S4 E05 Cycling Together

Recorded at a live, online book launch of Trace Balla’s latest creation Cycling Together.

Trace is a multi award winning author, illustrator and creates the most beautiful graphic novellas, including Rivertime, Rockhopping and the Thank you Dish.

This is a beautiful book with a very important message. Trace has created this book to support the work her brother Mark Balla is doing in India to help girls stay in school with his charity Operation Toilets.  We are joined today by both Trace and Mark. We are also joined by Jane Bennett, menstrual educator and agent of cultural change around how women and girls think and feel about their monthly cycle.

The event happened on Sat 18th September 2021.


How to get the book:     https://traceballa.com/cyclingtogether

Trace Balla website: https://traceballa.com

Mark Balla:

TED talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3xr13xFfto

Toilet Warrior: https://www.toiletwarrior.net/

Operation Toilets: https://www.operationtoilets.org.au/

Jane Bennett:

Chalice Foundation: https://chalicefoundation.org/

Celebration Day For Girls: https://celebrationdayforgirls.com/

Topics we’ve discussed:

Drawdown – educating girls: https://drawdown.org/solutions/health-and-education

United Nations goals: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/

This episode was created in 2021 as part of a series called Saltgrass: Turning the Goldfields Green, which was created with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation.


A quick note about the transcripts: 

Our transcripts are created using both speech recognition software and human transcribers, and though we do our best to avoid errors they may occur. Please check the audio before quoting in print.

Some sounds in the podcast may not translate easily to the written word, we describe these when possible. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible. 

Allie Hanly: Hello, and welcome to another episode of salt grass, a show about how local communities can engage with a climate crisis at a grassroots level. My name is Allie Hanly. In this episode, I’m going to share audio of a book launch that happened on Saturday. Due to covid restrictions we were not able to have this event live at the library here in Castlemaine, so it was moved online. We were able to share images and videos with the online audience, which you will hear our guests talking about as we go through. Those images are going to be included on the episode page of the Saltgrass website and all links to the topics discussed can be found in the show notes on both the podcast app and the Saltgrass website.

So, let’s dive straight in.

Welcome to the launch of Trace Balla’s latest creation called Cycling Together. As many of you tuning in today will know, Trace is a multi award-winning author and illustrator, and she creates the most beautiful graphic novels, including River Time and Rock Hopping and The Thankyou Dish.

Cycling Together is her latest creation. And it’s a really beautiful book with a really important message. So, Trace has created this book to support the work of her brother, Mark Balla, who’s joining us today. So, Mark Balla is doing work in India to help girls stay in school by building toilets. We talk about Mark’s charity Operation Toilets, and then we’ll talk about the book of course, Cycling Together. And we’re also joined by Jane Bennett, who is a menstrual educator, an agent of cultural change about how women and girls think and feel about their monthly cycle.

So, many of you joining us today for the live event may not know me, my name’s, uh, Allie Hanly, and I have a radio show and podcast called Saltgrass, which is all about how local communities can work together to create grassroots change. And my show focuses on climate and sustainability. And the reason I’m here today to host this event is because this topic of girl’s toilets and education of girls in India is actually really relevant to climate change and both the United Nations in their sustainability goals and Project Drawdown have identified educating girls as a really important part of mitigating climate change and affecting our global emissions.

So, Jane and I will discuss that a little later in the show after we’ve given Mark and Trace a chance to have a chat about their particular projects. And at the end of the session, we’ll have some time for questions and answers. So, we’ll be talking for about 30 or 40 minutes, and then we’ll have some time for a Q and A at the end. So, I think it’s also really important to note upfront that all of Trace’s work in the creating this book and publishing it, and self-publishing it, has been done without any payment or gain for herself. She’s done it out of love for this project that Mark is doing and all profits from the sale of the book go to Operation Toilets. So I think that’s definitely worth noting. And we’ll say that again later.

Before we begin, I did want to just sort of mention something that’s happened in our local community that has affected both Trace and myself, which is in the passing of a very special and amazing person called John Reid.

He’s a sourdough baker and I’ve done an episode or two with him. And I used, also used to work for him when I first move here to Castlemaine and Trace is quite close with members of his family. So, we’re both feeling that a little bit and it might affect us a little bit today, but we’re, we’re very excited to share Trace’s latest book with you, so we thought we’d go ahead with the session today.

And I also want to acknowledge, of course, that the four of us are speaking to you from Aboriginal land.

Trace, Jane and myself are on Djaara country, which is the home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, and Mark is joining us from Melbourne on Wurundjeri country. And we’d all like to pay respect to elders past and present and honour the next generation of Aboriginal leaders that are emerging today. This country holds us and supports us and sovereignty was never ceded.

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app or at saltgrasspodcast.com

Allie Hanly: All right. So we’re going to start with Mark today. Founder of Operation Toilets, which I believe used to be called We Can’t Wait. Mark, can you unmute yourself quickly and give us a quick explanation of what operation toilets is and how it started? And I can start that slideshow anytime you like. 

