendigo group and being involved in the national statewide planning group takes about 20 hours of Di’s time every month and involves administering the Bendigo Facebook page, running monthly meetings in the library and a weekly coffee morning that shifts its venues and dates to be accessible to people with other commitments. The group also stages pop up protests.
‘We stand on the corner of the street with our signs if there's a particular issue running like #bringthemhere or #childrenoffnauru,’ Di says.
‘We have about 100 people on our Bendigo group email list. Not all of them join in the activities that we do, but all receive our emails. Some people will do things like write letters or talk to friends about the issues.
‘You can be a grandmother or you can be a FROG; a FROG is a Friend or Relative of a Grandmother. So, we're very inclusive.’
Most of the group are aged from their mid-60s through to their mid-80s and, for many, refugee policy is the first political issue that has prompted them to take a stand.
‘We are extremely proud of being Australians, but we're not proud of this part of Australia,’ Di says.
‘This has been a real affront to us. We believe there are other ways to protect our borders and to do our bit that isn't as cruel.’
Having an impact
Whilst Di says it is difficult to judge the group’s impact, she cites the fact there are no more children being held on Nauru as a win.
Di has clearly inspired her 13-year-old granddaughter, who has written a letter to the government urging action on the refugee issue.
‘I think, she is fairly proud of what I am doing. She said to me once, when I was going off to a protest or a rally in Melbourne, “Are you going to get all the kids off the island today?” And I said, “Highly unlikely, but when I die you can say at my funeral that I tried.”’
- For more information on Grandmothers Against the Detention of Children email firstname.lastname@example.org