This is a transcript of YACVic’s podcast, ‘Locked Down, Speaking Up!’, part of the ‘Learning from COVID-19’ series. Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts.

Katia:

This episode of ‘Locked Down, Speaking Up!’ was recorded on the Lands of the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung people and the Boon Wurrung Bunurong people. Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) pays our respects to Elders past and present.

♫ Upbeat intro track plays – ‘Far Away’ by MK2 ♫

Young people in education and the arts have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. For young people who are still yet to set foot on their university’s campus, or who are waiting for their postponed shows to finally happen – what can you actually do in this situation that feels so out of control?

If you feel like you don’t have the same energy that maybe you did before COVID, to speak up or take action on things that matter to you, you’re definitely not alone. The pandemic has been disheartening and stressful! But it’s also transformed what we now think of as ‘real’ or ‘valid’ action. So many  young people are getting creative about what activism can mean for our needs and our communities, and being more inclusive about it too.

Welcome to the first episode of YACVic’s series Locked Down, Speaking Up. I’m Katia, I use she/her pronouns, and together we’ll meet different young people in Victoria share their experiences of advocacy, activism and making change during the pandemic. You’ll learn how young people are making a difference, and how you can do it too!

Speaking up today is Mia, who uses she/her pronouns. She's both a student and teacher of performing arts, so she’s a pretty solid expert on COVID’s impacts on young students and artists. If you’re looking for how can we do better by and with young students and creatives in this pandemic, or just want to know how to advocate for yourself, this is for you – Mia’s doing it, and she’s going to share what works, and what we should elbow bump goodbye.

Mia:

I am Mia Boonen, my pronouns are she/her. Today I’m speaking to you from beautiful Boon Wurrung Country. And I am an educator, writer, theatre maker, and advocate.

I study theatre and pre-COVID, that was four days a week nine till six, in a studio sweating like crazy, doing contact improv where you were touching everyone, and talking in each other's faces, and making eye contact, and all of the things that COVID banned.

It's an artistic field that I’ve always wanted to be a part of. So there was so much of me that went into my university training, went into drama school, and dove into the theatre industry, like, ‘this is the dream, this is perfect.’ And anytime anything went wrong, I said, ‘I am so grateful, though…’

I had a really, really important teacher who looked at me one day and said, you need to stop saying you're grateful. Because while you're still saying you're grateful, you're ignoring all of the things that you could be changing right now. And we want you to help us make that change. You need to smarten up, start complaining when things are wrong and start making things different. Which has been really helpful for me, because I do a lot better when I'm wanting to change things, which I think leans into the advocacy world.

So when COVID hit, I was just starting term two with my students at Dramawerkz, which are a bunch of 13- to 25-year-olds. And I had a camp and a theatre show booked for them for two weeks from when the lockdown started. I quickly cancelled everything that was going on that way. And I pulled the kids into a Zoom call, and it was chaos and messy. And I said, okay, it's all out the window, all I want you to do is you're going to have five minutes, and you're going to tell me a story. And that started the process of them making short films.

And then the next term, I sat them down again, and I was like, okay, I guess we're still here. We're gonna try something new this time. And I took the play that we'd written to take to this festival, and I turned it into a film bit by bit, and had all of the kids at home, filming snippets and collages.

And then by the time we were allowed to gather in a room again, I could get them all to a cinema, watching it all at once in a room. That was the prize of the year. And I cried my eyes out throughout the whole thing, which I don't think they were expecting.

It was so much scrambling in COVID, to try and make theatre feel real. Because it doesn't when you're not in the same room with someone. So it was a lot of talking through that and sitting with people and pretending that you can breathe the same air and then saying, well just throw in your best effort and we'll make a mess of it, and then something will come of it that maybe we can be proud of. And I think that that happened across a few projects that I worked on. I did the second year of my uni degree online; don’t recommend.

Zoom fatigue was massive for me. It got a hold of me at the end of eight hour, 12 hour rehearsals that we were having. Plus I got quite sick whilst I was in the middle of my degree, really, and was in hospital during COVID, which meant no visitors. Because I had gone quickly, I had no phone charger! And all of the things that you just take for granted that you'll have when you need them as if they’re just like, summoned to your hands.

