Hayley Bolding

In All, Interviews by Aware

Hayley talks experiencing poverty in real life, why she started Atma and why we shouldn’t underestimate anger  

Hayley Bolding is a humanitarian, influencer and a great advice giver. She was awarded Young Australian of the Year for Victoria in 2013, and lived in India for seven years where she founded Atma, a non-profit organisation based in Mumbai. The Aware Project was fortunate enough to catch up with Hayley and talk about her influences and advice for young Australians who want to make a difference in the world.

Aware: Where did you grow up?

Hayley: I grew up in Lakes Entrance, East Gippsland, so a beautiful tiny town, great childhood.

Aware: How long were you there for?

Hayley: Until I was 18. So I finished high school, and then came down to the ‘big smoke’ of Melbourne, which I thought at the time was the biggest city I’d ever live in. Little did I know…

Aware: What happened from there?

Hayley: I did my degree and I think I was a bit naïve at that time because I wanted to be a diplomat or something like that. I wasn’t really thinking, and then I worked a little bit when I graduated and realised that government wasn’t for me, and so after that I fell into the non-profit sector when I worked at Canteen. I knew I was in the right place at that time. But I always knew that I wanted to do something international, and that’s where my feet started to get itchy and I went to India in 2005.

Aware: So how did you end up at FYA?

Hayley: It was almost a full circle. My work and my role at FYA has always been around encouraging young people to go and experience Asia, and that was the experience that changed my life, so it was almost poetic to come back and have a role where I was encouraging people to do what had changed my life so much, and seek out these experiences and engage in our region. It’s sort of perfect because I can actually say it will change your life with conviction, because I know it did that to me.

Aware: So your role is operations in Asia?

Hayley: Yeah, so a lot of it is promoting our connection with Asia – we are in the Asian century and this is our neighbourhood, and it’s exciting with the cultures and the things we have to learn from our neighbours. And the best way you can learn about your neighbour is to go and share food and share experiences and share time, and so there’s nothing but value from people going into the region and immersing themselves in a culture and understanding a different way of life but also themselves, and the connections they can take forward, which they will, and always do.

Aware: After finishing your degree and working with Canteen, you went to India, and started Atma, which has impacted thousands of people. Could you explain what Atma is, and what it means?

Hayley: Atma is a Sanskrit word, which is an ancient Indian language, meaning ‘soul’. The reason that we decided to call the organisation that is that there’s something that happens when you’re educated, and you would have experienced that this year, in that you get better, and your soul gets better. The word atma is important, because Mahatma Gandhi ‘great soul’. All of us have the ability to be a great soul, and education is part of that, and it’s a very meaningful word in India. Essentially what Atma is, is an education accelerator, so we take local organisations that are doing something really innovative in the educational space and we help them to expand.

Aware: Where does that drive for development come from? And where did the drive for Atma come from?

Hayley: I think I was, for the first time, when I went there and actually experienced poverty in real life, and I also experienced that great thing that you’re told your whole life, that ‘you should be grateful for your education and the opportunities that you have, and we’re so privileged’, and you’re sort of like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’. It’s like reading about chocolate, it’s not until you’ve actually tasted it that you know what it’s like. So for me the taste and the experience of poverty in real life completely changed my whole being. But I wasn’t at the point of being so passionate about it, I was just angry that things weren’t equal, and that beautiful Indian young women the same age as me, just by the luck of where we were born weren’t given the same opportunities. I was angry about that, and I wanted to do something about it. That was literally how it started, it wasn’t like a romantic thing, it was ‘I’m pissed, and I’m going to do something about it’.

Aware: That’s awesome, and I guess that’s kind of the best reason to do something.

Hayley: I think we shouldn’t ever underestimate anger, I think it’s good to be angry, because it shows you that something’s not right. I think you can fall into a trap of just being negative and not doing anything about that. But if you can use that anger and actually think ‘I’m going to change something’, awesome things come out of it.


Aware: So you said that you worked for the government, but didn’t really like it. Do you believe that there’s enough support for organisations like Atma and other NGO’s in Australian society, as a society? In India and other countries – do you think they receive as much support as they should?

Hayley: No, not entirely, I think we absolutely could be doing better. I think we need to do better in different ways, because the ways that we’ve been trying to help haven’t been producing the kind of results that the intention came with. I think what I learned about my time is that people already have the solutions. All the solutions that Atma works towards, are already existing. The people we’re working with know the solutions for their community, they know the educational outcomes they want for their children. All Atma does is help them achieve that. So I think Australia and other countries, or anyone trying to support anyone needs to understand that the answers are within them, and if you support them in their own solutions you’ll have an impact, but if you go in there thinking you’ll help someone and change their life with how you think it should be done, you will always fail.

Aware: So we need more accelerators?

Hayley: Yeah absolutely, we need people to help themselves, and the best way to do that is by investing in themselves, and I think often in development, we want it to be very tangible, we want to say ‘I gave a goat, here’s the proof’. You could have the best university campus in the world, but if you don’t have a teacher, the building’s not going to teach you. We have to have faith that we can invest in people and programs and know that as a giver you’re not going to see something tangible, but in 20 years you’re going to have beautiful young people in front of you who are educated. So we have to be brave and do that, and know that’s the only thing that will change things.

Aware: What do you think that Australians who haven’t gone to place where there is extreme and obvious poverty need to understand about what’s actually going on overseas, and what sort of attitudes need to change from us here? Because Australia does have a responsibility to end things like poverty.

Hayley: What can we all do? That’s the question that we ask ourselves every day. I don’t think that we should do anything different. We’re all so privileged to live such a great life, and we shouldn’t do anything but live that. But I think it’s figuring out what you can do. We don’t need a million Hayley’s to go to India. I would even discourage a lot of young people now from following my path, even though that may seem a little ironic. You need to figure out what you can do. Maybe what you can do is get a great job and give a percentage of your salary, or maybe you can invest in volunteering once every so often. You just have to figure out what you do well. Or maybe it’s when someone says something ignorant, you correct them. All of us can’t change the world by ourselves, we just need to figure out the role we can do, and be proud and conscious of that, and do it well. I think, when I went there, I had romantic ideas that I could save the world, and that was the first lesson I learned, that I couldn’t. That was the hardest one to swallow, but I just had to figure out what I could do. My thing that I could do was this. But other people have made equally great contributions doing their thing in their way. So, I don’t think there’s one answer, even though everyone wants that, you need to find your answer.

Aware: Have you ever had any serious doubts about the work that you’ve been doing, and could you give us an example of when, and what got you through that?

Hayley: I think if I didn’t doubt myself every day I wouldn’t be doing a good thing. It’s a daily question. I think you have to always remember that the way that Atma operates now is very different to the way that it operated when we began, because we learned that when you start putting ideas into practise, things change. So I think, it wasn’t so much one or two incidents, it was a series of continual incidents where we asked ‘what is the impact?’, ‘what are we really doing?’. Being brave and trying new things, but not ever letting the learning go. And also, just listening to people, and not just making assumptions.

Aware: What advice would you give to someone trying to go out and start something in the same way that you have?

Hayley: I think the thing I would say is don’t do something because you think you should. Do something because it’s on your mind and it frustrates the hell out of you and you want to be involved. Then, have experiences and do research. I think sometimes we’re just shown one path and we just have the people up on the pedestals that have started something and created change, and those people are wonderful people in our world. Sometimes I think we’re told to change the world, and you have to think how you’re going to do that. Just find the issue or the topic or the problem that really is annoying to you, come up with an idea to solve that or join people who are already solving it. Keep it simple.