Benson Saulo on Identity, Faith, Family, Social Impact and Living Courageously

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Benson Saulo is an inspirational and trailblazing 32 year old Australian, who has had a wide and diverse career across the social purpose sector, consulting, banking and finance, diplomacy and advocacy. Benson has recently been appointed as the first Indigenous Consul-General to the United States, where he will take up his post in Houston, Texas at the end of 2020 along with his wife Kate and daughter Anais.

In this interview, Nick and Benson discuss:

  • Benson’s early life in Tamworth in rural NSW, and his early career in the banking and finance industry following moves to Sydney and then Melbourne
  • The importance of culture and identity, growing up as the son of an Indigenous mother and a Papua New Guinean father
  • Becoming a husband and a father, and the role of family in Benson’s life
  • Walking the Camino de Santiago and the importance of faith, spirituality, and mindfulness
  • Benson’s year as the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations in 2011, and the powerful stories that have stayed with him from travelling around Australia
  • The social purpose/impact space in Australia, and Benson’s work with the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy and other organisations
  • Benson’s appointment as the first Indigenous Consul-General to the United States, and his upcoming move to Houston, Texas to represent Australia
  • The current state of affairs in the US, with the COVID-19 pandemic, mass civic unrest, and economic devastation
  • What kind of an impact Benson would like to make in the future

Follow Benson on Twitter @bensonsaulo

Benson Saulo
22 August 2020

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything. I’m lucky to be joined today by Benson Saulo, a trailblazing 32 year old who has already had an extraordinary, interesting and diverse career across the social impact space, consulting, banking and finance, diplomacy and advocacy. 00:18 Benson was recently appointed as the first indigenous consul general to the United States. So, we’re very fortunate to be speaking with him before he heads off to the US later in the year with his family. Thank you so much for joining me today, Benson. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.

00:32 Benson: Thanks for having me, Nick. I’m really pleased to be here.

00:35 Nick: To kick things off, I was hoping you could tell us how you’ve found stage four lockdown here in Melbourne.

00:40 Benson: Stage four is definitely a lot harder, particularly going into lockdown for a second time but I’ve been quite fortunate. We have an 8 month old daughter. Being able to work from home, I’ve been able to see her grow and develop and it’s a very unique opportunity as a father, to be able to spend so much time with the youngun’.

01:03 So, I’ve actually — as much as it has been quite difficult and particularly stage four and only being able to get outside for an hour a day for exercise and then also working from home, within that there’s also the blessing of being able to spend time with my wife and 8 month old daughter. Her name is Anais and she’s recently started crawling and she’s teething like nobody’s business. It’s all going on.

01:29 Nick: Fantastic, and you’re a keen cyclist. I don’t imagine there would be too much cycling going on now, especially in winter but also with the 5km radius that we’ve all got.

01:37 Benson: That’s true. Although, we’re in a quite fortunate space. We’re in St Kilda and within the 5km radius, we actually have Albert Park Lake.

01:47 Nick: That’s perfect, oh my gosh.

01:46 Benson: Yeah, being able to do a couple of loops of Albert Park Lake and also I’ve been taking out the runners and getting out on the sidewalks.

01:56 Nick: Fantastic. So, for our listeners not as familiar with you or your story, could you please provide a bit of a snapshot of your early life and story to date, from growing up in rural New South Wales in Tamworth to moving to the big southern metropolis of Melbourne.

02:09 Benson: Sure. So, I grew up in Tamworth, country music capital of Australia, although I reckon it still rivals Nashville, Tennessee and I will be checking it out to see how it compares. I’ll be taking notes.

02:25 So, growing up in Tamworth was fantastic. That’s where I did all my growing and all my schooling before moving away. I was quite fortunate in my upbringing. My mum and dad ran the community and Aboriginal church in town. My father is a minister. So, faith always played a very strong role in our upbringing and then also mix that with culture.

02:50 So, my mum is Aboriginal. We’re connected to the Wemba-Wemba, Jardwadjali Wirigai in the Gunditjmara Nation of western Victoria, and then on my father’s side, he’s from New Ireland Province in Papua New Guinea. Our families very much still live in the traditional village up there, so culture plays a really strong role.

03:09 So, we have this really beautiful mix in our household of not only faith, but then also the mix of culture as a really strong foundation. The strong values around respect and inclusion, as well as that sense of responsible, was always ingrained from a very young age.

03:30 Nick: That’s incredible.

03:30 Benson: We were also quite fortunate as well in Tamworth which is Gomeroi country, having such strong elders as we were growing up. These were elders that were the cornerstones of our communities. They were the ones that started the first legal services as well as the first medical services, and even played a role in setting up early childcare programs and businesses like Birralee which is the childcare centre in Tamworth.

03:58 They used to tell us a story. It was this idea of — it was linked to what’s called the Warrambul which is the Gomeroi word for the Milky Way or actually, it kind of translates more to this idea of the great river in the sky.

04:13 As we were growing up, we were told the story that when we pass away, our spirit returns to the Warrambul, and we’re called home by the fires that our ancestors lit by the great river of the sky, and it was the smoke that would call us home.

