Joseph Lo Bianco wrote Australia’s National Policy on Languages in 1987, the first in an English speaking country. He became the first educator to be elected President of the Australian Academy of Humanities. But it is his pioneering work in finding solutions to conflicts in Southeast Asia through the use of linguistic exchanges that has earned him the Excellence in Engagement – Public Value Award.
Since 2012 Lo Bianco has led a series of research and conflict mitigation projects in the region for key agencies of the United Nations, a process that begin in the mid-1990s in Sri Lanka. Supported by the Language and Social Cohesion (LESC) Initiative of UNICEF under the Program for Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy (PBEA), the projects involve field work and interviews, among a host of other measures, with hundreds of individuals and organisations to produce an academic understanding of the links between language and social cohesion, and the establishment of a lasting peace in conflict-ridden areas. The program serves extremely disadvantaged refugee children and families, people displaced by war and criminal violence, and Indigenous minorities in Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. The success of the project has led to requests lodged with UNICEF to extend its operation to Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
A professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Lo Bianco’s unprecedented methodology of combining research and engagement to build dialogue among hostile communities has shown that a cohesive and diverse society doesn’t have to be devoid of cultural differences.
“Regarding language and social cohesion, in all countries, but especially Myanmar, people say ‘Don’t touch that issue, it’s too hot’ but I think that my work has shown that it is only a problem if you don’t confront it,” he says.
For Lo Bianco, the award is both an honour and a recognition of engagement as a necessary part of an academic’s life.
“I was overjoyed and very honoured. When you’re involved in these activities you are far away from the office and safe environment of the University. These situations can be difficult and you can feel isolated from the regular environment in which you work. There is a gap between you and that environment because many people don’t know what you do,” he says.
The recognition of my work shows that engagement is a serious part of academic life. Academics have a moral and intellectual responsibility to engage with the world. Joseph Lo Bianco