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ILI Participant Reflections: Rani Pramesti

Rani poses with the Creatives of Colour team at a bistro table.

We recently caught up with Rani Pramesti to talk about their experience in ILI Year 3, interculturalism, and their current artistic work in the field.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, and what brought you to the ILI leadership program? Why did you apply and what were you hoping to get from it?

A: Firstly, I’m joining you today from Kulin Country, in so-called Melbourne, so-called Australia. And in terms of my background, my family’s part of the global Chinese Indonesian diaspora and I have quite a large extended family in Ohlone Country in California. And my grandmother is actually buried in California, as well. She was the first person in our family to migrate, and settle in California, in 1979. And then she brought over five out of her six children, who are my aunties and my uncle, and then their respective partners, ex-partners, and my cousins. It basically grew from there. So I suppose that’s my connection to Turtle Island – to the US.

I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. Our family’s mixed-race, so we mix the Chinese diaspora, the Hokkien or Hakka or different kinds of Southern Chinese, and Javanese, which is one of the dominant cultural groups in Indonesia. And there’s, unfortunately, a long history of violence targeted towards Chinese-Indonesian people. Part of Dutch colonialism – the legacy is kind of the racial segregation. And so the Chinese were often sandwiched in the middle between the Dutch colonials and the so-called native people. One of those eruptions of violence was orchestrated to happen in 1998 and is why my parents decided to send my brother and I over to Australia. Thankfully, being in so-called Australia, we’re relatively close to Indonesia. So, for myself anyway, I’ve always put in time and energy to maintain those relationships and those ties back home, especially because our parents are still back home.

So that’s a little bit about me as a person. And then tied into that is my work. I started off as a social worker, and I worked supporting people experiencing homelessness, and then people seeking asylum and refuge in Australia. There’s some parallels there with the violent treatment towards asylum-seekers and refugees across the US and Australia.

And then I fell in love with the performing arts, and auditioned for one of the more well-known national dramatic art schools in Australia. And that’s how I moved down to be here on Kulin Country country. I’ve been on three different Aboriginal countries across Australia: Whadjuk Noongar country in western Australia, then Gadigal Country in Sydney, and then now I’m on Kulin Country.

Now, to answer your question about why I applied for ILI. I go through periods of being really angry and burnt out from experiencing the daily forms of violence working and living in a white dominant colony. It’s pretty exhausting if you’re not white, or male.

In early 2019, I was commissioned to make a new work. I was getting angry and burnt out, and I decided to make a website of just five podcasts with five women of color that I wanted to get to know better, and whose work I admired. And one of them was Kaisha S. Johnson, from Women of Color in the Arts. We had a really good chat, and that project ended up being really good timing for me because I was just so in need of support in that way from woman-of-color to woman-of-color kind of way; I just really, really needed it at that time.

Kaisha mentioned ILI and her experiences of it, and how it was this year-long journey that was really transformative. And I was like, oh, my god! We don’t have anything like that here in Australia.

I’ve been part of leadership programs in the Australian context before, many of which are designed and run by white people. Those spaces can be very white, and there was also this one example where they separated out the so-called “emerging” leaders, versus the “established” or older leaders. And it never really sat very well with me, to be honest. I was kind of just like, “why?” And then you can really tell, often the “emerging leaders” spaces are super diverse. But then the “established” leaders’ programs, especially in this one instance, was super white. And I was just like, why would you do that?

So I applied to ILI because I felt this need to be part of a community where I could just talk openly about these experiences, and my understanding of social justice-oriented spaces in the US, is that, in terms of the grasp of systemic and structural factors- it’s so much further along than so many of the spaces that I have been in, in Australia. I’m constantly teaching white gatekeepers some really basic knowledge about structural and systemic dynamics. It’s an example of how the whole society is set up so that that is how it is.

Australia, similar to the US and other colonized countries, is founded on genocide. And so over the last 20 years that I’ve been here, I think there’s been a growing awareness that we need to teach this in our schools. And recently, there was an attempt by the federal Department of Education to include more of that history, the truthful history of genocide, and it was led – of course, because they’re always having to do this work – by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which I guess parallels Native Americans or Indigenous people.

