For Helen Kapalos, one of her greatest gifts has been growing up in Australia immersed in the richness of Greek culture. Born to Greek parents, Helen grew up in an incredible close, tight-knit Greek community that fostered a love of not only her own roots but also instilled in her an innate curiosity and desire to learn about other cultures.
As a well-known journalist and broadcaster, and now as Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, Helen is a lived example of the ethos espoused by her father, who always taught her that her Greek cultural background was a gift.
"I remember that the biggest message my Dad reinforced is that we are all equal and we can all do anything. He really made me believe that I can do anything.
"Understanding that world, and that background that you bring, will only give you a richer cultural context in participating in the world – in the new world that you’re in now, which is Australia. It’s about understanding that your background adds value to your life and your identity; it doesn’t take away from it. See your culture as a gift. We all have the potential to play a large part in this world."
Of course, growing up in Newcastle in the 1970s as the only Greeks in their neighbourhood had its challenges for Helen and her family. At school, Helen endured bullying "for being a wog" and recalls being spat on by kids who lived in her street. On her first day of school Helen arrived for her first class without knowing a single word of English.
"The language barrier was huge and I guess I didn’t recognise that I had a choice to enter a new world and a new life. At the time it just felt overwhelming. I was excited about school but I didn’t realise that the passport to school was having to learn this new language quite quickly. Despite being a happy-go-lucky kid, halfway through my first day I decided I'd had enough and packed up my things to go home."
Initially, her schoolmates were far from accepting of Helen because of her Greek background. Her two best friends were a girl from a Yugoslav background and a girl from an Italian background, who were the only other non-Anglo kids in class.
"I remember, as a kid, being spat on by people in our street. I have a strong and acute sense of the racism that happened back then. Both me and my brother used to go to the playground but the local kids made it clear that we weren’t welcome there. I remember that once they even stole my brother’s thongs.
"It was a pretty bewildering time but quickly I ended up, like any kid, being resilient and flexible and wanting so much to be part of this new culture that I was able to learn this new language fairly quickly."
Helen grew up during a time where Italians and Greeks were routinely called 'wogs'. The racism that she and her family experienced helped give her a personal understanding of the challenges of multiculturalism, and gave her a "really profound empathy for people who experience racism". It also helped lay the foundation for Helen’s current role, Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission and, in part, shaped her journalism career, where she would often report on stories with prevalent racism.
During Helen’s extensive media career across the three commercial broadcasters and two public broadcasters, she experienced firsthand how different networks and media outlooks approach racism, multicultural issues and events in other countries.
"The way we reported on other countries was different, depending on where you worked. For example, when I worked at SBS I had a much richer cultural context about the country we were reporting on; overseas news had a more dominant place and the value of lives was marked higher in the bulletin.
"I found it really interesting when I covered the Bali bombings or the gang rape trials in Sydney for one of the commercial networks. It was at the beginning of Islamobophia and I remember saying to my editors at the time that it was really important for us to understand Islam and the peaceful aspects of Islam. I remember having those discussions but it was never really a consideration in terms of how it was presented in the story."
Helen is now in a position where she can work hard to ensure that we have a deeper understanding of other cultures and where people come from, trying to change a prevailing social attitude that often reinforces cultural stereotypes.
"We tend to treat our Indigenous communities, our Muslim community and our African communities – and, I’m sure, many other communities – as homogenous identities without realising the many manifestations of their faith, the many countries they come from, and the many cultures and traditions that they might bring with them."
While her curiosity about the world and her love of writing ensured that Helen was always going to become a journalist, her transition to VMC Chairperson was more of an "accidental but purposeful transition".
"I can’t even remember the day that I decided I wanted to be a journalist, it was just what I knew that I would do, in some way."
Towards the end of her career at Channel 7 Helen had the opportunity to work on some big stories on medical marijuana, which really piqued her interest.
Helen then decided to write, direct and produce a documentary on medical marijuana, filmed around Australia and in Israel.
While working on the documentary, Helen spent a year working solely on the documentary, alongside people who had palpable and chronic illnesses, which really opened her eyes to seeing humanity in a way that she hadn’t for a long time.
