The Welcoming Cities Award – Sarah Janali

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Sarah Janali and Ken Dachi share the inaugural Welcoming Cities Award, given to outstanding individuals in the sector. This award recognises those who go above and beyond to cultivate a culture of welcome and inclusivity in their communities. 

Sarah Janali

Sarah Janali is a community development practitioner with more than two decades of experience helping social-purpose organisations engage with their communities to solve complex problems.

Sarah’s expertise lies in working successfully with different cultures and helping organisations in Perth, Western Australia, leverage cultural diversity for better outcomes. Sarah has led award-winning teams at both the City of Stirling and the City of Canning. At the City of Stirling, she set up the Kaleidoscope Initiative, and at the City of Canning, the Hillview Intercultural Centre.

Beyond her role within local governments, she has been instrumental in creating a culture of welcome and inclusion, including setting up several forums and networks to share information and support councils and community workers to learn and improve their practice.

In 2015 she travelled to Europe and North America to study local government involvement in settlement of migrants as part of her Churchill Fellowship. She has also helped connect and guide community initiatives including the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network WA, Perth for Afghanistan, Welcoming Careers and the Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia.

Welcoming Cities: Your commitment to get new ideas from other places is so important when working in Western Australia, which seems so far away from the rest of the country. Can you talk about this?

Sarah Janali: I’ve always been someone who looks everywhere for solutions. There’s always somebody, somewhere that’s been dealing with the same issues and challenges, and there may be some great ideas to learn from. That’s always been part of my practice. The Churchill Fellowship was a great opportunity to do that on a global scale. It opened my eyes to the fact that when it comes to solutions, we don’t often look beyond our backyard, particularly when distance is such a factor for us. It was an opportunity to look overseas at examples. I learnt a lot through that process about not just what’s working elsewhere, but the fact that looking elsewhere and adapting models that have been tried and tested is a great way to achieve traction on issues. I’m also very mindful in adopting ideas and solutions that each community is different and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Adopting also requires adapting approaches and looking at what’s already working in community, recognising that often the best solutions are right in front of you.

The flipside is that, in WA, we don’t always share what we’re doing, and others don’t always look to us. But there are a lot of great things that happen in WA – being part of networks like yours gives us a platform to learn from others, share and promote ideas.

WC: You’ve been such a great advocate for sharing and working together. Can you talk about the value of partnerships in your work practice?

SJ: Community development is my discipline and from a values perspective I believe that when we work together and bring together diverse perspectives, we get better outcomes, whether that be in a team or in a community setting. I never approach things from the perspective of, ‘I know’ or ‘We know best’. The other benefit of partnering is that by bringing others on board and generating a broader sense of buy-in and ownership, you can future-proof projects. So things like the Kaleidoscope Initiative, where there are now six or seven local governments who have bought into that, there’s a broad base of support, which means that maybe one partner can step away and hopefully the initiative lives beyond that.

Also, a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with cut across council boundaries, so it makes sense to partner to leverage resources to address common issues. But it does require both organisations and individuals to not want to own things and to be able to share the ownership and the accolades and good outcomes coming out of that broader collaboration.

WC: What inspires you working in local government? How can it drive welcome and inclusion in people’s lives?

SJ: I’ve just left my role in local government after 15 years to establish my own consulting practice and that was a really tough decision because I love the space, I love working in local government. Interestingly, I entered because of my passion for cultural diversity, not because of a passion for local government. After spending several years engaged in advocacy and volunteer work with refugees in immigration detention, my first job out of university was as a case worker for newly arrived refugees. That was my area of passion – how could I help newcomers overcome barriers and reach their potential? After I’d worked for a few years in the NFP sector, a role came up at the City of Stirling leading the ‘Reel Connections Project,’ a youth-based community arts project that brought people from migrant backgrounds together with Aboriginal young people to build connections through arts. When I looked at it I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know about local government, but I really like the part about working with young people.’ I got the job and that was the start of my local government journey.

I think local government presents a fantastic vehicle to connect people with their communities. It’s one of the best places to be doing grassroots community work, to connect with communities in a meaningful way. You’re able to be very much community-driven, and in the multicultural space where there are barriers to feeling a sense of belonging, local government offers such a broad range of pathways to participate, whether that be socially, economically, culturally or even politically. It’s the most grassroots version of democracy – you can rock up to your council on a Tuesday night and ask questions. It’s been great to see a range of people from different cultural backgrounds running for local council.

I used to think that my pathway to drive change was at a federal level, in terms of the policies, but as I’ve worked in local government, I’ve realised you can make big change and impact people’s lives. You’ll still see me at a rally! But it is more rewarding to see that change happening locally.

WC: What advice do you have for people wanting to create change?

SJ: Seeing it as everyone’s work – there was a trend for quite some time that cultural diversity or ‘multicultural work’ was seen as the domain of one department or role – community development generally. I believe everyone has role to play. A planner, or a health and compliance officer or a customer service officer – we all need to be mindful of cultural diversity and cultivate the cultural intelligence that we need to work effectively in intercultural settings. That will be the game changer in local government – when we see cultural responsiveness as everyone’s job, something we mainstream across our business and it’s just part of what we do and who we are. Where I’ve seen local governments take up that leadership, it’s paid massive dividends in strengthening organisational culture and engagement with their communities.

WC: When you hear the word ‘Welcome’ what do you think of?

SJ: Belonging, connection, networks. It’s a feeling. The act of welcoming helps people feel like they belong in a place. It’s the person-to-person interaction that is critical in that process. Your customer service person could be that face of welcome and your Mayor could also be that face of welcome. There’s a role for everyone to make sure people are valued in the community.

WC: Congratulations on the Welcoming Cities award. What does it mean to you?

SJ: I was really touched. Welcoming work is such a core focus of why I rock up to work every day. I’ve also had the privilege of working alongside such amazing people. I always find the individual recognition a bit challenging because nothing happens because of an individual. It’s always because an individual contributes as part of a bigger team.

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