PEOPLE: Liverpool Councillor leading grassroots change in South-West Sydney

Charishma Kaliyanda is a councillor at Liverpool City Council and Community Engagement Officer at Headspace, a non-profit organisation for youth mental health established by the Australian Government. We speak to her about what these roles mean to her and the change she has seen in South-West Sydney. Here’s the story!

Can you tell our readers what a normal day looks like for Charishma Kaliyanda? 

Oh, God. I think I’d start off by saying there’s no such thing as a normal day, so for counsellors, some may be retired and so their counsel work is kind of like their sole focus or they sort of almost can treat it as a bit of a full-time job for other counsellors. They may have a main job or a main occupation, or they may run their own business or something like that. So council’s commitments will definitely then kind of sort of identify what they do for in terms of their usual day. So for me personally, Monday to Thursday, I work in my kind of my main role or my day job, if you can call it that. And so on Fridays is the day that I usually have allocated to kind of work on council projects and other types of things. And on those days, I can have, you know, a number of different meetings, whether it’s with residents or different members of council staff or other partners or stakeholders around different issues. So to give you a snapshot of what that might look like. I might start off the morning with plopping down to a local café or, you know, a local business to have a chat with a resident about with, you know, with the business person about an issue that they’re facing, which could be related to development. It could be related to neighbours, it could be related to their plans for expanding their business and potential sources of council support for that.

I could, you know, from there, I could stop by and speak to a resident about an issue that they’re having in terms of, you know, whether it’s infrastructure that they want to see in their neighbourhood issues with a particular park asking for, you know, a pavement infrastructure, those sorts of things to be implemented in their neighbourhood. One of the most interesting meetings I’ve had in the last few weeks is to pop out and speak to a resident around having sort of informal bike tracks in a neighbourhood so that, you know, the young people in that neighborhood could, you know, actually have something to do during lockdown? Obviously, more regional and broader facilities were closed for the better part of two to three months, and so lots of local kids had to set up infrastructure in their local neighbourhoods. But that created a conflict because council has a duty of care to make sure that any anything that’s set up, whether it’s formal or not, is safe minimises risk to the community and therefore it responds to complaints and things like that. So, you know, just basically where that had a chat to them got a sense of what was going on from their perspective and was then able to come back and facilitate a meeting with council staff in both environment and community and culture to get a process around where to from this set up.

How important is diversity to you and in the work that you do?

I think it’s very, very much at the heart of what I see a counselor’s role as because, you know, for most councils, you have between nine and 15 representatives of sometimes hundreds of thousands of residents. And whilst as a, you know, as a group, as a council, you may not necessarily be able to meet each and every single constituents specific perspective, or you may not necessarily be able to kind of, you know, have the same lived experience as them. Diversity and inclusion means that as many different types of perspectives and lived experiences and ways of thinking and being are incorporated into the decisions that are made ultimately by that council. So the role that council that you know, a group of councillors has on setting the vision and the direction of a city for up to 10 to 20 years into the future is huge, right? When you look at some of the challenges that some of our residents in Liverpool are facing now. Those decisions were made 10 years ago. They weren’t made in the last couple of years. They were made 10 years ago and they were made by the people who were sitting around that table at that particular time. So in terms of the people who are sitting around that table, if they are a diverse group of people and I mean in terms of cultural experiences, age experiences with ability or disability, I mean, in terms of gender and sexuality, we need to be able to get as close to a cross-section of our broader community as possible so that we can account for those decisions and the impact that those decisions have on our community. Because if you don’t understand the impact that the policy and the decisions that you make have on our community, that’s when you have people falling through the gaps.

Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?

I would say for me personally, one of the more challenging things is sort of balancing being one of the people we’ve speaking for people and it’s always going to be a dynamic balance because it no situation is going to be exactly the same. So you can’t use the same formula again and again. So you’re going to have to wait way things up as it comes. And so I personally, my value is very much around sort of equity and equality, and I I don’t see myself as part of a hierarchy with residents or with other people or those sorts of things. And so, you know, when that when you then have situations where people sort of like, oh, you know, counsellor or this or that I personally feel a bit uncomfortable with standing on ceremony a little bit. However, there are times where the elected role that you have calls on you to make decisions and actually kind of represent your community and that sort of thing. And so when it comes to being taken seriously in some of those forums I’ve had to it’s been an evolution in terms of finding my voice, finding how I’m able to relate to the other people that I’m part of that decision making collective with because we do come from different ideological perspectives. We do come from different political backgrounds and that can sometimes cause preconceptions or tension between people. So if I can, if I can do one thing differently about my term, something I would probably have done in sort of the first couple of months is actively seek out my counsellor colleagues and kind of establish a bit of a a bit of a conversation with them around how they work, what motivates them and just get a foundation of a relationship.

