The car skids, rolling into the river. As she witnesses Karl’s last breath, Wendy chooses not to die. With that choice comes an inevitable decision: she begins her campaign for safer roads. Join us to make a film about a life committed to speaking truth to power: Wendy’s life.
When Wendy lost her husband, Karl, to a preventable road crash in 2016, her life turned upside down. She was forced to make important life decisions very quickly. She had to sell the house they built, move from the tiny village where they shared much of their time together, and create a new life. All this while battling crippling grief and the psychological and physical effects of traumatic life changes.
Not long after Karl died, Wendy’s instinct for taking action drove her into a new reality: to campaign for the local Council to fix the dangerous rural road where Karl died. She soon learned that that short stretch of road had witnessed five road deaths and dozens of injuries.
An internationally renowned planner, community engagement specialist, environmental ethicist, and activist, Dr Wendy Sarkissian is a pioneering woman, who has spent a lifetime agitating for change against institutional and corporate power. In this film, she shares the story of her Survivor Mission to honour her husband’s tragic death.
Join us in making a feature documentary about Wendy’s life with Karl and her Survivor Mission
Wendy’s Survivor Mission urged the local Tweed Shire Council to repair a 650-metre section of Kyogle Road near Uki in Northern NSW. That road claimed four lives (and caused many more injuries) in a 20-months period in 2015 and 2106. She urged them to implement the internationally ratified Safe Systems approach, adopted by all local governments in NSW. She also requested that they employ a more caring, responsive approach to supporting survivors of road crashes.
Even though she tried hard, Wendy’s experience did not build her confidence that her initiatives would result in reducing road deaths:
On 12 September (2016), supported by two close friends, I venture onto a new path. I deliver my self-styled Victim Impact Statement to Tweed Shire Council, the municipality responsible for the road where our crash occurred. Preparation for this political action triggers strong feelings of loss in me. It’s the first time since Karl’s memorial that I am putting words to my sorrow.
I take a framed photograph of Karl to the meeting. Amazingly, finding I can “read” the meeting dynamics, I glimpse something of my old life returning. That meeting is the beginning of my road safety activism, my “survivor mission”. I feel empowered, regardless of the meeting’s negative results. I discover that empowerment is a secret ingredient in healing.
Council cut short Wendy’s Statement, demanding that she restrict her remarks to “the circumstances of the crash” and not to any impacts she had experienced.
“What’s a Victim Impact Statement without impacts?” she implored.
What had begun as an “information session” to raise staff awareness flourished into full-blown activism.
“Someone is killed or hospitalised every 41 minutes because of a crash on NSW roads.”
“The annual economic cost of road crashes in Australia is enormous—estimated at $27 billion per annum—and the social impacts are devastating.” https://infrastructure.gov.au/roads/safety/)
Wendy embarked on a two-year campaign to highlight the need for better road planning and greater awareness of the importance of road design in road safety. She lobbied Council directly, urging them to respond with care and demonstrate a real interest in preventing further injuries and deaths.
She organised protest actions at the crash location and nearby to raise public awareness. She wrote to Council, describing better ways that they could have handled her situation. She demanded that they upgrade the road and implement the Safe System approach. She also held a media conference, appeared on national television, and wrote articles for local media and Australian and international road safety journals.
Now we are preparing to share Wendy’s story by making this documentary. We aim to inspire people experiencing injustice to take action and to encourage government agencies to take action as well. They need to understand that to prevent road deaths, they must do more than simply adopt a strategy. Effectively implementing the Safe System approach is the only way with demonstrated, evidence-based results. Research convincingly shows that to reduce deaths and injuries, we must know how to design better roads. It also means that we must learn how to support community members who lose loved ones to road crashes.
But we’re not just making a film. As Wendy says, her whole life has been a Survivor Mission. Her lifelong instinct to agitate for change now drives her ongoing campaign to make a difference in road safety.
We will use part of our fundraising to hold a road safety workshop in Uki on 30 September 2018, near the site of the crash. We are also creating a booklet based on Wendy’s experience, which will spell out the principles of the Safe Systems approach and recommendations for how communities can help Councils to embrace and adopt this worthwhile approach..
We will then use the film, together with the booklet, to create opportunities to present a series of workshops to councils around Australia to discuss what it means not merely to adopt such a policy, but also to implement it. It will spell out practical approaches to supporting survivors of road crashes so that their experiences can bring about real change. We want to encourage the repair and upgrading of poor roads so that others do not have to experience similar tragedies. We want to stop the deaths on Australia’s rural roads!
