Jenny Leong is down in Marrickville packing hampers at Addi Road Food Relief Hub. Only a hundred more to go from the volunteer team she has joined and they can get another pallet of food out the door. Vans and cars are waiting outside to take the hampers all over the city.
As the State Member for Newtown, the former campaign and crisis manager for Amnesty International and current Greens Party politician has an obvious track record in social justice, humanitarian issues and the environment.
That said, the question has to be asked: why stay in politics? Over a year deep into the pandemic it is clearer than ever how disillusioned and sceptical, if not downright cynical, people are becoming about politics and the media. The institutions meant to represent them, and speak to them, don’t seem to be doing that at all.
Leong isn’t put off. And there’s a steely undercurrent to her idealistic take on how individuals must respond. “You can choose to throw things at the TV and feel that way about politicians and journalists,” she says, as if she’s no stranger to such feelings herself. “Or you can try to do something. What you are talking about is exactly why I went in to politics in the first place.”
“Look around you today at the Food Relief Hub. It’s very clear from the people packing boxes that they are wanting fill the gaps. They are wanting to do something that makes up for the failures.”
In Leong’s world view, systemic failure becomes a clarion call to action rather than disempowering cynicism. “One person is not enough to change things. And government policy is not answering the needs of people and the problems arising. So it is the community coming together that is making the change that matters.”
For Leong this means trying to put herself in a position where “I can help people in that coming together as a community.”
This can happen in the smallest of ways that resonate outwards, the proverbial stone sending ripples across the pond. “Just coming down here to Addi Road and being hands on packing hampers is helpful to me. You hear what people really need and what is going on in a way that you just can’t get through a Zoom conference call!”
“So-and-so organisation needs phone credit cards. Someone needs a freezer. Those are things where someone like me can help. Making the connections between different organisations and the work they are doing. I’ve definitely been able to make a few links between groups I know and Addi Road that have been a help, I hope.”
If that seems a rather micro approach to a very big problem, Leong is not put off. “If you get a freezer for a community room that is stocked with hundreds of frozen meals that are feeding people locked down in public housing, you are creating a significant shift.”
“You get phone cards to groups that need them, and people that could not afford to register to get their Covid test results are able to use the phone credit. I think that is pretty critical to do.”
“I think the real question you have to ask is, why is it that all this volunteer labour is providing this level of essential service and care?” Leong says, gesturing around the Addi Road Food Relief Hub.
“To me what has been completely missed in the public conversation now, in the absence of adequate JobSeeker support, is how badly people are affected by poverty while the pandemic continues to affect them and other services.
“They can’t rely on public libraries like they did to access the internet. The hot meals that came from community centres might not be there any more, as some those places have reduced services. With lockdowns added in to the equation, you have people who are unable to afford to pay $15 for a food delivery. People who can’t afford the luxuries of pay TV and Netflix, or even a good phone, none of the things that might help people to cope while they are being kept at home.”
There’s a shout out in the hall for more hampers to be packed again as the Addi Road Food Relief Hub winds itself back into action. Leong is already changing gears and restless to get moving anyway. Vans and cars are waiting outside: among them the Community Restorative Centre from Canterbury, Junction Neighbourhood Centre (JNC) and the Fijian Community arriving to do their food hamper deliveries.
“I think the real question you have to ask is, why is it that all this volunteer labour and community action is providing this level of essential service and care?” Leong says, gesturing around the Food Relief Hub.
There’s just the faintest hint of anger beneath the question. But Leong doesn’t dwell on any negative emotion. She just gets back to packing the hampers and asks another question as she moves along. “Why don’t people out there in the community have enough to live on?” she says.
The answer is obvious but Leong wants to spell it out anyway. “It’s very clear that we need to be raising the levels of income support so no one need live below the poverty line.”