"At that time, to keep myself afloat, I was still doing the odd MC gig and I was asked to host the Premier’s Gala Ball. Right before I went on stage I thought I really wanted to speak quite honestly about how you reconcile the two identities (my Greek world and my English world) because as I’m getting older I’m owning more of what I think is part of the ancestral construct of my identity, which was growing in importance to me.
"When I got on the stage I started to speak off the top of my head about the opportunities that I have been given here. I thought that Australia had given me my wonderful identity: it’s a beautiful place to grow up and it’s a free kind of land where we are happy-go-lucky. It’s such a beautiful place to come back to when you’re travelling and makes you realise how lucky we are to have the freedoms and liberties that we really do have."
Helen stresses the importance of being able to reconcile her two worlds. "On the one hand this country has given me so much, yet I am so grateful for the ancestral wisdom and the way I have been able to participate in the world because of my Greek background and because of my heritage. I’m really lucky in that I have been able to live and work in both worlds throughout my life – my Greek world and my English world."
That speech was the catalyst for Helen becoming Chairperson of the VMC.
“I prepared really hard for the interview and I was really passionate about what I could bring to the role. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I come from an apolitical background: it’s a statutory authority and it’s an extension of journalism in some ways because you are still an independent arbitrator of thought. I thought that my media background would also lend itself to the cause because I was aware of a lot of the issues that play out in communities.
To date, the diversity of the role and the many people it brings her in contact with has been a highlight of the job.
"My favourite part of the role is the diversity, just like our community. It’s meeting all the wonderful communities and hearing their wonderful stories, I’m learning so much. It’s so fascinating and so compelling."
Helen has identified social cohesion as an area where we still have work to do.
"I think our biggest challenge really lies in being a state that exemplifies that fundamental tenet of everyone having the right to belong.
"In general we have work to do around Indigenous communities, African communities and Muslim communities, I think these are areas that we need to be mindful of and make sure that we are equal and responsible citizens. At the end of the day, it won’t be a policy that transcends racial vilification issues, it will be the power of relationships between all of us."
Helen has a clear vision for the direction she wants to take the VMC over the next four years.
"It’s important to me that the VMC positions itself very clearly around issues that are facing our community. We have particular themes and issues that walk through the door every day that we are really keen to address in a way that represents a holistic but very accurate depiction of what the communities' collective thought is about that. We can have our own positioning on something but it really is incumbent upon us and imperative moving forward that we are really listening to what they say."
Another key tenet of Helen’s vision is to encourage all Victorians to challenge the way we think about multiculturalism. It is indisputable that we have come a long way since young Greek children were spat on in the playground because of who they were. However, Helen cautions that the way we think and talk about multiculturalism is outdated and needs to change.
"One of our focuses has been on contemporising multiculturalism in a modern-day context. We are really looking at redefining multiculturalism and to do that we need to work with the communities to redefine it together. And that’s what I mean about collective vision. We need to have a collective vision around the identity and construct of Muslims. That might mean something different to someone from a Turkish or Indonesian or Middle Eastern background.
"Policy is at a point now where it’s not functional in the same way and we need to take it to a new level. So this next stage of multicultural policy has to be something that is far more inclusive than it was in the past. It’s not a term that belongs to the oppressed or vulnerable parts of the community only, it belongs to all of us and we all have an equal stake it."
Another key area that Helen is working hard to reform is family violence in Victoria’s diverse communities. Violence manifests itself differently in each community and it is crucial that Victoria has a culturally responsive strategy to deal with it.
"We are currently working on a really substantive policy direction and strategy around family violence and having a targeted response to our CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities. That’s something that has never been done before and I really hope that the government is serious about dedicating themselves to that and, in turn, that we are ready to implement the policy reform throughout the community."
The other area Helen has identified as a priority for the VMC is post-settlement refugee integration, where she is currently leading work on several unique strategies around integration that involve uniting the sporting and arts sectors.
"That third stage of settlement is where VMC can really help and make a difference. That’s how we are going to deal with issues of social isolation and social cohesion. It intersects with all of those elements that really build social capital.
"For me, they (family violence and post-settlement integration) will be two of the most important priorities and keys moving forward. They are what I hope will be legacy values."