Katia:

Yes, Zoom fatigue… Mia’s definitely not alone on that one. And I really like that advice from her teacher, to not gloss over problems with gratitude. A lot of young people are made to feel like we’re just supposed to feel lucky to be somewhere. But of course, COVID has exposed a lot of systemic shortcomings – and also a lot of opportunities. And teaching at the same time as she was studying, Mia has really felt both sides of the changes and challenges. Here’s what she’s learned about self-care, supporting students, and what makes a good teacher.

Mia:

COVID totally changed everything I knew about teaching. And it was scary for a while there. And I think even scarier when I went back in person. And the first class I taught back in person arrived two hours early, because I was terrified that I'd forgotten everything I knew about how to talk to people in a real room.

But when it came down to it, I kind of learnt a lot about why socialisation is so important to learning. My students normally, pre-COVID, had the opportunity to chat and socialise, and be with one another and have community outside of the time that I was telling them what to do. They would arrive a little bit early, or they would talk while they were taking their shoes off, or they would talk as they walked out of the room or in the two-minute break. And they had all of those opportunities to catch up on each other's lives.

Whereas I realised in 2020, that I needed to facilitate that time. I needed to force them to share a little bit, I needed to force everyone to engage with each other and stay connected, because it was making them sad to not. They were coming to class and wondering why they hated it. You learn because of the people you're learning with; you don't actually learn entirely because the material’s interesting. Especially in a field like theatre, you learn so that you can make theatre with the people that are around you.

I had one student who was in year 12; I do remember sending her to sleep instead of studying one class. Because her way of getting through was to commit to everything fully and never leave her desk. And that was valiant. But I think we saw across the board with year 12s – and with kind of senior school students – homework is so ridiculous in the way that it's structured for young people. But also that when we put them in these pressure cookers, and they don't have outlets that actually respect their needs, and their wants - they're teenagers, they have wants, respect that - like, I don't understand. But yeah, when we don't respect those things, people can bust.

So I did a lot of breaking those rules and telling them to go to bed or making them instead of doing a drama class, they had to go outside and draw for a while. And at the end of the year, students who would never have spoken to me on their own, would come up and say thank you for teaching me this year.

Looking back at what I would like to take forward, I do still like digitised events, I liked being able to attend my classes online when I would normally not be able to in person. I liked that my teachers finally answered their emails, all of those things as well.

My coordinator in 2020 was one of the best humans in the world. She also scheduled in social time for us. She was great because she had lots of meetings with us where she said, what she knew, what she knew definitely wasn't going to happen. And then she would just tell us all the questions she asked, you know, the higher staff, the important fancy people and that they hadn't given answers to, so that we knew exactly what she knew.

And we also knew what she didn't know. And I never felt like I was waiting for things to be revealed. And that made it a lot easier to deal with all of the fluctuations and all of the changes. She was always on top of telling us when assessments were changing, and also when we knew things about how our performances were going to go because we were meant to have several live performances throughout the year that eventually got all digitised. But there was a lot of palaver I guess, about whether they were going to be digitised and filmed or whether they were going to be on Zoom and if we could have an audience and who would be in that audience.

Katia:

Mia and her classmates were also among several students of the arts who campaigned for pandemic fee relief. A huge part of arts education is what you get from onsite learning – from the facilities, to the equipment, to certain classes that need to be taught in-person – that students did not have access to during the extended Victorian lockdowns. Many students feel it’s been unfair to continue paying regular university fees with this big difference to their education. It’s a challenge to go up against a university, but Mia notes how teachers – including her coordinator that she just told us about – were totally respectful about it.

Mia:

In terms of our fight for fee relief, she always respected that we were going to do what we wanted to do. She never got in the way of us. She never treated us like we were evil for saying, hey, this isn't what we paid for. And I always felt respected by that because I didn't want her to feel like I didn't like what she'd done. She was an amazing teacher, she taught us so well on Zoom. And she did her best. And I totally respect that.

