Silence is not golden

Image taken from Crazy Craven's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Image taken from Crazy Craven’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

When my best friend’s baby was stillborn I was utterly devastated for her. I will never forget the day I found out. I had just started maternity leave myself as I was 38 weeks pregnant. Both my sons had arrived early so we were expecting labour could start any time. My partner, a teacher, had taken two days leave prior to the school holidays just in case, and if bub didn’t come we could enjoy the luxury of a couple of days to ourselves before our boys were on school holidays.

To take advantage of us both being off work with no kids to take care of we headed out to a café we’d been meaning to try for a late breakfast. I had forgot to turn my mobile phone on that morning, so I switched it on as we drove off down our street. Of course it instantly bleeped out a reminder to attend to all the emails and texts which had accumulated in off mode. It was my best friend’s due date, so when I saw there was a text from her of course I clicked into it straight away. We were still driving down our street when I sobbed out the word ‘No’. My husband asked me ‘what is it?’ I couldn’t talk. I just handed him the phone so he could see it for himself. We turned the car around and pulled up in our driveway. Shattered. How could this have happened to her?

No one deserves such a tragedy to happen to them but still my thoughts illogically asked, of all people, why her? She is the most wonderful person, would have been the most wonderful mum this second time around, and wanted her baby boy so, so much.

Statistics show that in Australia around 1 in every 130 pregnancies will result in stillbirth. About 60% of stillbirths occur at term. These are beautiful, perfect babies, who would most probably have lived had they been delivered earlier. Stillbirth is unexplained in up to 1/3 of cases providing parents with no clues as to how to prevent the tragedy from re-occurring.

Stillbirth is 10 times more common than SIDS. Yet pregnant women are rarely told anything about it. It’s as though we don’t want to induce fear and worry. But by maintaining silence around stillbirth, we help keep those who have experienced it within a suffocating silence, and fail to prepare others that it is a genuine risk in pregnancy. It’s something we don’t talk about – almost like we don’t want others to ‘catch’ it. But if we can educate pregnant women and their partners about SIDS and safe sleeping, surely we can break the silence around stillbirth? Yes we tell women if they don’t feel movement to lie on their side and drink some juice, but we have other tiny morsels of research that show, for example, that contrary to what many people have believed babies don’t slow their rate of movement as labour is approaching (in fact possibly they increase their rate of movement despite the restricted room) and that sleeping on your back when pregnant increases the risk of stillbirth 6 fold.

I first spoke to my best friend at her son’s funeral. In her initial text she had said she wasn’t up to talking, but perhaps in time. We had texted and emailed back and forth, in the days that followed Walter’s death but we hadn’t talked. She lives several hours drive away from me and since she had moved to the country our friendship had largely been maintained via text and email. This suited us as neither of us are great talkers and in this circumstance it felt like it was easier to talk about such confronting and overwhelming sadness in writing. But as time went on we began to talk as well.

As the weeks and months went by, I learnt so much about grief and loss through my friend, and through reading other peoples’ stories online. What I want to relay most I think is that there is a silence around grief in general, and around stillbirth particularly, that is utterly suffocating. As if losing your child was not enough! Being caught in a world where so many people either brush over your grief “you can have another baby” or seem to pretend the birth never happened (perhaps because they just don’t know what to say, or don’t want to inadvertently hurt the parents) hinders parents doing what is natural and helpful – talking about their loss.

Born in Silence is the saddest, and yet the most necessary, film clip about stillbirth because not only does it create awareness about stillbirth, but it helps create awareness about ways you can help grieving parents. It was created by the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS).

The phrases held up on cards by parents in this clip are so powerful because they echo the words not only of my best friend but the hundreds of parents whose stories can be found in online blogs (like Missing Liam) and communities. When people lose their baby, they not only lose their child, but their hopes, dreams and expectations for the future. Everything they thought would be is no longer. They are left having to carve out a new path for themselves at a time when they have neither the energy or spirit to set a new direction. They are often left with feelings of guilt or blame – second guessing any actions which may have contributed to their child’s death.

Like other new parents, parents who have had a stillbirth experienced pregnancy and birth. They often have their own pregnancy anecdotes and tales to tell. But because of the silence surrounding stillbirth they often find that they cannot share their experiences of pregnancy and birth with others. When the outcome is that your baby died the shroud of silence descends around every memory of your baby publicly. Yet the reason that parents grieve is that their baby was loved. They don’t want their baby to be locked away in a prison of silence. More than anything, they want their baby to be loved and remembered. Their baby will always be a part of their lives. And what is more, every life matters, and should not be shut away.

