Rosie Thomas talks Project ROCKIT’s beginnings and dealing with hate on and offline Rosie Thomas is a change maker, a mentor, and an inspiring role model. Oh, and she’s also cofounder of Project ROCKIT with her sister Lucy (equally as inspiring), which is a social change movement against bullying that began 10 years ago and has reached hundreds of thousands of school students. In her spare time, she is a business mentor for local change makers and entrepreneurs including the Aware Project team. We were lucky enough to catch up with her at Project ROCKIT headquarters in Melbourne, and talk about how Project ROCKIT started and how to stand up to cyberbullying.
Aware: How and when did Project ROCKIT start?
Rosie: Project ROCKIT started 10 years ago this year! Project ROCKIT was started back in 2006 by my sister and I, and essentially we never planned on creating an organisation or a company or a business or an enterprise, it was just that we had both come to crossroads. We had both just finished school and were sitting around having a conversation about what we wanted to do with our lives and we’re really different as sisters, but we shared some of the same values and one of those big values is doing something meaningful and making a difference. Having just finished school it was just at the forefront of our minds that the way people are treated during their time at school totally determined where they were at after school. If you did really well at school it was so clear that it mean that your confidence grew and you could form great relationships and meet other people. You’d put your hand up in class, you’d try harder and that would go on to give you opportunities, whereas if you were treated like shit, and you had to wear a label that stuck with you throughout school, and people treated you differently because of it, or maybe you were just ignored. It was so clear how that negatively impacted our peers and the way that we saw it, having just finished school ourselves was that it was so preventable and that we could do something about it.
Aware: Was that from your own experience with bullying and if so, what was your experience with bullying?
Rosie: I had a pretty positive school experience in that I had a solid friendship group for most of the time and I was definitely ready to leave but I finished school on a bit of a high. But I definitely did have moments where I was bullied. I used to play a lot of sport and I remember as a consequence after a falling out with a friend in one point in year 8 I was getting called a man constantly by the whole year level. I know that sounds silly and in the beginning I dusted it off but the whole year level seemed to be against me. So I totally know how it feels to be totally isolated and at the same time there are moments when I can look back on school and realise I was a part of the problem. Whether or not I stood up or whether or not I was actively mean, there were definitely those times. But what fuelled me to start Project ROCKIT wasn’t a traumatic experience, it was more the responsibility that I needed to do something. I can remember in primary school being really young and just having this sense of social justice. What was fair, what wasn’t fair and just being able to empathise from a really young age and to know how it would feel to be in that situation, and that meant that I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. When I finished school, I realised that there were times that I sat by and did nothing, and I didn’t want other people to feel that way too.
Aware: In a speech that Lucy made at the Halogen Foundation for Young Leaders Day she explained her hardship with bullying from a girl she was dating, which she said affirmed her path with Project ROCKIT. As you supported her as her sister, it must have given you insight into how to support someone who is experiencing bullying, so how do you support someone who is so close to you and is experiencing that?
Rosie: That’s a really good question, because supporting somebody you don’t always have the power to, at the click of your fingers, fix the situation. If you’re someone like me and you see someone who you really love have such a hard time you feel not only a pressure to fix the situation but a real desire to, and so often you just can’t. The one thing I really learned is that you don’t have to have all the answers in supporting that person, and sometimes you just need to listen. What I struggled with at times was to just be completely open minded and to listen without judgement because the worst bit about having a bad time is feeling like nobody is going to understand around you. There are people that might not understand fully, but by you explaining it to them, they can empathise with you and help you. So you don’t have to have all the answers but it’s so important to let people know that they’re not alone and it will get better.
Aware: What do you feel is the most important thing you’ve learned from Project ROCKIT?
Rosie: Project ROCKIT has been like my high school. I had primary school until I was 13 and then high school until I was 18. I turned 30 last year and the last 10 years have been the Project ROCKIT school. The incredible people we’ve worked with and our team has taught me so much and we’re just constantly being challenged. One of the main things that Project ROCKIT has taught me would be that whenever we see any sort of injustice happen, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bullying and definitely doesn’t have to happen in school – it could be racism or homophobia or anything that we don’t agree with – I really learned that it’s our duty as humans on this planet to speak up and say something. What I’ve really learned is that staying out of it and not having a reaction at all is actually having an impact and it’s a negative one which is condoning it in a way. As hard as it is to speak up I’ve learned that no matter what it is that you disagree with, the rewards from speaking up are huge. The other thing that I’ve learned is that often you feel like you’re the only one who disagrees and that’s why its hard to speak up. But what I’ve learned is that there are always going to be other people that disagree as well but they’re looking for someone to stand up to follow. So I guess what I’ve learned is that we’re all going to have an impact if we choose to do nothing, so it’s our responsibility as humans to stand up for what we believe in.
Aware: In regards to having an obligation to standing up for things – I just want to turn that to cyber bullying because it’s a form of bullying that’s equally as damaging. Is it a new form of bullying that you’re focusing on now or is that something you started focusing on from the beginning of Project ROCKIT?