04:27 Then we’d sit up there on the banks of the Warrambul and would reflect on the life that we’d had, those late night philosophical conversations, those really deep connections that we’ve had with friends and family and loved ones, and then when it’s our time to return back to this cycle of life, we come in the form of shooting stars and lay within mother earth.

04:46 Then when we’re born, it’s not so much this idea of conception. It’s more around this idea that your spirit chooses who you’re meant to be in the time that you’re meant to exist.

04:56 As a young person hearing this story, being told and almost weaved into our education as we were growing up, it really established this sense of purpose and almost this sense of an urgency of now; that belief that the people we connect with in our life are the people that are sharing that same cycle, and it’s actually up to us to think about who is coming after us and how do we prepare the world for their moment.

05:30 So, this upbringing of faith and upbringing of culture for me really provided such a strong foundation to then think about myself differently in regard to, well, what role do I play here? With the time that I have, what kind of impact ultimately do I want to have?

05:49 My life actually — as I was growing up, I wanted to be a pro-skateboarder or play rugby for the Wallabies. I stopped growing at about grade 9, so the Wallabies were never going to take me. Actually, when I was 15, I actually started as a school based trainee at ANZ bank. I was the third trainee to come through this particular program. It meant that during year 11 and 12, while I was completing my HSC, I was also working one day a week at the bank as a bank teller getting that hands on experience.

06:25 By the time I finished high school, I also finished with a certificate in business services and business finance as well which really opened me up to what kind of possibilities. So, finance or participating in the financial sector for our people has often been excluded. If you’re coming from a place of poverty, then money isn’t something that you really think about or what happens with your money.

06:53 So, when we — moving into the bank and understanding finance and understanding transactions and the role of finance in your life, that really opened up possibilities as to where would I like to go in the future. It was actually from that point where I, as you know, took that path into the finance sector for about 7 years at ANZ bank.

07:18 Nick: Yeah, amazing. Was that a move to Melbourne when you shifted down south? I suppose, in making that move, how did you keep connected to country as well and that sort of rich cultural heritage and life that you spoke about quite poetically?

07:33 Benson: Yeah. So, I actually moved to Sydney. I have an older brother and an older sister. My older brother and my sister were both living in Sydney at the time so there was already that natural kind of pull to make a move to Sydney. So, I left home when I was about 17 years old. I was kind of youngish for my age going into high school and into primary school.

07:56 So, that was always the — that’s where I kind of wanted to be. It was where I kind of saw the opportunity to study. So, I decided to start off my studies doing a Bachelor of Business, Management and Marketing whilst also still working in the bank.

08:13 It was about 6 months into my studies that I decided it didn’t really connect with me. I felt that it didn’t really translate into the real world, for lack of a better term. There was also coming from the country, going to the school that I did which was across the train tracks — it was a school where the majority of my high school friends either stayed in Tamworth or moved up the road to Armadale Uni, so it was a really close tight knit kind of community.

08:44 So, coming away from Tamworth into Sydney, I remember and I still kind of describe that first 6 months living in Sydney as the loneliest time that I’ve ever had in my life, not being able to connect into new friend circles, kind of being a bit lost in the big smoke.

09:01 Nick: Isolating, yeah.

09:02 Benson: Yeah, it was very isolating at the time. So, I actually dropped out. I dropped out of uni at that point. We’ve always been set up that if you’re not studying, you’ve got to be doing something. So, working is what I really dove into.

09:18 I spent four years living in Sydney. When I was 19, I was promoted up to a business banking assistant manager, so dealing with companies from half a million up to $10 million. Again, this kind of links back to that hands on experience that was such an amazing opportunity because I was able to learn and connect and understand industries and businesses and work with real companies. Whereas, at that time when I was studying, I was learning about company A, B, C in the textbook. So, it was missing that kind of real world translation.

09:51 Nick: I know the feeling.

09:53 Benson: Yep. To your point in regard to connecting with culture when I had moved away, it was actually really difficult. Firstly, Tamworth isn’t my community so whilst I grew up there, my family is all from western Victoria. So, there was already a sense of dislocation from my culture.

10:12 At the same time, the upbringing that I had, the family that I come from, the connection also back up to Papua New Guinea, it never felt like I was splitting in two. It never felt like I was needing to walk in this idea of the two worlds.

10:29 The way I think of that is I don’t closet my Aboriginality when I put on my suit and become the banker. I don’t closet my Aboriginality or leave that at home when I step out the front door and become Benson the Consul-General or Benson the public speaker. It’s all part of me and it’s all infused in one.

10:49 So, wherever I go, my culture follows me, and that’s the thing that’s really kind of sustained me. When I move into different circles in regards to my professional career or move internationally or live overseas or travel, the thing that is always part of me is actually my culture and my upbringing.

11:09 Nick: That’s beautiful. So, another thing to culture and your upbringing and your faith is your family. You’ve got a family of your own family now with your wife, Kate, and a beautiful little girl who you mentioned earlier. I was hoping you could tell us a bit more about your family and what you love most about being a father and a husband.

11:25 Benson: Such a good question. Becoming a father, it felt very daunting. It felt like a huge question mark and the pregnancy and the birth wasn’t the easiest. We were really worried. We were told that we were to expect our daughter arriving at 26 weeks. As 26 weeks got closer, we got to 27 weeks, we got to 28 weeks and slowly we started moving through it. My wife had to actually stop work quite early. She wasn’t bed bound but she had to kind of just take it easy really and just keep the bun cooking.