Mark Balla: All right. I’ll let you know when. So look, thanks so much for organizing this launch for trace this incredible book. And I’ve got to thank Trace before anything else for her generosity in putting a book together and handing over the rights to the organisation that I founded Operation Toilets. It’s a, it’s a big deal for an author just to hand over the rights to a book, fantastic Trace, and it is going to make a difference to the lives of lot of kids in India and Ethiopia and, and other parts of the world where we are active. So, let’s have a look at that first slide. I’ll tell you a bit about how Operation Toilets started and this will lead into what it’s all about. So I was in India on business. It’ll be about nine years ago. And this first slide will show a very important place in, in my world.

I was in India on business and I met a couple of young guys on a train and we got chatting for a bit. And before I knew it, they invited me to come and visit their community. So, the place you’re looking at here is the community that I was invited to visit by these two young guys on the train. It’s a place called Dharavi.

It’s a slum in Mumbai with a population of about a million people. And for anyone who knows Melbourne, it’s probably about twice the size of Albert Park lake. So that’s a, it’s a seriously crowded place. I’ve been many times I’ve got great friends who live there now, but on this particular occasion, when I was taken there, I was pretty nervous.

Slums don’t have a great reputation as being all that safe for foreigners, but I decided to have a look anyway, and right at the end of this visit, these guys took me into a school and I was looking around the school and I noticed there are lots of little boys and little girls know lots of teenage boys, but there were no teenage girls in the school at all.

The reason I was told is there were no toilets in the school. And as the girls reached puberty, managing their personal needs when they were menstruating just became far too difficult. And also, you know, adolescent girls can’t just go to the toilet outside in the way little kids can, boys and men have been using trees and walls and bushes since time began, but that’s just not appropriate in a crowded place like this for girls and women.

And so, as a result, the girls are just dropping out. From there after doing a whole lot of reading and learning and introspecting about what all this meant. I decided to start this little charity We Can’t Wait, which is now called Operation Toilet. It was actually absorbed by a rotary club here in Melbourne, which has done amazing work.

The rotary club of Box Hill Central and has helped us take this initial shock of finding girls dropping out of school because of lack of toilets and turn it into a real impact. And I want to tell you a little bit about the very beginning of that. If we can have a look at the next slide, this is a little village that someone took me to visit about three months after I’d been to the slum. And I was still very green and very much in the learning phase of what was going on here. 

This school was in a village of 300 people. And it was a primary school. You can see about half the kids from the school on the ramp there. So the 25 kids in the school, about half of ’em there, one teacher, the young woman on the left was about 25 years old, was the, the teacher in the school and the school had no toilet.

So I asked her how she managed and she told us that she would take the bus to work every day, about two hours from her hometown. She’d work all day and then she’d take the bus home. And when she got home, the first thing she’d do would be to have a big drink of water. What she was telling us was that she’d go the entire day without drinking water, just for fear that she might need to go to the toilet.

She then told us that when she had a period, she couldn’t work at all, which meant the kids were missing school, which meant the mums were staying home from their day wage jobs to look after the kids, the family incomes were going down. So you got the children’s education curtailed, you got family income being adversely affected. And of course, everyone in the community knew when this young woman had her period. So her dignity was being smashed as well. So the guy who took me there and I, we decided between us, we would fund the construction of one toilet and one wash basin to serve the needs of the school, just to see how it went.

And I had a call from him about three months later, I was back in Australia and he said he had a message for me from the teacher letting me know that the first thing she did when she arrived at the school these days was have a big drink of water. Amazing instant change in her life. Not only that the previous month was the first time she’d been able to go to school and work every day for the entire month, since she’d started working at the school, which means that the kids’ education’s back on track, family incomes are back up and she’s got her privacy back, her dignity back, the whole community benefited from the construction of one toilet, one wash basin.

So pretty exciting stuff. And this was something that affected 25 children, a community of 300 people. And then we started to grow this concept further. And I’m going to show you a short video of something that I saw about three years ago. These are the girls toilets in a school of 3000 children. The smell was horrendous.

When I went in there, I had to turn around and walk straight out and I thought, no, I’m going to film this to show people. Now you can see where they’d been to the toilet on the ground. They were telling us with that, they wanted somewhere private to go to the toilet. Even this was better than the alternative of going outside.

I’ve been to this school a few times and every time I went into these toilets, I was just shattered by the experience. On one occasion I wasn’t allowed to go back in at all because there were too many snakes in the toilets and yet the girls were still using it as a toilet.

The last time I was there was very different.

We very happily consigned that abomination to history and replaced it with three of these. And I hope you’ll agree if you can see that, that that’s got to be the most beautiful toilet block you’ve ever seen in your life. We built three of them with 35 toilets altogether for the 3000 kids who were doing morning shift and afternoon shift.

So it’s basically 1500 per shift. And I went back a couple of times to see how it was going on the last visit, which was December 2019. I think you might have been there for this Trace. As we were leaving the school, a couple of girls came running up to us, stood in our path and said, sir we wanted you to know that you’ve changed our lives with these toilets.

It was one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of my life, being told this by the beneficiaries, because so often when we do work for others, we, we don’t hear from them how it’s going. We just, we hope it’s helping and to hear from them directly, that it was making a difference was extraordinary.

So, I’m going to wind up just letting you know that Operation Toilets has gone from that first conceptual project to help 25 kids.