Katia:

There are so many things to take away from that, but if I was going to summarise it in extremely simple terms – let students rest, let students have fun, and also just, be honest? Like Mia said, “when we don’t respect those things, people can bust.” Lockdowns have made a lot of the flexibility for those things possible, in a way that was supposedly ‘impossible’ before. For Mia, like a lot of folks in her field, this has had important impacts on what she wants education and the arts to be for young people going forward.

Mia:

Well I learnt when returning to uni in person that it was going to be a whole lot different because I suddenly had a mobility aid by my side and I was in and out of a wheelchair. And I was advocating for completely different things than before.

I had to convince some of my teachers that I was still worthy of being there, as well, because there is a deeply held belief in some theatre practices that the body should be able to do anything and an actor's body should be mobile and completely transformative and 'neutral'. And when you're offset by a cane or a wheelchair, nothing's neutral anymore. Everything is completely and entirely me - and I'm okay with that. But it took time to get okay with that in a theatre setting. So I'm now making theatre that is me and it's who I want to be and the theatre that I want to make and it's not neutral and it's not going to probably be on an MTC stage and I've come to terms with that because I've done a lot of fighting for it.

And I think similarly, I've taken that attitude into my teaching. I don't want my students to feel like they ever have to be neutral or ever have to be blank canvases. I want it to be better than that and kinder than that. And more humane.

I think COVID taught me what closeness and distance really feels like. My house mates and my partner who I could see every day and who I'm very lucky are some of the most brilliant people ever. I got very accustomed to having them and to having all of my necessities within a two-metre radius. But I really struggled with the distance with all of the other things that mattered to me, which includes just community. I really value sharing a room; that really got me.

I don't want to take forward the abrasiveness that kind of came with the government's response to COVID as well as some of the community's response. I hear this, oh, well, we don't need to be locked down if we just put the immunocompromised away, as if we can just hide in our houses. I'm really looking forward to when that conversation is inevitably a bit more over, because we are vaccinated and I don't need to worry about all of that.

I want people to ask if I have any access needs more, because the first time I was ever asked that was on the expression of interest form for the YDAS COVID-19 Working Group and it meant a lot to me to be asked. And to get a chance to reply in what felt like a nice way rather than having to write an email to the person running it and being like, 'by the way, can you do this for me' and feel like I am calling in a favour. So I want that to be part of the way that we interact.

In COVID-normal, I want to see vaccinated people! And I want to see disabled young people treated with respect in our conversations about vaccination. Because I am vaccinated, and it took a lot of work to get there, and I'd like it to be recognised that disabled young people have had to bend over backwards to prove that we're quote unquote 'disabled enough' to deserve a vaccine. And that's been a pain in the ass and I want that to change and I want the attitude towards that to change. I'd also - this is mainly just a joke - but I want better ramps everywhere. I'm sick of bad ramps!

Katia:

Whether you’re an arts teacher or student, there’s so much we can learn from Mia’s experience. Arts education needs to be student-centred and provide tangible support – like fee relief, teacher transparency, accessibility, and social time. And we owe young students and creatives some re-imagining, with a bit more permanence, of expectations of their outcomes and outputs.

If Mia’s story has you motivated and energised to take action on something important to you, there are plenty of ways YACVic can support you! This podcast is part of the ‘Learning from COVID-19’ series, our resource full of materials to help you learn from the most clever COVID adaptions for young people. You can check out the activism category for plenty of helpful info, from a social justice glossary to guides for meeting with your MP, and much more! Head to YACVic.org.au/COVID-youth-work to find it all.

You can also become a YACVic member – which is free for young people! – for exclusive opportunities, supports and resources.

And if you want to learn more about Mia’s drama school Drama Werkz, you can visit their website: dramawerkz.com

All of these links are also in this episode’s transcript and show notes.

♫ Upbeat outro track plays – ‘Far Away’ by MK2 ♫

In the next episode, we’ll meet Candace, a young person tackling a pretty big global matter in the middle of the global pandemic: the environment. We’ll hear how Candace has managed to keep motivating her local community to take environment action in lockdown, what makes people care about it, and how you can do it too.

Thanks for tuning in, we’ll see you next time!

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