Almost two days after learning of the death of Stella Young I’ve been slowly starting to think about how on earth we find a “legacy” worthy of her.
It’s hard, so very hard, to think about the idea of a legacy for someone as vital and alive as Stella. Just as I can’t bring myself to use the pre-fix “the late” when talking about her.
It all seems absurd, ridiculous and imponderable. 32? For gods sake – it is such a ridiculous age to go.
And there is a part of me that somehow thinks this is all some kind of experiment in media perception’s and that Stella will pop up tomorrow saying “Ha! See I told you people would paste pictures of snowflakes and say I was inspiring. You all have so much more to do. Get on with it xxx Stells”
I do reckon that what Stella might be most engaged in right now is the outpouring of commentary, think pieces, blogs and comments about her life.
I think – in fact I know – she would be critically analysing what the coverage meant and weighing it against the many untold stories in our community. Stella would be wryly amused at some of the desperate gymnastic feats from journos trying to find hooks for their stories about the passing of a disabled person that didn’t turn them into super crips or fine fragile examples to the rest of us. She’d be pissed at how quickly some of them turned to rendering a diagnosis about her “brittle bones” rather than what she got done.
Stella was passionate about the issue of media portrayal because I think she believed that the way people portray you is the key to the way they treat you and can decide whether we grow to love or hate ourselves. If we think like victims we become victims. These are conversations that we had many times.
I had many pieces published in ABC Ramp Up – I haven’t checked and it doesn’t matter but I was perhaps the most regular sub.
What might surprise some is the extent to which Stella helped me turn bricks into gold. Despite having drafted speeches for Ministers, lead on Cabinet Submissions and written hundreds of letters, briefs, reports and staked out a second career in marketing I learnt a lot about writing from Stella.
She made me a better writer and communicator. Yes of course we learnt from each other but it was mostly one-way.
Early last year I submitted a piece on euthanasia and end of life issues following the death of Marc and Eddy Verbessem.
My views on these issues are well known now, but the reality is that I really do struggle to reconcile my instincts for personal choice and the rights that we have to control our bodily domains, with laws that outlaw suicide.
I’m not into regulation of personal spaces in most areas of life. At the same time I am revolted by the way our lives are diminished and alarmed at the trends I see through history which date back to T4.
The result of my ”struggle for truth” was a muddled wreck of a piece full of apologies, relativism and drippy, confusing arguments.
I had written enough by then for Stella to know she could be frank with me, that we both didn’t have time to waste and I’d rather hear it straight. Her response was characteristically blunt and accurate. It went something like this:
“You’re a cracking writer Wallace and you’ve banged out some red hot pieces but this isn’t one of them. Why don’t you focus on the media portrayals and what they said about the value of people with disability?“
This wasn’t the first time that Stella invited me to think about how I might make a turgid essay into a readable piece of opinion editorial commentary by focusing on what the coverage said about the way society thinks about us.
And she was right. As soon as I saw it that way I was able to clearly layout and crystallise the arguments. It helped me land where she knew I needed to land.
That is why this week in the media – amidst the shock – my first straight from the Lizard brain comments were that she was, above all, a damn fine writer.
To be honest, I don’t really know how she wanted to be remembered but we can take a decent guess at the kinds of things that might have floated her boat. So here are my guesses.
I think she might want to be remembered in a way that advanced an issue and profession she cared about. The thing I most often heard her talk about was media portrayals of people with disability.
She excelled in the craft of writing, reporting, commenting and reacting in the 24-hour, social media focused, information rich world in which we find ourselves. She was made for these times.
I do believe that she’d want whatever was done to leave a lasting footprint. While bring out your bats may have been a touching and appropriate gesture to remember a fine young sportsman like Phillip Hughes I’m not sure that “bring out your red shoes” would cut it.
Stella was about cutting criticality and modernity. An appropriate testimonial to her life and work has to be something that makes us think, react and continues to shift the culture along.
Whatever it was she’d want it to be professional, well done and something that connected disability to the mainstream and not a special touching tribute event stuck in a box.
As she sometimes said to me “special in or community so often means crap”. She’d also want it to be a bit flash. Stella was not one of these people that believed that disability had to be about people in cardigans drinking cups of tea in a dusty hall in front of people who had been dragged out to be there. She was into fashion, glamour, looking decent and taking pride. She was a celebrity who loved the camera and appearing in print.
I also know that Stella Young had a kind of unique love/hate relationship with disability awards. She loathed the kind of awards which gave gongs to people with disabilities for just staying around and sharing the Oxygen. We used to joke about nominating her for an award from some charity or other knowing she would hate it.
At the same time she loved hosting the ACT Chief Ministers Inclusion Awards which focus on building up mainstream businesses and services to do better. They have been successful in drawing in corporate sponsors to create an event that’s polished, outward facing and classy.
I will be sad until my last days that I never got the chance to have a whirl with her at the Chief Ministers Awards this Thursday night.
For that reason, I believe that the Australian Government should revive and remake the Media Awards. The Awards should step away from Yooralla who must realise the absurdity of hosting an awards set about media and disability amidst a swirl of damning reports around them.
They should either go to a disability organisation which aligns to the values Stella had or preferably to a body that is simply about cracking journalism.
The Awards should include a headline category focussing on the kind of atypical boundary breaking media portrayals that she yanked the Australian media toward.
And they should be about the quality of the journalism and the writing not just the number of times a wheelchair was pictured.
They should include a financial scholarship for a young up and coming writer with a disability named in Stella’s honour.
The new Awards should be given a kick start as a way of saying thanks from the Australian community and then become an A grade award set supported by monied sponsors with real buy in and critical oversight from the disability rights community.
They should unfold at a glamorous classy event where media meets disability in a jangle of shoes, Prada handbags, dancing, embarrassing selfies, #hashtags, fun and morning-after headaches. Like the Walklies they should be newsworthy in themselves and annoy, provoke and change.
And Stella, I honestly don’t know if this is an idea that you would’ve loved or found as dull as an all day kite flying festival. It’s entirely possible that you would’ve just wanted us to get on with it and over you, but sorry Stella I can’t. None of us can.
So that’s my suggestion for a “legacy”. The kind of lasting event that most closely aligns to the kind of advocacy and issues that the Stella I knew breathed and practised.
I will be asking the PWDA board to consider writing to the Federal Government proposing next year’s media awards be re-imagined along these lines, with a young writer scholarship in Stella’s name.
Stella Young was a great Australian journalist and commentator who deserves a lasting, fitting recognition from both the disability community, the media and the wider community that she changed, enriched, enraged and provoked,
I do know she wouldn’t want a State funeral or a telethon or a home for retired Guide Dogs named after her – she’d want to keep us thinking critically, calling out patronising crap and changing the world
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.