Mel Wojtas: On grit, resilience, survivor advocacy and being a TED Talk geek.
To say that Mel Wojtas wears a few hats would be an understatement. I first encountered her through my work in the women’s rights space, and through our shared dedication to speaking out about domestic violence and our advocacy work on this issue through the media.
Although we have yet to meet in person, our paths crossed through the wonderful world of Instagram, and through following each other I have realised that we have more than our stories as survivors in common.
We are both students, we love to collect ink and spend time in nature and frequently change our hair.
Mel is also a Start-up Founder, Business student and someone who is dedicated to ensuring that the voices of people with lived experience are heard - not just through statistics, the media or political voices, but through their personal stories and collective wisdom. Word.
Mel is basically a real life superhero, and so I decided I needed to interview her immediately.
RG: Mel, you are a force to be reckoned with. Tell me a little bit about how you would introduce yourself, and what you do.
MW: I’m a 33yr old single mum, ink and sea shell collector, frequent hair-changer, star-gazer and in love with the sea, nature, life and leaving a legacy behind.
I am also the Founder of Hive Village Project, a housing solution for survivors of domestic and family abuse in regional Australia, and a Lived Expertise Consultant and Speaker, liaising with services, corporate and government and adding context for impactful and positive changes to the current systems and organisational processes they have in place for survivors of domestic and family abuse.
In addition to that, I’m a media advocate in two Voices for Change projects in NSW, ensuring the survivor’s voices are represented in the media, as well as a student at Women’s Business School and Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE.
RG: How did you get into advocacy around domestic violence?
I can now say (without shame) that I’ve got decades of lived expertise with domestic and family abuse, coercive control and power imbalances to draw from. Trauma was weaved into my youth and I didn’t have any plans, career in mind or aspirations. Trauma robbed me of my sense of identity, which I’ve now found after consistently working to unlearn a lifetime of social and environmental conditioning of ‘staying inside my box’.
In my 30’s I grew tired of being angry at all the injustice, the broken systems, the service gaps and isolation and not knowing what to ‘do’ with all of it. I felt it was my duty to harness all my lived expertise (the experiences that cannot be taught unless you’ve lived it) to do something for other survivors.
A year ago, I heard about a new program run by Domestic Violence NSW – the Voices for Change project, and was selected as one of the ten applicants for the Sydney contingent.
I’ve met some incredible, resilient, determined and badass women – all survivors of domestic and family abuse. Their stories of resilience and grit are worth hearing, sharing and learning from. Collective wisdom is invaluable. I believe Survivor-Advocates should have a seat at every table where policies, procedures and laws are being drafted, reformed or scrapped, that impact women, especially Indigenous voices.
From this project, I’ve had the privilege of speaking for The Greens NSW at their Women’s Campaign Launch, earlier this year. I’ve met with NSW Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Violence, Mark Speakman, to discuss key issues and recommendations for government.
I have also been acknowledged by Rosie Batty OA at Parliament House NSW, and have attended media training with journalists Tracey Spicer & Jenna Price and well-known and incredible survivor-advocates Kay Schubach, Lisa McAdams and Amani Haydar.
RG: Wow! That is epic. Ok, I also know that you are also an advocate for LGBTQ issues. We now have marriage equality, but what are some of the biggest issues still facing this community?
I’m pumped to be joining the LGBTIQ Voices for Change media training with ACON and Domestic Violence NSW and make some new connections in the industry and community.
There is a plethora of research, statistics and media surrounding male violence against women in heterosexual relationships, yet LGBTIQ voices aren’t common and representation matters.
ACON states “1 in 3 LGBTI people experience violence from a partner, ex-partner or family member. However, research shows that LGBTI people are less likely to find support services that meet their specific need”
Those numbers are terrifying and Queer Voices for Change Advocates aim to shine a light on this in the media, speaking out for those who can’t.
RG: You're also a mum and business woman. Do you consider yourself a ‘mumpreneur’?
MW: I’m not a huge fan of that term but I am mum whose life’s purpose ended up being classed as Social Entrepreneurship (a happy accident).
