My friend Jess Black is one of the most genuine and giving people I know. She embodies all three things I set out to talk about here on Go Build A Bridge – creativity, strength and action. Whilst Jess is aligned with organisations doing incredible work, I also want highlight how fabulous she is as an individual. One of the things I admire about her is how she helps people one on one and in small groups and in doing so positively impacts whole communities.
I set up a time to have dinner with Jess and ask my questions for this post, but she cancelled. You might think I’d be annoyed, but she’s not one to cancel without good reason – she did so to complete last minute paperwork so that a Social Enterprise Food Trailer, which she is co-ordinating as part of a role with NCEC (Nundah Community Enterprises Cooperative), could get its stamp of approval from council. Projects like the food trailer – providing training opportunities for communities from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds wanting to start their own food-business, have become a focus and strength for Jess.
When we caught up the following week I asked her how she came to do such work. Jess revealed it was probably based on geographic location. She was working with clients at Espresso Train Café (an initiative of NCEC), which has a reputation for helping people that other people aren’t able to help, when MDA (Multicultural Development Australia), an organisation with an office on the next block, approached them to see if they could start working with people who wanted to work with food. Jess headed up a new program, which incorporated a series of pop up restaurants and a major event as part of Create Welcome Week 2016. With the food trailer now given the green light and two gigs on its books, it’s exciting to await future event invitations!
To be able to do all this Jess has a simple but powerful attitude that I believe more people ought to openly adopt – “I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured it out.”
When I first met Jess about 8 years ago she was working as a Complex Case Manager in a community care organisation, an office job that didn’t really suit her hands on approach. Following this she moved on to a remote indigenous community on Mornington Island, where she managed a safe house for Aboriginal kids who couldn’t stay at home, before coming back to Brisbane, where she currently has nine contract roles across community enterprises (yes, that’s right, 9 jobs!). Given such a unique and full workload, not to mention Jess’s extensive travels across the globe, there is much I could write. However, I think Jess’s own words best sum up her awesomeness.
People scare the shit out of me – I am so much an introvert. I hate talking in front of people, but all the kind of things I do now involve me doing that. I force myself to do it… If you want to be able to help people you have to be able to learn how to talk to them.
Whilst a few years ago Jess struggled to talk in front of a handful of people, last year (2016) she sat on a panel in front of a couple of hundred people as part of Refugee Week. Sitting with experts who she admired professionally she was initially very nervous, but when questioned she simply answered. Given her passion about the topic, she admits it wasn’t that terrifying – “I felt as though I wasn’t being judged on my response – I was talking about factual stuff. Let me tell you about refugees and what’s going on.”
Jess acknowledges that as someone who is white and middle class she doesn’t have to face the challenges of racism in her daily life, but being on the periphery – hanging out and working with people from different countries, cultures, backgrounds and religions, she unfortunately gets an insight into how horrible people can be.
People make assumptions that if someone’s skin is a bit dark they’re Muslim and so many people have a problem with Muslims. People think they have an idea of what it means to be Muslim, but don’t understand the difference between religion and culture.
If you don’t go to pains to dispute the things you read or hear in our biased media you’re given the impression that Australia is being flooded with dole bludgers and queue jumpers.
Jess continues to work with organisations in the community local to Espresso Train Café and this Thursday will co-ordinate catering for a lunch event at Nundah Neighbourhood Centre where Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani and Iranian food will be served. For this event, also in conjunction with MDA, attendees will hear first hand from a Syrian refugee, who will talk about her experience – how she got here, their food and culture.
Proudly informing me that there will be six kinds of dessert at the event, Jess clearly understands the value of food and its ability to connect and engage. This is especially evident when she talks about one of her other roles – cooking/ life skills with young people who are sleeping rough, which is through The Red Cross each Thursday night in their Brisbane city night café. “If you want people to engage with you and to give a shit, you don’t win friends with salad!”
Jess is grateful to work alongside others who feel strongly about healthy eating, but admits it’s a balancing act. She makes a valid point that, when working with young people who aren’t housed, they have a lot to work through and healthy eating is hardly their first priority. Jess notes participants’ enthusiasm for baking cakes each week doesn’t typically extend to vegetables. “If you tempura vegetables that’s Japanese. It sounds healthier than frying right?”
One of the many things I admire about Jess is her big heart coupled with a sense of humour. “I fatten up homeless kids. It’s cold and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The calories are good!”
Jess and I were happy to see where the conversation led, but at one point I put her on the spot to come up with a “Top 5 list (good or bad) of Jess life experiences.” I appreciate the openness with which she shared about three things in particular – opening a kitchen in a refuge camp on Christmas Eve whilst in Greece last year, car rallies – The Mongol Rally & Shitbox Rally and her failed marriage. To do our conversation justice, I have decided to make these topics the subject of the next blog post. I hope you will check in again next fortnight to read more.
As always, comments and shares are welcome.