We caught up with the fabulous Rosie Thomas, co-founder and co-ceo of Project Rockit - Australia’s youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice.
Hey, Rosie. Could you share with our readers the story of how Project Rockit started?
Project Rockit started 10 years ago by my sister and I when we were fresh out of high school. Basically, we finished school, looked around and saw how bullying just totally robbed out peers of their potential, and we looked around and saw that no one was tackling the issue bullying and hate in schools in a way that reaches young people and so Project Rockit was born.
Tell us more about the idea for it.
This ‘light bulb’ moment happened when my sister and I were on a family holiday. We were sitting there having one of those life chats about what we were going to do with our lives, one of those ‘crossroad moments’ and both of us realised that we had to made a difference, as corny and cheesy as it sounds we couldn’t just go around and do a random job for it to be meaningless and that I guess coupled with our internal values of social justice and our recent experience of seeing how bullying just stole the light out of our peers, like literally robbed them of their personalities.
It just made so much sense to us. We saw a problem that needs fixing, and we felt like no one was fixing it in a cool or credible or positive way. We wanted to put young people in the driver’s seat, so we just kind of stepped up and stood up and created Project Rockit.
Can you tell us a bit about the workshops you run through Project Rockit?
So whenever I speak about Project Rockit workshops, I get a grin on my face. Project Rockit workshops are so positive, they are so fun. You know so many people ask me “oh is your job really depressing, is it really hard with bullying, the issues of homophobia, racism and prejudice, they are so dark and gloomy”. Actually, that’s not the case.
We get to see young people at their best so Project Rockit workshops are really great. Basically we send young charismatic, relatable and passionate people to schools to teach other young people to stand up, but really our workshops are just a foot in the door. So, our excuse is that we are there to talk about bullying, cyber safety and adult words, but really we talk about a whole lot more, you know the stuff that we didn’t get to talk about when we were at school.
So, things like ‘fitting in’, belonging but standing out, you know how do we expect young people to stand up if they don’t know what they stand for so we do like lots of ethics and working out what we stand for and how we want to be remembered, that sort of stuff. And we have a hell lot of fun along the way, loads of music and games, challenges and social experiments, ridiculous sassy pop culture references, yeah it’s loads of fun.
So we’re all about the positive impact. Tell us a bit about yours.
Project Rockit is Australia’s youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice which means that our workshops are collaborative. The movement is created by young people that our workshops target after the workshops begin. So we are creating a bunch of motivated young people that aren’t just motivated but equipped with empathy and emotional connections for one another and credible strategies that they will actually use. So what we are really creating is a bunch of young people that are driving a movement forward collecting other young people who are sick of bullying and hate and prejudice and prepare and mobilise to shut it down when they see it happen.
So today project rockit has worked with over 180,000 young people in over 500 schools across Australia and that’s our face to face workshops alone.
That’s amazing! Any other plans?
Well, we launched P-Rock online - which is Project Rockit online, Australia’s brand new curriculum of cool, anti-bullying and cyber safety development.
Again, 10 years ago when we started Project Rockit we had to convince teachers that there should be bullying programs in schools and actually that they shouldn’t be the ones to run it, they should be us, these two little girls who just finished school and that they should sort of pay us which was really challenging but now fast forward 10 years later we know that our approach is effective, we know that the movement is strong so to scale positive impact and reach more young people all over Australia we have gone online.
What’s cool about Project Rockit online is that it is designed by young people for young people. In that way, it has been described by industry experts as a first in the fight against bullying which is greatl. But most importantly for us it is available anywhere with an internet connection which means that young people in regional, remote and rural parts of Australia, this country can now access the kind of education that will keep them safe in school and help them realise their potential.
That’s important because we know that young people in regional and remote parts of Australia do experience high rates of bullying and high rates of mental health issues. So now we can reach them which is amazing.
So what does a young person get out of the online platform?
Project Rockit online itself consist of three twenty minute workshops and the workshops are totally interactive, immersive and creative. They are designed in such a way so that you plug in your headphones on any device and kind of just go on this multimedia rich journey of learning and discovering.
Traditionally they tackle bullying and build empathy and tackle cyber safety but there is so much more than that, it’s really an exploration for the individual student to work out who they are and the kind of world they want to live in. And we have had an absolute blast developing it and it has been developed by young people in collaboration with us so not just the content and the design, so it actually looks cool and resonates with young people but also down to the fact that our youth ‘brain stars’ as we call them, even star in the workshop themselves! They’re extras, actors, right down to the presenters in the workshop - young ‘P-Rockers’ as we call them.
Can you share a success story of how you made a difference in a young person’s life?
I think the most meaningful part of our work is hearing from students. Both in workshops we have the most incredible insightful discussions. It always really pisses me off when I hear a lot of the time when grown-ups completely underestimating young people, you know saying that they don’t care, or saying that they don’t know anything or patronizing or condescending them but in my experience young people are the experts on these issues, they are the experts of their own lives and we have the most incredible discussions in workshops around stuff like ‘slut shaming.’
We look at topics like ‘what do you mean that is sort of gay’ and just watching the people that we work with their minds literally expand and share their opinion for the first time and open their minds and connect to one another, it’s pretty cool.
But I guess a lot of the real rewarding sort of feedback we get is via social media afterwards, whether you get private messaging on Instagram or Facebook or even sometimes students emailing us. It’s pretty amazing to hear how Project Rockit has impacted them. I guess some of those really powerful stories do come from students in regional and rural parts of Australia. We travel all over the country running our workshops. I think a Project Rockit workshop as I said is so much more than just an anti-bullying workshop, for so many students that might not feel like that they are the same as everybody else, they could be part of the LGBT community or have a different cultural background.