We’ve now reached more than a hundred thousand in schools all over India and now in Ethiopia as well. And we’ve been consulting for project opportunities in the Middle East, Timor Leste, in the Solomon Islands, even Guatemala. And it’s just going from strength to strength and support from Trace and Jane and now you Alison as well. It just helps to ensure that we can reach even more children in desperate need. 

Allie Hanly: Great. Thanks so much, Mark. That was really good to hear about that project and actually see what it’s like over there and what they’ve been dealing with, and what I’m sure so many schools over there are like. I’m sure you’ve only started scratching the surface in terms of how many people you can help with this particular problem.

So let’s have a chat with Trace now, Trace you’ve created this gorgeous book called Cycling Together, which is available both digitally and as a hard copy. And we’ll get to that a little later, but let’s start with a title. Why did you call it Cycling Together

Trace Balla: Well, I used it in two ways. So, I’ve always been a bike advocate.

I’m a big bike rider and there’s many reasons I can talk about that. And also like the menstrual cycles. And I wanted to talk about also poverty cycles and cutting the link between menstrual cycles and poverty cycles. And so that we’re all together. So, it took me a while to come up with the name, but I’m really happy with it. And when I met these girls with all the bikes, it was like, yeah, this is right.

Allie Hanly: Makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great name. And I think if there’s a lot of, and we can talk to Jane about this a bit later, but there’s, there’s often a lot of squeamishness about periods, but, ‘cycling together’ feels like a really beautiful way to a) describe periods without it being squeamish and weird. And also it’s beautiful and inclusive and energetic. It’s lovely. 

Trace Balla: There’s also this thing where, you know, women living in the same house or whatever often do cycle together.

Allie Hanly: True. Yeah.

Trace Balla: That was a big part of it.

Allie Hanly: Yeah. Great. So. Let’s talk about how you got involved. You went to India near the end of 2019 for a book tour, but that got derailed didn’t it? And then it led to this. Can you tell us that story? 

Trace Balla: Yeah, so I was invited to go and show my books with the Australian embassy over there. And then at the last minute it fell apart. But when I heard that I’d got air ticket, basically, I was like, yes. Now I can go and meet these girls that… actually I’ll show you the one before…

This is the girls that Mark was talking about that came running over. I wanted to go and meet the girls that had toilets, and didn’t, because I’d read Mark’s book and heard about his project. And I just felt there was like a way that I could make another book.

Allie Hanly: Sorry, just for the audience Mark has released a book called Toilet Warrior, and there’s a link to that in the chat if anyone wants to find out more about that, but yeah. Sorry, go on Trace.

Trace Balla: No, it’s, there’s so much to talk about. So Mark’s book, it talks a lot about creating the project. And it’s probably aimed at adults and older young people. I wanted to make a book for girls at the age of getting their periods so that they could really relate to the project.

And also I wanted to make a book for girls who had the privilege of having a clean period and being able to go to school. To empower them to find a way that they could help in this planet that has so many problems. Here’s a way that they could actually do something that was really significant for many people and very doable.

And so I also knew that it was very good for environment. So I just jumped on board and said, I want to be a part of this and support your cause. And, can you tell me some, some places to go? And then in the Mark decided, well, hang on, you’re going on this trip. I want to come. And meanwhile, the book tour got canceled.

And so I had like a few days where I was just being an artist. So I’ll just show you quickly. There’s me just being an artist in the streets of, in India.

Allie Hanly: And you are amazing trace. I’ve traveled with you before. And if you see something that interests you, you’ll just stop on the spot and just start drawing it.

Trace Balla: Yeah. So I’ve stopped at the market and it’s usually a lot of people, that’s what I was drawing, the women making baskets. That’s the start of that sketch. And Mark was with me smelling the spices in the spice markets. It’s a lovely way to meet people and to connect by drawing as you go. And so I travel that way and I spend my life that way, I guess.

Allie Hanly: Did you get the idea of creating the book while you’re over there? Or did you come home and sort of think about it for a while and then realize… cos I mean, pretty much as soon as you got home, COVID started happening and everything started shutting down and you lost a lot of work, I know that year, ‘cos you’d often do school tours and talks and things which all got canceled because of lockdown.

Trace Balla: Well, this book, my last book was going to be launched on the first week of our first lockdown, and you can see it’s bike story as well. So, I really seem to be able to slip bikes very well into my books. Well, actually they play important roles. I’ll just show you that quickly first.

So, actually speaking of our dear friend, Johnny Reid, I have represented him in his bakery- many times! Here’s one example in my book, Heart Of The Bubble, which is about the good things that came out of that come out of lockdown.

So, then when I went over there, I already had a bit of a plan that I wanted to have two girls, one with more privilege than the other, and to see these two parallel lives and what would happen if one didn’t have a toilet and then was given a toilet – two different outcomes. So, it’s almost like those choose your own adventure stories where there’s a change that happens. and then I’ve subtly put the bike thing in. So here the first boy’s on a motorbike, but at the end, he’s on a bicycle.

So here you can see the difference in how the two girls get to school. One goes on the back of her bike and the other girl walks with her family. And this is the girl that I sort of based the motorbike on who I stayed with her family for 10 days. And I guess they’d be middle class. And then by the end of the story, though, the privileged of the kids was they got to actually ride bikes. So I’ve snuck the bike theme in there without actually talking about it.