Walter’s death has taught me a most beautiful, yet painful lesson. Each new life, no matter how brief, forever changes the world.

And so I’ll close with some words that sum up the nub of this post far more succinctly and beautifully than I can:

“If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you’ll make them sad by reminding them the child died… they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them is that YOU remember they lived and that’s a GREAT, GREAT gift”  – Elizabeth Edwards

When someone dies, silence is not golden. It is a suffocating darkness. It’s never easy to talk about death but we must learn to break the silence.

Image from with thanks to Crazy Craven.

Posted in parenting, psychology, society, stillbirth | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The mulch that (almost) broke the camel’s back

mulch2012 was a big year (and a year of not much blogging as a result!). For the first half of the year I was working full time, studying part time, parenting two young boys and was pregnant with our third child. To say life was busy was a serious understatement. With all the juggling I was doing it is surprising that I wasn’t recruited by Cirque de Soleil!

Then at the beginning of June tragedy struck and I found myself witnessing one of the saddest sights I have ever seen – my high school classmate carrying the coffin of his 11 day old baby daughter into their church for her funeral after a sudden, catastrophic illness took her life. I don’t think it is possible for anyone to witness such a scene and remain dry-eyed. I was crushed for my friends – though they would forever hold their baby girl in their hearts they would never be able to hold her in their arms again.

Arielle was their third child, and their first girl. At the time of her death I was 37 weeks pregnant and also carrying our third child and our first girl. Tragedy continued to roll in. Ten days after Arielle’s funeral I received the worst text message I’ve ever read. My best friend (who was also pregnant and due ten days before me) had went into labour but her son was stillborn. Her beautiful baby boy Walter was so perfect, but she would never be able to take him home. My heart broke for her. At 39 weeks pregnant my husband and I took the labour bag with us (my two previous boys had been born at 38 and 39 weeks) and traveled 6 hours to attend Walter’s funeral. Only going into labour would have stopped me.

Ten days later Wyn was born. To say it was an emotional birth is an understatement. For the first time I was able to labour without drugs. I finally felt like I got this labour thing and how to help my body work through it. The pain felt right, like this baby waiting to be born was such an amazingly precious thing that I had to work hard to earn. Joy mixed with exhaustion and pain – both physical pain and emotional pain for my friends.

July and August were filled with the days that pass in a haze of a newborn baby’s needs but also learning how to support my best friend through her grief. How could I – who held my baby in my arms – comfort her when she did not? Was I the right person to do that? Should I just leave her be and let her family and other friends support her? Could I ever be anything but a source of pain? I took it step-by-step, doing what I could when we were separated by a long distance. Everyday when I held Wyn I would think of Walter and Arielle and wish I could take away their parents’ pain. Seeing my classmates’ updates on Facebook as they learned to navigate life without Arielle, taking up their wonderful adventures with their boys again, and finding amazing strength in their faith was both touching and a source of strength for myself in helping my best friend.

In September Wyn was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. This saw us embark on a medical journey I never thought I’d go on with kids. Perhaps it was a naive assumption but I had never envisaged having a child with health problems. Then again, I had never envisaged having any of my children die and my eyes had been opened there. The sad reality is that miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death are a lot more common than thought because they are surrounded by silence. So there we were over the latter half of the year sitting nervously in the waiting room of the children’s hospital whilst our baby was in the operating theatre. It was the first of many trips and I became part of a new (largely online) community of parents with kids with hip dysplasia.

Many parents feel terrible grief when their baby is diagnosed with hip dysplasia because if their bub needs to be treated with a harness, brace or surgery they do not get the same experience of babyhood as other parents. Whilst they may be grateful that it is treatable (especially when diagnosed early) it can be the start of a lengthy medical journey with its own unique challenges (nappy changing a baby in a spica comes to mind!). I didn’t feel upset at Wyn’s diagnosis though. I have never cried at my baby being encased in a spica cast – my baby still smiles and laughs and chuckles. She is still my baby. The events of 2012 have changed me as a person – changed my perspectives. I am far more in tune with the heartfelt aspects of life and somehow feel more of a genuine “grown up” who is able to roll with the punches. I don’t sweat the small stuff in life so much anymore. Previously I would have been devastated that having a baby in a spica cast meant I had to use disposable nappies 24/7. How could I not live up to my green ideal? Now my focus is on enjoying my baby, not on living up to preconceived notions of how I should parent.

