Mel Wojtas is known for many things – her endeavour to tackle domestic violence by founding the Hive Village Project, her commitment to raising awareness of human rights issues as an ambassador for UN Women’s Generation Equality, and for being a compelling speaker with purple hair.
Mel’s extraordinary life and career have become intertwined in many ways, as she uses her lived experiences to guide how she is now studying, working, and planning to rid society of domestic violence.
In this interview, she details her journey so far, the twists and turns along the way, and shares actions and resources for anyone and everyone reading this article.
- You started Hive Village Project back in 2016 to build long-term, turn-key, self-contained homes for domestic violence survivors and their pets. How has the problem you’re trying to solve evolved since then, and how have your ambitions with Hive Village Project consequently changed over time?
A lot has changed over the last four years, mainly as I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the landscape of the barriers that survivors face when starting over. Through tertiary study, I’ve learnt the systemic challenges and service gaps, along with the dire need for holistic solutions, such as Hive Village from peers, frontline workers and specialist service providers.
The vision has since adapted to include all genders, not just the initial plan for women and children. My original plan to create a state-wide solution has evolved into a national one. I have adapted to survivor feedback on making the villages permanent, rather than transitional so the properties will be bigger than first anticipated.
The need has sadly increased, rather than decreased over time, with government blatantly ignoring advice and recommendations from specialist services and peak bodies. Funding recently announced barely scratches the surface and the competitive tendering process for established services is problematic, as services try to secure the same funding.
- As a founder and start-up owner, what have been your biggest challenges with starting, building and scaling Hive Village Project?
Acknowledging that my journey doesn’t equate to the only experience that survivors live through was the starting point to the whole project. Since the initial concept (scribbled on a notepad in my parent’s lounge room one night) I’ve made decisions to align with this overarching purpose ever since.
For me, time and patience had been the most significant learning curve. I wanted to do it right away and build within a year but had no idea what I was doing or even how to achieve that. I began attending domestic violence and housing events to see ‘who’s who’ in the sector. I visited a regional shipping container home provider to see their sites in full scale and had the initial concept of utilising shipping containers for the project.
My background had been corporate administration, so housing and human services were so foreign to me, apart from some volunteering over the years in Homelessness and Community Services. Making the unorthodox decision not to return to an office and instead be supported by welfare as I returned to study full-time, as a single mum of two has ruffled a few feathers. That’s been the most significant sacrifice towards my mission – I believe in it to my core and decide to brush off any judgement I receive for doing so. Instead, I’ve been upskilling, educating myself, networking, volunteering and launched a Speaking business to continue my advocacy.
Another beast I had to conquer was imposter syndrome. As a survivor, I felt like I had no business in the sector full of ‘experts’ and would internalise this as a failure before I’d even begun. That was my own ‘noise’ (ongoing impact of trauma and doubting myself) and no reflection on anyone I had met – I needed to work on my internal voice. I was procrastinating by fear of success and hesitant to seek help from others – until I met some kickass businesswomen who were in similar places in their start-ups.
On top of the usual challenges like lack of business management knowledge or access to finance, I’ve had to grapple with some pretty complex grief over the last few years. Admittingly, Hive Village has been on the back burner – after losing my Uncle and Grandfather to Cancer and my Father to suicide. I’m now back at University to continue my Bachelor in Social Science so I can be qualified to run my organisation. I feel this is vital before applying for grants and solidifying the business structure.
- How did you know you had to start something on your own, rather than join an existing organisation to tackle this issue?
There are many established and invaluable domestic and family violence crisis services for women, and there is never enough to meet the growing need for refuge. There are even fewer services available for people in the LGBTIQ community and almost none for people with disabilities or men.
A victim-survivor would be able to stay in a specialist homelessness service for up to three months, in a large house with other families in each room (or a motel) and usually no overnight support staff. A survivor would then either be placed into transitional housing if they are lucky, or have to navigate the private rental or public housing processes. As you can imagine, this would be daunting, and both paths can continue a sense of instability as neither are permanent solutions. Some may return to their abuser, due to ongoing fear and control, risks of homelessness, threats to harm if they don’t come home, living costs, children and others could end up homeless.
This ‘post-crisis’ phase is where I knew I could make an impact. It is my mission to stop the cycle of housing insecurity and homelessness by providing permanent housing for people starting over after domestic and family abuse/violence in regional Australia.
To my knowledge, there isn’t another organisation in Australia currently that has the same vision: building villages in regional areas with integrated support services, for human and animal survivors. Fully-furnished, universally designed for accessibility, LGBTIQ friendly, pet-friendly, self-contained and person-centred. (Founded and co-designed by survivors for other survivors). Each village will partner with established DFV services so we can work closely with the expertise of the regions we build in, to ensure the residents are exceptionally supported.
- What’s your advice to others considering starting their own family services organisation?
You can’t support others if you are still not facing or working on your own ‘stuff’. Regular professional support (therapy, Psychology, counselling, professional supervision) is the best place to start to ethically and adequately help others.
No matter how wild or unachievable your concept may seem – it’s always worth exploring. My mindset has been the biggest game-changer for me, linking in with supportive peer networks to build each other up and stay accountable. I couldn’t have done this without first working through my past.
