I first knew I had to meet Amelia Telford when I walked into a tea shop in the northern rivers of NSW last year during a holiday with my husband. I was soon chatting with the shop owner about the relative merits of various jasmine teas. Soon the conversation turned to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the youth climate organisation I co-founded five years ago, and the shop owner’s eyes lit up.
“AYCC?!” she exclaimed.
“You must know Millie Telford!” she continued. ‘That girl’s gonna be the first Aboriginal Prime Minister of Australia.’
I was intrigued. I’d already heard high praise for Amelia. Many AYCC volunteers had spoken with awe of this school captain who’d organized an enormous contingent of high school students from Lismore to come to the AYCC’s Power Shift conference in Brisbane a few months earlier. She’d also been part of our Parliament House lobby day, representing young people in front meetings with some of the nation’s fiercest politicians.
Other friends of mine had heard her give a speech and raved about how articulate and powerful she was. Some of them had been moved to tears just listening to her. (I later ask her about this and she says she was “humbled” to speak on behalf of Indigenous youth). All of this, combined with the shop owner’s enthusiasm, made me determined to meet this young woman.
My chance came several months later. Amelia came to Sydney for an intensive French course and dropped into the AYCC office to meet me. Over a cup of tea, I learn about the background and hopes of this cheerful young woman with the beaming smile and thoughtful gaze.
Raised in a close-knit family on the edge of Broadwater National Park in the northern rivers of NSW (Bundjalung country), Amelia knew from a young age that she wanted to leave the world in better shape than the state it was in when she was born.
“As kids, my parents always instilled in my brothers and I the value of respect for all living and non-living things,” she says. “My Aboriginal heritage has also influenced me to feel so connected to the land and be passionate about preserving it for future generations.”
She worked hard and threw herself into her community. A surf lifesaver, active member of her school community, and grade-A student, Amelia is always doing something for the people around her. It makes sense that her career goal is to be a doctor in remote Indigenous communities. Helping others seems to be hard-wired into her DNA.
I ask Amelia who has inspired her and she pauses for a moment. “Martin Luther King and Eddie Koiki Mabo,” she replies. “I have always looked up to their inexhaustible efforts for a more just future – not just for Indigenous people but for everyone”.
On a recent sunny day in Lismore, Amelia is showing me around her school. It’s immediately obvious that she has earned the love and respect of fellow students and teachers alike. “Hi, Millie” is the chorus that surrounds us as we move through the school.
She’s in the middle of her trial HSC exams and has spent the morning at the funeral for a good friend’s father. It’s hard to come to terms with, she admits. But she’s holding up as best she can; being strong for the people around her. She doesn’t have to be at school today, but she didn’t want to miss the tree-planting afternoon at her school that she’s been working towards with the school environment group she founded.
After the tree-planting ceremony, we sit down on the steps outside the school and talk about her dream: to go to Antarctica before she starts her medicine degree in 2013.
She’s been selected to represent young Australians on the 2041 Antarctic Youth Ambassador Program, an expedition of young people from around the world led by polar explorer Robert Swan. Swan was the first person to walk to both the North and South poles totally unassisted, and has now dedicated his life to protecting Antarctica – including from the devastating impacts of climate change on the region.
I ask Amelia why the voyage is called 2041. “In the year 2041 the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty could potentially be modified or amended,” she explains. “As a team, we’re going to be working towards continuing the integrity of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s the last great wilderness on earth and this treaty is the only thing making sure it’s not exploited for oil, gas and other reserves.”
So what is she expecting from her trip to this last great wilderness? She pauses and casts her dark eyes into the distance.
“I know it’s going to be the most rewarding experience,” she says with a broad smile. I already know how excited she is about Antarctica’s wildlife because she’s changed her Facebook profile picture to an image of penguins.
“It’s going to help me grow as an environment activist and as a person,” she continues. “There’s no other place or journey like it – it’s the coldest, driest, highest and windiest place on Earth. The Antarctic ice cores are the reason we know so much about Earth’s climate history… and I just feel so privileged to have this opportunity to go down there and learn about it.”
As someone who understands the lure of the great white continent (I’m heading there myself as part of the scientific team on a cruise ship this summer) I can appreciate where she’s coming from. There’s something amazing about going somewhere completely pristine – free from the damaging influences of human exploitation. Both of us know people who’ve been there already. We know it’s changed their lives.
One of the things that Millie is particularly excited about is that the boat will be filled with other young climate activists, many from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The bonds formed will last a lifetime, and the plan is to work together towards Antarctica’s protection upon their return.
“We’re going to learn so much about climate change, sustainability and leadership,” says Millie. “I can’t wait to be able to pass on these lessons to people back home, especially through the Indigenous community.”
I ask Millie about the participation of Indigenous people in the conversations about climate science, impacts and solutions.
“Indigenous people from around the world are intrinsically connected to the land that has provided for them for thousands of years,” she says. “As the original caretakers of the land it’s so important that both the Elders and emerging generations be part of protecting the land. It’s the basis of our spirituality and community.”
We talk about what Millie will do after Antarctica. She plans to juggle her medicine degree with continued involvement in the youth climate movement. “Part of the Antarctica leadership program is committing to a project when we return,” she explains. “I’m going to focus on working with school communities to help them become more sustainable. This will include implementing action plans similar to the one I am working on with my school at the moment.”
The action plan she’s referring to is something she’s spearheaded over the past few years. Millie’s goal, which she’s worked towards with the school’s environment committee and student leaders, includes the school harnessing 100% of its energy from solar.
“I really do believe in people power,” she says with an infectious smile. “One person can start something that continues to grow strength and momentum and eventually a mass of people are working together as a team. This is already starting but we need to continue to educate, enlighten and motivate people to stand up for their future and for future generations.”
Witnessing the excitement in Millie’s face as she talks about this trip and what it means to her, I’m determined she should have the opportunity to be part of the trip to Antarctica.
She’s already a powerful advocate for change; one of the clearest voices that Australia needs to hear on climate change and sustainability. Imagine super-charging that voice even more by helping her go on a life-changing journey.
Amelia has until November 15th to raise the $20,000 she needs to be part of the expedition. Will you help?
Tax-deductible donations can be made into the following bank account. Name: Rainforest Information Centre, BSB: 062565, Account Number: 10112562. Make sure you write “Amelia” in the memo/transaction description field. Alternatively, cheques can be made out to Rainforest Information Centre and sent to Box 20681, Nimbin NSW 2480.