The car skids, rolling into the river. As she witnesses Karl’s last breath, Wendy chooses not to die. With that choice comes an inevitable decision: she begins her campaign for safer roads. Join us to make a film about a life committed to speaking truth to power: Wendy’s life.
When Wendy lost her husband, Karl, to a preventable road crash in 2016, her life turned upside down. She was forced to make important life decisions very quickly. She had to sell the house they built, move from the tiny village where they shared much of their time together, and create a new life. All this while battling crippling grief and the psychological and physical effects of traumatic life changes.
Not long after Karl died, Wendy’s instinct for taking action drove her into a new reality: to campaign for the local Council to fix the dangerous rural road where Karl died. She soon learned that that short stretch of road had witnessed five road deaths and dozens of injuries.
An internationally renowned planner, community engagement specialist, environmental ethicist, and activist, Dr Wendy Sarkissian is a pioneering woman, who has spent a lifetime agitating for change against institutional and corporate power. In this film, she shares the story of her Survivor Mission to honour her husband’s tragic death.
Join us in making a feature documentary about Wendy’s life with Karl and her Survivor Mission
Wendy’s Survivor Mission urged the local Tweed Shire Council to repair a 650-metre section of Kyogle Road near Uki in Northern NSW. That road claimed four lives (and caused many more injuries) in a 20-months period in 2015 and 2106. She urged them to implement the internationally ratified Safe Systems approach, adopted by all local governments in NSW. She also requested that they employ a more caring, responsive approach to supporting survivors of road crashes.
Even though she tried hard, Wendy’s experience did not build her confidence that her initiatives would result in reducing road deaths:
On 12 September (2016), supported by two close friends, I venture onto a new path. I deliver my self-styled Victim Impact Statement to Tweed Shire Council, the municipality responsible for the road where our crash occurred. Preparation for this political action triggers strong feelings of loss in me. It’s the first time since Karl’s memorial that I am putting words to my sorrow.
I take a framed photograph of Karl to the meeting. Amazingly, finding I can “read” the meeting dynamics, I glimpse something of my old life returning. That meeting is the beginning of my road safety activism, my “survivor mission”. I feel empowered, regardless of the meeting’s negative results. I discover that empowerment is a secret ingredient in healing.
Council cut short Wendy’s Statement, demanding that she restrict her remarks to “the circumstances of the crash” and not to any impacts she had experienced.
“What’s a Victim Impact Statement without impacts?” she implored.
What had begun as an “information session” to raise staff awareness flourished into full-blown activism.
“Someone is killed or hospitalised every 41 minutes because of a crash on NSW roads.”
“The annual economic cost of road crashes in Australia is enormous—estimated at $27 billion per annum—and the social impacts are devastating.” https://infrastructure.gov.au/roads/safety/)
Wendy embarked on a two-year campaign to highlight the need for better road planning and greater awareness of the importance of road design in road safety. She lobbied Council directly, urging them to respond with care and demonstrate a real interest in preventing further injuries and deaths.
She organised protest actions at the crash location and nearby to raise public awareness. She wrote to Council, describing better ways that they could have handled her situation. She demanded that they upgrade the road and implement the Safe System approach. She also held a media conference, appeared on national television, and wrote articles for local media and Australian and international road safety journals.
Now we are preparing to share Wendy’s story by making this documentary. We aim to inspire people experiencing injustice to take action and to encourage government agencies to take action as well. They need to understand that to prevent road deaths, they must do more than simply adopt a strategy. Effectively implementing the Safe System approach is the only way with demonstrated, evidence-based results. Research convincingly shows that to reduce deaths and injuries, we must know how to design better roads. It also means that we must learn how to support community members who lose loved ones to road crashes.
But we’re not just making a film. As Wendy says, her whole life has been a Survivor Mission. Her lifelong instinct to agitate for change now drives her ongoing campaign to make a difference in road safety.
We will use part of our fundraising to hold a road safety workshop in Uki on 30 September 2018, near the site of the crash. We are also creating a booklet based on Wendy’s experience, which will spell out the principles of the Safe Systems approach and recommendations for how communities can help Councils to embrace and adopt this worthwhile approach..
We will then use the film, together with the booklet, to create opportunities to present a series of workshops to councils around Australia to discuss what it means not merely to adopt such a policy, but also to implement it. It will spell out practical approaches to supporting survivors of road crashes so that their experiences can bring about real change. We want to encourage the repair and upgrading of poor roads so that others do not have to experience similar tragedies. We want to stop the deaths on Australia’s rural roads!
- Influence the way councils manage roads and encourage them proactively to repair black spots before deaths occur;
- Demonstrate how local government should respond to survivors of road crashes;
- Share an inspiring story of Wendy’s activism throughout her life to inspire others; and
- Support Wendy’s ongoing campaign through workshops, information materials, and presentations.
Call to Action
At the moment, we’re in planning mode to make this film happen.
We’re currently compiling photos, film and articles about Wendy’s life for a significant section of the film. That part shares Wendy’s personal and professional life, from growing up in the outer suburb of Copper Cliff in Sudbury, Canada, to being the youngest person appointed to the South Australian Housing Trust Board, the first woman to study planning in South Australia, and the many social change campaigns and community planning projects she’s championed.