Allie Hanly: Yeah. And I, I think the beauty of the story is that it really gently unfolds the compounding kind of impact of a lack of toilets and how that affects a girl’s life on a really broad scale over the whole span of her life, and then affects her children as well.

You just describe how she starts falling behind at school, ’cos she has to miss school because there are no toilets while she’s got her period. And then how that leads to her dropping out of school and just working the way her mother has worked and then how that affects their children. And then you kind of rewind, it’s like a sliding doors moment where you describe her life again.

And it’s still affluence with more poverty, different class girls, but their trajectory is so much closer and more closely aligned if the poorer girl has access to toilets and can stay in school and how important that is. 

Trace Balla: Yeah, absolutely. And I saw it first hand. So this girl here, her family, their business, was picking rags, off rag piles off rubbish piles. And I love this photo because the girl in this photo, she’s a teenager and she really wants to learn. And they were in a program that was trying to get kids with absolute poverty into schools. And so this was just teaching them to learn how to be students basically. And that hunger for learning to get out of that poverty cycle was so apparent with these beautiful girls.

Allie Hanly: Do we want to show a little video of girls saying their ambitions with their education. Is this a good time for that?

Trace Balla: Yeah. These girls here they’re at the school and that would be great here actually. Because the toilet there was absolutely terrible. I can show you a picture within a minute, but yeah. Why don’t you show that?

Allie Hanly: So we’ve just got a little video that Trace and Mark took while they were over there of some girls who just one by one stood up and said, what they wanted to be when they grew up and just keep in mind that all of these ambitions, none of them would be possible unless they’re able to finish their education.

Lots of excited girls voices calling out jobs like ‘police’, ’doctor’, ‘teacher’, ’teacher’, ‘police, ‘military’, ‘engineer’, ‘mechanical engineer’, ‘dancer’.

Trace Balla: You get the idea, and I think what was really nice about that moment was that the girls and I would go into a place where men and boys weren’t invited and to bring that film back out and show it to Mark. I think Mark, that was a big moment for you, I remember. 

Mark Balla: Yeah, look, I think we we’d often wondered what, what the girls would say if there weren’t men present.

And I think some of the conversations you were able to have with them just allowed them to be much freer. It was great to see, quite emotional to see, that they’re now able to think about a future with, with possibilities, as opposed to their peers in other schools that don’t have an acceptable standard of facility that they don’t look forward to a future of with some kind of imagination of how good it might be. So, yeah, beautiful. 

Trace Balla: This is the moment in the book where there’s a picture I’m just showing here of a girl by the water, a water pump, and her mother’s got two children, little ones, and she’s collecting water that she’s going to carry. And it’s this moment where the girl saying I’m not going to school, ‘cos there’s no toilet.

And it’s just this heartbreaking moment for me in that story. And then this photo as the girls who followed Mark to tell him ‘we’ve got toilets and our lives have changed’.

Mark Balla: And you can see the yellow toilets in the background that you saw in my photo earlier.

Trace Balla: Yes. They’re so happy.

Allie Hanly: That’s great. So Trace, tell us about the self-publishing journey and what it’s taken to get this book to happen.

Trace Balla: So… self-publishing (laughs) is very challenging, especially if it’s not a big skill for me, it’s not a big skill that sort of paper-worky stuff. I’m a good drawer and dreamer of stories. So, I enlisted some people to help me, Sandy Coventry did the design, it was fantastic. And everyone did everything voluntarily. Kat Dretzke came on board to help make the website and all sorts of things, and she’s still helping me with things.

Jane Bennett here. I can’t thank enough for going, ‘come on, we really want this book!’, and Jane and Rachel Pilgrim, menstrual educators were really like supportive in that way. Cause they knew that there was a real spot for this, with those age girls. I also had Rosie Annear help me type things up.

And Erica Wagner, my old publisher helped me a little bit with tweaking the book, but yeah, it’s a really tricky challenge. And if anyone suddenly wanted to publish this book, I’d say yes, please take it.

Anyway, I’ve put it online so you can just buy it yourself.

But yeah, Jane, I can’t thank you enough for really having faith in this project. I wouldn’t have actually done it. I would’ve given up because, yeah, it just felt like corona put the toilets on hold, the toilet building, which now they’re going ahead. Aren’t they Mark? They’re back on. 

Mark Balla: Yeah. It’s coming back in gradually. It’s been hard, but yes, it is now alive again. And by the way, we’re getting this book translated into Hindi and Marathi for you.. 

Allie Hanly: That’s really great.

Trace Balla: Yeah. I think’s really helped.

Allie Hanly: Yeah. So I’ve just added links again in the chat. If anyone wants to find links to either Mark or Trace or Jane and amongst all those links is one to Trace’s website, which is traceballa.com. And if you go to the Cycling Together page there, you can figure out how to get a copy of the book.

So, Trace people can buy it either as a digital or a hard copy. How does that work? 

Trace Balla: Yeah. So in fact, I think it’s great. Just getting the digital, you just get it immediately. And also at the back of the book and on the webpage, there’s some films about the girls, but there’s also like inspiration to have a fundraiser.

