In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.
In 2021, the 23-year-old speaker, writer and youth advocate was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship – past winners of the prestigious scholarship include US presidents, Australian Prime Ministers and Nobel laureates – which brought her to Oxford University for her postgraduate study in intersectional gender equality policy (she already holds a double degree in law and international relations!).
Needless to say, she’s incredibly passionate about education: “I think the power of education is that it's a stepping stone to an amazing ability to create change – and to also deeply understand the world around us, beyond what we're told growing up.”
Despite her young age, Poole already sits on the board of food rescue charity OzHarvest and is a national ambassador for the not-for-profit Plan International, which focuses on advancing children’s rights and equality for girls.
She speaks passionately about intersectional feminism, bridging the gap between Australia and Asia and tells us what it’s like being the youngest person in the room (her advice: embrace it – people want to hear what you have to say). She’s also devoted to encouraging other young people to find their voice, having been named Youth Influencer of the Year by The King Center – the US organisation established to further the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Often, girls in particular can internalise messages, like that they're not good enough or that there are people who are more accomplished than them and know more. We all have our different strengths, but your voice counts, your voice matters, your experiences matter, and we need to hear them,” Poole tells MECCA.
Poole is undeniably already an incredible role model for future generations, and she has plenty more to say – and we’re well and truly ready to listen. Here, we delve into the issues that matter to her most.
You've spoken before about the power of mothers as role models. How did your own mother – a mental health nurse and first-generation migrant to Australia – inspire you?
YP: “Our mothers have so much power in our lives and in how we understand feminism. When I went to the March for Justice protests last year, I remember seeing generations of older feminists who marched in the ’70s and thinking about the legacy they've left for younger generations to take up the baton. Shout-out to mums, because they do so much in so many different spaces – including raising feminist daughters!
“I grew up in an area that didn't have a lot of cultural diversity. I'm mixed race and was one of the few kids who had darker skin. I grew up witnessing racism against my mum. As a child, it was hard to put a name to it, but now, looking back at the way people assumed that she couldn't speak English or spoke down to her or listening to the kids laugh when she would wear traditional clothing… those things stuck with me.
“When I hit high school, I started to speak about those experiences and put a name to them. It was the most empowered I'd ever felt because I'd taken what had happened to me and instead of just holding it and internalising it as a feeling of shame, I used it as a lesson and a way to connect with other people who had experienced the same and as a way to educate others about the common experience of so many migrant families. I use her experience as something that gives me purpose. I think she was the first person that taught me the power of vulnerability and owning a story.”
When it comes to bridging the gap between Australia and Asia, you've written before about how Australia has an untapped resource – Asian-Australians – who are frequently overlooked. What do you mean by this?
YP: “I think you just have to look to someone like Penny Wong to see why having Asian-Australians in positions of leadership, with high visibility, is really powerful. I hear a lot in the Australian discourse about how Australia needs to better connect with Asia: how do we better become a leader in this region? How do we not just follow what the US is doing, but also think for ourselves? Asian-Australians have a lot to contribute in that debate, including different diaspora groups.
“The point is that it isn’t ‘us and them’ when it comes to Australia and Asia; the connections within us run so deep. I remember a few years ago when I was looking at the lists of ambassadors representing Australia – I could count less than five percent who were people of colour, and that's even smaller for Asian-Australians. It's really surprising to me because I think we can tell a powerful migration story about this country, and I think we should embrace that.”
Tell us about the concept of the ‘bamboo ceiling’…
Meaningful work is more important than ever. What would you say the biggest shift is in how younger generations approach their careers?
You were awarded The King Center’s 2021 Youth Influencer of the Year, which is an incredible achievement. How did it feel to win?
YP: “It felt almost unbelievable. When I got the email, I genuinely thought it was spam. I couldn't believe that they'd even heard of my work. This centre was set up by Dr King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and is led by his daughter, Bernice King. The opportunity to be able to hear from the other people who were part of the award, like Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga, just reminded me that there are so many people doing really powerful work all across the world.