Because we are gluttons for punishment we decided to round off the year of chaos by putting our house on the market. So we attempted to make a house where three young children lived look like it was lived in by an interior designer for each open house. To make the garden look a bit better we decided to get some mulch to spread around. Being both budget conscious and a recycler I decided to source some free mulch from a tree lopping company. They had a minimum load delivery of 4 cubic metres so we decided to go with that. I think in reality we ended up with about 10 cubic metres dumped on the footpath outside our house.

In classic comedic style the mulch was delivered when my husband had just left to take my sons to watch a soccer match and when I had just successfully got bub to sleep and was going to have an oh-so-rare nap myself. Instead of napping I found myself out on the street desperately shoveling mulch in a vain attempt to create a thoroughfare for pedestrians. I shoveled till 10pm that night. I shoveled for the days that followed. I offered mulch on Freecycle. People came and collected mulch in trailer loads and still I shoveled.
mulch 2I remember saying to my mum when I’d just completed 10 barrow loads and saw no visible difference in the size of the pile that “hip dysplasia hasn’t broken me but this bloody mulch might”. But it didn’t. I kept shoveling, kept wheel-barrowing, and people came and took some of the load and gradually the footpath appeared again. And perhaps that mulch sums up 2012. When we started out we thought we were going to make a neat garden. Instead we got piles of stuff we didn’t want and didn’t know what to do with. We had to work really hard and pull together to deal with what seemed totally overwhelming but with the help of family and friends and even kind strangers we got through it and we’re stronger for it (feel my arm muscles!). Yet that mulch was so big that it feels like it will never really go away – there are still great piles in my garden and I still find bits in the lawn that are painful to walk on. But each day it settles a bit more and life determinedly goes on underneath it, things grow and change. But I’ll always remember what it, and what 2012, has taught me.

Posted in parenting, stillbirth | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Hip babies

My beautiful ‘hip’ baby

There is no end to the supply of the latest and greatest baby products that parents want to get their hands on. One of the more recent trends are designer swaddles that promise to help babies sleep and give parents that (much) longed for restful night. Babies look ultra cute in these swaddles, snuggled up like a cocoon. By many parents’ accounts they work too; babies sleep better in them. So more of us hop on the wagon and get the latest and greatest swaddles for our babies, often forking out $40 or $50 a swaddle for the promise of a good night’s sleep or to keep up with the Jones.

Mostly, following fashion trends is innocuous – at its worst it fosters a culture of consumerism. But it may be that this latest fashion for babies is far from innocuous. It may be causing ‘hip’ babies in more than just style.

When my daughter was 3 months old she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. This is a condition that is routinely screened for at birth and at 6 weeks. At birth and at six weeks babies’ hips are manipulated to see if a ‘click’ can be heard, or if there is a limited range of motion in one or both hips, or to see if they show other signs like, for the chubbier baby, uneven fat rolls on their legs.

Hip dysplasia is thought to be painless for babies. However, if hip dysplasia goes undetected, or is not treated, it may result in pain or a limp later in life, the early onset of arthritis and early deterioration of the hip joint. Some adult sufferers of hip dysplasia have had to have hip replacements at a comparatively young age. In this sense paediatric treatment for hip dysplasia is all about prevention of problems further down the track.

Hip dysplasia is thought to be caused by one or more of the “4 F’s”:

  • Family history
  • “Feet first” (breech babies)
  • First born (first born bubs have less room to move in the uterus)
  • Female (it occurs far more often in girls)

However, none of these factors can account for the rise in occurrence (sometimes as much as 4 or 5 times the previous rate of occurrence) of hip dysplasia that is being seen by orthopedic surgeons around the globe. Many of these surgeons are attributing the rise in hip dysplasia to the latest trends in baby swaddles.

My daughter was not breech or first born and we didn’t know of any family history when we saw the orthopedic surgeon for the first time. Apart from being female why did she have it? What is more, she had passed her newborn and six week test. Why did she have it now? The surgeon asked us whether we had used one of these new trendy swaddles. We had been given one as a present and we thought it was great as she did sleep better in it.