- Influence the way councils manage roads and encourage them proactively to repair black spots before deaths occur;
- Demonstrate how local government should respond to survivors of road crashes;
- Share an inspiring story of Wendy’s activism throughout her life to inspire others; and
- Support Wendy’s ongoing campaign through workshops, information materials, and presentations.
Call to Action
At the moment, we’re in planning mode to make this film happen.
We’re currently compiling photos, film and articles about Wendy’s life for a significant section of the film. That part shares Wendy’s personal and professional life, from growing up in the outer suburb of Copper Cliff in Sudbury, Canada, to being the youngest person appointed to the South Australian Housing Trust Board, the first woman to study planning in South Australia, and the many social change campaigns and community planning projects she’s championed.
We’re also researching and writing the film outline, bringing together Wendy’s story of grief and trauma resulting from the crash and losing Karl, her campaign to repair the road where the crash occurred and manage roads to minimise injuries and road deaths. We are also focussing on Wendy’s demands that governments develop more appropriate and sensitive ways to support road crash victims.
Wendy’s story is big and requires us to talk to many people around Australia. Some of those we interview will provide insights into Wendy’s experiences regarding the crash and losing Karl. Some will speak about her campaign and how she has persevered through personal grief and trauma to maintain her demand for the road repairs. Others will describe Wendy’s lifetime of advocacy and campaigning and her struggles and courage in speaking truth to power. We will hear stories of Wendy’s professional work in giving a voice to disadvantaged communities. We will hear about the challenges to her initiatives to provide communities with authentic influence brought about by her role as a woman in male-dominated decision-making contexts.
We are seeking to speak with people who can contribute to her stories of struggling for change as a professional woman while trying to influence how governments and others engage in decision making and planning
You can join us
Because Wendy is available for filming in Brisbane and Northern Rivers NSW only in late September and early October, we need your help to cover some basic initial costs to make this happen.
Our real production period begins in December 2018, when we’ll film interviews with people involved in the story or who can share stories about Wendy’s life. At that time, we will also gather additional footage and source all necessary archival materials..
We’re busily applying for funding to CreateNSW and other funding bodies and are also launching a fundraising page through Documentary Australia Foundation (to access charitable grant giving).
However, right now we need your support to get the project off the ground so that we can film Wendy with other key players in the story.
MEET Wendy Sarkissian
Wendy’s story is powerful because it shares her experiences of a lifetime of struggle against power, both professionally and personally.
Through her eyes, we join her journey agitating for change within the gendered landscape of decision making and power. Wendy has been a teacher, an advocate for women’s access to public housing, a social and community planner, and, enduringly, an activist. This documentary aims to share the common threads of these experiences, culminating in her Survivor Mission to honour her husband Karl’s life and remind viewers that his death was caused by a completely preventable road crash.
Survivor Mission showcases the life of a courageous woman, who speaks truth to power and aims to empower people who are demanding change. Like them, she feels that we need to change the way that those in positions of power include (or exclude) others in their decision making.
Now living in Canada since mid-2017, Wendy has embarked on a new life. And without giving away the plot of the film, she’s doing well now, spending much of her time writing books and continuing to agitate for changes to road safety.
Internationally renowned for her work, Wendy has received more than 40 professional awards. In 2017, the Australian-based Engage2Act organisation decided that their annual Global Community Engagement Day would be held on her birthday (https://www.engage2act.org/blog-holding/2018/1/10/global-community-engagement-day-is-here). They also inaugurated the Wendy Sarkissian Award for Courage in Community Engagement (https://www.engage2act.org/wendy-sarkissian-award/).
Wendy has lived a remarkable life.
I had had a pretty interesting life before my “Survivor Mission” adventure began. I’d been married three times, lived in several foreign countries, been a courageous community planner in risky contexts and pioneered many innovative approaches in my work life. I grew up in a Canadian family that was more like a train wreck than a family. Working out that I had to escape as early as possible, I married young to an ambitious academic who spent most of his life in his head. One part that was not in his head t left me, at 32, divorced and heartbroken.
Initially, I trained to be a high school English teacher, but fate led me to the field of planning, where I had a great and exciting professional life for many decades in Australia.
In my early years — my thirties — in Adelaide, South Australia — I was a prominent feminist activist, focussing primarily on women’s housing needs. I was a thorn in the side of the State Government. I loved my activist activities — largely because they were so collaborative. Every action required consensus in the heady days of second-wave feminism and Adelaide was a hotbed of that!
