Speech from Sydney Alliance Interns Graduation on 09/05/2014

I just completed an internship with the Sydney Alliance with five colleagues (and now friends). Our supervisor, David Barrow, ran a very tight ship at every stage of the internship and he asked us to formalize the completion of it by having a graduation in which we invited a lot of people and gave speeches. Here is mine-

Hello, guests and political co-conspirators. My name is Edwin Montoya Zorrilla and I am a climate activist, a law student and a philosopher trying to put his values into practice. I grew up in Peru and Hurstville.

My journey with the alliance began in September 2011, at its founding assembly.  I had been doing an internship in the Trades Hall, same building as the alliance, and was having a rather strange day at the office. My supervisor was getting some of us to compile a list which he called the “Hall of Shame”, quite simply a way of holding those politicians who would not comply with the demands of the organization on the same scale as Stalin and Pol Pot. Barely able to hold back my anxiety at realizing that we were ruled by a government full of bloodthirsty autocrats, I was relieved when I was told to visit the launch of some organization.

 So I ran to Town Hall, with only the sound of the choir to guide me along its winding hallways and staircases. I took my seat just in time for the official proceedings. Pretty soon I realized that this room was filled with those “other” people, belonging to those “other” groups. Churches, unions, organizations that a left-wing middle-class law student couldn’t proudly belong to without feeling ideologically compromised, a little bit tainted by the groupthink that might hinder the making of rational decisions. Throughout the assembly, I felt elated at being part of such a powerful crowd yet suspicious at the religious overtones at this collective mentality. As I walked out of the assembly, having registered no change in my view of politics. David should have stopped me, turned me around, ruffled a few feathers.  Instead, he was probably somewhere making sure it was all running smoothly. So I was very lucky to come across him two years later, at a training camp for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

He gave his usual introduction to the alliance, and although I was very taken by his forceful presentation, the specifics of the session he ran mattered little. For what I would gain upon being taken in as an intern by the alliance would be much greater.

The first thing I gained was focus. I am very introspective when it comes to political thought, and there was a time when every single article I read would make me turn inwards, question everything, and take a slight lurch to the left or the right on the spectrum. I was obsessed with dividing courses of action between working within the system, and working outside of it.

I can safely say that I end my internship with the Sydney Alliance on almost the exact same spot of the political spectrum where I lay before I began. Yet I feel utterly transformed. And how surprising. For once, the many lessons I have acquired about politics, organizing and change have found an outlet other than my fundamental political identity. That outlet is the language of power. For while power may signify a loss, a disenfranchisement, the inability for you or me to directly decide how the system is run, it is also the currency around which we come together to pool and mobilize our resources, our influence, our strategies.

Saul Alinksy said-

“If people don’t think they have the power to solve their problems, they won’t even think about how to solve them.” 

Co-operating with your allies as if they have power, and moreover as if you have power, in the pursuit of common goals, is where politics begins. So I also learned the importance of inhabiting my own political skin, feeling comfortable and, more than anything, powerful within it.

Yet even now it feels graceless, and belated to say that to a group of people, most of whom know this lesson well already. At 23, I’ve thought a lot about what I consider to be the most important political questions today. And I have come to realize much of this thought process was driven by anxiety, deadlocks within my very self. Should I identify as Peruvian or Australian? Do I really believe that halting climate change and ending oppression are worth transforming society, or am I actually just sick and bored of my place within the status quo? Am I too young to count? Searching for answers has shaped who I am, but at times it’s been paralysing. Only recently have I accepted that there is but one way out of these deadlocks without any real answers. It is to accept the will to power behind these anxieties and to express it through action which will define my story. I can’t say that my internship with the Alliance was the sole turning for me, but it did play a big part.

This leads me to the question-what made the internship for me? The highlights were many. For my various ventures to housing meetings all over Sydney meant that I was thrust out of my inner-west bubble and confronted with the political importance of people very different from me. And I discovered that there’s very good, if not unconquerable, coffee in Parramatta. And that between Parramatta road and the Western line, Sydney well and truly has a public transport problem.

The housing team was all about the people. The people, among them academics, religious leaders, community organizers, and political strategists, all humbled me. There was a point when I had been doing research on various housing organizations, and after a few hours of research and some meetings I realized that almost all those organizations had some connection to the people in that room. It’s like when you walk into a room at a dinner or party, expecting a bunch of strangers to whom you could show your party tricks, and instead you find that you know almost everyone, that almost everyone who matters in your social life is there in that room.

There’s no room for posturing, no possibility of appearing to do something without actually achieving much. Just you and all your resources, to use as you will. This was a heavy responsibility for all of us at the housing research action team meetings. But we bore it well because we bore it together.

My time with the Sydney Alliance has been a convergence of various projects. I find past interns littered all over other organizations that I am passionate about, including the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Interns Australia. However, I will soon be leaving, or at least taking a break from these organizations as I head on exchange to Sweden. As much as I may sound like another drifting millennial when I say this, the future is both unclear and exciting right now.

What I gain from this temporary experience is a language that won’t go away no matter what context or country I’m in- the language of power. A language that begins with the understanding that if you want to change the world, people matter, no matter how different they are from you. You change it with them. The language the Alliance uses does not belong to it. It is universal. It is contagious. And I’ve caught it.

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