And now, while people are locked down, you can actually do it at home, have a little craft session with your friends. And maybe if everyone just bought the book, then that’s their donation to the cause. And if they want to pay more they can, but just by doing that and having a craft session together, maybe making some pads or one of the other ideas in the book, you are actually really helping something really significant with huge ripple out effects.

So, and then otherwise you can do print on demand, or if you wanted to buy a school, a big school set, you could email and we could organize it with the printer. 

Allie Hanly: Great. Thanks Trace. Jane Bennett. We haven’t heard from you yet, and I really want to get to you.

So Trace said that you were, a major influence in encouraging her and giving that boost to keep going with this book, ‘cos it’s really hard to do a project when you’re just doing it on your own and trying to reach that end goal.

So, it’s really important to have your cheer squad, you know, telling you to keep going and that it’s important. What did you see about this project that you thought was important. And I guess this obviously ties in with your work. I’ll explain to people that you’re the founder of the Chalice Foundation and Celebration Day for Girls and, and various other projects, which all are helping women and girls embrace and create more positivity about their monthly cycles. So how did you see Trace’s book and why did you think it was so important that this came into the world?

Jane Bennet: I was so excited when Trace and I got together sometime after you’d come back from India in a non-lockdown time. And you showed me and talked to me about the project.

I was already aware of Operation Toilets, and I had read Mark’s book. So I was really excited to see what you’d done Trace. And for me it ticks so many boxes. Of course, it’s a very practical way to help support Operation Toilets, which is an awesome project, really changing lives and communities, and all the ticks for, you know, Project Draw Down and the UN sustainability goals.

So on a big global level, that’s certainly is part of it. But also, you know, this change for individual lives as you’ve both spoken about. And for me, the particular lens that I bring to it is menstrual education. And I can see from the perspective of really everyone that reads the book. I mean, I totally adore Trace’s, wonderful style, her delightful graphic novels, and also the quality of this one, you know, which I also see in your other books Trace, but in this one, there’s the poignancy that you’ve both spoken about with just telling the story and showing us a few of the pictures. And also ultimately the humanity and optimism in it. And, and I think it’s, it’s such a wonderful story to share really for anyone who reads it. I love it myself, but to share in schools and young people, just to have that cultural relativity perspective and, and to really get inspired to, to support the project as well.

I’ll just mention on Trace’s website, on the, Cycling Together page, there’s also links to extension activities for teachers that were created by largely – I know you did some Trace – but largely by Keitha Theodore, who’s a teacher in Ballarat here in Victoria, and these are, all these activities they fit in with the velves and the Australian curriculum.

So really great stuff in there. So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel if you’re a teacher or you just want to run some activities with young people. Or they could be used if you’re having a fundraising party as Trace was talking about. So for me, it’s wonderful. You know, a little book just does so many things.

Allie Hanly: Yeah. I think also for me, it’s like even here in the West where we are supposedly quite liberal and open about our bodies and what they do, and the feminist movement has done a lot over a lot of years to make it not taboo. There’s still a lot of shame and a lot of hiding… and not talking about it and on lots of levels in society and in our culture. I think though, seeing Trace’s book and how difficult it is elsewhere in the world to be a woman is a really good reminder of how far we’ve come here.

Now, Jane, I also was really interested to talk to you about how this all fits in with climate crisis and sustainability. And I know that Trace has talked about cycling and so much of Trace’s work talks to how we could live a different way to walk lighter on the earth.

And I would love to hear how you see this particular book linking to those themes.. 

Jane Bennet: Well, I hope I’ve got these numbers, right… in the Project Drawdown they’re ranked from one to a hundred – awesome book if you can borrow it somewhere or buy – is number six, which is they’re ranked as most substantive from one to a hundred.

So number six is educating girls and in all sorts of measures. It just makes so much difference to environmental impact to educate girls. Now there’s lots of different things that can be done to help support educating girls, but what Mark has been inspired to do, and all the people that have worked with you and get passionate about this project too Mark, is just take away one of the barriers for those in places where this has happened. And of course the many where that’s yet to happen. And it’s a very practical thing that can be done and there can be other economic and there can be other cultural issues that need to be dealt with as well and worked on. So there’s obviously a lot of nuance to keeping girls in school, but simply by providing a toilet where girls can feel safe and private and to manage their periods really enables so many girls to be able to stay at school.

So that’s, you know, really straightforward. I mean, we could, I don’t think we’ve got time to go to all the reasons why educating girls is number six. I just recommend you grab the book if that’s not immediately apparent to you.

And the UN 2015 sustainability goals, gender equity is number four.

So, you know, that’s very early on in, in those goals as well. And, of course, there’s many factors to gender equity, but certainly education is a big part of that. And being able to keep girls in schools make that possible for them. So that then all the flow on effects as you’ve done so beautifully in your book, Trace,  the flow on effect of what happens when a girl is able to be educated, able to earn income, the change then for her family and for future generations, for the community, bringing the benefits of her training back to her community, so on and so forth really makes a huge difference. Yeah, 

Allie Hanly: Absolutely. Mark. I understand that your charity is working beyond India now, are you looking outside of your original scope of works? 