Education isn’t ‘just a piece of paper’, it shows dedication to the cause, best practice and an understanding of the sector. It also helps when applying for future funding and networking along the way. Colleges like TAFE teach Community Services certificates from Cert 3 – Diploma level as a starting point to get a feel for the industry. I highly recommend this as a starting point, along with volunteer work in the industry to see whether you like it in practice.
- You recently became an ambassador for #GenerationEquality. What does this initiative mean to you and what’s your role in enabling its success?
I’m proud to be part of a global campaign for gender equality, convened by UN Women. It’s an honour to be named an influencer in Australia for human rights and anti-violence.
Whenever a man feels a woman is not his equal, they will treat them accordingly – with disrespect. That solidifies why gender inequality is the root cause of violence towards women.
I’m passionate about gender equality and hope to see the tides turn towards a fairer world for all – one where women can feel safe at home. Despite enormous strides towards liberation, not a single country has achieved gender equality. If that shocks you – please share the campaign with your networks, children and discuss with your friends.
UN Women states ‘In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action set out how to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life, whether in public or in private. Despite some progress, real change has been agonisingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world. Today, not a single country can claim to have achieved gender equality.’
- How can individuals, businesses and governments practically support domestic violence survivors? What’s the low-hanging fruit they could be actioning today?
It is a human right for every person to live free from violence. Starting over after domestic and family abuse shouldn’t be the ‘luck of the draw’ or based on privilege.
I had family nearby and was in my birth country with citizenship rights and access to our welfare system. I speak English as a first language, and I’m a non-Indigenous Australian. As a non-Indigenous woman, I didn’t face the same distrust from services, systemic racism, generational trauma or the constant threat of child removal that Indigenous
women face every day in this country. I could never begin to fathom the challenges faced and resilience shown by Indigenous women across Australia. We can all learn a lot from the strength and knowledge of Indigenous Australians, especially community and connection.
On a government level – follow the advice of First Nations people, women’s safety experts, survivor-advocates and specialist services recommendations and more importantly, fund them appropriately and secure the funding long-term as a Federal priority. Ensure that lived expertise (survivors) are in every room where policy reform happens – especially Indigenous, disabled, LGBTIQ and marginalised voices.
Businesses should all undertake annual, face to face trauma-informed training from professional survivor-advocates, many of whom are Consultants. Having clear and current Domestic and family abuse/violence policies and procedures should be standard for any type of work across all industries, big and small. Employers, staff and customers will all have varying experiences with trauma. There is not an industry or community in Australia that isn’t impacted by domestic and family abuse.
Companies can partner with, donate to or sponsor domestic and family violence organisations in their local area. Organise working bee’s, donation drives, volunteer days or fundraisers. Contact your local service to see what would be most beneficial.
As a community, we can all educate ourselves on domestic and family abuse, know the signs and challenges and report any behaviour as many times as you see/hear/know about it (can remain anonymous) – it could save a life.
Services Australia: www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/subjects/family-and-domestic-violence/
Emergencies: Always ring 000 if you know someone is in immediate danger.
Non-life-threatening incidents: Report to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or www.crimestoppers.com.au
Support for young people: Kidsline is available 24/7 . Call 1800 55 1800 for children aged 5 – 25 or visit www.kidshelpline.com.au
Help for victim-survivors and their loved ones: 24/7 counselling and support is available at 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au
Suicide callback service: Call 1300 659 467 or visit www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/
About the expert
Mel Wojtas (Voytas) is a Lived Expertise Consultant, Media Advocate and Speaker, based out of Sydney, recently becoming an Ambassador for Generation Equality to continue her advocacy in human rights.
Mel is also the Founder & CEO of a multi-award-winning Start-up, Hive Village Project. A housing solution that will provide intersectional, permanent housing with integrated support services for human and animal survivors of Domestic & Family Abuse, in regional Australia.
Her life to date has equipped her with invaluable knowledge on topics such as domestic and family abuse/violence, sexual violence, mental health and complex trauma. Mel has lived expertise and insight into Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) and generational mental health, losing a parent to suicide and how she thrives after adversity.
Mel was selected to represent the inaugural ‘Voices for Change’ Project in NSW as a Survivor-Advocate in the media. Additionally, representing both Domestic Violence NSW & ACON as an ‘LGBTIQ Voices for Change’ NSW Advocate, spreading awareness of domestic and family abuse within the LGBTIQ community. Within both projects, survivor-advocates have been lobbying for changes at all levels from primary prevention and societal attitudes to improving current systems, service gaps and government policy.
Since 2017, Mel has been studying Community Services at TAFE NSW and a Bachelor of Social Science at the University of Newcastle (Australia) before receiving a full scholarship into the Women’s Business School Ignite 2019. Mel regularly attends DFV training and conferences to stay informed of current resources and best practice.
Gaining growing recognition from the industry, Mel placed 2nd in the Social Change Hero category for the national ROAR Success Awards and 2nd in the Women’s Business School Excellence category for the national AusMumpreneur Awards 2019. Throughout 2019, Mel received nominations for a Women’s Agenda Leadership Award, an LGBTI Honour Award and Finalist in AusMumpreneur People’s Choice Award.
For continued professional and personal development, Mel is a member of Australian Community Workers Association (ACWA), Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Association (ANZMA), Women’s Network Australia (WNA), Future Women, Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW) and Women’s Safety NSW.
Media contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.melwojtas.com