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The Man Who Likes People

By Matthew Smeal, National Communications Manager

In 2019, Dr Timothy Wright will step down as headmaster of the exclusive Shore school, a position he has held since 2003. Something he will step up to is philanthropy, specifically as a council member for Opportunity International Australia.

Opportunity’s National Communications Manager—and Shore old boy—Matthew Smeal, took the opportunity to talk with Dr Wright about his appointment to the Council and how he believed a school like Shore—whose students, by Dr Wright’s own admission come from the top 10 per cent of Australia’s wealthiest families—can foster empathy amongst its students for the world’s poorest.

The meeting was also a chance to find out what Dr Wright was looking forward to following his retirement. His answer was surprising.

“I love talking with people,” he said. “One of my favourite pastimes is conversation.”

It was an unexpected response—and one that Dr Wright admitted was a very 18th Century one—but it immediately revealed a deep-thinking man who liked to grapple with ideas and knowledge. After all, he said, “Conversation is the fundamental of good human interaction.”

Dr Wright has seen many changes to boys’ education over his career, but what troubles him today is how men are viewed.

“One of the challenges in the West is what I would call ‘unhelpful conversations that delegitimise maleness’,” he said.

“We have focussed a lot on stories about men behaving badly; we don’t see many stories about men behaving well – and they are, in fact, far more common. Men are natural nurturers and I think that is something that the West does not talk about nearly enough.”

Natural tendencies like nurturing can be developed through childhood. So can awareness about social justice, other cultures, and the human condition. So how do boys at a school like Shore become aware of, and truly understand, an issue like poverty?

“I think it does depend upon what happens in the home,” Dr Wright said without hesitation. “What does the home talk about? What does the home view?”

It is something he has seen in the homes of the boys who are more socially and culturally aware, “They are homes that are engaged, not necessarily politically, but in terms of social justice,” he said.

Much of Dr Wright’s thoughts were underpinned by his concern for modern journalism and why it is imperative that boys are guided towards a broader worldview. It led to an amusing analogy.

“If a Martian landed and watched Australian news for a week, he would conclude that Australia existed, New Zealand existed, a place called China existed; somewhere there is a place called ‘Brexit’ and a fellow called Johnson has something to do with it; and a place called the United States exists and they’re going to have a hurricane [Dorian],” he said.
“But where is Africa? Where is the majority of Asia? Where are the struggling Eastern European nations in this story? I think that for our students, there’s a real problem with what is filtered to them. We see our world very much through political tension and economics,” he said.

The answer is to search beyond what is simply presented, and to think beyond the political and economic ramifications. The Amazon fires at the time gave a poignant example.

“We haven’t heard much about what this means for the indigenous populations of the Amazon,” he said. “We have heard a lot about blackouts and climate change—now I am passionately concerned about climate change and particularly its impact on the developing world—but even climate change is one of those things where we interpret the impact much more on us.”

The reason, according to Dr Wright, is what he termed “deeply inherent selfish stances”.

“I think [Australia’s] racism is harder to see but it still comes down to: ‘We’re more important than they are’; ‘Our interests are more important than theirs’,” he said.
Yet paradoxically, racism morphs into parochialism—or perhaps isolationism—when it comes to Australia’s foreign aid. The argument that we have enough problems at home is seemingly never-ending – as anyone involved in the NGO sector will tell you.

I think [Australia’s] racism is harder to see, but it still comes down to: ‘We’re more important than they are.'

“I would come from a broader Christian perspective that says all humanity is created in the image of God,” Dr Wright said. “And yes, there are issues for Indigenous Australians but they’re not the only people who have issues. I think one of our biggest weaknesses can be ‘Let’s look after our own issues’.”

So, when it comes to the boys at Shore, Dr Wright believes that fostering empathy requires more than just a classroom.

“They have to have some real-world experience. So, one of the things that we do, is every Year 10 boy will spend some time working in a special school with children of very high needs,” Dr Wright said.

“I felt profoundly, that as a Christian school, we needed to do something where the boys had to serve another who wasn’t in a position to do anything for them – although all the boys would say, ‘They do something for me; they’ve given me a set of eyes, an empathy’. Many of the boys say, that in that first day, they see the problems; and by the end, they see the person.”

That desire to serve, brought about through deep Christians values, is where Dr Wright and Opportunity International Australia overlap significantly.

It begins with his knowledge and trust of microfinance as a concept and as a cost-effective intervention that leads to sustainable change. He has, in his own words, been “very impressed” with what he has seen from microfinance organisations and from Opportunity.

But there is something else.

What I like about Opportunity, is that it sits in that space I feel really comfortable with: it has a Christian driving motivation and philosophy, but doesn’t see itself as Christians being there for Christians; it sees itself as Christians being there for people who need – and who will benefit,” he said.

What I like about Opportunity, is that it sits in that space I feel really comfortable with: it has a Christian driving motivation and philosophy, but doesn’t see itself as Christians being there for Christians; it sees itself as Christians being there for people who need – and who will benefit,”

“And so, the fact that Opportunity is working with Christian people but also Islamic people, and Hindu people, and Buddhist people – I think that’s what God calls us to do.”

* * *

Considering how people give money and to whom is always an interesting topic. Dr Wright urges people to do their research.

“I think it’s really important for people to do due diligence, to say, ‘What’s the spend and what do we get for our buck?’” he said. But it also comes down to trust.

“I do think in this space, a space of philanthropy, one of the key things is, ‘Who are your public faces?’ And ‘In what ways will people trust them and engage with them?’”

As Dr Wright will soon step down as headmaster at Shore, it is heartening to know that he will step up to a role in philanthropy. And while he is honest about how his own current levels of giving will need to reduce as he enters retirement, he knows he can support engagement with others. And he will put his money where his mouth is.

“I am a great believer in that you cannot be involved in a philanthropic organisation until you can say to a potential donor, ‘Join me in supporting…’ and not ‘I’m here to tell you what to do with your money’,” he said.

“I know the ‘join me’ is crucial. The moment they [potential donors] think I’m not in it, they would be perfectly entitled to walk away.”

But instead of having people walk away, Dr Wright would prefer people to consider their position and what they can do.

“There is a changing view towards philanthropy in Australia. I think people are more prepared to give than they were 30 years ago. I think that is because we have been exposed to some of the examples of philanthropy that occur in other cultures and other nations – and I think it’s also because we’re richer. That’s not to say we don’t have poverty, but we have enormous wealth in this country.”

As such, Dr Wright returns to whether Shore boys can truly grasp what it means to live in poverty.

“Yes, they cognitively grasp it,” he said, “but it’s hard unless you don’t have food on the table. I really don’t think you can grasp, in the real gut sense, until there is some personal, physical, embodied experience of it.”

“That doesn’t mean people can’t make decisions about giving at a cognitive level…but I think in the West, we’re very insulated from the most-ugly areas of life.”

So, where does that leave all the boys who have come under his charge?

“What I hope for them is meaningful work; a person to love; and a cause to embrace,” he said. “Those are the three things that bring joy in life.”

And legacy?

“I would like people to remember me as somebody who really liked people. I think the boys love me and they know I love them. And they would understand that that connection is fundamental to how I do things.”

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