Mark Balla: We have a pretty big project underway in Ethiopia at the moment in the south of the country, which is a good thing, ‘cos the north is in a horrible situation politically at the moment. But the south, they’re managing covid.  

It’s interesting, the comment we had about covid from someone over there is, you know, this is just another thing that can kill us. They don’t have the same panic about it as we seem to have in Western countries. Because they’ve already got a lot of other things and it’s not that it’s not taken seriously, but perhaps just different context.

And so they’re getting on with stuff. I mean, it’s tough, but they’re getting on with things and the project’s going well, this is, it’s a big project. It’s going to reach 30,000 people, not just schools, but also communities. And we’ve just started looking into some opportunities in Nepal and I’ve been fairly involved in consulting with a project in Guatemala as well.

But yeah, we’re going to go where the need is, which is everywhere. It’d be easier if we could actually go rather than just do it on zoom. But you know, the reality is we’ve got our partners on the ground, in these places who are just so good at the work that they do. They don’t actually need us to be there, to do it.

They need us to support them financially. They need us to support them with the storytelling and, and when possible to come over and meet them because the value of meeting the beneficiaries face to face, it’s not just good for us in our storytelling. It’s also fantastic for the beneficiaries.

It’s telling them, ‘gee, this must be important if someone’s getting on a plane to come and see us’.

One of the things that people don’t realise in the west is giving someone a toilet doesn’t make them use it. Doesn’t make them realise it’s important. If you give it to them because it’s free, yeah, they’re gonna take it.

So it comes down to education and part of the education is highlighting just how important it is and the impact it can have on their future. Jane was talking about the sustainable developmental goal and where educating girls is number six there. And I know you can’t go into it all, but there are a couple or two or three that really stand out from our perspective is that if girls stay in school longer, they get married later. They have fewer kids. Their kids are less likely to die in the first five years of their lives and their lifetime income capacity goes up five or 10% for each additional year in school. It’s just so impactful on so many levels. 

Allie Hanly: Mm, that’s amazing. Now, Mark, I’ve got one more question for you and then we might throw over to the audience and see if there are questions. So what did you do before this happened? What were you doing with your life? And are you now a full-time toilet builder or are you still working another job on the side? 

Mark Balla: My life is very much completely in the toilet these days, in a really, really good way. I was in CD and DVD manufacturing before this, when it was still a good idea. And I got out of it when it was still a good idea, luckily, which has allowed me to make this decision for this to be a big focus in my life. And, uh, yeah, I can’t see myself ever getting tired of this stuff because the impact is there forever.

And when you hear stories like those two girls who came up to me and Trace saying it had changed their lives, I mean, how do you stop? 

Allie Hanly: Trace. Did you want to add something? 

Trace Balla: Yeah. I just not sure how clear it was about the other side of when they don’t have toilets. For what really struck me was some of the things like girls having kidney diseases, because they’re holding on all day and just the implications of that.

When they took me to one of the toilets, it was like down this really long path of long grass. And there was like this little shed thing and there was some guys down there and it was like…? They were telling me about snakes, there’s tigers, they were talking about scorpions. I mean, can you imagine here anyone I know… it’s just a given. And so for me, it was like really eye opening to see how difficult it was as a human need and how much that’s impacted. It’s just, it’s hard not to want to wave the flag on it. When you see it for yourself, like I did, you can never unsee it.

I’m just going to second what my friend, Sarah has written a huge acknowledgement to Mark, of being a male who’s embraced and supported these fundamental and very personal needs of young girls. Mark, I’ve been so proud of you doing this, as a man. And I always say to my friends this, oh my gosh, I can’t thank you enough in that way, because it was a hidden thing when I was a teenager. You’ll know a lot about this Jane, that this shame thing we don’t talk about it. And now… I mean, the girls weren’t certainly talking to me about things behind the door from Mark.

Mark Balla: Yeah, they’re not ready to have that conversation with men yet. And I mean, they’ve still got to, even here, it’s still difficult, but over there that they’re not ready. They they’re getting there and it’ll come and thank you, both Sarah and Trace for that acknowledgement. But when you think about it, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a daughter, I’ve got two sisters. I’ve got female friends. None of us would be in this conversation if it wasn’t for periods. So … 

Allie Hanly: that’s so true! laughs

Mark Balla: It’s pretty, it’s pretty reasonable to say, well, if it’s catastrophic, why would someone not want to get involved? 

Allie Hanly: And I guess also in countries where the gender roles are more entrenched, you as a man can perhaps organize funds and building and projects like that in a way that maybe the local women aren’t able. 

Mark Balla: There may be a bit of that. But I think the other part of it is that this is everyone’s problem. It’s not just a women’s problem. This is everyone’s problem. When it’s so bad it’s everyone’s issue. I mean, to me, if you ask a father in the developing country in a poor community, in a developing country, how is it for your daughter?

The answer will generally be ‘it’s horrible’. Whereas in a Western country, the answer may well be, well, I don’t really know because I know that my wife helped her buy her first pads or tampons. And if she does have issues that need to be dealt with the local GP is really going to be able to help. So as a man here, men need to be less involved.

At least there’s a perception of that. And perhaps that perception needs to change as well. 

