We speak to Tara Winkler, founder of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, on how she is entering a new era of driving revolutionary change in Cambodia.
After 2 years of limited travel, you must be happy being on the ground again?
Tell us a little bit about your return to Cambodia post-covid?
I never intended to be in Australia throughout the pandemic. I happened to be in Sydney when the borders closed in March 2020. It was a huge shock to suddenly be separated from my home and work in Cambodia. The two years that followed were dominated by a health crisis and a lot of trauma. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the pandemic years have been the hardest of my life. There were times in which I genuinely didn’t think I would survive or ever get back to Cambodia again. So returning this year has been extremely cathartic.
Have there been challenges?
There are always challenges! I have PTSD from the events of last year, so returning to Cambodia meant I had to push myself outside my comfort zone and dig deep to find the courage to leave the safety and comfort of life in Sydney. Moving so far from my doctors, support team and people who literally saved my life last year was scary as hell, but I’m so glad I did. Reconnecting with my spiritual home is helping me heal.
CCT is also going through a major transformation. Change management is always hard, especially when you’re doing work that goes against the grain and pushes back against the status quo. But luckily we have an incredible team of Cambodians who wholeheartedly believe in CCT’s vision.
Image – Jodhi Meares and Tara Winkler
What has been the highlight so far about being back?
The highlight has been reconnecting with my ride-or-die, Sinet Chan. Sinet was one of the oldest kids we helped to escape from an abusive orphanage in 2007 when CCT first began. We are only a few years apart in age and forged a bond that’s been unbreakable ever since. I was also over the moon to be reunited with my old dog, Frank. I found him as an abandoned 5-week old puppy when I first moved to Cambodia. He’s 15 years old now and I’m just so relieved I got back in time to see him again.
What have you discovered about yourself?
I learnt that being shackled down by fear is no way to live. So, if something scares me, that’s how I know I must do it. When you live through a nightmare and survive, it teaches you that you’re strong enough to face whatever comes next. It’s wonderfully liberating to overcome the thing that scares you most.
What was the most challenging thing about running CCT from Australia over covid?
My role at CCT is shifting from one of leadership to allyship. CCT is now led by a remarkable team of Cambodians, who did an amazing job of pivoting our programs to respond to the communities’ changing needs through the pandemic. My role is increasingly focused on finding the funding to empower local ideas and innovation. Fundraising through the pandemic was almost impossible though. As a result, we have a lot of catching up to do this year to raise the funds needed to realise our vision.
Do you think this time period has made people view activism differently, if so, how?
From the very beginning, the virus forced us to think about interdependencies and relationships, from attempts to stop the spread to issues with supply chains. It shined a light on the connections that capitalism teaches us not to think about. When we were all forced to slow down through months of lockdown, suddenly, there was space and time for empathy. I think many of us became more acutely aware of the deep divisions that exist, both within and between countries. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we saw a massive Black Lives Matter uprising during the pandemic. Black and brown communities across the globe bore a disproportionate burden of the fatalities from the virus, defying the idea that we are all in this together. Hopefully, that awareness continues to motivate us to change the systems responsible for these global structural inequalities.
Tell us about the project you are working on currently, you mentioned your blazing a trail into unchartered territory…
CCT is on the cusp of undertaking a significant transformation. In 2012, we took an incredible leap as the first orphanage in Cambodia to transform into a family-based care model. We have since become the leading social services provider for northwest Cambodia.
However, we have realised that while we continue to provide direct services to families in crisis, the region will forever be dependent on our aid, stifling its development. If we’re ever to achieve Sustainable Development Goals, we need to address the systemic issues that cause them to end up in crisis in the first place.
The solution to eradicating poverty is to redirect our focus to the systems-building work that will prevent families from falling into poverty. Today, everything we do at CCT works toward one vision; to dismantle neocolonial systems of development and ignite local wisdom to eradicate poverty. We have set sail towards this vision with the launch of a big, audacious pilot in partnership with the local community in Battambang, Cambodia.
The Location Integration Pilot’s mission is to shift power to the Cambodian people by creating a sustainable system of social protection that is owned and operated by local communities. What this means is that local communities will have all the resources they need to rise to the challenge of transforming their own world and combat systemic poverty.
This pilot is blazing a trail into unchartered territory because it’s never been done before. If we succeed, it will create revolutionary change in Cambodia.
What is the most important thing people can do right now to help?
Making a donation to CCT is the most important thing people can do to help. The one obstacle in the way of CCT’s mission is that people are primarily interested in donating to charities doing ‘downstream’ work – i.e. rescuing people in crisis. There is simply not enough funding for charities doing systems-change work that will actually prevent these crises from happening. A donation to CCT will help to ignite local wisdom to eradicate poverty. With an upstream approach, we believe it really is possible!
The other thing you can do to help is to spread the word. Follow us on social media and share our posts to raise awareness about the harms of orphanages and the need to decolonise international development.
Tara Winkler’s Instagram – @tarawinkler
Tara Winkler’s Facebook
CCT’s Instagram – @cctcambodia
$1 from every transaction is donated to CCT to provide support, resources and opportunity, shop new arrivals and make a difference.