Paul Mason was 10-years-old when South Africa held its first democratic election. He stood in line with his parents, flanked by thousands of prospective voters, counting the hours and shuffling patiently forward.
He couldn’t have known at the time, but that day would mark the beginning of a life-defining aspiration.
“Reflecting back now I realise it was the first time in my life that I was actually part of a system of injustice — whether I liked it or not there were people in my community who were severely disadvantaged in terms of their education, political rights and ability to make their own decisions about life and where they wanted to go,” says Paul, now aged 25.
“Instead of running away from the issues, stepping back and saying ‘Oh it’s all too hard, what can one person do?’ I realised that it’s so incredibly important to me, it’s something I can’t turn away from,” he says.
Paul sits opposite me, hands resting on his lap and eyes dark behind rimmed glasses. Signs of his past in South Africa fill the room: stone-carved elephants on the coffee table, a Nelson Mandela emblazoned flag spread across the couch, his own slightly-faded accent.
Upon immigrating to Perth at the age of 16 and leaving behind “high rates of crime, corruption, poverty and injustice,” Paul found that his determination to advance social and political equality grew even stronger.
Following high school he committed fully to humanitarian work, helping establish the Oaktree Foundation (an organisation run by under 26-year olds) in Western Australia. From 2006, he led the branch as State Director. In that time he and his fellow volunteers worked and travelled with such campaigns as Make Poverty History, End Child Slavery, and Schools 4 Schools.
After nearly four years leading Oaktree WA, Paul now splits his time between completing a degree in Anthropology at UWA and delivering feature presentations on behalf of the Global Poverty Project.
“The Global Poverty Project is a catalyst for the global movement to end extreme poverty. It’s about making poverty personal for the general public,” Paul says.
During his 90-minute speeches, one of Paul’s greatest challenges is to shift the audience’s remote perception of the developing world.
“How do we make the issue of extreme poverty a priority when the issue seems so far removed from our everyday lives?” Paul asks.
“I think what is crucial to make that happen is community education, it’s all about how we can bring the issue of poverty and make it really personal. The point of the Global Poverty Project presentation is saying to people ‘This is what you can do’,” he says.
In 2007 Paul was honoured with the Citizenship award at the WA Youth Awards. The plaque sits on his desk, humbly accompanied by old Scout photographs and Transformer figurines. Awards were and will never be his objective.
“I think life’s more about experiences and relationships, it’s about how you connect with people—whether it’s just laughing your head off with a friend or sharing a really meaningful moment with someone, or supporting someone,” Paul says.
“I just care a lot about people and I hope that’s something that defines me.”
Having travelled all over the world— Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa, India and Bangladesh— Paul draws inspiration from the people he has met and now gladly calls his friends.
“They are so determined to learn, so determined to break the poverty cycle. Some walk so far for so many hours every morning to get to school,” he says.
“Just the immense barriers they face, I knew I could never turn away from that. I’m deeply inspired by the incredibly hard work of the many people I’ve met, seeing the projects and development programs that are actually creating real change in people’s lives.”
We’re easily distracted as Paul’s dog, a bundle of yellow and silver straw, skips into the room and onto my lap. Paul explains that her name, Thandiwe, translates from Zulu to ‘affectionate one’. It takes more convincing for him to divulge his own Zulu name, Lumko, given by a friend and meaning ‘wisdom’.
‘Wisdom’ is an unlikely word for a typical 25-year-old. Society tends to classify wisdom as a measure of age and experience— and the 20-somethings are too busy photoshopping blemishes from their Facebook pictures to develop any real insight. So do these projections of youth obstruct his ambition?
“I feel frustrated when I see other young people who feel hesitant or overwhelmed,” he says.
“They’re almost paralysed with fear and apathy. And it’s so sad, because there is so much we can do, young people are really powerful. We can be influential in society and make our voices heard.”
When I ask where he’ll be in five years, the reply is immediate: “It is my core conviction as an individual that I want to dedicate my life to making a difference to fighting poverty and injustice.”
He pauses to take a breath and looks straight forward. He speaks without hesitation or insecurity. He is driven by something beyond duty. Passion.
Close your eyes and you can picture the podium, the microphone, the audience struck silent and waiting.
“It’s so important to know that we aren’t alone. It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela that ended apartheid; it was an international movement of committed citizens,” he says.
“There are so many things that we as individuals can do to create this flood of committed actions which will bring about systemic change.
“Ultimately that’s what it’s all about.”