I will never know if using this swaddle contributed to her needing to spend weeks in different braces and most recently undergoing an operation as the braces didn’t work. She is now in a hip spica (a cast that goes from just below her chest down to her ankles with a small gap in which to stuff a nappy) to try to ensure that her hips stay in the right position to grow correctly, and faces many more weeks in a brace again once the spica is removed.

As it turns out, my husband’s Aunt may have had undiagnosed hip dysplasia as a baby so it is possible our daughter may have been pre-disposed to it. But maybe the swaddling tipped her over the edge. We’ll never know precisely what caused it. But regardless, it is horrible to think that, however innocently, I may have contributed to my baby’s condition. Certainly, if I’d known about the risk of these swaddles, I would never have used one no matter how good a nights sleep it promised, the risk to my baby’s health is not worth it.

I want to let others expecting babies or with newborns know about the possible link between the increase in hip dysplasia and the latest swaddling trends so they don’t find themselves in the same position, regretting having used a product they actually thought was helping their child, when possibly it was actually harming them.

Many parents who are devotees of these new swaddles have said “we’ve been wrapping babies for centuries without problems” but cultures where babies wear tight swaddling is the norm (e.g. Native American cultures) have been found to have extremely high rates of hip dysplasia whereas cultures where babies are not swaddled (e.g. many African cultures) have very low rates. An education campaign in Japan in the 1980s about healthy swaddling for hips reduced the extreme rate of hip dysplasia that was found there. Yes many people have and will successfully use these products without incident, but there appears to be a growing number for whom they do cause problems. Personally, as a parent, I’d rather know about the risk. Maybe it’s about time for another round of education programs here. I certainly had never heard about healthy wrapping for hips in any of my three pregnancies. Have you heard of healthy swaddling for hips before?

For more information about hip friendly swaddling techniques check out the video on the International Hip Dysplasia Institute website, but in a nutshell, a baby’s legs must be free to flop out ‘froggy style’ and not be straightened. Babies’ legs need room to be able to do this which most of the trendy ‘cocoon’ style swaddles don’t provide.

Posted in hip dysplasia, parenting | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A little blue in a sea of pink

Image used with permission from the John W. Nick Foundation

When I was expecting my first daughter after having two sons I knew I’d have to confront my issues with pink.

It’s pretty much impossible to have a daughter and not to have to dress them in pink at some stage. I’ve tried purple and red and got the “isn’t he lovely” comments. Rainbow is a favourite, as is brown and we got a lovely navy blue velvet dress as a hand-me-down.

I’d really love to dress her in blue (my favourite colour) more regularly than our one velvet hand-me-down allows yet blue clothes for female babies seem to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Blue only enters the rungs of female clothing when girls are old enough to be declared ‘a girl’ without the aid of the pink flag of clothing. Pink prevails in the shops and in all the gifts we’ve been given. Aside from not liking the colour pink I’m determined to raise a feminist daughter. While I’m responsible for choosing her clothing pink and assorted ‘princess’ clothes will be minimised. A little blue, in a sea of pink, is all I ask.

But it’s not only for my baby girl, and how I want her to grow up, that I want to confront pink. I want to confront pink for my dad.

October is the month of pink. Every October we swim in it. Pink products line our supermarket shelves; everything from vitamins, soap, paper and crumpets can be bought with a pink tinge. Yup – it’s breast cancer awareness month. And this year it seems everything is going pink. Buildings and bridges are being lit up pink and even the virtual world is going pink. Whilst this is absolutely brilliant for raising awareness of the issue of breast cancer for women there is a downside to it.

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this Sunday the 28th October the Dragon’s Abreast Festival will be held at Darling Harbour. Dragon Boating is encouraged to aid recovery post surgery for breast cancer sufferers and to provide something really important to breast cancer sufferers; a social network of people who’ve been touched by the disease. This Sunday my dad will be paddling in a ‘survivors’ boat. Yup, you read that correctly – my DAD. My dad is a breast cancer survivor.

Men possess a small amount of breast tissue behind their nipples, so yes, they too can, and do, get breast cancer. According to statistics from Cancer Australia over 100 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia, and the numbers appear to be rising. In the US approximately 2000 men will be diagnosed each year and almost 400 men will die each year from breast cancer.