In the late 1980s, as the global sustainability crisis deepened, I became curious about why my planning colleagues appeared to be ignoring what seemed to me to be major planning imperatives: sea-level rise and climate change. I enrolled as a full-time PhD student — finally in environmental ethics — and spent a challenging year living in primitive conditions in the tropical bush in northern Australia. I learned a lot about independence –and interdependence– during that time. And that experience strengthened my commitments to activism.
After my lonely rural sojourn, I advertised for a lover and found the love of my life: Karl. We couldn’t believe our luck. I was 50, and he was 45. He responded to my newspaper advertisement with a passionate explanation of the Gaia hypothesis. Ours was a bumpy ride, smoothed by a huge, trusting love. Karl entered university and obtained two degrees and then became my trusted (if eccentric) professional assistant. On many levels, we were a great match. I had found a true soulmate in Karl, and he had found a home from his wandering in me and, ultimately, in the radical Nimbin community, which he loved with all his heart.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER
Ferment Collaborate is a creative engagement and multimedia agency founded on creating spaces for dialogue and creativity that connect people’s cultural activity with decision making. Established by Steph Vajda in 2010, FC has worked with community organisations, activists, all levels of government, businesses and peak bodies around Australia.
FC specialises in working with people and communities to share stories that inspire and advocate for change and fresh visions for a more inclusive future.
For more information, please visit our website: www.fermentcollaborate.org
Please contact Wendy at [email protected] to discuss any aspect of this film.
A blessing in disguise
One of the blessings that has flowed from the shocking experience of losing my beloved Karl to a crash on the Kyogle Road is that my great friend, Steph Vajda, has decided to make a documentary about my activism for road safety reform and getting the road repaired.
That work has yielded good results, and the road will open soon. The much-awaited guardrail is yet to be installed.
As you can imagine, films are expensive things to make and Steph and I have other things to do with our money. Some funding from government sources will be available later — but for now, we are the funders of the urgent filming that is occurring around — and during — the Bless This Road event on 30 September 2018 in Uki.
Here is a link to a trailer for our documentary:
This film is not a commercial venture. It’s an unashamedly activist project. We just need money to get things started (filming in Uki, mainly… at Bless this Road … and interviews with survivors and road safety advocates … and a drone…) while I am visiting Australia in late September and early October 2018.
It’s a good story, I feel. And, blessedly, it has a happy ending. Karl, Matilda and Cecilia are dead. So are two others, one a small girl. But the road has been repaired and over $1 million has been spent to fix it. I strongly believe that it would not have happened– or happened this quickly — without our persistent activist presence.
If you have any spare kröten (as Karl called it) that you’d like to dedicate to a good cause, please contact me (Wendy) at: [email protected]
I have more to say to the NSW Coroner!
I have used up every iota of my patience in dealing with the NSW Coroner’s office regarding the road crash statistics for the stretch of Kyogle Road that claimed these five lives in seven years: young Lanthy in 2010, an unnamed motorcyclist in early October 2016, my husband Karl Langheinrich on 6 February 2016, and Matilda Bevelander and Cecilia Bevelander on 22 January 2015.
Five living people who are no longer alive.
And yet my request for a Coronial Inquest was denied. Five deaths!
What else would it take for someone to take notice?
I am at my wits’ end. The local municipality is listening. They have repaired the road. Now I want the NSW Coroner to acknowledge that perhaps a closer look at publicly available road crash statistics back in 2015 and then again in 2016 might have made a difference.
Perhaps even saved that motorcyclist’s life?
Here’s our recent correspondence:
On 28/08/2018 10:48 PM, Don McLennan wrote:
Dear Ms Sarkissian,
I refer to your recent requests for the State Coroner or a representative to attend an event on the 30th September and provide a statement.
The State Coroner has previously advised and explained that whilst the State Coroner sincerely hopes your event will be successful, we are unable to send a representative or provide a statement that is outside the scope of an inquest as you have requested.
Don McLennan | Manager Coronial Services NSW | Executive Officer to the NSW State Coroner Department of Justice NSW | State Coroner’s Court, 44 – 46 Parramatta Road, Glebe NSW 2037
From Wendy Sarkissian:
Many thanks for your email.
Of course, I understand.
You do sound a bit terse. Have you possibly lost patience with me?
I am very sorry to bother you, and I hope this is part of your regular paid job — to take time to craft a thoughtful reply to a grieving widow.
This is not part of my paid job — to campaign for better roads and justice for victims and survivors. But it has become my work.
I ask that you please to understand and accept that grieving people have a range of ways of responding to unnecessary road deaths on poorly planned and poorly managed local roads.