12:17 Anais, her name — her full name is Anais Ramo Saulo. Ramo is actually connected up to my father’s land. It’s a Naric name which is the language group or the community up in New Ireland Province but it’s actually a very old name. It’s a name that’s not used very widely.

12:39 Early on when we knew that Kate was pregnant, we ended up going up to Papua New Guinea. We were doing some customary work but we ended up sitting down with our family. We said to them, “Well, if it’s a daughter, we want to be able to carry the name of our family,” which is the land and cultures passed down through the matriarchal system. So, it was very important if we had a daughter to actually have a name linked to one of our aunties or grandmothers because it ties her to that land or connects her back to that land.

13:16 It was actually one our very old uncles and it took him a couple of days. They talked about it and reflected on it and they came to us with this name. They said, “We believe that your daughter’s name should be Ramo.” That’s a very old aunty. It’s actually his, who is my uncle, great uncle — it’s actually his great, great aunt that’s connected in our family.

13:39 So, having that kind of old name was really important but the name, Anais, is actually the word grace but it also translates into ‘God has shown favour’. As we were getting past the 28 weeks and up to 30 weeks, we hadn’t told my father what the meaning of the name was. He was up in the village and we hadn’t told him about the meaning of it. As we got past the concerns or the issues of Anais coming early, dad said at one time on a phone call, “Oh, it seems that God has shown favour,” which is such an odd turn of phrase as well. My wife, Kate, nearly fell off the bed because she was just like, “What? No one says that.” It kind of blew us away.

14:36 Becoming a father, I was so nervous. It’s the most amazing thing to happen, just the rush of endorphins mixed with fear and concern and awe as well. In the process of becoming a father and learning on the job of becoming a father, it’s actually the only job (in inverted commas) that I’ve taken on where I haven’t been crippled with anxiety of being a failure which is a very odd thing because it’s one of the things that you can get very wrong.

15:13 Nick: Yes, indeed. Yeah, exactly.

15:16 Benson: Yeah. So, it’s been nice to just be so comfortable stepping into a new role and for the relationship with my wife, taking it to that next level. We’ve been together for 11 years, nearly 12 years, but it just seems like another chapter which is really beautiful as it continues to unfold.

15:36 Nick: That’s really incredible. So, I first became aware of you through your work with the United Nations as Australian Youth Representative in 2011. Could you tell us a bit about that role and what it involves and what some of your favourite memories were from that year in 2011?

15:51 Benson: Yeah, no worries. So, every year — it’s for a 12 month tenure — that an individual is appointed the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations. It actually connects to two organisations, one organisation in UN Youth — which is a national organisation. It also has state based chapters — then also with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

16:15 This is an international program whee a number of countries will actually have youth representatives that are appointed or elected through their youth organisations, and they represent the youth of their countries at the United Nations General Assembly which happens every year.

16:32 I was fortunate to be appointed, as you said, the 2011 Australian Youth Rep. That year, there was actually about 300 people that had applied. I was about 21, going on to 22, at the time but under my belt I had 6 years of working in a bank where most people would be…

16:52 Nick: Second year uni or something, right?

16:54 Benson: Spot on. Yeah, so they were still kind of studying. That role really requires a professional to kind of step into it. I think that was kind of the skills that I was able to bring. So, already knowing about building relationships, already knowing about negotiations. These are tools of the trade as a banker.

17:21 So, that was an amazing kind of process to go through. I remember the day that I got the phone call that I’d been appointed. I actually called my folks house and my mum was out at the time but I told my dad and he was over the moon, but the memory that really stands out for me was when I called my mum. She was driving back from the shops. This was when they actually lived just outside of Mildura at this time. She pulled over their car and I told her and she got really emotional. She got a bit teary and she said, “Growing up, they didn’t even want to know about us.”

17:58 Now, for my mum to say that, what that means is in 1967 when there was the Referendum that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were actually acknowledged as citizens in Australia, my mum was 11 years old when that happened. So, she had spent the majority of her formative years not only growing up in a tin hut with dirt floors on the outskirts of a small town called Bordertown in South Australia, but she’d had almost that identity been removed or that statelessness or that mindset of a statelessness.

18:34 So, for me to call her as a 22 year old and say that, “I’ve been appointed to represented all Australian youth at such a high level,” for her, she got to see this come full circle in her lifetime.

18:50 Nick: That’s very special.

18:51 Benson: It was incredibly special. So, that memory really sticks with me. It’s not only the sense of pride of the idea of making your parents proud, but it’s also what that position represented in the scheme of movements, in the scheme of change in society. So, that was an incredible opportunity.

19:15 Nick: The year involved you sort of touring around Australia before actually heading to the General Assembly in New York where you made a speech. Is that right?

19:21 Benson: Yes, spot on. I actually took about 6 months and traveled right around Australia. So, I connected with over 6,000 through face-to-face forums, workshops and programs and then a further 21,000 through online and social tools.

19:37 There’s a number of stories that stick out for me. I’d love to be able to share one that I spoke about during a speech that I delivered in Zurich in Switzerland as one of the most impactful moments in my time as the youth rep.