And the federal education minister, his response was – and he said this publicly, to media outlets and all of that – he was like, (I’m paraphrasing here) “Why are we focusing on so much negativity? We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We should be proud. We should be proud of our history. There should be more in the curriculum that reflects the pride that we should feel.” And that’s the federal education minister! So I guess that’s just one example. Of course I’m ending up teaching white people because the system isn’t set up to teach them. So that’s exhausting, absolutely exhausting.

So these are some of the paths that brought me to ILI.

Q: Have you ever participated in other leadership programs. What’s different about ILI? What’s the same? What’s sticking out to you?

A: I just want to add something to what I said earlier in terms of the US being further along in some respects about the grasp of the structural and the systemic. I think, in some respects, that’s true.

The last time I was on Ohlone Country in San Francisco, I went for a meeting at a company called Tech Inclusion, because they’ve been doing these events in San Francisco and other cities across the US, and then also Melbourne. They were targeting those startup ecosystems. And a few weeks earlier, I had dropped out of a startup accelerator program in Melbourne, because I was having really unsafe racist interactions within that program. And so I went over to see my family and try to recover from those experiences. And then I was like, you know what? I’m going to reach out and see if they’re up for meeting with me. And I told them about my observations, in terms of the creative tech ecosystem in Melbourne. How they’re really far behind when it comes to understanding systemic structural racism, engagement with First Nations communities, Disabled people, all of that. And then these people at Tech Inclusion, they were like, “Ah, it’s pretty dismal here, too Rani.”

And they told me that there’s data that shows that only like 2.3% of venture capitalist investment is going to women. And then they told me that there aren’t even statistics about women of color. So it’s gonna be even worse when it comes to women of color. And then I asked them about how much engagement with Disabled communities there is, and they said it’s non-existent. How about with First Nations communities? They’re like, “Nope, nope, nope.” Actually, they said they’re looking to the Aboriginal Elders in Melbourne, and their leadership in that space. And that for me was like, “Ah, of course.”

And in some ways that probably shows my ignorance of my privilege, that I thought that if I went to San Francisco, the Mecca of startups, surely they’ll be further along on this front, right? But instead they were like, “No, no, no, no. We’re looking at you where you are.”

And, again, I think that shows my privilege and ignorance. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. And they are incredible. And there’s some really incredible women who are leading that work, but also men, young and old Elders who are leading that work.

I just wanted to tell that story because it actually helped me to realize that these problems in this small, organic research way are global problems. And I need to decide where it is that I want to contribute, and how I want to contribute.

And so to go more specific in terms of the differences between the leadership programs that I’ve been in. I would say the difference that I noticed straight away during the very first ILI session was how intergenerational the space was. And also Joe T., I think, started us off with a grounding meditation. And in it he said how all of you are welcomed here. You don’t have to leave any parts of you at the door. We want you to bring all of you. And I think so many people were just crying. I cried. Because I think we all have that experience of what it is to constantly strategize which parts of you might be palatable for the dominant group in a particular room or space or organization. And how violent that is, actually, to have to do that moment-by-moment, to have to dissect yourself and silence parts of yourself. And then the other parts speak up, but only when you’re in the company of Black and Brown friends. That is an everyday labor that is so exhausting, and violent.

So for Joe to start us off with those kinds of invitations, of, “We want you to bring all of you, it’s okay to bring all of you,” oh my god, I just started bawling my eyes out! Because it’s the opposite of most spaces that I’m in, apart from my friendship groups and my community groups. That’s different.

But in terms of working in such a white-dominant sector, living in a white dominant colony, more often than not I have to dissect and silence. Because when I’ve tried to bring my full self, either it’s very clear that it’s not welcomed, or at the very least it makes the white gatekeepers so uncomfortable that they don’t even know how to continue engaging with me. And people in the arts, they don’t call me racial slurs, but what they do is a quiet distancing and disengagement. 

So I suppose that some initial experiences with ILI was, oh, wow, I’m not used to being in an all Black and Brown space, and Native American, as well. And for the first invitation to be, “It’s okay, you can bring your full self.” 

