On the cusp of turning 30, Benson Saulo has already led an impressive life with his eyes on the big picture.
The Tamworth-grown man was the first indigenous person to represent Australia at the United Nations General Assembly as the Australian Youth Representative, runs an an organisation supporting schools in Papua New Guinea and has political aspirations.
This week, he and his wife will undertake a literal pilgrimage to reflect on what the next 10 years might hold.
And in a chat with The Leader in recent days, Mr Saulo spoke about his journey so far.
Mr Saulo was born in Bordertown, SA, and grew up in Tamworth, the son of an Indigenous Australian mother and Papua New Guinean father.
Apart from the unfailing support of his parents, one of the earliest opportunities that set Mr Saulo on his current path was securing a school-based traineeship with ANZ Bank at the age of 15.
He spent seven years with the bank, during that time graduating from Peel High School in 2005.
He became assistant manager in business banking at ANZ’s Sydney head office in Martin Place, then business analyst for indigenous employment and training.
Mr Saulo also started an accounting degree but dropped out after about six months.
It was a real moment at the crossroads in his life, he said, and he literally walked out in the middle of a lecture.
“I think I even left my notes, and I didn’t tell anyone for about it for two weeks,” he said.
“I was living with my brother at the time in Sydney, and I’d tell him that I was off to uni but I used to go skateboarding instead.”
Mr Saulo said a feeling of not belonging was as much behind his decision to leave uni as realising he didn’t want to go down the accounting path.
“It was tough to crack into friendship circles in Sydney; you had people going to the same uni who’d gone through 12 years of school together,” he said.
“I felt kind of isolated in those early days of uni, and I took up skateboarding a fair bit ...
“I loved working in a bank and was based in Martin Place – the heart of business in Sydney – and yet there was still something going, ‘There’s got to be something more’.”
It was this sense that also led Mr Saulo to apply for the chance to be the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations … with a little prompting from his fans.
“In the space of an hour, I received three emails from people in my network about applying for this role,” he said.
“Three hundred people applied across Australia and they take one per year.
“I pushed aside all my work that afternoon to put in my application, and was lucky enough to attend the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
“I led negotiations on behalf of Australia for resolutions on two topics: the rights of the child and the impact of the global financial crisis on youth.”
As part of his UN role, Mr Saulo undertook a six-month journey across the nation, consulting with young people.
“I met about 6500 people and engaged a further 21,000 online to understand what drives young people; what issues impact us and, ultimately, what kind of impact do young people want to have on the world?” he said.
In March of 2013, Mr Saulo founded the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, which aimed to empower young Indigenous people to lead positive change on issues they are passionate about.
“Borne out of that national tour I undertook was the realisation that young Aboriginal and Islander voices were missing from the national conversation on issues impacting young people,” he said.
“In the space of those two years, we developed and launched 10 youth-led social action campaigns.
“The top three were climate change, mental health and suicide prevention.
“They’re not issues that just impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; they impact all Australians, but what we were doing was enabling young Aboriginal voices on these issues.
“We engaged all up … over 100,000 people on these particular topics.”
Mr Saulo said these teens and young adults had “gone on to do amazing things”.
“The connection of like-minded individuals passionate about the idea of change and the belief that they, themselves, can actually effect positive change – at its heart, that was what the leadership academy was about,” Mr Saulo said.
“That an individual has the ability to effect change, but we’re stronger together.”
Mr Saulo also co-founded Mind Garden Projects in 2014, an organisation that provides literacy support for schools in Papua New Guinea.
“The organisation supports four schools across New Ireland Province on my grandmother and grandfather’s land,” he said.
“There’s no shortage of passionate, good teachers, but the resources that enabled them to deliver the education was what was lacking.”
Mr Saulo met his now-wife Kate O’Brien in Sydney about 10 years ago and they married in Melbourne in 2016.
“I describe her as one of the most courageous people I know; she’s unbelievable,” Mr Saulo said.
“She’s a doctor of clinical and forensic psychology, and for the past four years has been working as a torture and trauma specialist for refugees and asylum seekers.”
To mark their decade together, they will embark on the 800km Camino de Santiago hike from France to Spain.
“At the moment we’re at this stage where we’ve been married for 18 months, we’re thinking about kids, I’m turning 30 in April,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to take stock and reflect on the last 10 years, and to think about the next 10 years and what that holds for both of us and as a couple.”
Mr Saulo said he’d also be “taking stock” of the role of faith in his life.
“The church has always played a really strong role and I guess the idea of a congregation or a community is something that is true to who I am – but then also the ability to take on challenges and step into the unknown,” he said.
“Behind me, I think about my ancestors both from my Papua New Guinean and my Aboriginal community, but guiding my foot onto firmer ground is my faith in God.
“When I think about the pilgrimage, I’ve never come close to doing anything like this before, so there will be aspects of stepping into the unknown and just trusting.
“That’s almost a metaphor for turning 30 as well: it’s the future, who knows what it holds?”
Future of Tamworth
Mr Saulo now lives in Melbourne and is working as head of community for Australian Unity, but said he still considered Tamworth “a fantastic place”.
“I think there’s a lot more work that needs to happen in the social cohesion space, but then I look at the work Marc Sutherland’s doing in the Gomeroi Dance Company and Gomeroi Culture Academy,” he said.
“We were school captains together back in 2005, and I’m incredibly proud of him and what hes achieving.
“People like him are going to be the future of Tamworth – and the future’s going to be all the brighter having someone like him and the peer group there stepping up in the next three to five years.”