19:54 It was actually during a road trip from Alice Springs up to Darwin, and then I jumped on a small plane and went up to the Tiwi Islands. We were stopping at various schools along the way and running workshops with students. We pulled up to a very small town called Elliot. Elliot is just outside of — a few hundred kilometres outside of Tennant Creek. I remember we pulled up on this particularly hot day. The sun was beaming down and it was quite windy, so it was a dusty day. I remember when this — I think it was a white Toyota Camry that was almost red with dust. I remember opening the door and stepping out. It was like someone had just grabbed a bowling ball — the weight of a bowling ball — and sat it on my chest. It just ever so slightly kind of sat on my chest so this weight was just there.

20:45 We walked past the corner store. The corner store was covered with bars and then it had all alcohol promotions on it. It had the 4X or VB or I think it was NT Draught or something like that, plastered on it.

21:03 We walked up to the school and we were able to sit in on a couple of lessons. There were kids in these classrooms that were equivalent to grade four sitting next to and learning from the same book as a young person who should be equivalent to grade eight. We’ve all heard of composite classes when grade 2 and grade 3 are put together. This was kind of next level. This was…

21:27 Nick: Four or five years apart, even longer.

21:30 Benson: Exactly. So, really kind of the basic education levels within this very small community. During recess, the principal actually walked us around the school as the kids were playing. He pointed out two young girls and one young boy. He said to us, “These three kids have the potential to be the first in their families, the first in their communities to actually graduate year 12,” which hadn’t — no one had graduated from the school in the past 7 years, he shared with us earlier. He said, “These three have the potential to be the first in their families to graduate and break this cycle of disadvantage which has gripped this town.”

22:12 Then he went on to explain that his tenure was — he was going to be a relief principal for 6 months. He said that was 3 years ago. He goes, “They don’t know it yet but I’m actually here for them.” It was at that moment where that bowling ball, that weight on my chest, just starting lifting. I started feeling a little bit lighter like it was layers…

22:32 Nick: There were people there who care.

22:34 Benson: Exactly, and that was actually upon reflection — and this is something that carried me through when I went to other remote communities or went into youth detention centres or went to really challenging spaces or disadvantaged spaces — was this idea of a spark. The principal was the spark in that school and no matter where I went, there was always one. Often more, but there was always one person who was that beacon of hope that believed in people, that backed people. That was what gave me almost fortitude as they traveled around throughout that year.

23:09 Nick: Incredible. So, those deeply personal and moving stories of severe disadvantage and inequity in Australian society, a lot of that has obviously contrasted to a lot of your work as well where you are at diplomatic forums in New York or Geneva or whatever, where you’ve met people like world historical figures like His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, or the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. So, do you try to carry those stories that you just mentioned outside Tennant Creek with you when you participate in that I guess more glitzy world of international diplomacy or advocacy as well?

23:53 Benson: Absolutely. Yeah, these are the stories and these are the memories that keep you grounded and with that knowledge, that deep knowledge, that behind every policy is a person.

24:04 It’s often easy to forget when you’re working and operating in the ivory tower that the decisions that you’re making actually have implications for real world impacts or real world people’s lives. So, being able to gather these stories as I was traveling around and actually reflect on emotionally — before I intellectualise it — emotionally what kind of impact this had, is the thing that’s going to stay with me, and then actually be able to bring them through.

24:36 So, when I was based in New York, I actually led a negotiation on two resolutions. One was the rights of the child which had a focus on disability. There’s a number of negotiations around the rights of the child but the one that I always focused on was I focused on disability, and then the impacts of the global financial crisis on young people. That particular resolution looked at the school to work transitions, the role of education in preparing young people for the world that they’ll be stepping out in and then also — which was relatively not a large focus for young people around entrepreneurship and transferable skills.

25:18 So, drawing on my own experiences as a school based trainee, the impact that had on my life, but then also going back and reflecting on the numerous schools and students that I’d actually connected with around their concern and fear of stepping into the real world or the anxiety that comes with getting ready to graduate and not knowing if you’re ready to go to university or if you want to work or should I move away from home. So, being able to connect real world challenges into the halls of power in the United Nations or even in Canberra and in parliament, it’s so important for decision makers or people that are considered leaders to continually anchor themselves back into the experience of real people on the ground.

26:14 Nick: It’s so important, yeah. To change back a bit, just carrying on with the thread of a few things you’ve spoken about as well in this interview, but you’ve spoken about or written about recently the pilgrimage that you and your wife took to the Camino de Santiago in Spain. So, I was wondering if you could reflect on this experience and some of the lessons learned along the way and the importance of faith in your life to family but also to your work?

26:37 Yeah, absolutely. So, in 2018, my wife and I, we made the decision that — we’d actually watched the movie The Way, and I highly recommend watching this movie. It actually kind of set us up for a bit of a falsehood. We were like, “Oh yeah, this is going to be pretty easy. They’ve got Martin Sheen. If Martin Sheen can climb over the Pyranees without breaking a sweat, I think we’ll be fine.”