Often it’s in a Project Rockit workshop that for the first time that they feel seen, and feel heard and feel valued not just by the Project Rockit presenters there are at the time but by their peers. For us, that is such a privilege to be a part of and again its generated and lead entirely by young people and so that further just affirms to us that young people do need to be driving these movements in order for us to create cultural change. The kind of cultural change that we want to see in the world is basically a world where kindness and respect thrive over bullying hate and prejudice and all young people are free to realise their potential. So it’s pretty cool.
What is it like to work with your sister and what do you do together when you are not working on Project Rockit?
My sister and I co-founded project rockit and I get that question a lot, ‘what’s it like to work with your sister, do you fight all the time, is it intense for all of your team’. I hope not, I actually feel like Lucy and I have the best relationship, we are total BFFs. I think in a way because we have so much online we are more respectful with each other and don’t get me wrong I think we can go to vulnerability very quickly but I think most people can go that way with their co-founder anyway.
I think Lucy and I have this utmost respect for each other because there is so much on the line. Outside of our work with Project Rockit we also hang out constantly. You might see us around South Melbourne going on one of our massive walks. We go on like walking meetings, we basically think we are solving the problems of the world but if you saw us we look like two girls ranting at each other around South Melbourne. I love working with my sister, no secret she is my total hero and how could we fail when it feels like she is leading us.
Could you explain how you make money, your business model? It’s a social enterprise, isn’t it?
So, 10 years ago when we started Project Rockit we didn’t know that social enterprise existed. Never heard that word before, didn’t know what an entrepreneur was and I still can’t spell that word!
In essence, we decided 10 years ago that Project Rockit will be for profit or now we come to know as a social enterprise. And the reason why I decided to for-profit structured ten years ago was basically because we wanted to get started and also at the time we looked around and couldn’t really see anyone doing anything like us. We didn’t know if it was going to work, we thought the best way to work out whether this is actually going to be effective and valuable to get people pay for it.
If people won’t pay for it then its probably not valuable and it shouldn’t exist, that is the frank sort of perspective. But it was effective and it was valuable which meant that people would pay and it basically made sure that it was sustainable. It meant six months later we were still in existence and ten years on we are still sustainable today. So I would describe Project Rockit as a social enterprise because we are a business designed to benefit the community but in a financially sustainable way. We earn revenue through workshops, online subscription fees and a range of different offerings. We re-invest that revenue back to the mission so that we can amplify and scale or impact across the country.
Awesome work. So what’s your view point about not-for-profit social enterprises when it concerns things like sustainability?
I think what’s important for a not-for-profit is that profit isn’t a dirty word. We need money to just not only sustain us but in order for us to scale and have a huge impact and on the other hand for purpose isn’t this lofty left tree hugging view of the world that actually is a way of doing business and in fact I believe that this is the only way of doing business. The way that I see is that commercial organisations need to think and act for purpose and for purpose organisations need to think and act for profit.
It is really interesting because you know there is that debate, is there a need for a not-for-profit. I think if you can do your work and truly impact those around you and you can spend time doing the work not getting bogged down in trying to get grants or reporting to those grants then if that works then that’s really positive. I know a lot of people in this space who have really struggled because being a not-for-profit is sometimes about to them actually just getting dirty and doing the work and that’s a real shame. So I think now we can think of innovative ways which we can draw in revenue but still have an impact and I also think that the tide is turning, the attitude is now that you can do business and you should have an impact and vice versa.
We realised about 4 to 5 years into starting Project Rockit that we never planned on starting an organisation, a business or a social movement but 4 to 5 years in we realised that we owed it to the young people that we were collecting along the way as part of this movement to actually really turn it into something.
I am so glad that we made that decision early on to be a business because it meant that we could and really looking back the best decision we ever made even though it was two naïve fresh out of high school girls was to start a business. That’s the best thing we could have done.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who is starting a social enterprise?
My piece of advice for someone wanting to start a social enterprise would be just to start! I think we can get so bogged down in the idea or we can get so bogged down by seeing other people’s final result, the shiny polished organisation. But if a idea stays in your head no matter how innovative or original it is it’s a total waste. The thing about starting a social enterprise though is that you need to start, small regular steps to achieving your goal. But at the same time it is very important to have a very strong social side, know what that mission is, deeply inherently understand the purpose of that mission because that mission is going to be your moral compass, it’s going to be your resilience, when shiny things pop up it’s going to be your bright light that’s going to keep you on track but also work out what your enterprise is and be proud of that. What is your economic driver? You can’t sustain your mission without an economic driver. So be humble but be proud of that and don’t be afraid to focus on that as well to drive that forward. Above all just get started.
What are your future plans?
The next three years of Project Rockit is pretty exciting, actually what I am most excited about in 2017 is to just do the work. We have actually decided we are not going to be building anything else. In 2017 we are also launching Project Rockit TV which is a partnership with Google and YouTube and you will see us bring Project Rockit messages to more young people across the country through technology but it won’t be until 2018 that we will be starting to build more digital products around a whole range of issues that young people will be wanting to talk about. We also plan on scaling our face to face teams across Australia too because technology is an incredible opportunity to amplify impact and reach more young people but you can’t beat face to face. So it’s very important to grow that offering too.
Thanks so much Rosie. How can people find you and be a part of what you are doing?
Project Rockit is a movement that is led by young people but it’s a movement for absolutely everybody. Our view is never too young or too old to change the world, we want everyone to be a part of the movement.