And then there’s the intergenerational nature of it. I’ve been loving that! In my group, it’s a really great mix. Baba Don is in there, who self-described himself, I think, as a grandfather. And then there’s Tiffany, who is a parent. I love that there’s so many parents in the group. Sometimes – and this could happen more, I think – sometimes their kids pop up on screen, and it’s so great. I love that so much. And then there’s Talon, who is just an amazing rapper, and so gentle. I really love his vibe. And then yAyA, who also has that kind of grandma energy. I love it so much that I’m in a group that are basically like my parents’ generation or older. And we’re all learning together. I love that so much, and I’ve never had that in a leadership program that I’ve been in. There’s always been that separation between generations, which, for me, doesn’t really make sense. It’s like you’re taking out so many opportunities for learning.

Q: Let’s connect it back to your artistic practice. What are you working on now? As an artistic practice, how is that influencing you?

A: One of the projects I’m working on at the moment is called “Justice-Centred Design.” That’s through the platform that I’m part of, Creatives of Color, which is a research and design-driven platform that uplifts First Nations, Black, and People of Color creatives. And this project actually came out of last year, when we were in really long lockdowns. I had the privilege of time, and I ended up nerding out on a lot of design concepts and design webinars, and some of them came out of Chicago, including George Aye at Greater Good Studio. Human-centered design stuff.

I was watching webinars in that vein, and I started getting really interested in maybe doing some further study in design. And I ended up looking at different masters courses in design, more looking at the ones in Australia. And then it became pretty clear, pretty quickly that all of the heads of faculty are at least white-passing men. And the vast majority of students seem to be white women. And I was like, “I don’t think I want to be in that kind of learning environment.” Because I’m pretty sure I’ll just end up experiencing a lot of violence. 

And so I kind of thought about it, and I was like, okay, I’m going to come up with my own learning program. And I’m going to find the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers, or People of Color designers, at the very least. And ask them to be my mentors.

So that’s how Justice-Centred Design came about. I basically tapped into my relationships in the arts, in that now we are working with Music Victoria and Arts Access Victoria, who are two peak bodies in the arts in the state that I’m in. Between the two of them, they reach thousands and thousands of musicians and Disabled artists. And we’re developing this decolonial methodology with them, where we are drawing on visual patterns and somatic patterns (patterns in the body), to generate insights, from interviews that we do with musicians and with Disabled creatives. It’s a decolonial methodology that draws on something that I think Indigenous cultures have done for millennia.

A birds-eye greyscale image of two masked people dancing around a circle of masks on a patterned floor.

The process is that we interview a musician, and then we listen over those interviews and we draw out what are the visual patterns that are coming up for us. And then my co-facilitator, Jackie Sheppard, who’s a dancer and somatic practitioner from the Tagalaka clan here in Australia, she draws out the somatic patterns that are coming through their body. And then we bring back these patterns with these people that we’ve interviewed, and then co-create patterns together, whether visually or verbally or through the body. And this is us being mentored, thankfully, by Tristan Schultz and Ash Alluri, who are our First Nations and Man of Color mentors. 

We’re developing a way of taking these methods to these white-dominant spaces, and start shifting how they do what they do, or how they are in their being, and how they move through the world. And doing it this way, it’s actually an actively anti-colonial act. Because so much of how research has tended to be done and continues to be done, it’s what Tristan calls logocentrism, it’s very much focused on words, and very much spoken and written words. Whereas decolonial methods will draw on these various methods. So, we’re developing that. I’m quite excited about that project. 

One of our previous co-facilitators, Bigoa Chuol, she mentioned at one point how “whiteness is an orientation”. It’s a way of orientating in space, in the world. And so I’m really curious about if, how we do our research is really creative, and if how we engage with people is actively decolonial, how can that shift someone’s orientation? And because we’re working with organizations, white-dominant organizations, how could it potentially shift how the organization orientates itself?

We’ve got resourcing just to pilot this. We’ve had quite a few partners come on board by now.

To find out more about Rani and their work, please visit: