Rosie Thomas: don't be a bystander of bullying

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Rosie Thomas
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“You don't have to be the most outgoing, loud, confident person to create change in the world”.

This is a statement that cofounder of PROJECT ROCKIT, Rosie Thomas, stands by after witnessing acts of bullying during school. Since then, Rosie and her sister Lucy have been making a stance against bullying by delivering evidence-based programs about the negative impact persecution can have on young people. As a result of their national programs, they’ve helped thousands of young students create a kinder world.

Years later, they are still impacting school communities around the country with UNICEF recognising their work, as well as the pair being awarded Order of Australia medals. Having helped over 600,000 students across the country, the team at PROJECT ROCKIT have goals to influence 1,000,000 students nationwide against bullying by 2025.

In this episode, Rosie talks about the origin story of PROJECT ROCKIT, what drove her to be so passionate about bullying, and advice for children and adults who are experiencing persecution.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

Click here for more information on PROJECT ROCKIT.

Click here for Lucy Thomas’ TedTalk mentioned in the episode.

Read the full transcript

Rebecca Archer 
Welcome to The Remarkables – Grant Thornton’s podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same.

I’m Rebecca Archer, and today I’m joined by Rosie Thomas – Cofounder and Director at PROJECT ROCKIT. After finishing high school, Rosie and her sister Lucy wanted to make a stance against bullying by positively impacting thousands of young people to help them create a kinder world. Years later, they are still having positive impacts in school communities around the country, with UNICEF recognising their work, as well as Rosie and Lucy being awarded Order of Australia (OAM) medals.

Welcome Rosie – thank you for joining us on the podcast today!

Rosie Thomas 
Thanks, Rebecca. It's awesome to be here.

Rebecca Archer
First off, what can you tell me about PROJECT ROCKIT?

Rosie Thomas
Well, I can tell you a lot about PROJECT ROCKIT, actually, because it's something that I've dedicated really – I was going to say my professional life to – but it starts so much before a professional life began. Today, PROJECT ROCKIT is Australia's youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice.

So, we train up young people – incubate them into incredible leaders and change makers, and send them out into schools all over Australia to run workshops with other young people for school students, to help them work out how to stand up instead of just standing by and watching, when it comes to bullying, online and offline.

Rebecca Archer
What is the name all about for PROJECT ROCKIT? Why is that significant?

Rosie Thomas
It's inevitable at the end of a workshop with students, we're going to get that question, and we always throw it back to students. We say, why do you think we're called PROJECT ROCKIT? And their ideas are bang on. They say rockets are limitless; they explore the unknown; they shoot out into space; they're powerful; they're full of potential. And that's exactly the way we see young people, and when we started out all those years ago, we didn't want to be known as, like, have a name that was associated with bullying, because really, the issue of bullying was always going to be our Trojan horse to get into schools, but to actually have real talk about all the other issues around the issue of bullying.

And so, we wanted a name that was really positive and empowering and reflected all of the potential of the young people that we serve – plus, rockets are cool. 

Rebecca Archer
Absolutely – though the spelling is different. So, it's PROJECT ROCKIT, as in R-O-C-K-I-T. So, I kind of think maybe it's for the kids, too. We're just really rocking our own sense of who we are.

Rosie Thomas
Yeah, that's it, and I think music's always been a really big part of PROJECT ROCKIT as well. Both my sister and I – the founders – are musicians, and so music was always a huge part of workshop – it still is. Like, the minute you walk into a workshop, there are thumping tunes – music is such a social leveler and it really breaks down the tenseness and maybe any preconceived judgments about what a workshop on bullying might be. So, yeah, we like to rock it.

Rebecca Archer
What drove you to be so passionate about bullying? What's the backstory there for you and your sister?

Rosie Thomas 
A lot of people are under the impression that for someone to start an anti-bullying organisation and devote their life to it, essentially, that I have a really singular traumatic bullying experience of my own. And while I do, I do have a bullying experience of my own – for me, year eight was a really difficult year. I think being a girl in year eight is a really tough year. I was isolated; I was alone; and I was picked on for basically the entire year. And for me, I was able to eventually sort of bounce back and lean on, I guess, support structures and resilience that a lot of other kids don't have.