I’m privileged to work and study out of my home office, around my kids schooling and social commitments and have a small but supportive family who wrap around us to help it all come together.
Between school hours I attend video calls, online learning, face-to-face classes on campus, advocacy consulting, industry events, life admin and working on my start-up.
The inspiration for Hive Village Project came rolling in, one by one. In 2016, I watched a TEDx talk (How to know your life purpose in 5 minutes, Adam Leipzig, TEDxMalibu) that made me realise this was my calling.
I’ve made every decision since then, to align with that purpose, shaking off years of social conditioning and negative self-talk in the process and put my hat in the ring when opportunities arise.
My solution is to address the current service gaps for people starting over after abuse. To build universally designed, accessible and inclusive, self-contained housing for human and animal survivors with integrated services and security. Focussing on regional Australia, Hive Villages will feature inclusive spaces for kids and adults of all abilities and a person-centred approach and come fully-furnished, right down to the toothbrush. I truly believe in the saying ‘it takes a village’ and I’m dedicating the rest of my life to see Hive Villages providing a place for survivors to heal and flourish, all across Australia.
Discarding my former passionless corporate career, I was steadfast to gain exposure to the Community Services & Housing sectors. I began attending industry events, interagency meetings with domestic abuse frontline and support services, conferences and enrolled in TAFE to study Community Services full-time.
In 2019, I applied for a scholarship into the Women’s Business School Ignite Program - a virtual incubator for female founders all across Australia. I was gobsmacked when I was successful and am thoroughly enjoying it. The founders of this program also run the AusMumpreneur network and The Women’s Business Tribe, online.
Through contributing and networking with other mums who run their own businesses and start-ups, I was nominated for two AusMumpreneur Awards and shortly after was shortlisted as a finalist in both categories - People’s Choice: Making a difference – non-profit and Women’s Business School: Excellence Award.
The empowerment I’ve felt from having a cohort of genuine women who truly lift one another up, rather than competing against one another is so refreshing.
RG: Beyond your work as an activist and advocate, what are you listening to, reading or binge-watching at the moment?
A mixed bag, really! Hendrix, Zeppelin, Queen, The Temptations, Jackson Five or Beyoncé (Homecoming) are usually on rotation in my car.
I’m currently reading ‘The Official TED guide for public speaking’ by Chris Anderson, as I’m a TED geek and have it on my list of goals to speak at a TED event in future.
I don’t watch much TV but I just finished a drama called ‘How to get away with Murder’ about Law Students on Netflix, Viola Davis is perfect as lead actress.
‘Big Little Lies’ season 2 (HBO) is on my watchlist – the domestic abuse scenes are raw and authentic. The cast is superb and it has brought domestic abuse and sexual violence into mainstream television.
If anything you have read in my interview with Mel encourages you to seek help, or if you want to gain support for domestic, family or LGBTQ related violence, the following resources are available:
If it’s an emergency always call Triple Zero (000)
NSW DV helpline 1800 65 64 63 (24hr)
National 1800RESPECT hotline 1800 373 372 (24hr)
NSW Rape 1800 424 017
If it’s not urgent, call the Police Assistance Line on 131 444. You can also make an anonymous call without giving your name by calling Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
Domestic Violence Liaison officers (DVLOs) have special training in working with people who are experiencing domestic and family violence. Most police stations have a DVLO. For more information: https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/domestic-violence/police-law-help/calling-police-for-help
Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers (GLLOs) are specially trained to address LGBTI issues. For more information on GLLOs, https://www.police.nsw.gov.au/safety_and_prevention/your_community/working_with_lgbtqia
If you’re not happy with the service you have received from the police, the NSW Police Force has an internal complaints process. For more information please visit https://www.police.nsw.gov.au/online_services/providing_feedback/lodge_a_complaint
ACON can also help you to report an incident to police. For more information, please contact your nearest ACON office.
You can follow Mel on Instagram and keep up with all of her kickass work at @melwojtas.