Allie Hanly: well, that’s interesting. I think Jane maybe could comment to that. And there’s also a comment in the chat for you, Jane. Do you want to respond to what Mark just said initially? And then we’ll talk to what was said in the chat.

Jane Bennet: Yes, sure. And, you know, it’s such a wonderful conversation to have. In my experience over really decades of being involved in menstrual education with girls, with mums, and women, and also families and dads. We run a program called Fathers Celebrating Daughters. And what I’ve come to really understand is that for women talking about their experience when they were growing up and for girls too, it actually makes a really big difference if fathers are able to acknowledge, in a positive, supportive way.

Now, of course their role is going to be somewhat different to mom who knows about having a menstrual cycle, but for fathers to be able to show that they’re cool about it, that they’re happy to support, you know, they’re going shopping and knowing what products their daughter or their wife, or partner likes, and, you know, in so many ways to be able to be just knowledgeable and supportive really helps, is a whole factor that can really help reduce menstrual shame to be able to feel okay about it. Because if for a lot of dads and a lot of men feel like, ‘oh, well, I don’t know anything about this. I haven’t really got anything to contribute’ and that’s understandable that they feel like that.

But if they’re able to acknowledge that in some way with girls, what happens is girls, instead of feeling like, ‘oh dad doesn’t, there’s something wrong with this. Dad doesn’t know anything about his, I can’t talk to dad about it.’ They actually know, oh, it’s okay. ‘Dad’s got my back’. You know, and I mean, a tip that I love to share is, keep some pads in your glove box or your briefcase, or your own bathroom at work or wherever. There’ll always be someone who needs them sometime. 

Allie Hanly: That’s a great tip. Thanks Jane. Now there’s been a few comments, but I’ll go back to the first one that struck me. And so someone I can’t see who has made the comment, but they said I’m struck by the continuum of women’s empowerment here in the west, where we are so fortunate to have education and careers and towards gender equity.

We are now calling for workplace policies to have days off when we menstruate. So I think that’s a really interesting point of how you know, we’re actually starting to call for people to have days off, but I’m assuming we’re calling for people to have paid leave. So the, the basic question is how does menstruation fit into gender equity in your view?

Jane Bennet: Mm, I think what I would say is that a positive menstrual culture really contributes to a gender equity. So, menstruation will go on regardless, but being able to have permission to look after ourselves, according to our needs. And it’s interesting to note there, I’m aware of a number of companies in India who also have menstrual policies and menstrual leave paid menstrual leave. Now, of course it’s not everywhere. And a lot of workplaces in India don’t have sick leave or holiday pay either, but there are some really pioneering-

Mark Balla: – or toilets for that matter –

Jane Bennet:  Or toilets for that matter. Exactly. So India, as we know is incredibly diverse, but there is some, workplace menstrual policy happening there.

And so I think in the case of gender equity, if we sort of just take a leap and imagine a world in which there’s a really positive culture around menstruation, that we aren’t feeling like we’ve got to be secretive and ashamed and there’s something wrong or something not okay with our body or something, or somehow we can’t talk to our boss at work.

You know, if we’re feeling really unwell from a period or in a lot of pain, we might make up excuses and say, it’s something else, if we need time off. Imagine a world where we’re able to be upfront when we need to be. It doesn’t mean we can’t still be private when we want to be too. Is it takes away a whole level of difficulty when we’re looking at all the issues of gender equity.

If we could be, you know, completely comfortable and feel supported by our workplace, by our family, by our community, and really also have menstruation and, and menstrual problems much more upfront and supported with real money in terms of healthcare as well, and we’ve got a ways to go in that space as well.

Allie Hanly: Great. Thanks Jane. Now we’ve only got about another eight minutes to go. There’s a couple more questions here, but one of them is about the specifics of the toilet building at about, is water involved? How are they cleaned? Various infrastructure sort of questions. I’m wondering if there’s a quick answer to that?

Mark Balla: There is. 

Allie Hanly: Okay. Good.

Mark Balla: Our focus is of helping girls stay in school longer. So. The aim therefore is to get toilets in that are proper and functional toilets as quickly as possible without the need to reeducate the community about for instance, composting. Getting people who’ve never heard of it before to start composting, doesn’t just happen overnight. And they need to want it for that to be a thing.

So we are just using septic tanks. It’s imperfect, but then we have agreements with local councils about emptying them, all the schools that we work with, take a responsibility for cleaning the toilets for providing soap, and also the local council make sure that there’s water available.

There are too many schools for us to help. So if those boxes aren’t ticked we don’t help those schools. We only help the schools that are able to provide water, are able to guarantee cleaning and maintenance and where the council is able to guarantee looking after the septic tanks. So we have actually got, ironically, an advantage that we can turn some away because there’s no point helping people who aren’t willing to help themselves.

It needs to be a two-way thing… who aren’t willing or able, because if they’re not able, we’ll pass it to a bigger organization that can do the really, really complicated work. Our aim is quick results on helping girls stay in school. 

Allie Hanly: That’s great. Thanks Mark. That sort of links to another question by my mum. Hi mum. Hi, Shirley. Laughs. They’re asking, is there recognition of this need with other organizations and larger ones like World Vision and other international ones?

Mark Balla:  World Vision are huge in this. And in fact, we work closely with World Vision and One Project in India, where they’re helping look after the education component of the project, because education’s a long term thing.