I think for a lot of people, that can be a very daunting thing, and that was very much a daunting thing for me. So I felt quite judged in some respects by some of those people, whether it was on the basis of my age or my background or my gender, or, you know, or like my political affiliations. I felt that I felt that they perceived me in a particular way because of those sorts of things. However, in kind of reflecting, I think it was a bit of perception on both of that ends. So to sort of, you know, come at that that relationship with a slightly different approach would be something I would have done differently. That’s it. It’s not just about my council colleagues. Sometimes I can be in conferences, I can be in other meetings and things like that where I where people think that I’m a staff member rather than a rather than a councillor, which is kind of interesting because it’s usually the dude in the suit that gets mistaken for the person who holds authority or the person that kind of is the is the decision-maker in that in that context. And so going back to that initial response I had, it’s very much that tension between, you know, you do you are the response, you are the responsible decision-maker. So you need to own that and you need to kind of put yourself forward in that way. But also like, you know, standing on ceremony and kind of like having that hierarchy, that traditional hierarchy is not something that comes naturally to me.

ADVICE FOR THE YOUTH

I would say, although it seems really challenging to reach out because the worst, the worst thing that someone can say to you is No. I’m sorry, not the way I think they. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I would call it the worst thing, but like the the the only the only bad outcome or the only kind of negative outcome that can come from you asking the question if someone says no right, but for every know you get, you might get five other yeses. So just in the process of reaching out, making some of those connections and just, you know, starting a conversation with someone, you might go down a path that you totally didn’t didn’t imagine. And I feel like this is true, not just of young people who might be interested in politics or representation, but it’s true of young people who are interested in a whole broad range of different fields. I work with a lot of young people in my day job. And so in health, and so something that I commonly speak with them about is Gen Z are amazing at calling out people for poor behavior. And yet, you know, the scariest thing for them is making an appointment with a GP. Right. Like, it’s this it’s this really kind of fascinating, I find it so fascinating, fascinating dichotomy of being so like bad ass and empowered in one sense. And yet on the other sense like something previous generations sort of take for granted and like, Oh, this is super easy is a real challenge for Gen Z. So I feel like although it can, it can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes the most rewarding thing that you can do, actually.

Let me let me go back a step in terms of like summarizing all of this precursor. So in terms of the advice, sometimes the most rewarding thing that you can do is pushing through discomfort. So if maybe it’s better to frame it that way. Okay. Because like and just in terms of like like fleshing that out a little bit is very much around, like acknowledging that yet sometimes all the time reaching out to people can be like, really uncomfortable. It can be something that doesn’t feel natural to you. And that’s fine to acknowledge all of that, but then weigh it up against something that you’re genuinely interested or passionate in. This is why whenever like, whether it’s on LinkedIn or emails or whatnot, I genuinely try and prioritize responding to young people or champion causes that young people championing causes that young people come to me with. Because I love when young people in our community have thoughts, have ideas, and have things that they really want to say different and then act on it. And I want to support that as much as possible. So just like me, there are so many other people who have a very similar mindset and, you know, not everyone. That’s not to say everyone that you reach out to is going to be like that, but the chances of someone actually kind of going, Oh, hey, like what you’re saying is, you know, is really like a valid perspective, and I want to learn more. The chances of reaching out to someone like that is much higher than reaching out to someone who’s going to be like, Hey, look, sorry, I have different priorities.

Want to follow and support Charishma Kaliyanda ?

I’m probably most active on Instagram and Twitter, so I have to like I have my kind of combined Instagram, which is basically like bits and pieces of different parts of my life and things like that. And then I have my council, Instagram, which is very much around like what I do on council and the things related to local community stuff. 

–         Instagram – @ckaliyanda + @cllrkaliyanda

–         Twitter – @ckaliyanda


About the diversity champion:

(she/her) As a registered occupational therapist and elected representative, I am passionate about working with individuals and communities to fulfil their potential and engage in the activities they want. I have over 10 years of experience working with young people, particularly in the university sector. Currently, I work closely with the Youth Reference Group to further the aims of headspace – the youth mental health initiative. I build relationships with various internal and external stakeholders to facilitate access to help for young people experiencing distress in south-west Sydney. As an elected councillor, my focus is on balancing the growth of Liverpool’s population with appropriate social, economic, cultural and physical infrastructure. I want to ensure that residents have an effective advocate to improve their quality of life into the future.

Image description: Charishma is smiling at the camera with a coffee in hand, wearing a pink blazer