Tasman Bain is the Co-Founder of Meri Toksave, a youth-led Pacific gender justice charity. In addition to his work in the NGO sector, Tasman joined the Australian Mission to the United Nations in New York in 2015, and was a Queensland Finalist for the 2016 Young Australian of the Year Award. Tasman is currently studies Anthropology at the University of Queensland. In our interview, we discussed the process of founding a youth-led NGO, and the skills needed to build a career in international affairs.
For those of our readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Born and bred in Brisbane and about to turn 25, I have been privileged to work with a range of organisations over the past eight years with many in the realm of international affairs. I’m particularly passionate about gender equality, youth empowerment, humanitarian action, and peace and security.
My current core commitments are as the Co-Founder and Deputy Director of Meri Toksave (a youth-led gender justice charity for the Pacific), the Chair of the Australian Red Cross Queensland Youth Advisory Committee, and the Pacific Regional Focal Point for Humanitarian Affairs of the UN Major Group for Children and Youth. I’m also a part-time anthropology student at the University of Queensland, a part-time case support officer for victims of violence with the Queensland Government, and a casual high school debating coach.
I’ve also been an intern at the Australian Mission to the United Nations in New York in 2015, an intern in the then national security policy function of the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra over the 2014-2015 summer, and served as a UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador. I’ve also convened both the Australasian Debating Championship and the Asia-Pacific Model United Nations and been an active facilitator with UN Youth Australia including spearheading Queensland rural engagement and leading a tour across the United States.
What fostered your interest in international affairs and how did you first get involved with international relations organisations? What has been the highlight of your experience?
I first cut my teeth in international affairs as a first year university student with UN Youth Australia as a facilitator of workshops on international affairs for high school students. I’ve sought out diverse opportunities across local and international issues to strengthen my skills and experiences including a native title fieldwork placement at the Federal Court of Australia and as a Plan Australia Young Ambassador and also on campus as an executive member of various UQ student societies and participating in debating tournaments and MUN conferences.
One of my highlights has been as an intern at the Australian Mission to the United Nations in 2015 which saw the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations, the 15th Anniversary of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. I was privileged to support and learn from amazing Australian diplomats at the crossroads of international affairs, analyse human rights reports from hotspots around the world, and listen to leaders such as Malala, Nadia Murad, and President Obama.
Can you tell us more about the work that Meri Toksave does and explain what the process of establishing a youth-led NGO was like?
Meri Toksave (“information for women” in Tok Pisin) is a youth-led NGO that designs and delivers programmes and partnerships at the intersection of gender justice and youth empowerment in the Pacific.
Meri Toksave was co-founded by Ayesha Lutschini, Courtney Price and I as undergraduates at UQ seeking to develop a solution to gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. With the leadership and insights of Ayesha, we developed a detailed project outline and attended the Harvard University World Model United Nations Conference in Melbourne in March 2013 and entered the Resolution Project’s Social Venture Challenge. We were fortunate to be awarded a Resolution Fellowship and a seed grant to transform our idea on paper to a functional initiative on the ground.
From there, we completed the reams of paperwork to become a registered charity with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and the Queensland Office of Fair Trading, be granted tax exemptions from the Australian Taxation Office, set up a bank account, create a governance structure, develop organisational processes and policies, and recruit and on board a team. The administrative journey of starting an NGO has been at times bewildering and slow-moving but ultimately rewarding.
Our first and flagship project was the Meri Toksave Directory to improve the information accessibility of cross-sectoral services and referral systems for survivors of family and sexual violence across the country. The directory was the first ever and, for a time, only of its kind. Ayesha, Courtney and I spent an entire year of research, mapping and verifying services, reaching out to local and international organisations, and monitoring incidents and policy changes. We officially launched in January 2014 in Port Moresby and since we have had over 5000 hardcopies distributed to a range of stakeholders, organisations, and communities and also maintained an updated online directory which has been accessed thousands of times.
In 2014, we developed an advocacy campaign called They Say, We Say to coincide with the first anniversary of the Family Protection Act of Papua New Guinea which criminalised spousal rape and broadened the definition and responses for domestic violence. With They Say, We Say we sought to challenge attitudes, behaviours, stigmas and misinformation about domestic violence through social media and printed posters.
We are currently in the process of finalising a new program to expand beyond Papua New Guinea to the broader Melanesia region to provide a youth empowerment platform with a focus on gender justice.
What do you think is the most valuable skill or experience you have gained/had that has helped you to achieve all that you have achieved?
I believe the most important skill set, one which I am forever developing, is relationship building and stakeholder engagement. By this I really just mean building trust, knowing your audience, being an effective and timely communicator, and being respectful and courteous. This skill set though can only be effectively leveraged when it stems from professionalism, integrity, empathy, and humility – traits that go a long way especially in diplomacy or humanitarian work. Moreover, I believe my own skills are only enhanced by the skills and support of my colleagues. For instance, my journey with Meri Toksave and all my learnings and newfound skills could not have happened without the mentorship, leadership, and friendship of Ayesha. The organisational skills and technical competencies I have developed are immensely important but ultimately listening to and collaborating with others and growing a reciprocity of trust and support is essential.
Tangentially though, my skill of eating potatoes had the opportunity to shine at a Christmas function at the Polish Consulate in New York which gained the respect of a cadre of UN military advisers who proceeded to share some of their amazing stories and an invitation for kick-on drinks.
What advice would you give to students and young Australians looking to pursue a career in international relations?
I am no expert on careers in international relations and I know of no single pathway to being an Australian diplomat, an official with the UN, or an NGO leader. However, here is some advice I have developed over the past few years which may help put you on the right track:
Soft Skills Matter: go beyond your university studies to develop and put into practice your skills across interpersonal communication, relationship building, problem solving, critical thinking, report writing, and public speaking.
Have The Right Attitude: reflect on your motivations for a career in international affairs and build a sense of resilience, humility and integrity in all that you do.
Levelling Up Responsibilities: take up positions and opportunities which give you meaningful and higher organisational responsibilities. Look local, from student societies on campus to community volunteering opportunities. What matters is having experiences in which test and prove your competencies.
Leverage Your Academics: as much as I have failed to follow this advice, your GPA does count in many circumstances. Your academic achievement opens many doors such as the New Colombo Plan and other scholarships, internships with GPA cut offs such as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and opportunities to be a research assistant for your favourite professor of international relations.
Build Your Analytical Toolkit: because international affairs is complex and multifaceted, building your analytical toolkit and growing your knowledge bank is essential. Keep up to date on international issues and flash-points as well as future trends by reading widely outside of your university curriculum.
Tinker and Tailor: always examine the position description and selection criteria to effectively tailor your cover letter and CV. For questions or interviews, employ the STAR model (http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/cracking-the-code/factsheet5) of presenting information against selection criteria.