27:03 The Pyranees is actually on day one when we started which you start in France and you head over the Pyranees. Man, that was tough. That was very tough. Yeah, and I wasn’t — Martin Sheen, where he just kind of mops his brow over ever so slightly, I was downing water, I was sweating, but it was — that timing — so, the timing was actually — you know how these things kind of roll around.

27:30 So, my wife was just finishing up working for a wonderful organisation. My wife is a doctor in clinical and forensic psychology and she focuses her work around refugees but with a focus on torture and trauma, responsiveness to trauma.

27:46 She was just finishing up and people talk about, particularly in those difficult industries, around burnout. So, we’d been talking for a number of months around revitalising or taking the time away to kind of regenerate. So, after we watched this movie, we said, “Alright, let’s put this on the list. We’re going to go and walk the Camino de Santiago and become pilgrims,” which is the 800km hike.

28:14 Nick: Walking stick and everything, you know?

28:16 Benson: Oh, yeah, that’s it. I was also turning 30 at that time in April, so we set out in early April. We actually completed it in 32 days, so we were averaging between 25km to 32km a day. Early on, it’s incredibly tough. They actually say the Camino is broken up into three stages. You’ve got the physical, the mental and finally the spiritual.

28:45 As you kind of are moving through across this beautiful land, you really do — as in the physicality. You become very conditioned very fast because you’re pulling on a heavy pack. We were carrying between 7kg to 9kg each. Pulling that on and traversing up and down territory.

29:09 Then it’s also the mental side where you suddenly find yourself 300km in, knowing that you’re about halfway but you’ve actually got a fair bit more to go, and feeling exhausted, feeling drained but then also feeling really fresh in the sense that you’re walking through these really beautiful town. You’re having these wonderful conversations with people that you’re meeting along the way. You’re stopping into churches and taking the time out for yourself to reflect. So, it’s this kind of tension of the mental and physical exhaustion mixed with this sense of beauty and awe.

29:47 Nick: And rejuvenation as well through beautiful churches and beautiful people you meet along the way, yeah.

29:52 Benson: Absolutely. That’s actually the right word, the rejuvenation, yeah, of feeling that. Then it moves into the stage where you’re able to push through that and you almost have the end in sight and you realise that you’ve — well, I realised at the time that I’d been focused on getting to the destination as opposed to actually enjoying the journey.

30:16 There was a number of moments that I was glad to be able to walk it with Kate because she’s the kind of person that takes the time. So, there was a number of moments where she would disappear. I’d be looking for her and I’d have to turn around and wait and then she was like, “Oh no, come this way. I’ve found something over here.” It would break my fixation on the end goal which was the Compostella, getting the document at the end of the walk.

30:44 Nick: There’s adventures and joys along the way, right?

30:46 Benson: Exactly. So, that was a beautiful lesson right there but then also, when you get to the end, 800km is such an achievement. It’s such a distance right across the north of Spain.

30:57 Nick: It’s like Melbourne to Sydney basically, isn’t it

30:59 Benson: Pretty much, yeah. Actually, spot on.

31:02 Nick: It’s a long way. Oh my god.

31:03 Benson: Yeah. So, there’s that realisation that you’re strong enough to be able to do that, your body is capable of incredible things, but then also with every single step that you’re taking, it takes you closer to your goal. Within that, there’s a really beautiful lesson that you may not know — it’s almost like — there was a line from Martin Luther King. He said, “You don’t have to see the full staircase, as long as you can take that first step.

31:31 I think the biggest challenge is not necessarily taking that first step, but then the follow up with that second step. So, for me the lesson there was the second step is the most important because then you’re in motion and there’s no other way to go but forward. That was one of the great reflections that I had during that time because I was also feeling this tension around, “Well, what next for me?” You know, I’d been the Australian Youth Rep, I’d run the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy. I was looking back at going into the corporate sector and thinking about the role of finance and investment in indigenous communities but there’s still that question mark of, “Well, what’s the bigger picture here?” Without knowing what that bigger picture is, being able to take that first and follow it up by that second step, you’re able to make things happen.

32:19 Nick: Having faith in a way.

32:21 Benson: Absolutely.

32:22 Nick: So, you mentioned the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy. You have been extensively involved in the social impact space in Australia with the focus on indigenous issues and diplomacy. So, could you speak a bit about that and I suppose the importance that it’s had over the last decade and a bit of your life?

32:38 Benson: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the things that continually inspires me is being able to connect with young people. Young people, apart from just the youthful enthusiasm and wonder, but particularly the young people that I love working with are what I refer to as curious minds.

32:59 The reason why I love curiosity and being able to cultivate that in young people — because everyone is curious. I think there’s a moment in our life as we get older, we kind of lose that and kind of look at the more world around kind of certainty, but with curiosity, is it can allow for ambiguity as well and always asking that question of why and how. We’re almost kind of programmed to stop asking the why and just kind of accept the what.

33:27 So, I think working with young people and being able to connect with curious minds, that was really the essence of NIYLA, the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, was saying I want to surround myself with curious minds, I want to surround myself with young people that are asking those questions, the hows and the whys, but are also able to view themselves differently in regard to the world around them. They’re almost being able to take an outsider’s look in on what’s happening in their communities.