But actually, that's not why I started PROJECT ROCKIT. It gave me great empathy and a really phenomenal understanding of the impacts and what it's like to be bullied. But actually, it's so much deeper than that. And I think it really goes back to the way my sister and I were raised and the values our mum passed down to us.

So, my mum is like a staunch, passionate, fiery, single mum, basically, and she really instilled in us, I guess, values of fairness and kindness, social justice, and just this, I guess, this fire in the belly and this idea that if you see something that you don't like, you have to do something about it. And at times, that was really, really hard at school. I remember coming home and telling Mum if I saw someone being picked on, or even just someone being really upset or left out, she would always ask me that question, what are you going to do about it? And as I went through school, through primary school and then into high school, I started to see things that were much worse than being left out. You see racism or prejudice or misogyny, and there were times in which I did something about it, and when there were times in which I didn't. And when I didn't stand up, it wasn't because I was a bully or because I was weak. It wasn't at all. I was one of the majority of people in a bullying situation.

If one in four young Aussies report being bullied every few weeks, well, two people saw it happen – there are four people in that situation. And so those two people that see it happen, our opportunity is to really instil them with the empathy and the skills – the credible – socially credible skills, to do something about it, and I didn't always have them at school. And so, there were times when I guess I really regretted not standing up, but I think fast forward until the end of high school. Yeah, I really saw the way bullying destroyed the lives of my peers around me. On the first day of year seven, we all sort of rock up on a reasonably level playing field, and depending on that first day of school, sometimes the judgments that stick and form and those social labels that are so difficult to shake the rest of our schooling, sometimes feels a bit determined for us. Some kids are picked on; they might be laughed at or ignored, and then other students, like myself, for the majority of schooling, can access things like relationships and leadership opportunities and find out who I am, and I finish school ready to take on the world.

And so, I think for us, my sister and I, leading up to this journey of having just finished high school, looking around and seeing no one was addressing this issue – bullying – in a way that really reached other young people. And so, we decided, I guess, to answer that little voice that was my mum's voice in our heads, which was, what are you going to do about it? We decided to do something.

Rebecca Archer
So, your sister Lucy has given a very powerful TEDx Talk. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of a wrap up of what that was involved with and her experience as well?

Rosie Thomas 
For sure. So, my sister Lucy is the other founder of PROJECT ROCKIT. She's my big sister. She's the epitome of strength and vulnerability. She's very different to me, and I think that's what makes PROJECT ROCKIT powerful to begin with is that you don't have to be the most outgoing, loud, confident person to create change in the world. And for Luce, her time to tackle bullying was absolutely at school, but I think the time in which she really experienced it was actually in her early 20s, when she experienced bullying in a really extreme sense – in a homophobic way.

So, she was actually targeted and homophobically, bullied and discriminated against, and the TEDx Talk is amazing. It's really about leveraging kindness to survive the darkest times, and how we make sense of being persecuted, essentially. And I think that really speaks to the absolute strength in the adversity that we all go through in our lives and how, even though it's really difficult and it should never have happened in the first place, we can harness that hurt and that pain to bring kindness and respect into the world. So, it's an incredible Ted talk – I definitely recommend listeners give it a watch.

Rebecca Archer 
Now, I wanted to look at the actual program that you deliver in schools. What's unique about it and what sort of impact are these programs actually making?

Rosie Thomas 
Well, PROJECT ROCKIT was created based on all the things that didn't work when we were at school. So having started an anti-bullying organisation right out of high school, we didn't have any qualification, obviously, no business experience. We weren't teachers, and the vast majority, actually today, still the vast majority of education for young people on issues like bullying and even online stuff like cyberbullying is created by teachers for young people, so you can understand how it really misses the mark and just reflects adults perspectives and fears.

So, we decided from the get go that it wouldn't be a doomy, gloomy lecture preaching, judging, boring young people through a PowerPoint presentation. That instead, our workshops would be fun and inspiring and actually put young people in the driver's seat as agents of change – like value them as incredible people that can create any change that they want to see, not just in their schools, but in the world as well.