Especially when those deaths involve our loved ones.
Mine has become one of principled activism. This is my “survivor mission”.
In the future, other people who lose loved ones in road crashes may want to ask these things of the Coroner — as our communities develop their capacity and become more literate, knowledgeable and sophisticated about what constitutes leading practice in road safety.
That’s what we hope to achieve in our road safety workshop on 30 September.
And one area where I believe the Coroner (and his colleagues) could develop further capacity, literacy and knowledgeability is in the area of road crash statistics, now readily available to the wider public in NSW.
A cursory look at these (readily available) statistics in mid-2016 might have led the Coroner to a much different conclusion regarding my request for an inquest.
Five people died on that stretch of road. Five living beings no longer breathe because of that road.
Surely, this is a matter for real concern.
If five people had died in the same spot over a period of seven years in air crashes, there would be a national outcry — and a national inquiry.
If these shocking statistics do not reflect negligence, I can’t imagine what it would take to rouse people in positions of influence from their somnolence regarding road deaths.
See our updated blog for more information, especially the crash statistics:
Kind regards and gratitude,
Wendy Sarkissian PhD
AN EXPERT COMMENT:
WE ARE ALL VERY BADLY LET DOWN BY THIS FUNDAMENTAL FAILURE AND THE ABSENCE OF CONCERN FOR LEARNING
Today in my email was a message from our UK-based expert road safety advisor, Professor John Whitelegg, editor of the eminent road safety journal, World Transport and Policy and Practice (http://worldtransportjournal.com/):
I read your e-mail exchange with the coroner person and it is very sad and disappointing indeed, to put it mildly, to see such indifference to such a serious matter and to the efforts taken to improve the way that the circumstances around deaths can be converted into intelligent, proportionate action to eliminate as far as humanly possible the causal factors.
We are all very badly let down by this fundamental failure and the absence of concern for learning
All best wishes. What you are doing is incredibly important.
Road to Uki Now Safer
Source: Tweed Link, Issue 1069, 28 August 2018
Council has practically completed work to make a section of
Kyogle Road at Terragon safer.
The work to reduce the likelihood of crashes between Glenock
Road and Gold Gully was funded by the Federal Government
through two Blackspot Program grants provided in the 2017–2018
The curve through the section has been realigned after an
upslope embankment was cut away to provide more room for the
road hugging the river.
The crossfall of the curve has been corrected, a 2.5-metre
wide shoulder has been constructed to provide an opportunity for
a motorist to get back on the road in the event that they do lose
control and a skid-resistant surface has been applied.
A guardrail on the river side of the road is yet to be installed.
While works are practically complete, the speed through the
section is being kept at 40kmh until the guardrail is installed. It will
then be increased to 60kmh and a road safety audit undertaken.
The results of that audit will determine if the speed through the
section will then be increased to 80kmh.
The upgrade of the road cost $1.05 million.
We have been blessed to be able to secure our own Northern Rivers legend, singer/songwriter, Luke Vassella, to sing for us — and to sing with us — at Uki Public Hall on 30th September.
Many of you will remember Luke’s generous and powerful anchoring of the Bentley Blockade in 2014 and the beautiful songs he wrote — and sang — specifically for that activist campaign.
Bless This Road is also an activist event: organised by people who are passionate about road safety, as the Bentley activists are passionate about protecting the Earth and the water from coal seam gas mining.
It’s all about community empowerment.
Luke will sing some of the Bentley Blockade songs — for sure!
And Luke and I will sing my favourite activist song, “A Change of Heart” by American feminist singer, Holly Near. (We also heard Holly Near songs sung at Bentley: she is a classic activist singer/songwriter!)
Holly Near’s song is all about courage. And how noticing someone’s courage changes our perspectives. You can bet that it’s taken courage to speak out for Kyogle Road and road safety in the Northern Rivers.
Luke will also sing a lovely Bentley song by American-Australian environmentalist, Steve Manoa Andrews: https://soundcloud.com/musicofmanoa/we-believe-in-spirit
Steve and I studied with the same environmentalist professors in Perth.
So bring your singing voices to the Uki Hall.
Everyone will be welcome.
Karl claimed that he could not carry a tune, but I reckon he — and Matilda and Cecilia — will be singing along with us on 30th September, as we bring our healing day to a grateful close with “Amazing Grace”.
Vancouver, Canada, 23 August 2018
Remember our Karl? That cheeky smile and warm brown laugh. Those gentle, quirky ways? His raggedy jeans falling off his bony hips? The Oasis’ bush philosopher?