33:55 There’s a beautiful line from Oodgeroo Noonuccal who is an Aboriginal poet from up Quandamooka country which is North Stradbroke Island. She had a wonderful poem called The Dawn is at Hand. Within the last stanza, there’s a line that says fringe dwellers no more. The reason why I love that particular line and kind of mix that with the idea of curiosity is because these curious minds that are questioning how do we influence and how do we inform or how do we shift and how do we shape things and taking people from the outside or ideas from the outside and bring them into the mainstream or bring them into wider consciousness.

34:37 So, with the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, we actually in the space of 2 years launched 10 youth led social action campaigns on things that were — on issues that were related to mental health, suicide prevention, climate change, constitutional recognition which was a big focus at the time, the supporting LGBTIQ young people and these are campaigns that were developed over the course of a week by young people. It’s amazing what you do with setting a challenge for a young person and kind of going, “You’ve got one week to create a national campaign, here’s the tools, this is how we’re going to do it but it’s actually up to you,” and handing the power essentially into the hands of young people to be able to create and lead. It’s amazing.

35:25 Nick: To be bold and imaginative as well, you know?

35:28 Benson: Spot on, yeah. The way that I imagined these campaigns are not how they turned out and the way they turned out are far greater than the way I could have ever imagined it because that young people speaking to other young people on the issues that impact all the young people which is really powerful.

35:48 That really kind of influenced the way that I also think about being a good convenor as well in regard to my life and my roles, is how do I actually hold space to be able to bring people together to have a respectful, informed debate or dialogue, because ultimately what we’re going to get to is a place that’s far greater than any single person could have imagined. That’s an underlying principle or approach that I have in areas that I go and places that I work.

36:18 I do want to pick up — I guess I’d like to pick up that question around faith as well because as I was saying, faith has played a strong role from my upbringing, connecting with the Camino de Santiago in 2018 through to now.

36:36 When I think about the role of faith, it also connects really strongly into a line that my father said to me when I was quite young. He said to me, “Never think the world is not yours.” For me at that time, it kind of went over my head but as I reflect, as I get older, this idea that never think the world is not yours because of your skin colour, because of your upbringing, because of your culture, because of your background, everything in this life is afforded to you if you approach it with the right mindset and take that step.

37:08 The step itself is often the most scary thing. One of my values that I try to live up to is courage. Courage at its essence — the etymology of courage is to be whole hearted. You can’t be whole hearted without faith, I believe, and being able to step out into the unknown or step into spaces that you have been excluded from in the past or step into spaces where there’s people that don’t look like you. It’s actually stepping out into no man’s land. It’s stepping out in faith and just trusting, trusting that there’s something there to catch your step.

37:47 Nick: Could you speak about that, this kind of emergence or growth in the term of like black excellence or indigenous excellence in the context of what you’ve just spoke about, but also — I don’t know — it’s something I’ve sort of witnessed over the last 1.5 decades, is the huge amount of young, indigenous led organisations — thinking about Common Ground now, AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), obviously NIYLA as well. It seems there’s a real big drive amongst young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians today and in the last decade, especially about trying to take that next step as you mentioned.

38:23 Benson: Yeah, absolutely, but I think it also is why it’s so important to understand the history of movements as well because there is that notion of to be indigenous is excellence, is to be excellent, and black excellence, as you mentioned, there’s a number of organisations and movements that are really building on that and this is fantastic. I’ll come back to that as to why it’s so important and why it’s fantastic.

38:51 Going back, if you go back into the civil rights movements, there’s a really beautiful address or sermon by Martin Luther King where he talks about black is beautiful. He also has this really powerful line in regard to — he said, “Until we can actually reach down into our own hearts,” and he’s talking to his community, “And sign our own emancipation proclamation, then we will never be free.”

39:18 The way that I reflect on that and the way that I think about that is actually when do we give ourselves permission? When do we give ourselves permission as indigenous people/black people to be excellent? And who gives us permission? If it’s not ourselves, then who are we waiting for to give us permission?

39:35 What we are seeing and rightly so in the last 10 years, particularly around the reconciliation movement that more recently in regard to the black excellence, this is us and these are our people standing up and giving ourselves permission to be their full selves, to be their full, excellent selves.

39:56 What we’re going to see out of this is a more bold, a more confident, a more collective or a more connected movement of people of colour and indigenous people that are actually shaping their own narratives. This is why it’s such an incredible movement to be able to be a part of and to watch and to see how it’s moving because this is really what we’re seeing now. We’re going to see a huge shift in regard to how we define for ourselves what success is, how we define for ourselves what our culture, our ever evolving culture is as a collection, as a collective of cultures and people.

40:46 Nick: Yeah, stunning. So, to change tack a bit, you’re off to Houston, Texas, to take up the role of Consul General later this year as we’ve mentioned. Could you speak a bit about what the role involves and how do you feel about the significance of being the first Australian Indigenous Consul General, having just spoken about black excellence?

41:04 Benson: It is a huge honour to be the first indigenous consul general to the US — for anywhere in the world but in the US and being based down in Houston. Houston is such a significant place for — there’s the oil and gas industry but what’s often overlooked is also around the renewables and also tech. So, we look at Austin which is about 2 hours drive up the road from Houston. That’s looking like it’s going to be the next tech hub in the US.

