Victoria’s first South Asian Volunteer of the Year – Jaya Manchikanti from IndianCare

The social welfare system can be a nightmare to navigate for anyone. Add in the complexities that come with being an immigrant or being culturally and linguistically diverse, and accessing services becomes even harder. That’s where Jaya Manchikanti comes in.

In a state of 2.3 million volunteers who contribute $58 billion to the economy and work in 88% of charities, Jaya Manchikanti is the first among equals, winning the 2021 Volunteer Leadership Award, the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Volunteer of the Year and the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Award. In the midst of lockdowns and the COVID pandemic, Jaya’s spirit of volunteerism and her win as the first South Asian to take home these awards is an example of the community spirit and selfless giving that has characterised her work for many years, and was inspired by her mother, who continues to be a tireless volunteer in the community.

In 2013, Jaya founded IndianCare, an apolitical not-for-profit organisation that endeavours to connect members of the South Asian community in Victoria with vital services and care designed to support welfare and wellbeing — think resources for international students, emergency relief, primary prevention of alcohol and drug dependency and the like. Jaya talks with SAARI about what volunteer-supported community-powered care looks like, what drives her, and how we can all contribute.

You come from a community development background. What led you to found IndianCare?

I worked with a lot of not-for-profit organisations, and then with a few local governments and with the state government. While doing that work over a 20 year period, I could see that there was a gap in services for the Indian community. And I felt there were a lot of other ethno-specific organisations trying to meet the needs of their communities. Whereas we really didn't have one, and we’re one of the largest migrant groups. So I thought we should do something about it.

‘I don't think things can be changed overnight. It requires a consistent, sustainable effort.’

 

What services gap are we talking about?

I felt that mainstream services really did not have a great understanding of the cultural nuances in the Indian community. Like, families are really important to us. You can't say to someone ‘just leave your family’, that's just too simplistic a solution. It needs a lot more nuance than that. Also, there is stigma and shame in our community, and people don't speak up. So, we felt that by setting up our agency we may then enable community members to come to us and have that confidential discussion.

How do you reach out to people who might not feel supported by mainstream services?

Cultural competence is really one of the crucial factors. That's one of the big values. Our tagline for IndianCare is ‘connecting and culturally responsive'. [For example] with language, we try wherever possible to use language skills, because that immediately breaks barriers. We have a range of languages between the board members, the volunteers and the staff we can use. Providing written information in the right language is so important. And little nuances, like certain terms that we use, the respectful ways of addressing people, all of that. That sort of cultural competency makes such a big difference.

Family violence, substance abuse, mental health — it’s safe to say these aren’t easy conversations in many South Asian households. How do you go about making space to talk about the difficult stuff?

Our first project was actually a prevention of alcohol harm project, which was funded by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. And it was the first time the Alcohol and Drug Foundation had reached out to an ethnic community. It was new for them. And we said to them, if we went out to our community, saying we're doing a prevention of alcohol harm project, it's not going to be a successful project. We needed to play it safe.

So we went at it with more of a health and wellbeing focus. We kind of kept it quite generic. It was more about teaching the community about safe drinking habits. What is a standard drink? What health ramifications are there if you don't drink within the recommended limits, that sort of thing. It was a community education project. We tried to approach it more as a health education project rather than a prevention of alcohol harm project, which was the intent of it.

It's similar with family violence. We’ll say something like ‘respectful relationships’, ‘equal gender relationships’, use terminology like that, rather than go in with the strong terminology, because that can be off-putting and will not endear people to the work we're doing. It’s fair to say these are ongoing conversations within our communities.

‘Cultural competency makes such a big difference.’

 

In the years since IndianCare was founded, have you noticed a shift in attitudes?

Anecdotally, through conversations I've had with people, volunteers who come to us, men who I've spoken to, I can see there’s a shift there. There is a greater understanding of equal gender relationships.

What I would like to see going forward is a very big shift in understanding around that and that the power difference should be minimised because I still think there is a power differential between men and women.

And at the heart of family violence is power, and the exercise of power. So, you know, I think gender equality work needs to go on for quite a few more years, because this is entrenched. Indian communities are quite patriarchal. So, we do need to keep working at it. It needs to be a consistent message. In all ranges of settings, whether it's with younger people, with older people, with families, with all genders, we need to work on sending the same message.

‘I think gender equality work needs to go on for quite a few more years.’

 

There’s this dual challenge facing IndianCare, and South Asian Australians more broadly, of working for more representation within wider Australian society, as well as trying to change patriarchal attitudes within our own South Asian communities. It’s slow, hard work. What’s your advice for those of us who feel daunted by the challenge?

I really believe in the power of small impacts in most of my community work. Because the issues are too large and too deep, and I don't think things can be changed overnight. It requires a consistent, sustainable effort. And you need to do that very mindfully, so you don't burn out. So, I do believe in the small wins. Things like, say, if you hear a misogynistic comment, to just say, ‘hey, that's not right’. Calling out inappropriate comments when you hear them. I think speaking out in workshops, when you're attending events, or even just the way you can present yourself, on boards of management, little things like that can show some sort of difference. And I think the Volunteer Award also now has created a bit of an impact. A Telugu-speaking woman has won the Volunteer of the Year award, you know, and that’s a visible way to change things.

What message do you have for people in the South Asian community within Victoria who want to support community organisations like IndianCare, but aren’t sure where to start?

There's three different ways. One is they could do a little bit of volunteering for us. Another thing is, whatever events or workshops we’re holding, pass the message around, tell people about it, attend them, try and understand the kind of the changes in attitudes we're trying to make happen and support the activities that we're doing. And thirdly (and most importantly), any donations, small or large, will really assist the organisation to hang in there. Because I think it needs to exist for many, many years yet. We're a big community, and there are issues.


For more information


Maya Pilbrow is an Editor at SAARI Collective and the Media Manager for the quarterly literary journal The Suburban Review. She studies journalism at The University of Melbourne and has an academic background in languages, linguistics, and history. You can connect with Maya on LinkedIn.