(Oh, sigh. My sweet Beloved.)
Karl died on 6 February 2016, when our car plummeted 30 metres from the Kyogle Road into the Tweed River near Uki.
He drowned in front of me. I could not save him.
Since Karl’s death on the Kyogle Road, I have morphed into a passionate road safety activist. Now I believe that the poor bugger died so that I’d get the bloody road fixed. So nobody else would die there. And fixed it is – after years of desperate lobbying. Federal black spot funding. It opens this month.
So that is good.
But to ensure that Karl did not die in vain, I believe we need to make the lessons of his death explicit. We need to consider what it means when people die on our rural roads. Because the statistics are staggering. From 2010 to 2016, a period of only seven years, five people died on that exact same stretch of Kyogle Road.
In only seven years.
(Not to mention the injuries.)
If five people died in the same place in plane crashes over seven years, there would be a national outcry. ‘How could this happen?’ we’d cry.
But five people died there. And nobody was listening. They were mere ‘statistics’. ‘Fatalities’, the ‘road toll’. Dots on a map. Points on a graph.
Karl, as we all remember, was hardly a statistic. He was a warm, living being who loved life – and all beings (three-legged dogs, especially). And now he is dead. His moment’s inattention on a curve on a winding, wet, slippery road cost him his life. He lost control, poor soul. A death sentence should not be the outcome of a small error. Our roads need to be safer, to be more ‘forgiving’.
You can help me make the learning from Karl’s death explicit by attending our day of road safety education, healing, and celebration in Uki on September 30th.
John Bevelander, who lost both is wife and teenaged daughter on the Kyogle Road in January 2015, is co-hosting Bless This Road with me on Sunday 30th September from 9:30 to 2:30 at the Uki Public Hall.
To learn more and to RSVP, please go to:
Or email me, Wendy Sarkissian, at [email protected]
Please, please, do come and speak out for road safety in the Northern Rivers. The time is now. Right now!
I desperately need your support.
I wanted to remind you all of the “flow” of the Sunday — so you can dress accordingly and feel comfortable with the way the day unfolds.
Our numbers will not be large. This is an intimate gathering.
Part 1: Road Safety Workshop: We begin at 9:30 am with morning tea for the Workshop participants in the meeting room.
The workshop will take place in the small meeting room (so our small number of participants are not feeling “swamped” by the big hall).
Also, we can have acoustic privacy for our hard-hitting workshop while others are setting up food, music, etc. in the hall.
The topic is sombre: road deaths and road safety. Not appropriate for carnival dress.
Part 2: Matilda’s Rainbow Lunch
Then at 12:15, the whole focus shifts, as the road safety workshop participants leave the meeting room to greet and join with other participants who have arrived for the rest of the day.
That corner of the room will be lavishly decorated with rainbow decorations.
Now we are into high energy, bright colours and bright music — as we share Matilda’s rainbow lunch and celebrate the life of Matilda Bevelander.
Matilda Bevelander in 2014, aged 15
We have left our sadness behind and are focussing on the positive aspects of our lives.
I am suggesting that you bring a bright thing to wear for the afternoon — from the lunch onwards — — a feather boa, a bright shirt, a bright shawl, a bright tie, a bright scarf — or whatever — to signal that we are now celebrating — and particularly doing it in the style of a beautiful and vivacious 16-year-old girl.
(I have a rainbow poncho that I will don then.)
Part 3: Gift Giving and Appreciation
In that mode, we move on to Part 3 — after lunch –to proclaim ‘The Matilda Way”.
The Mayor of Tweed Shire, Cr. Katie Milne, will cut a huge ribbon (a rainbow ribbon I purchased today) to formally proclaim this stretch of Kyogle Road (symbolically only) for evermore as “The Matilda Way”.
The final part of our day is gift giving and appreciation — and speeches of thanks.
So can you see you might need a change of clothes? I will leave that up to you.
But I definitely want us all to be in a bright celebratory mode to honour young Matilda.
For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
To Bless the Space Between Us
In November 2017, Lori and I prepared our second annual submission to the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. See: https://worlddayofremembrance.org/
And in January 2018, my survivor mission article was published in an Australian road safety journal.
Mooren, L. and Sarkissian, W. (2017). “We need a louder road safety voice.” World Transport Policy and Practice, 22(4): 83-95. http://worldtransportjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/27th-Feb-opt.pdf
Mooren, L. with Sarkissian, W. (2017). “Tragic failure of a road system: an Australian example.” Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, 28(1): 58-63. http://acrs.org.au/journals/february-2017-vol-28-no-1/