Michelle Gardiner is the founder and director of the Aspire Series—a global platform for women leading social change and impact in their communities.
As well as pioneering social change, Michelle is a co-author, international speaker, and life coach.
Michelle worked for over fifteen years in the Australian Child Protection and other vital community sectors.
Her life's work, living legacy, and the Aspire movement have ultimately been about supporting children, young people, and families through some of their most vulnerable life experiences.
I didn't write one speech for today. I didn't write two speeches. I didn't write three. I wrote four speeches. The last speech was thrown out this afternoon. This speech that I'm speaking to you has been written in the last hour or two.
Basically, this piece is an accumulation of me and where I am at now. It's me. It's me being in the soup. The soup is about one meter, sixty-two high, and it's thirty-six and a half years old. It's been simmering for thirty-six and a half years. It's the story of me not being ready. It's the story of how are we ever really ready in life. And it's the story of how we came to be here. It's a story of who I am. Who I am. I'm Australian—far out! I've been told I have to say that at least.
I arrived here right before COVID-19 hit. I was here for five weeks, and I left for two weeks, and I came back, and COVID hit. It's been a pretty insane journey since and a journey that I haven't been ready for. I come from a working-class family. I come from a family with two kids, two adults, a house that my dad built. I'm a Libra. I'm a vada/petar. There's a lot of air going on in here. I dance. I am a social worker by background. I'm an A+ blood type.
I'm here, and I'm figuring out every single day. I come from a lineage of women who have experienced quite significant mental health issues. My mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was fifteen years old. And at the time, we had lots of social workers coming to visit our family. I watched what they were doing. They would come, and they would sit in with our family, and they would drink cups of tea. I looked at them, and I thought, Wouldn't that actually be really fun to just drive around all day, visit people, drink cups of tea, and help them feel better.
So fast forward a few years. I'm twenty-two, and I'm knocking on the door of a family's home. I don't know what I'm walking into. A man opens the door—a man I've been working with for a little while. He's yelling and screaming at me, holding a cup of coffee that he's shaking like this. And the coffee's almost splattering everywhere. His child, the ten-year-old, is screaming in the hallway. And I walk in with my pile of paperwork. With the paperwork that's already filled out saying that I'm removing that child. I sit down in the living room with the dad beside me and the paperwork between us. I say to him, "This is what's going on." And he bursts out into tears. He says to me, "I'm trying the best that I can, and I don't know what to do anymore." And I say to him, "Is there a way that we can work together?"
I wasn't ready for that conversation. And I wasn't ready for any of the conversations that happened like that, that continued on from that time. My mom, for over twenty years, my whole adult life, has been in and out of mental health facilities. We have spent Christmases and Mother's Days visiting her in mental health facilities. And I haven't been ready for any of that or any of the conversations that have come with that.
Fifteen years fast forward. My cousin is now graduated as a social worker. And she says to me, "I don't know if I'm cut out for this." I say to her, "You know what? None of us are. Basically, all we can do is look at what's in front of us and take the humanity from it and find a way to turn it into some kind of magic and to create something better with it. We can't be ready for this."
Fast forward another couple of years. And I'm at work. I'm sitting at my desk. A young person calls, and his debutante partner for that day has pulled out as a deb. She's not doing it. He's like, "That's it. I don't care. I'm not doing it." This is something that matters to this young person more than anything else. He has spoken to the children's commissioner and said, "This needs to happen for young people like us." My boss gets off the phone, and she says, "What are we gonna do?" I put a post on Facebook. And I say, "Who do I know who has a white dress in this size and can get it to me within three hours." A girl contacts me straightaway and says, "I not only have a dress, I have a tiara, and I have jewelry. I'll have it to you." Within three hours, I'm at a venue surrounded by all these teenage girls with white fluffy things everywhere. And I'm getting my hair and makeup done, watching a video on my phone of how to learn these dances. I wasn't ready to be a debutante at thirty-three years of age. And I wasn't ready to be a debutante that day.
A couple of years later, I'm with a group of young people, and we're preparing for a massive event. I've got young people, a row full of young people, who are preparing to share their personal stories. The people in the audience are ministers. They're commissioners. They're politicians. One of my young people, she runs out of the room. I run after her. I stand in front of a toilet cubicle, and she's behind the door. I hear sobbing. I ask her if she's okay. She says to me, "There is no way that I'm going out there. There is no way that I'm sharing my story. There is no way that those people in that audience are gonna listen. And this matters to me more than anything. And I can't deal with the fact that they might not hear what I've got to say." I take this in, and I go, "Hmm. They're not gonna hear you from behind a toilet door."
I hear the click of the lock, and the door opens. She stands there in front of me. And she's like, "How's my makeup? Are my eyes okay?" I hand her a tissue, and I'm like, "We can sort this out." She's like, "I have no idea what I'm gonna say. Like, what do I do?" I'm like, "We can sort that out. Fix your makeup. We'll be right." And she comes out. I ask her what she's most passionate about, and straightaway, I know that she's ready because the fire in her heart is what's going to deliver the message that she needs delivered. Anything else is a bonus on that.
When we started this, Colleen asked us, "What is the story that you are most afraid to tell?" The story in this that I'm the most afraid to tell is the story of what comes next. It's the unwritten story. It's the story that I'm not prepared for and the story that I'm not ready for. It's the story that I don't have the answers for. And I can only prepare myself for that so much. And I don't know if all of these experiences and all of this life journey has prepared me enough for that. And there's nothing that I can do about that but just keep taking another step, knowing that I'm not ready for that. The story that I'm not ready for is the one that I will one day tell when this woman sweeps herself off her own feet and carries herself away in a way that she could not even imagine. And that all starts by being here.