Above: Alpha Cheng
Author: Joe Downy
Associate, Strong Cities Network
Author: Celia Gomez
Intern, Strong Cities Network
After the traumatic experience of losing his father to a violent extremist attack four years ago, Alpha Cheng decided to advocate for social cohesion, resilience and inclusivity. Reflecting on his path since that life changing moment and his future goals, he shares his thoughts on the current state of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and his analysis of recent developments in Australia.
Four years ago, Alpha Cheng lost his father Curtis Cheng in a terrorist attack on the New South Wales Police headquarters in Sydney. After this traumatising event, Alpha chose to speak out against racism, hate speech, anti-Muslim sentiments and has since been advocating for social cohesion, resilience, education, and stronger gun control. In an interview with Strong Cities Network, he said “I have chosen to turn this trauma into something as constructive as possible for myself in order to cope with it”.
Being from a migrant background himself, he knew how it felt to be treated differently and excluded. A schoolteacher by trade, Alpha has always believed in social cohesion and tolerance. “Society has the mechanisms to help everyone to succeed and feel included”. Before becoming a teacher, he was working in corporate finance, but after spending some time in an aboriginal community school in South Australia and gaining experiences in teaching small groups, he decided that this was the path he wanted to take. Since completing the Teacher Australia Programme and starting his teacher career, Alpha has never looked back to corporate finance. “It shaped me tremendously as a person and in understanding socio-demographic issues, needs of families and children, as well as the power of education. After all, schools are melting pots for different parts of society.”
Just before Alpha’s father was killed, he received a Holocaust Educator’s Scholarship in Israel, and was due to attend when he learned of his father’s murder. Rather than cancel the trip however, Alpha chose to travel to Israel. “I was determined not to let terrorism change how I live”. It was a decision which would have a profound impact on his decision to speak out against intolerance and be a part of the public discourse.
In Israel, he met Holocaust survivors from different backgrounds. The common thread to all their life stories and to their motivation to share their difficult past was the strong belief that hate and prejudice shall never again lead to genocides. “Seeing how these individuals, who went through continuous trauma, being able to shine a light on issues like intolerance and discrimination, gave me the strength, the purpose and the vision to do the same myself”.
Back in Australia, Alpha started his advocacy work. “At the beginning, I was not quite sure of what I was doing and how much of an impact I was making.” However, his doubts were put aside when he was nominated for the Young Australian of the Year Award in 2017. “This helped me to understand that I was making a recognisable impact”
Considering recent P/CVE developments in Australia, Alpha identifies a shift in how extremism is understood. A few years ago, violent extremism was seen as Islamist and Jihadist in nature. Today, however, extremism is framed more broadly, incorporating far-right extremism and the threat of lone actors – the Christchurch attack in New Zealand was a turning point for this development. “Many believe that Australia is a very successful multicultural and diverse society, but there is an increasing concern that this situation is fragile”, explains Alpha, referring to anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment and racism. However, Alpha emphasised the strong support for multiculturalism and for speaking out against hate speech in Australia. “The absence of strong popularist parties contributes to this positive character.”
Alpha Cheng (left) with his father, Curtis Cheng
Looking at exemplary responses to attacks of violent extremism, Alpha singles out New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words and actions had the power to unite a country that could have been bitterly divided. New Zealand has proven to be very open on future improvements of their P/CVE strategies.
Victim support is a topic frequently criticised in some cities’ responses in the aftermath of an attack. “Support for victims is hard to get right”, says Alpha. “I was fortunate enough to be able to navigate this area and to get the support I need. I possess the protective factors that allow me to cope with and move on from my trauma. Others might find it difficult.” Alpha sees how Australia has learned about supporting and caring for victims in the past years, especially after the Lindt Café siege in 2014, when a lone gunman held eighteen hostages.
The role of survivors of violent extremism can be underplayed in PVE approaches, Alpha reflects. “It is very powerful for my students to listen to someone’s lived experience.” Having spoken at several conferences, events and with news agencies, including the Strong Cities Network Global Summit in Melbourne 2018 and Multicultural New South Wales, Alpha was awarded the Donald Mackay Churchill Fellowship to conduct research on P/CVE mechanisms applicable to Australia in 2018. In this function, he is travelling through Europe to meet with relevant stakeholders, researches and organisations to discuss theoretical frameworks, best practices and lessons learned in P/CVE. “The more people I meet from this field that have different approaches and ideas about what good P/CVE strategies look like, the more I realise the complexity of this area.”
The challenges in P/CVE for all organisations and governments is finding the resources for a very insidious problem. Alpha emphasises the need for collaboration between national and local governments, across a broad spectrum of actors. “The more cities are able to collaborate in this area, the better the outcomes will be. To address the highly complex phenomenon of violent extremism, every individual and group has a role to play to avoid future incidents and attacks of individuals or groups.”
Alpha is about to change his career path next year, moving into public policy for the Australian Federal Government. In this future role, he will be engaged in policy formation, social policy and national security. “As part of the Churchill Fellowship research I am conducting, I will hopefully understand how the different strings can fit together to identify the government’s role in P/CVE.”