Long time Advance member and New York-based Aussie expat Deborra-lee Furness was part of the judging panel for the Advance Global Australian Awards for their first four years. While the judges are busy selecting the winners of the 2016 Advance Global Australian Awards we through we'd share an interview we did with Deborra-lee in 2015 where we asked her about her work with Adopt Change, why she loves living in New York and what inspired her to become involved with the Awards.
Where are you from in Australia?
I was born in Sydney and Melbourne raised.
Why did you decide to move to the United States?
I studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in my twenties and fell in love with this city that accommodated my fast-paced life. I have a lot of energy and thrive on constant movement. New York is like a melting pot of characters and cultures, which was a great backdrop for my chosen career of acting. I had a smorgasbord of life to observe. I always say New York is like travelling the world, except you don't have to go through security. People from all over the world are drawn to the magic of this city. No matter who you are, you will find your niche in New York.
How would you describe your career to date?
My "career" has been to be a happy human being, so I would say I have had a great career. Professionally I chose to act, as I am a very creative person. If I am not creating something, whether that be painting, cooking, designing, writing, directing, gardening, sculpting, you name it. I get a little crazy. Acting is a great outlet and it suits my nomadic way of life...I loved that each role was a journey and that it had a beginning, middle and an end. Some people like stability in their work, whereas I loved that there was always a new challenge and a different experience on every job. There were times where it was a little scary as you didnt know when or what your next job would be but I am an eternal optimist, so I always knew something would show up at the right time. Since having children, I have slowed down considerably on the acting front, as all my energy and passion has gone into creating an environment for my family and I have had to curb my nomadic ways as both my kids are in school. Mind you, we still travel a lot, as all of us are curious and adventurous.
In 2015 you were nominated for Australian of the Year for your work as a child advocate and adoption campaigner. What drew you to this cause and how have things changed in the last five years?
Being nominated for Australian of the Year certainly came out of left field for me...it's not something that you ever plan to achieve. It is an amazing moment in my life. I am thrilled that this honour will afford me an opportunity to really shine a light on the work my team at Adopt Change and I have been undertaking for the last eight years. Also, I never set out to be an adoption campaigner, it happened organically when I realised how many children in the world went to bed at night, alone, without anyone to care for them. The numbers of abandoned children through poverty, war, abuse and unforseen circumstances is enormous. Having had the opportunity to travel the world, I have seen up close what life is like for these kids. As I am the mother of two children who were adopted, many Australian families would come up to me and say that they too would love to be able to adopt and care for a child but the system in Australia made it extremely arduous. I saw this as a great injustice for all, especially for the kids that could benefit from belonging to a loving family. My education of the complexities of this issue began and so for the last eight years, along with a great team, I have been shining light on this issue.
We realised there was an anti-adoption culture that had been created in Australia due to the past practices of the stolen generation of aborginal children and the forced adoptions of single mothers.
After decades of not talking about adoption and so much shame and stigma being placed on the triad of adoption, we have been able to bring this out in the open. Our first year of advocating, we loudly stated,"Let's talk about adoption." In order to heal, everything needed to be out in the open...the good, the bad and the ugly.
In the last five years we feel we have informed the greater community, beyond just the adoption community and the political leaders, of what needs to be done in order to provide a system that serves children and families. We asked for a champion in government to take leadership on this issue and we are thrilled that our Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stepped up and is currently working on legislation change and putting energy into this issue that has languished in no man's land for decades.
Tell us a little about Adopt Change.
Adopt Change has been born out of National Adoption Awareness Week, which was the initial project we established eight years ago. As we have gained strength in support and financial backing we have grown to the position of being able to appoint a CEO, Jane Hunt, who will now lead the organisation to be active in advocacy all year. Adopt Change will continue to promote dialogue internationally on the best practices in adoption. We will seek to support other initiatives such as The Global Poverty Project and women's empowerment initiatives so that we can be proactive at the root cause of why children are abandoned. We will be able to inform policy so that it achieves the best outcome. We will put a lot of energy and resources into working with the government to create a pre and post adoption service of the highest standard, this support needs to be an integral part of the adoption process.
You are on the judging panel for the Advance Global Australian Awards - what inspired you to become involved and how important are awards like these that recognise the extraordinary achievements of Australians both at home and abroad?
I was invited to join the Advance Team in New York by Ken Allen who was the Consul General a few years back. His passion in celebrating the achievements of Australians abroad is contagious and I got to meet so many amazing Australians doing extraordinary work around the globe, being fantastic ambassadors.
What’s the biggest thing you learnt personally by moving overseas?
The biggest thing I learnt about moving overseas is that people are the same the world over, that no matter what culture or religion you belong to there is very little that divides us. I am hoping that this valuable lesson that I have learnt becomes more widespread...we need that understanding more than ever in the current climate of fear and terror that is dominating our lives at this moment.
What do you enjoy most about living in New York?
It's like travelling the world. I love the diversity, that there are so many cultures all living side by side, peacefully, in one big exciting, colorful, warm and inviting city. Just going for a walk in New York is an entertaining experience. Also, it feels like home as no matter where you walk in New York you are bound to hear an Aussie accent passing by. And most importantly, they make the best bagels!!
What’s next for you?
As my kids are older I have put my hand up for some exciting acting roles where I don't have to venture too far from home and I am about to launch an American initiative of Adopt Change. I have been working on this for the last two years and we just appointed a fantastic Aussie guy, Nick Evans, to head up our organisation and lead our global awareness campaign. Another Aussie, Sam Saunders, has been hard at work on a great creative vision of how to make people aware of our mission - every child deserves a family.