With all our attention devoted to breast cancer in women breast cancer has become seen as a woman’s disease when actually it is not gender specific. Because of the lack of awareness in men (and women) about the existence of male breast cancer sometimes it is diagnosed too late. Men may be aware of a lump and not see a doctor. Even among doctors there is a lack of awareness that men can get breast cancer. When my dad went to the GP about his lump she sent him to a specialist. The specialist merely advised that it was likely to be hormonal and to reduce his consumption of chicken and chocolate and things that might influence hormone production. If he’d been female, there would have been no way he would have walked out of that office without a referral for an ultrasound or even a biopsy. When his cancer was ultimately diagnosed much later, like many male sufferers, the cancer was more aggressive and advanced. For some men, it has already spread to other parts of their body.

The lack of awareness about male breast cancer also has the unfortunate effect that, for many men, being diagnosed with breast cancer can be a source of shame and humiliation. The sea of pink that has arisen around breast cancer has probably made it the most feminised place to be in the world. Male sufferers have reported doing the ‘walk of shame’ into waiting rooms full of women, and being interrogated by nurses and receptionists as to whether they’re ‘in the right place.’ Explaining to friends and family that they have ‘breast cancer’, something they never thought was humanly possible to get, can somehow make them feel less than a man.

So whilst we swim in a sea of pink this October, I just want to add a hint of blue in there. My dad likes to tell his story because, like many other male breast cancer sufferers, he thinks that if his story can reach just one man and help them to detect the disease early it is a story well shared. But for me it’s not just about helping men avoid late diagnosis. It’s about helping men like my dad feel more accepted.

Breast cancer networks and pink ribbon days need to reach out and include the male sufferers of the disease. Otherwise it’s always going to be such an incredibly hard road to walk for these men. Who needs to fight stigma on top of fighting cancer? We’ve done so well with pink awareness, surely there’s a little room for some blue in the sea of pink now and then?

Posted in identity, parenting, society, women | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Pregnancy Discrimination: it’s against the law – or is it?

Image taken from Qsimple’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Publicly available literature about sex and pregnancy discrimination in NSW promotes a glossy picture. It is illegal: end of problem. The ADB fact sheet states that sex discrimination is against the law:

  • in employment — when you apply for a job or for a licence or registration to perform a job, when you are at work, or when you leave a job;
  • when you get or try to get most types of goods or services — for example, from shops, banks, lawyers, government departments, the police, public transport, local councils, doctors, hospitals and other medical services, hotels, sporting venues and entertainment venues;
  • when you apply to get into or study in any State educational institution, which includes any government school, college or university. Sexual harassment is also against the law in independent (private) educational institutions, but other types of sex discrimination are not;
  • when you rent accommodation such as houses, units, flats, hotel or motel rooms and commercial premises; and
  • when you try to enter or join a registered club, or when you get services from one. A registered club is a club that sells alcohol or has gambling machines.

These sound like good protections. However, there are two issues. Firstly – in reality the law does not often protect women. Most discrimination against pregnant women happens in the workplace. The Women’s Employment Rights Project submission (‘A Pregnant Pause’) to the Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental leave Enquiry shows many examples where ‘Employers can, and do, easily flout the existing regulations, which are meant to provide rights and protections to women during pregnancy’.

Anti-Discrimination Board statistics showed that in 1997/1998 to 2002 there had been a 150% increase in complaints of pregnancy discrimination. Perhaps pregnancy discrimination is actually on the rise or perhaps more women are simply taking a stand to report it. Nevertheless, it is a serious issue. The case studies in ‘A Pregnant Pause’ show that current legislation is not enough to protect women against pregnancy discrimination. There are clear examples of employers who flout measures in the Act designed to protect women, but more disturbingly there is a second issue with pregnancy discrimination in NSW: the Anti-Discrimination Act actually legitimises pregnancy discrimination in certain circumstances. Yes – you heard right – the Anti-Discrimination Act actually allows employers to legally discriminate against pregnant women!

Late last year I was astounded to come across Section 25 1A and 2A of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which states that:

25 Discrimination against applicants and employees

(1) It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person on the ground of sex:

(a) in the arrangements the employer makes for the purpose of determining who should be offered employment,

(b) in determining who should be offered employment, or

(c) in the terms on which the employer offers employment.