So, the way a PROJECT ROCKIT workshop runs is that we send in teams of two presenters into a school – we work with as young as year three all the way up to year twelve – and our workshops explore issues like a lot of the issues that I've just mentioned earlier, so misogyny respect, inclusion, diversity, but really the sense that how can we expect young people to stand up if they don't even know what they stand for? And so really, it's about helping young people pack down and explore what their values are, what their bottom line is, and create a sense of community so that it's not a whole bunch of individuals in a classroom or a school year level that don't give a crap about each other, that actually they see the humanity in each other.

So, workshops are all show, not tell. So rather than, as I said, waggle the finger at the front of the room, we take a really creative approach. There's loads of music, social experiments to really break down some of those really tough issues so that then we can crack into having really authentic discussions about, yeah, what might be holding people back from standing up or what it actually feels like to be persecuted.

Rebecca Archer 
Do you have any stories that you might be able to share, without obviously giving away anybody's identity, that have really stayed with you or made a marked impact from these particular workshops?

Rosie Thomas
Well, this is my favourite question, and yes, our workshops have now reached over 600,000 students around Australia, and that's just our face-to-face workshops alone. And so, the way I see it is that 600,000 stories of young people that have been through PROJECT ROCKIT, and the stories that spring to mind are actually the stories of the people who stay within PROJECT ROCKIT. And we're lucky enough to find out how their workshop experience impacted them ten years later because they actually come and get a job at PROJECT ROCKIT, which is amazing.

But one girl who works at PROJECT ROCKIT, who's actually just recently left to go on to amazing journalism career, spoke about the time in which PROJECT ROCKIT came to her school. She really identified as part of the problem, and that actually she was really using her power for bad and making a lot of people in the year level feel really isolated and disrespected. And it was having a really big impact. And in fact, when PROJECT ROCKIT came, she felt like the spotlight was on her unintentionally from our team, but it was like naming the elephant in the room. And she said that that workshop really made her choose a different path and really reflect on her own behaviour. And that was an incredible story to hear because I think that takes guts to stand up and say, we're not all perfect. And when it comes to bullying, it's a behaviour that we're actually all capable of, and I think we need to really give young people an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and reinvent themselves for good.

Then there are so many stories of young people that have found PROJECT ROCKIT in their regional and remote parts of Australia, in those communities who, thanks to the representation of having young people up the front, who might identify as LGBTIQA, and for that student in the room to feel like they're the only person of that community in their whole town – which they're not – and to have those presenters respected by the rest of their peers really shows great representation in that. You can't be what you can't see. So, yeah, incredible stories of young people showing their courage of changing the course of their schooling, and also taking real risks for the greater good.

Rebecca Archer
Do you have any advice for children or even adults out there who have been subjected or currently experiencing bullying, be it in real life or online?

Rosie Thomas 
Yeah, and I love that you said advice for adults as well, because I think sometimes, we kind of patronise young people by saying bullying is like a child issue. But what happens to young people when they grow up? People that are bullied and people who perpetrate bullying – they become adults. So, this is a human issue.

And I guess my advice for anyone out there that is struggling is that you're not alone and you're not the things that they say of you, that's not true. You know who you are. And I think it's time that we find allies in our lives who can remind us of who we are, who we can lean on and can help carry some of that burden of feeling so alone but can also intervene for us because when we stand and we ignore the situation, it makes it so much worse. And we might not feel like we're being part of the problem, but actually, by doing nothing in that moment, we're just as much part of the problem as the person who's doing the bullying.

So, I guess that would be my advice, is that you're not alone and to reach out.

Rebecca Archer 
And just in terms of what is okay to say, what's not okay to say, I realise that obviously, as generations evolve, certain things become not appropriate. What's your sort of take on the kinds of things that you maybe should avoid saying when you're around other people? Even if it's just down to language that you potentially use at home that really isn't okay when you're out in public?

Rosie Thomas 
That's a great question. I think language is incredibly important, and we don't realise a lot of the time that the stuff we're saying actually has a really big impact on the people around us. And I think when we're talking about the issue of bullying, we're actually just talking about prejudice and we're talking about discrimination. And sometimes it's the most casual microaggressions that can be the most harmful because they go unnoticed, and they go unchallenged and unchecked.

So, I mean, even considering that this country is currently going through a huge change with the YES referendum at the moment and the NO campaign, even more than ever, these are the times in which we hear what might seem casual and harmless and a little bit of fun, as actually like really harmful comments that need calling out and challenging.

And I guess there are two ways to sort of do that. There's calling in, which is a lot less confrontational, a lot less public, I think works really well when it's our friends. So, it might be like, hey, mate, I'll bring you in nice and close so no one else can hear, but I don't know if you realise what you said then, like, when you said, oh, that's so gay, I know it's probably just something that you've been saying forever, but it actually kind of sends a message to anyone out there that gay is a really bad thing. And it's not; it's just an identity. or calling out, which is much more public, which is often especially when something is a bit more harmful. It's like, oh, come on, mate, why do you have to say that? It's a lot more sort of cut through and really make a clear statement.

And so, yeah, I think it's helpful for us to identify what's right for us, what suits our style of risk and also really read in the moment what's appropriate.

Rebecca Archer 
That's such great advice and such a great way to identify what maybe you should just ask yourself, is this the right thing to say or is this improving anything? Is there any use in me actually using this terminology?

Rosie Thomas 
I think when it comes to challenging bullying, whether it be a young person at school or whether it be us in the workplace or with our friends, there's no one size fits all approach. It's not like a t shirt that you have to wriggle into or swimming in you you've got to work out what suits you, what's your style. Maybe you actually are more confident online, and so actually writing someone a little text or a message, being like, hey, definitely don't want this to be a big thing, but I just wanted to reach out and say, not a big fan of what you just did, then we can talk about it another time, but I just needed to say it because I'm honest with my friends and I care about you.

But for other people, I actually was quite confident at school, and I did have moments when I could use my power for good, that I used peer pressure for good. So, I did rally people around me to let other people know that their behaviour wasn't acceptable, and that was my style.

So, I think really recognising that you don't need to change who you are, it's just about working out who you are and having the courage to sort of share that with the world.

Rebecca Archer 
So, beyond the excellent program like your own PROJECT ROCKIT, what more can be done to minimise bullying? Do you think that the government is perhaps doing enough? Do they have enough programs that are going out there and really making an impact?

Rosie Thomas 
Look, it is a pervasive issue, bullying, isn't it? We know that the statistics haven't really changed over the last 15 years, except that cyberbullying and online harms has obviously been introduced. The E-safety officers reporting higher rates, like the increase in cyberbullying complaints, but we also know that young people were really disproportionately impacted by COVID.

Missing out on school, especially here in Melbourne for two years, has had detrimental impacts. It's caused social development delays. For a lot of young people, they don't have their peer communities that we had when school wasn't interrupted – not only the mental health implications as well. And so, this is a really complex issue and of course more can be done.

I think, as well, when we look – young people aren't a homogeneous group either. Sometimes we throw that word around, we say, oh, young people, but actually, it's made up of really rich cultural backgrounds and different lived experiences and sexuality, and I think it's so important that we meet young people where they're at. When it comes to LGBTIQA young people, they experience much higher rates of poor mental health and as well as that, they experience higher rates of bullying and discrimination.

Two in three young people report being bullied every few weeks. And so, while it's amazing to see the increase in representation, like rainbows in schools and messages saying it's a safe place, it's another thing to actually make it a safe place to actually make it a place where people can be themselves, where they don't face discrimination around which bathroom that they use or how they wear their school uniform. Because we know that the trauma of these experiences lasts so long after school and has such a detrimental impact on the whole year level as well, not just the individual suffering.

Rebecca Archer
I wonder, just in terms of policy around this type of thing, is there more funding that's required? And if that is one of the elements and one of the solutions, where would it be most valuably?

Rosie Thomas 
Oh, that's such a great question. So, there has been an increase in funding. Here in Victoria, The department of Education have created the Mental Health Menu, which essentially is a host of organisations like PROJECT ROCKIT – wellbeing organisations – and schools receive funding each year that is allocated towards choosing one of those organisations, which is fantastic and we love to see it.

The role of educators is so tough that organisations like PROJECT ROCKIT having young people come into the school who are digital natives themselves, who don't have to tell them off for not having their shirt tucked in, and then teach them maths and can actually come in and support educators essentially, is really, really what's needed here – that we're really looking at preventative education.

So, starting from such a young age, teaching young people kindness and understanding what belonging is, learning to celebrate difference – and the challenge, of course, is educators doing absolutely everything that they can in schools. And especially after the toughest two years where the pressure that was put on educators during COVID-19, I think we're all like, teachers are still grappling with, and I will be honest and say that they're leaving the profession in droves at the moment, which is really, really hard for young people and the other teachers left behind.

But yeah, I guess the solution really is to support preventative education, to make sure that we are supporting teachers, but we are also investing in organisations that are experts on these issues and can work with young people in the whole school community.

Rebecca Archer 
Rosie, I believe you've recently started the PROJECT ROCKIT Foundation. What's the goal for this initiative, and what can you tell me about it?

Rosie Thomas 
For sure. So, PROJECT ROCKIT was founded as a social enterprise, and in the last couple of years especially, our organisation is working so hard in schools throughout Australia, but we know that the issue is still pervasive and, in fact, it's really, really targeting young people in low SES and regional parts of Australia who face much more significant rates of bullying, discrimination and are also isolated and don't have access to the kind of programs out there.

So, the PROJECT ROCKIT Foundation is dedicated to filling that gap. Essentially, it's a philanthropic organisation that gains support and is able to provide free access to schools and students who face barriers in Australia, and who really need this education the most. So, it's really exciting.

PROJECT ROCKIT, as I said, we've reached probably actually by the end of this year, nearly 700,000 students and our goal is to reach a million students by 2025. So, we are on track, but the PROJECT ROCKIT Foundation plays a really important role in that goal by ensuring that PROJECT ROCKIT is reaching in that number the students who really need us the most.

Rebecca Archer 
And how do schools become involved? Do they actively need to seek out this help? Do they have to sign up for it or do you take proactive steps yourself to get schools involved?

Rosie Thomas 
It's both. So, we have a really passionate, phenomenal school engagement team who are all about helping identify schools in need and building that relationship and really understanding the complex dynamics of what's going on in that particular school community.

Then we have plenty of teachers and even students around the country reach out to us via our website, and sometimes we have parents reach out to us as well. Sometimes it's proactive because they might have seen us on social media, and other times it's because they're really concerned about something that's going on at school. And, yeah, are keen to get a PROJECT ROCKIT team to work with students, but there's a whole raft of different ways.

But the best way would be to find us online and to reach out and chat with our team and to work out how we can work together to build kindness and inclusion in schools.

Rebecca Archer 
And just finally, Rosie, what's next for PROJECT ROCKIT? What have you got coming up?

Rosie Thomas 
Look, I think what's next is really even more so passing over the baton to the next generation of young people who lead the way. PROJECT ROCKIT back then when we started, was created, designed, developed, delivered by young people, but it still is today.

Whether it be in our Youth Brains Trust so a group of school students who are paid as lived experience experts to create our content whether it be the young people who are leading our workshops in schools and delivering them or whether it be the young people in our staff who are helping to carve out the future for young people. That's what it's all about, essentially, is really scaling our work into schools across Australia.

Rebecca Archer
Rosie, I want to thank you so much for your time today. The work that you and your sister Lucy are doing is obviously having such a positive impact. How can we continue to follow your journey beyond this podcast and potentially get involved?

Rosie Thomas 
All of you listeners are now part of the PROJECT ROCKIT movement – whether you like it or not. A movement is something that relies on people. So, the first thing that you can do is take action. So, whether it be reaching out to let someone know that you don't agree or whether it be publicly taking a stand in your workplace, that's the number one way we can role model to young people that bullying is not okay. But if you want to get involved with PROJECT ROCKIT, you can find us across all social media platforms. You can watch episodes of PROJECT ROCKIT TV that talk about tough stuff that just doesn't get airtime in schools. You can watch it with your kids, or you can find on our website a way to actually sign your school up and make sure that we get PROJECT ROCKIT out into your school community.

Rebecca Archer 
Now that we've heard from the children of Grant Thornton and Rosie Thomas, as adults, let's work together to try to help the next generation create a kinder world.

If you liked this podcast and would like to hear more remarkable stories, you can find, like and subscribe to The Remarkables podcast by Grant Thornton Australia on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Leave us a review or ideas on who you’d like to hear from next. I’m Rebecca Archer – thank you for listening.

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