"It's Those Moments Where You Realise That It's A Really Special Place"
The Mardi Gras Parade 2018 is history, the costumes are back in storage, the glitter is washed off, but the memories are still fresh. It’s the perfect moment to look back and see how everything came to be. Mark Smith is an Executive Officer to The University of Sydney Senate, but he’s also the Chair of the Ally Network Steering Committee – and he is Jacky Randa, the Drag Queen at the helm of the University’s float.
Sandra Buol: Mark, can you tell me a little bit about this year’s float? It has been kept a big secret prior to the parade.
Mark Smith: Yes (laughs). We like to keep the floats under wrap because it’s all about the big reveal. As it was the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras and their theme was “40 Years of Evolution”, our theme “Rally. Change. Evolve.” fitted in with the overall theming for Mardi Gras. Part of the reason we came up with “Rally. Change. Evolve.” is also because some of the original 78ers were University of Sydney graduates or actually work here. So, in my mind it was a way of recognising them and that’s how we came up with the theme for our parade float.
I think with any float there are people who will not like the idea, but it’s a bit hard to please everyone and every now and then you have to go and say “Okay, we need a theme, that’s what we’re going to do this year and then we can figure out how we’re going to do it”. And that’s why I also loved doing the butterflies to go along with “Rally. Change. Evolve.”. Because that’s what they do. They come from caterpillars and turn into butterflies. I personally thought that was a very clever idea.
Sandra Buol: When did the planning for this year’s float start? I imagine it’s a long process.
Mark Smith: By November we were definitely in that full-on process of meetings and all that sort of stuff. So, what we generally do, we put out the call-out, saying we’re going to Mardi Gras again, who would like to be part of the working group. The first thing we always do is discuss the general theme of Mardi Gras and figuring what our theme is going to be in accordance to that. Those moments are always a little bit fraught. Obviously, you never go to the first meeting and have it all figured out. It normally takes a few meetings before a decision is made. Once we know our theme, it’s all about what we’re going to do in terms of floats, costuming and all that sort of stuff. We usually have weekly meetings, but after the summer break we get to a point where we don’t need any more meetings because all the decisions have been made. We just need to get everything done in time.
Sandra Buol: Judging by what I saw from the sideline, everything went well this year.
MS: Yeah, look, I’m always extremely proud of everyone who is involved in the parade. The thing that I love about Mardi Gras is that it brings the whole University community together. You meet academics from Arts, and you meet people from Finance and it’s just that lovely moment where – especially on the actual day of the parade – you see everyone milling about together. The other thing that I love seeing is Senior Executives who carry the University’s banner up the parade route, them having an absolute ball with the staff. In those moments, there is no hierarchy. We’re all just there to enjoy ourselves and have a good time. That’s what I really love about doing Mardi Gras. It’s those moments where you realise that it’s a really special place where we work, and these are really wonderful students and staff that we have here.
Sandra Buol: How does the University support the participation in the parade? I assume you get some sort of funding?
MS: Yes. In our HR department we have the TODD team, it stands for Talent, Organisational Development & Diversity. In that particular team, as part of their overall annual budget bid, they request from the University funding for the various networks that we have and all the diversity and inclusion events that they would like to run for the year. The Ally Network is part of what they request funding for. So, the University allocates some budget for our float. That’s why we’re always very careful to come in under budget or right on budget and that’s also why each year we recycle whatever we can, for example for Jacky Randa, the drag queen persona that we created.
Sandra Buol: Has it ever been a problem to get funding from the University considering some people around here are quite conservative?
Mark Smith: No, not at all. This year, the University is even holding a conference at the end of June to commemorate the actual 40th anniversary date of Mardi Gras. The Ally Network in liaison with the Faculty of Arts and the Culture Strategy Unit has put in a funding bid to the University and we got some budget allocated to us to do that.
I understand what you mean though. There are people around here who are conservative. But the University has never stopped the Ally Network from doing anything that we wanted to do. The classic example is Mardi Gras. The Ally Network was established in 2015. At the end of that year there was a network meeting and we decided to do Mardi Gras 2016. It was a case of “Why don’t we ask?”. So, we asked and the vice-chancellor was “Yes, do it”. At that point in time we thought we would just get a banner and a group of people together and just wear some t-shirts. It was the vice-chancellor who turned around and said “No, if you’re going to do Mardi Gras, do it properly. You’ll need a float”. Many people think the University is conservative and we’re not allowed to do many things in the LGBTIQ space, where in fact we do a lot. The institution is changing. I think we’re moving to be very un-conservative.
Sandra Buol: That’s very interesting. Considering this, where do you see the biggest issues for LGBTIQ students on campus?
Mark Smith: That’s a good question and I think depending on who you speak to, you will get a whole raft of different answers. For myself, I think, while we’re slowly changing and becoming more of an open and friendly campus, there is still more work to do in that space. We have to make sure that our students feel comfortable enough to be who they are when they come here. And that’s especially true for our trans students. There are sections of the student population who just can’t get their head around what being a trans person means. Well, it just means they’re a person. But the University is a learning environment and it’s the people who you meet who can give you a learning experience.
There are still issues. The gender-neutral toilets will be an issue for a little while longer until we can strike that right balance. And to ensure that students and staff can bring their whole self to the University and know that they are in a safe environment still requires a little bit of work. But I think we’re on our way. And that’s the most important thing.
Sandra Buol: Thank you Mark for taking the time to talk with Pulp.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
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Image credit: Ally Network