41:35 From an Australian standpoint, from our standpoint in regard to Austrade and the Australian government, the US plays an incredibly important role in regard to foreign direct investment, so being able to invest in the prosperity of Australia, so creating Australian jobs but then also thought leadership and also our industries, but then also, trade and export.

41:58 So, the US represent for a lot of our businesses and exports is the frontier in regard to expansion for their own businesses and relationships and growing their products and services internationally. Houston and the US more broadly plays an incredible role for the ongoing prosperity of our nation.

42:22 My particular role which I’m very excited about touches on those aspects, around attracting foreign investment, so looking at the investment arm whilst being based in Houston, our exports and our trade but also then the area around public diplomacy as well.

42:38 Public diplomacy is the area that I feel very comfortable in, in regard to building the relationships, making those connections. Coming back to that idea of being a good convenor, that is absolutely the role that I hope to play when I do touch down in Houston and providing in some cases a soft landing for Australian businesses and Australians to be able to come into Houston and be able to connect with the right organisations to be able to grow their impact.

43:08 I’ve already had the opportunity since my announcement of the role to be able to connect with some of the First Nations groups. This is something I’m really interested in because for the last 5 years, I’ve been looking at how do you facilitate private investment into indigenous businesses to be able to scale them, but also to be able to scale their impact.

43:27 So, in Australia there’s over 12,000 indigenous businesses. We know that they’re more likely to employ other indigenous people, more likely to train indigenous staff and also more likely to reinvest back into their community as well. So, if I was to play out that equation in regard to bringing finance into their businesses, being able to scale them, it actually translates into greater impact as well.

43:52 So, for the last 5 years, we’ve been looking at what is the vehicle, what is the model to be able to facilitate that. That conversation is actually very in line with what’s happening in the US.

44:06 So, in Houston, there’s the Tunica-Baloxi tribes of Louisiana. I’ll also be looking across Louisiana and Oklahoma and Arkansaw as well as Texas. There’s some really wonderful work that’s being done there and there’s so many similarities in regard to the social outcomes of our communities, the challenges, relationship with governments and other partners, but then also I think the unifier across our groups is actually the vision that we have for our nations but then also for the young people that are coming through to step up as the next leaders, the next elders, the next custodians of our culture. So, there’s a huge alignment there as well.

44:50 Nick: Yeah, that’s incredible. Is there a sense though in which by moving to the US, you’re flying into the storm with the widespread civic unrest not really seen since I think the sixties economic collapse and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic? Are you sort of at all worried about the environment you’re heading into on a personal level?

45:10 Benson: Yeah. On a personal level, definitely in regards to the pandemic, is a huge worry. We just have to look at the rates of infection as well as the unfortunate deaths that are happening across the US and also globally, but obviously very relevant in Houston, particularly down south where it’s looking like it’s going to be one of the epicentres in the US.

45:40 So, this is — for myself and the safety of my family is paramount, and that’s reflected in the work, the risk assessments that we’re already doing in preparation. Aus Trade is making sure that the safety of our teams internationally are front of mind for all of our teams that are across the world. Then you mentioned around the political unrest. That’s something that we’re definitely following. We’ve got the…

46:10 Nick: It makes Australian politics seem like an absolute sort of child’s play in comparison, doesn’t it?

46:15 Benson: Yeah, it is — it feels like worlds apart at this stage. Obviously, we’ve got the election coming up in November so we’ll be watching that very closely. At the same time as we move into the US and into Houston, I’m there to do a very specific job around our trade and investment. When I think about the relationships/the alliance between Australian and the US, these things far outdate — as in kind of outlast — political cycles. So, this is building on decades of public diplomacy and work that’s been done to really strengthen and connect our nations.

46:56 If I can play a little role in regard to being a good convenor and being able to bring parties together and people together for informed respectful discussion, then that’s a role that I really hope to play.

47:10 In regard to the political make up, Houston and Austin and Dallas, the major cities are typically more Democrat. They’re more Democrat leaning, and then Texas itself is made up of over 250 counties which are predominantly Republican. So, there is that notion over the next few years that Texas itself may look and feel more of a purple state — so that kind of mix between the two.

47:40 Obviously, at the moment it does feel like the Democrats and the Republican party are so fragmented but we also have to remember, politics really plays a small role in our day-to-day life. I think this is an important piece to remember, is that actually what’s more important is how do we act as a citizen? How do we act as a neighbour? If politics plays a small role in our life, then the majority of our life in regard to other people around us, it’s the people that we — it’s our friends, it’s our family, it’s the people that we meet down the street. We need to be thinking back who is my neighbour or how can I be a better neighbour?

48:31 Nick: Yep. I actually think it’s sort of a perfect — you are the perfect person to be going into such a place in Houston because of obviously an incredible history with coming from a rural background but growing up in an urban setting, bridging many, many different cultures and traditions as well in your own personal background. You’ve got a perfect diplomatic preparation I think for what will be no doubt a challenging role. Looking forward, what kind of an impact do you hope to have, not just in the next couple of years during your career in the States but in public service and diplomacy more broadly over the next few decades if you even want to think that long?