Anyone can build toilets, give me a shovel and some bricks I’ll build your toilet. Mightn’t be a good one, but anyone can do it, but getting people to truly change their behaviour and really understand the reason for the changing behaviour. That’s a long term exercise. And the way Rotary works is we go in, we go out, we start next project and we move on.

World Vision will stick with it. We didn’t want them building the toilets ‘cos they’re way too expensive and we’re better off getting our volunteers and the people they employ in India to build the toilets using local labor, but the education bit, the software, that stuff, we work with experts like World Vision, like Plan International, like UNICEF. There’s so many doing this stuff. Yeah.

Trace Balla : And if you look at the films on my website, there’s two little films and one of them shows that World Vision cleaning and education project in action. It’s really sweet. They go with songs on washing hands. Things like that. 

Mark Balla: Now, can I comment on the next one as well?

Which Jane has put a comment on this is from, Trace and my assistant, Mandy- hi Mandy, nice to see you- there about the idea of menstrual banishment, and it’s actually, it is interesting that I’ve heard from women in Nepal who say, for instance, it’s the one time of the month when they don’t have to clean the house, do the cooking look after the family.

So they talk about it as a positive, but there’s so many negatives associated with it. I think that unfortunately the negatives outweigh the positives. Yes, they do have that time away from the men in the community and, and away from the cooking and the cleaning and etcetera, etcetera. But that shouldn’t be the solution that being banished to being sent to a dirty hut, which has probably got cow shit on the floor.

It’s not the solution, but it’s definitely true that there is some cultural change needed. So that these women don’t feel it’s a good thing. 

Allie Hanly: Yeah. They have other solutions to that problem of having to do all of the home labour. 

Mark Balla: Wow. But look, in these, in these very patriarchal societies, it’s a deeply complex issue.

And these women, I think they, they generally do feel in many cases that, ‘thank goodness we’ve got that escape for now’, but it’s not, it’s not the solution, there needs to be a better solution than that. 

Trace Balla: Can I speak to that. I’ve got this idea that Jane knows about, and I’ve put in the back of the book about making a little candle that you light when you are having your period.

And then the family knows. And then my thought for cultural changes, because they know they’re going to, maybe they’ll give you a little back rub and maybe they’ll do the dishes and, and the cooking, and you can go and have a put your feet up. And so I’m trying in little ways like that I think is actually possibly a big way to, to make positive change.

Mark Balla: Um, just quickly Mandy’s comment. She also, she mentioned our mother having bought this issue of menstrual banishment to our attention. You know, I don’t know if that maybe subliminally did influence me to become interested in this issue. Maybe I know she was into telling us to take the time and stop and smell the roses.

And I guess in India, that’s kind of what I did when I went to that slum, like went and stop and smelled the roses. Although the roses in that particular case where it didn’t smell very nice being people going to the toilet in the street. But yes, taking the time just to look at what’s going on. 

Trace Balla: Yeah. And our father was a great humanist.

Mark Balla: Yeah. it’s in our makeup I guess.

Trace Balla: You know, and I see that in Mark’s and my work. 

Allie Hanly: Yeah. That’s great. All right. Well, we’ve run out of time. I’d like to say, thanks so much to you guys for being here and sharing all, you know, with us and Trace, especially for creating this beautiful artwork that is the book Cycling Together.

I also want to acknowledge the Castlemaine Library was initially going to host this event and they were going to do everything for it as a live event. And of course, with covid lockdowns, they weren’t able, but Stuart from the library has been here commenting in the chat. So I’m really glad that they’ve been here and been able to be part of it and just acknowledge the, the amazing work that the local library does in our community.

To help share and educate and just be a genuine part of the community here. So, yeah. Thanks everyone for joining us. Thanks Trace, and go to Trace’s website, traceballa.com and you can find the link to Cycling Together. And you can order the book either digitally or as a hard copy. And the benefit of the hard copy is that you can just order it and it gets printed on demand.

So there’s no great stockpile of books waiting to be sold. They get printed as you order them, which is very efficient. And yeah, thanks very much everyone for being here. Thanks for listening to us, chat for an hour, and I hope you got something from it. 

Mark Balla: I’m not ready to stop yet. 

Allie Hanly: laughs. Well, there’s so much more to say isn’t there.

Trace Balla: Thankyou so much Allie.

Mark Balla: Thanks Trace, well done.

Short musical break: bird calls and guitar

Allie Hanly: There you go. That was the book launch for Trace Balla’s book, Cycling Together, a live online event that we ran last Saturday. There are lots of links to the things discussed in the episode description at saltgrasspodcast.com or in the show notes on your podcasting app.

For those of you listening on MainFM and 3MDR, please note that you can, of course, listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your preferred podcasting app. And if you can’t find the show on your app, please let us know and we’ll see what we can do to make it available. You can follow Saltgrass on Facebook and Instagram, and please subscribe to our email list to get reminders and updates about the show. Again, you can do that by going to saltgrasspodcast.com.

This program was made possible with support from MainFM and the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more cbf.org.au.

My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening.

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app or at saltgrasspodcast.com

2 thoughts on “S4 E05 Cycling Together

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