“It also inspired me that in the US, there are really frank and honest conversations about things like racism. People aren't shying away from it and pretending it doesn't exist. It gave me more of a boost as well, to speak more frankly about what's happening in Australia and thinking about what we can change in terms of not only a national conversation, but on a policy level.
“Ultimately, I was there to represent Australian young people and to say that it isn't just me – there are so many diverse Australian youth, in so many different spaces, pushing for change, and I was also there to thank them because they helped to make me who I am. I remember volunteering with so many 17, 18, 19-year-olds, either in year 12 or freshly in university, who were lobbying, being activists, setting up national campaigns. It's also their stories and their voices that need to be celebrated because they're doing the work. A lot of the time, it’s thankless work. They're doing the behind-the-scenes stuff that is essential to national change.”
How would you define intersectional feminism?
YP: “At its most basic, it’s realising that when we think about gender, there's so much more to it. There are women of colour, there are non-binary individuals, there are women living with disabilities, there are so many diverse experiences. Historically, feminism presented a universal experience for women; a lot of the time, feminism would just focus on the fact that we need more female CEOs, for example. While that's obviously important, there's so much more to it.
“There are plenty of women who can't even put food on the table, who can't make ends meet, who aren't represented at all in higher institutions, or where the structure of work isn't accommodating for their lived experience and their background. There's a lot more complexity.
“I think, at its simplest, intersectionality is, as the name suggests, standing at an intersection and thinking about the diversity of our experience beyond something like gender, but how we can be privileged in some other respects – for example, if someone is university educated or if someone belongs to different majority groups. But also acknowledging that for some groups, there is different and often larger-scale oppression; different systems are intersecting, which makes freedom far more difficult for those communities. There are a lot of different perspectives and we should acknowledge that, rather than pretending that we're one homogenous group.”
You describe yourself as an introvert. How do you prepare for public speaking?
YP: “My activism and my public speaking really took off during the height of the pandemic in 2020, when we were in lockdown. That was fine, because I could hop on my computer and speak for an hour and then log back off and jump in my hoodie and reset! But when it comes to socialising and speaking in person, it's a lot more socially exhausting.
“I really try to keep in tune with my body. As an introvert, I have a pretty good sense of when I’m starting to get overwhelmed and when it's just getting a bit much. I try to be really intentional about that and not force it, because ultimately, if I force myself to remain very active and speak to everyone, then I'm just going to burn myself out – which doesn't do justice to myself or my work.”
What's your advice to people when they’re the youngest person in the room?
YP: “I’ve found it a little bit intimidating, to be honest – I’ve looked around and had a moment of imposter syndrome. [But] I realised that I was given the opportunity, and it wasn’t just about me – it was the voices of young Australians who couldn’t be in that room or didn’t have that seat but should be heard.
“Before I went to the government’s Jobs & Skills Summit, I sent out surveys across social media asking about the issues I should raise; I received hundreds of responses from young people sharing their experience. It gave me strength, because I felt like I was also taking their perspectives into the room, and I realised that to do our voices justice, I had to embrace it, rather than shy away from it.”
You were awarded the 2021 Rhodes Scholarship. What does this mean to you?
YP: “Historically, the scholarship has been rooted in a leadership and it has been associated with very privileged, conservative white men, and that isn't my background. I love a good challenge, and I just thought – why not go for it? I wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve this and to also encourage universities to do more to support young people (including low-income young people) to achieve what they desire. For me, it was a motivation to keep my head in the books, even when it was very difficult.
“When it came time for the interview, I just spoke about my vision and what I wanted to see changed – the vision of intersectional feminism in Australia. It was working on my own passions and values outside of just going for a scholarship that spoke volumes. I really want to talk about the importance of young people – particularly those from marginalised backgrounds – having that opportunity and just how powerful it is when they are given that ability to go to university without having to worry about paying for rent, or to go to a space like Oxford. I'm like a sponge here, soaking everything up to take back to Australia – but I'm also conscious that I was very lucky. Even though my family didn't come from money, they still really pushed education, but there are many young people who have incredible ideas but aren't given that support. That support is so essential.”