We’re also researching and writing the film outline, bringing together Wendy’s story of grief and trauma resulting from the crash and losing Karl, her campaign to repair the road where the crash occurred and manage roads to minimise injuries and road deaths. We are also focussing on Wendy’s demands that governments develop more appropriate and sensitive ways to support road crash victims.
Wendy’s story is big and requires us to talk to many people around Australia. Some of those we interview will provide insights into Wendy’s experiences regarding the crash and losing Karl. Some will speak about her campaign and how she has persevered through personal grief and trauma to maintain her demand for the road repairs. Others will describe Wendy’s lifetime of advocacy and campaigning and her struggles and courage in speaking truth to power. We will hear stories of Wendy’s professional work in giving a voice to disadvantaged communities. We will hear about the challenges to her initiatives to provide communities with authentic influence brought about by her role as a woman in male-dominated decision-making contexts.
We are seeking to speak with people who can contribute to her stories of struggling for change as a professional woman while trying to influence how governments and others engage in decision making and planning
You can join us
Because Wendy is available for filming in Brisbane and Northern Rivers NSW only in late September and early October, we need your help to cover some basic initial costs to make this happen.
Our real production period begins in December 2018, when we’ll film interviews with people involved in the story or who can share stories about Wendy’s life. At that time, we will also gather additional footage and source all necessary archival materials..
We’re busily applying for funding to CreateNSW and other funding bodies and are also launching a fundraising page through Documentary Australia Foundation (to access charitable grant giving).
However, right now we need your support to get the project off the ground so that we can film Wendy with other key players in the story.
MEET Wendy Sarkissian
Wendy’s story is powerful because it shares her experiences of a lifetime of struggle against power, both professionally and personally.
Through her eyes, we join her journey agitating for change within the gendered landscape of decision making and power. Wendy has been a teacher, an advocate for women’s access to public housing, a social and community planner, and, enduringly, an activist. This documentary aims to share the common threads of these experiences, culminating in her Survivor Mission to honour her husband Karl’s life and remind viewers that his death was caused by a completely preventable road crash.
Survivor Mission showcases the life of a courageous woman, who speaks truth to power and aims to empower people who are demanding change. Like them, she feels that we need to change the way that those in positions of power include (or exclude) others in their decision making.
Now living in Canada since mid-2017, Wendy has embarked on a new life. And without giving away the plot of the film, she’s doing well now, spending much of her time writing books and continuing to agitate for changes to road safety.
Internationally renowned for her work, Wendy has received more than 40 professional awards. In 2017, the Australian-based Engage2Act organisation decided that their annual Global Community Engagement Day would be held on her birthday (https://www.engage2act.org/blog-holding/2018/1/10/global-community-engagement-day-is-here). They also inaugurated the Wendy Sarkissian Award for Courage in Community Engagement (https://www.engage2act.org/wendy-sarkissian-award/).
Wendy has lived a remarkable life.
I had had a pretty interesting life before my “Survivor Mission” adventure began. I’d been married three times, lived in several foreign countries, been a courageous community planner in risky contexts and pioneered many innovative approaches in my work life. I grew up in a Canadian family that was more like a train wreck than a family. Working out that I had to escape as early as possible, I married young to an ambitious academic who spent most of his life in his head. One part that was not in his head t left me, at 32, divorced and heartbroken.
Initially, I trained to be a high school English teacher, but fate led me to the field of planning, where I had a great and exciting professional life for many decades in Australia.
In my early years — my thirties — in Adelaide, South Australia — I was a prominent feminist activist, focussing primarily on women’s housing needs. I was a thorn in the side of the State Government. I loved my activist activities — largely because they were so collaborative. Every action required consensus in the heady days of second-wave feminism and Adelaide was a hotbed of that!
In the late 1980s, as the global sustainability crisis deepened, I became curious about why my planning colleagues appeared to be ignoring what seemed to me to be major planning imperatives: sea-level rise and climate change. I enrolled as a full-time PhD student — finally in environmental ethics — and spent a challenging year living in primitive conditions in the tropical bush in northern Australia. I learned a lot about independence –and interdependence– during that time. And that experience strengthened my commitments to activism.
After my lonely rural sojourn, I advertised for a lover and found the love of my life: Karl. We couldn’t believe our luck. I was 50, and he was 45. He responded to my newspaper advertisement with a passionate explanation of the Gaia hypothesis. Ours was a bumpy ride, smoothed by a huge, trusting love. Karl entered university and obtained two degrees and then became my trusted (if eccentric) professional assistant. On many levels, we were a great match. I had found a true soulmate in Karl, and he had found a home from his wandering in me and, ultimately, in the radical Nimbin community, which he loved with all his heart.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER
Ferment Collaborate is a creative engagement and multimedia agency founded on creating spaces for dialogue and creativity that connect people’s cultural activity with decision making. Established by Steph Vajda in 2010, FC has worked with community organisations, activists, all levels of government, businesses and peak bodies around Australia.
FC specialises in working with people and communities to share stories that inspire and advocate for change and fresh visions for a more inclusive future.
For more information, please visit our website: www.fermentcollaborate.org
Please contact Wendy at [email protected] to discuss any aspect of this film.