Alan Tongue - ACT Australian of the Year Part II
This is the second part of The Shaker's interview with Alan Tongue. To read Part I, click here.
How did you get here?
After footy, I decided that I wanted to do some volunteer work and decided to try engaging with some of the kids in the juvenile detention system. To be honest it was meant to be pretty short-term – just a part of me working out exactly where to go over the first 12 months.
I realised that I was quite good at it and that I had quite a bit to offer. The opportunities kept growing, and the addition of some domestic violence workshops really inspired my passion for helping people. To share in those programmes and to grow them through the NRL has been fantastic. The work I’ve commenced is now being rolled out in Papua New Guinea and Fiji which is just amazing.
Now that we have momentum, the doors keep opening, but I must be careful to choose the pathways where I can continue to make a positive impact.
What is your message as the ACT Australian of the Year?
I want people to understand that you don’t have to change the world – you simply have to decide where you can help. By stepping back and looking at your community it doesn’t take long to identify where you can make a difference. It might be for the person next door or the local hospital or in the justice system. None of that really matters... all you need to do is find the place where you can help.
By me sharing my story, I can show that everyone has the opportunity to help. We can be part of the problem or be part of the solution, and it really doesn’t take too much effort to make a positive impact.
How different is it leading a footy team to leading a bunch of young men on the fringes of society?
It’s very similar! Sure, there are totally different reasons for people being there, but what I’m trying to teach is the idea of putting those around you before yourself. To practice a form of selflessness that improves the lives of others.
When you’re part of a team, you have to work with others, but it’s also really important that when you get an opportunity that you use it in the very best way that you can. It takes integrity, hard work and generosity to be part of a great football team, and that’s no different to life.
And we can’t all be front rowers or halfbacks or wingers, but it’s really important to recognise where you fit in the community and contribute your skills and talents to that area.
Elite sport operates in a very structured environment and demands discipline. Is a sense of structure something you try to introduce to the young men that you’re working with?
It is. Week One of my course requires the participants to take ownership if their actions. I don’t tell them what is expected, but instead encourage the boys to define their own set of standards that are then going to be enforced throughout the programme.
I ask them to think about their values, and what they think are the attributes of successful teams or an organisation with a successful culture. We then compile those and agree as a group that they will be adhered to.
And there are penalties for dropping those standards. If we see it, the culprit must hold a 30 second isometric squat (with the knee bent to 90 degrees) – which is very physically demanding… but without causing any injury. It quickly develops an association between actions and consequence.
A great example is respect. It often comes up quickly in our brainstorming session that respect seen as important. However, I start to drill down on that with them: What is respectful conversation? How do you respect a job? Do you respect authority because it is physically present? Or do you understand that it needs to be respected at all times?
Most of the time all the answers are inside them. Once we set those boundaries together, the group does pretty well to adopt them and adhere to what they’ve committed themselves.
There is one rule that I enforce upon the boys from the start: No bad language.
Really? A footballer telling a bunch of kids in juvenile detention not to swear..?
Absolutely. It’s really important. Obviously, it’s a precursor to discussions around respect, but I won’t tolerate negative language in the sessions. If we’re going to go on this journey together, then it’s important they have a mindset that is geared to positive interactions.
Negative words lead to negative actions, and negative actions lead to a negative destiny. As you can imagine, the first session is pretty lively, but once the message clicks, we can advance through some of the key discussions of the course.
Mostly, by the end of the ten weeks, there is no swearing in the sessions at all.
What is your success rate?
I don’t really look at it like that. Some people grab a hold of the message and use the tools they develop very well. Others not so much. For those guys, I just hope that some of what we do stays in the back of their mind and, that over the years to come, it might be of use in their lives.
So, tell us about the moment you discovered you were the ACT Australian of the Year.
Ha! Well, firstly I got an email saying that I was a finalist. I had no idea that I’d been nominated, so that was surprising!
That led to having to attend the ACT Awards night. My wife, Katie, was with me, and I said, “Look darling, I don’t think I’m a shot at this…” I wasn’t trying to be humble, but there were some amazing people in the shortlist that I admire.
My Mum and Dad were there as well. That was fantastic.
However, that’s just the start. Even since then I’ve met so many people who shake my hand, give me their business card and say, “Let me know what I can do to help.” It’s opened my eyes to the potential of the work we are doing here, and the positive impact that we can make together.
What’s your final message as a potential Australian of the Year?
I believe in the power of the individual story. I’ve got a story, you’ve got a story and everyone I’ve met has a story. What we need to decide is how we can use that story to help others…
All most people need is a chance. After they get that chance, what happens next might surprise you.
The 2017 Australians of the Year will be announced at Parliament House from 6.30pm on Wednesday 25 January and is broadcast on ABC1