(1A) Nothing in subsection (1) renders unlawful discrimination by an employer against a woman on the ground of sex if, at the date on which the woman applied to the employer for employment or, where the employer interviewed the woman in relation to her application for employment, at the date of the interview, the woman is pregnant.

(2) It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the ground of sex:

(a) in the terms or conditions of employment which the employer affords the employee,

(b) by denying the employee access, or limiting the employee’s access, to opportunities for promotion, transfer or training, or to any other benefits associated with employment, or

(c) by dismissing the employee or subjecting the employee to any other detriment.

(2A) Nothing in subsection (2) (c) renders unlawful discrimination by an employer against a woman on the ground of sex in respect of the dismissal by an employer of a woman who is pregnant if, at the date on which the woman applied to the employer for employment or, where the employer interviewed the woman in relation to her application for employment, at the date of the interview, the woman was pregnant, unless, at that date, the woman did not know and could not reasonably be expected to have known that she was pregnant.

(3) Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to employment:

(a) for the purposes of a private household,

(b) where the number of persons employed by the employer, disregarding any persons employed within the employer’s private household, does not exceed 5, or

(c) by a private educational authority.

(4) For the purposes of subsection (3) (b), a corporation shall be regarded as the employer of the employees of any other corporation which, with respect to the first mentioned corporation, is a related body corporate within the meaning of the Corporations Act 2001 of the Commonwealth.


The Act is legalising discrimination against pregnant women applying for jobs! I could not believe that in 2012 we would have such antiquated legislation!

Recently the ABC Radio Program Lifematters aired a section on pregnancy discrimination with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.  She led listeners to believer that everyone was covered by the (Commonwealth) Sex Discrimination Act 1984 under which it is unlawful to discriminate against a pregnant (or potentially pregnant) woman in determining who to offer employment to.

In some circumstances the Commonwealth Act would override the State Act however the Commonwealth Act does not apply to employees of a State. The NSW Public Service employs approximately 444000 people (almost one quarter of all public sector employees in Australia) and in 2010 employed 11.09% of all employed people in NSW (Public Administration and politics in NSW: A statistical profile 2012). 61% (approx 268000!) of the NSW Public Sector are women, and thus potentially subject to discrimination under Section 25 1A or 2A.

Very few people seem to be aware of Section 25 1A and 2A in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 and most are flabbergasted to find that these sections exist. It is likely that these sections have not often been, and will not be used often in the future. Thankfully most sections of our society can identify them as being discriminatory and would not touch them with a barge poll. But regardless, it ought to be a huge concern that our legislation allows for such blatant discrimination against women.

Does this get your goat? Do you find it rather unfathomable that our legislation allows for this?

If so, consider writing to your local MP and/or the Minister for Women to let them know that in 2012 no form of pregnancy discrimination ought to be legal!

Ms Pru Goward, MP

Minister for Women
Level 34 Governor Macquarie Tower
1 Farrer Place

This post was first published on Settle Petal – the new feminist blog. Check it out  and posts on a whole range of important (and sometimes flabbergasting issues!) at

Image from with thanks to SimpleQ.

Posted in equity, feminism, parenting, women, work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

From little things big things grow

Photo by Greenleftyidealist

Most of us aren’t going to be able to put ‘saved the world from climate change’ or ‘cured cancer’ on our resume.  When it boils down to it – we’re just not that smart – and even if we were, unless we were employed in such a field, the time we spend making a living leaves little spare time for such amazing extra-curricular activities.

I find it wonderful, however, when ordinary people try to do little things that make a difference. Sure, in isolation these things aren’t going to ‘save the planet’ but to me, what these things are about is cultural change. They’re about sending the message about trying to do the right thing, about striving for a better community, and showing that it is possible to change the way we live for the better (and that making changes often isn’t as hard as you think!).

Some of my favourite examples of relatively localised changes for the better come from San Francisco. I’m not a fan of advertising targeted at kids. So it would come as no surprise that I loathe the ‘Happy Meal’. The pester power generated towards parents by kids hankering after a meal that comes with a toy (even if said toy is seriously crappy) is probably responsible for half of all McDonald’s Happy Meal  sales.

In San Francisco, they realised that Happy Meals were enticing kids to eat meals that have high levels of calories, sugar and fat. So they banned restaurants offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat. John Stewart on the Daily Show said it well when he reported the news that “San Francisco bans toys from Happy Meals despite research that it’s the healthiest thing in the meal”.