Rosie: When we started in 2006 Facebook was launched and in 2004 and before that there was Myspace. Cyberbullying wasn’t really an issue at all and it was definitely around 2009 and 2010 that the word ‘cyberbullying’ was thrown around a lot. For us at Project ROCKIT, when cyberbullying had become a big thing in the media it really didn’t change much for us because our view of cyber bullying is that it’s just bullying that happens online and yes at times it can be different. For example, power dynamics are quite different online because you can hide or be anonymous which means that people can be way worse. But essentially there shouldn’t be any difference. For us when the issue of cyberbullying started to become big it didn’t make much of a difference because of our social approach and the way we tackle it is the same. It’s about connecting young people to one another so they do feel responsible, it’s about creating things in common with each other instead of just acknowledging the differences, it’s about creating social strategies to stand up to bullying whether it’s happening right now in front of you at school, after school or online.
Aware: Going into the approach which Project ROCKIT has, which is that the three in four people that aren’t bullied and are bystanders needing to stand up to the bully – how does a bystander stand up to cyberbullying as it’s in a different environment completely?
Rosie: What’s really interesting is that for us when we started Project ROCKIT we decided to focus on the bystander or what we at Project ROCKIT call the audience member because victimisation most often happens in front of an audience. Our view was that when we were at school there were a lot of programs that focused on the ‘bully’ which is just negative labeling in our view, or the ‘victim’ which is equally as negative, but we were like hang on, if we want to create cultural change and we really want to champion the issue of bullying, we need to get the majority of people to lead the way, and that’s the bystander or what we call the audience. So when bullying happens offline yes there’s always an audience, and when bullying happens online there’s often an audience too. I think what we explain to young people and what young people explain to us is that sometimes it can feel less risky to stand up online because there are so many ways to stand up without actually putting yourself out there physically. It’s pretty gutsy to stand up to bullying in any way but offline you have to physically stand up, there are often people around you, you have to speak up and you have to know what to say in the moment. But online you don’t feel that pressure as much, you can take the time to formulate what you want to say – you don’t even have to stand up publicly. You can send someone a private message and avoid an awkward moment all together. There are plenty of ways to stand up and the way that we see it at Project ROCKIT is that there isn’t one way or ‘the best way’ for everybody. Everyone’s willing to take different levels of risks so there’s got to be a credible, safe and cool way in which they can stand up and reach those levels of safety for them.
For example we can’t just say to all young people ‘next time you see Caleb getting torn into by that guy at the lockers over there, intervene and say something. Be witty, be funny.’ But it’s like, if you don’t have that personality or if you don’t have that status or social power then that’s really risky. But there are plenty of things that we can do. For example it could be like, why don’t you get a bunch of your mates to shoot them a dirty look so that you’re not standing there laughing but instead you’re sending a really strong message – you haven’t opened your mouth, you haven’t said anything or put yourself out there but you’re still sending a clear message.
Aware: What does Australian society need to understand about bullying to start to make that positive change?
Rosie: There’s a few things – firstly is that every single person has a story behind them. Particularly online, it’s really easy to tear other people down when you don’t see them as a person at all or when you don’t have to hear their story. I think first of all acknowledging that everyone is loved by someone, everybody has strengths and weaknesses, everybody is human and that already connects us. There’s a question that I love that we ask at Project ROCKIT, which is the question that I love to ask the most because of the answers I get, but also the question that I think of when I go to sleep at night is ‘how do you want to be remembered?’ Whether it’s how you want to be remembered at school or how you want to be remembered from your days on the planet. Realising that I got to decide how I wanted to be remembered because my behaviour decided that was actually really powerful because it held me accountable. Give me a word or two to describe how you want to be remembered?
Aware: Trying hard to make change
Rosie: I reckon that knowing that, if you’re not going to try people just won’t remember you like that. So it’s actually pretty liberating and in the same way it’s a bit of a reality check for many people. In a way it’s like, do I want to be remembered as a judgemental, close minded, mean, nasty person or do I want to be remembered as someone who stood up for others, someone who is caring and friendly? When you start to think about it like that you actually have to be those things, so I think the message that I’d put out there is that we all make mistakes, we’re all human and there’s so many times in our lives we wish we acted better, but let’s work out the person that we want to be now so that we can hold ourselves accountable to that.
Aware: What would you say to young people who want to make a positive social change like you have?
Rosie: Overall I’d say just do it. Just start, because that’s what we did. We never intended to create something that would even exist 10 years on. All we did was have an idea and we just started it out and it worked and bit by bit it grew and we built a movement that’s kept it alive. Of course it’s daunting when you decide you want to create an organisation 10 years on, but if you’ve got an idea just start small and just go with it. There are always going to be people out there that are going to support you so put your hand up and ask for help and let them support you. Give it a crack, you’ve got nothing to lose.