49:10 Benson: Yeah. So, Australia is where I want to be able to have an impact and leave my mark. I think there’s something really beautiful — and this is why my wife and I have been wanting to live internationally — there’s something very special about stepping outside of Australia and viewing it from the outside in and just having that space as well to really consider where do I want to be in the future.

49:38 Over the next few years, whilst in this role, I think I’m going to absolutely learn so much in regard to diplomacy, the way that government works, from translating legislation into action through to the challenges of bureaucracy as well.

49:57 I hope in the future, being able to bring that back into — if I choose to go down the path of politics in the future or if I choose to go down the path of going back into corporate or not-for-profit, these are the kinds of skills and knowledge that I’ll be able to bring to any space.

50:16 I was recently asked to write an article for a wonderful magazine called Dumbo Feather which is a social enterprise based down here in Melbourne.

50:24 Nick: I love their stuff.

50:25 Benson: Yeah, they always write really beautiful pieces. I was asked to actually write a reflection around what does Australia look like in 20 years time. The narrative — I was actually really struggling because as you know, when you look around and being in the fact we’re in lockdown 2.0 at stage four, it’s really — some days, it’s really hard to look beyond that.

50:51 So, as I sat down to write this particular article, I had to actually bring it home. I couldn’t think about what the world would be like outside. So, I had to think closer to home and I was thinking 20 years — my daughter will be turning 20, stepping out into the world, thinking about the mark that she’ll want to make and leave on the world.

51:15 I kind of think about well, what kind of world do I want her to inherit and what kind of world do I want her to step into? One of the issues that has been in discussion quite a lot in the current conditions of lockdown is around the impacts of mental health on young people, the rates of suicide but then also something that was — Natasha Stott Despoja gave a wonderful presentation and speech at the National Press Club recently on the scourge and the pandemic of gender based violence as well which is a very real and very serious issue that is impacting women, predominantly women across Australia on a weekly/daily basis.

52:01 So, when I think about in 20 years time, the world that I hope my daughter steps into is a world where we able to address a lot of these things. The way that I actually started thinking about this article was not about casting my mind forward. It was actually about starting from today thinking about tomorrow.

52:19 Nick: Beautiful. The first step.

52:21 Benson: Yeah, it’s the first step because ultimately our decisions that we make today will impact and create the future for tomorrow. So, if I want my daughter to believe in the same truth that my father told me in regard to ‘never think the world is not yours’, I need to start today to ensure that the world that she inherits actually is a world that is hers, and that she can shape.

52:49 Nick: Yep, that’s really beautiful. Finally, to wrap up the interview, both you and Bob Hawke were born in Bordertown, South Australia. So, I was wondering if politics is something you would consider down the track. I think you’ve already mentioned that but I just thought I’d ask it again.

53:03 Benson: I love that you brought that up. I’d love to share just a really brief story. This is years ago and family stories, there’s truth and there’s some kind of like question mark around family stories. The story goes my grandmother, she lived in Bordertown for all her life. She passed away a few years ago but she lived to 100 years old. Actually, no, she would stop me and say it was 100 and 6 months, so get that right, Benson.

53:33 So, we had some family, an aunt and uncle, rock up to Bordertown wanting to track down Aunty Jessie which is my grandmother. They didn’t have her address. So, they thought, “You know what? We’ll just hang out at the post office and we’ll see a brother or sister walking down the main street,” which is the main street is called Woolshed Street.

53:52 As they’re sitting there, they’re waiting and waiting and they’re not seeing too many people, and then suddenly uncle, he spies a fellow over the hedge. He’s like, “Oh, there’s a brother. I’ll go and say G’day to him.” He walks up and kind of jumps from behind the hedge and it’s the brass bust of Bob Hawke. He was like, “Well, he’s not going to help us.”

54:19 This particular brass bust is brilliant. He actually has half his nose missing because apparently, as urban legends go, that a disgruntled farmer from Bordertown backed up his truck, wrapped a chain around Bob Hawke and kind of dragged him up main street.

54:38 Nick: Sounds like a wild place.

54:41 Benson: It’s very wild. It’s great that you mentioned that we’re from the same town because I often think about this, and thinking — coming back to that idea that there’s cycles that kind of go on in life, these seemingly coincidental kind of happenings. For me to be born in Bordertown — so, my family lived up in Brisbane. My mum was born in Bordertown and I’m the youngest and she wanted me born in Bordertown. So, we actually — mum and dad and my older brother and sister — drove down from Brisbane. Apparently, mum was going into labour as we were arriving into Bordertown.

55:23 Nick: Speeding to get there on time.

55:24 Benson: No doubt. So, I was actually born in Bordertown. I’m the only one apart from my mum born in Bordertown in my immediate family. So, there’s this really almost funny kind of curious kind of thing that if politics is the path that I want to go down, is there something about Bordertown?

55:48 Nick: Yeah, it’s producing all the future pollies and prime ministers maybe.

55:52 Benson: Yeah.

55:53 Nick: Indeed. Alright, well thank you so much for your time today, Benson. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you and all the very best to you and your family for the move to the US.

56:00 Benson: No worries. Thanks so much for having me.

56:02 Nick: Thank you.

Originally published at on August 23, 2020.

Writer and podcaster in Melbourne, Australia

Writer and podcaster in Melbourne, Australia