San Francisco is continually positioning itself as a leader in creating small changes that make a difference. In May this year, they announced a ban on unwanted Yellow Pages. In the age of the internet – there is not much call for the great yellow bricks of paper advertising all the businesses in a city. It’s not a straight out ban, but an ‘opt in’ approach. They’re limiting delivery of yellow pages only to customers who are at home when they are delivered and physically accept them, or who give prior approval by phone, mail, or a note of acceptance on the door.

San Francisco’s ‘opt in’ policy is itself innovative. Seattle had previously allowed an ‘opt out’ policy for Yellow Pages, allowing people to call up and go on a list if they did not want to receive the Yellow Pages – similar to Australia’s ‘do not call register’ to opt out of telemarketing. By allowing people to ‘opt in’ rather than ‘opt out’ for Yellow Pages San Francisco is setting a higher bar as the default option for people who do nothing is that they will not receive the Yellow Pages.

So what are some home-grown examples of towns making a difference by leading the way with small changes? Coles Bay in Tasmania was one of the early movers and shakers. In 2003 Coles Bay became the first Australian town to ban plastic bags. In 2009 Bundanoon in the NSW Southern Highlands became possibly Australia’s first (and possibly the world’s first) town to neither sell nor give away bottled water within the town precinct. Other examples are innovative ideas that operate beyond town boundaries like Oz Harvest food rescue, a  charity that rescues excess food to pass on to those in need. Not only does Oz Harvest reduce waste, and landfill needs, they are using this ‘waste’ (perfectly good food that would have been tossed) to help make a difference to the vulnerable.

Small ideas, and small actions can make great differences. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Tipping Point. Gladwell gives some amazing examples of looking at the simple factors that contribute to major social change. For example, he claims, fairly convincingly, that a crackdown on graffiti in New York in the mid 1990s helped the murder rate to plummet. But even if small actions don’t have an enormous impact, they contribute to gradual social change, and community awareness. Small actions can empower individuals and communities to know that through our day-to-day actions and choices we can make a difference.

Have you seen any small actions in progress in your community lately?

What are the small social changes that are making a difference in your area?

Posted in society, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The omnipresent customer

Image taken from HikingArtist's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Nowadays it seems that it is almost customary to be a customer.

On any City Rail train or station we have our “customer” status drilled into our heads via loudspeaker “Customers are advised that…”

I can’t help but wonder when we stopped being passengers and became customers. When did we start being treated as consumers of services rather than citizens using a public service? It seems to me that along with the growth of consumption of products (and the simultaneous growth in advertising of consumer goods) over the past few decades, we’ve had a gradual creep of the customer service mentality into a broader range of areas.

Since the 1970s more and more services have become privatised and more and more “customer service charters” seem to have appeared. In the early 1990s a new era of privatisation kicked off for big Australian institutions like the Commonwealth Bank with a logo change to match, and Telecom dropped its orange T logo to become Telstra, with its modern blue and orange (decidedly corporate) logo. Public institutions and services have arguably had to adopt an increasing focus on the customer after privatising.  Now it seems to be the turn of our public services like City Rail, Sydney Buses and Ferries to develop an increasing “customer” focus and follow suit with big business.

I’m all for the delivery of quality, responsive services that address the needs of passengers, but I wonder if this can be achieved without delineating us as customers. I wonder if by adopting an approach where we treat those who use a public service as customers means we lose a sense of the relationship between citizens and government. We lose the sense that it is a public service we’re using.

Maybe it’s semantics, but I’d much rather be a passenger than a customer. When I’m at a shop front, or buying stuff online, I’m happy to be a customer. Then I’m undoubtedly a consumer of products. When I’m paying for professional services, like say those of an accountant, lawyer, or architect, I think perhaps I’d rather be a client – it has the connotation of a professional relationship.

The health sector has its various proponents of “customers” and “patients”. Thankfully I have yet to encounter a doctor’s surgery or hospital that had treated me as a customer and so far during my various spells in educational institutions I’ve been a student, and not a customer. I want to be cared for in a doctor – patient relationship, not to have it be all about a commercial transaction.

Do you mind being a customer at an ever increasing array of places or is it all just semantics?

Are there areas where you think it is inappropriate to use the word “customer”?

Image from with thanks to HikingArtist.

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