Mardi Gras’ new co-chair Siri Kommedahl is no token appointment. With a long history representing the LGBTI community, a year on the Mardi Gras board as deputy chair and a number of other community board appointments under her belt, she brings valuable experience and returns the organisation to its previous model of two chairs; one male and one female.

“I think it’s an exciting new challenge having being there as the deputy chair,” Kommedahl told the Star Observer.

“I was certainly involved in a lot of the leadership of the organisation, even though it was not in a prominent position, I worked closely with Pete [co-chair Peter Urmson] over the last year.

“Being new to the board I think it’s only responsible to have a year to really understand the drivers in the organisation before you take more leadership responsibility.”

Originally from the US state of Minnesota, Kommedahl immigrated to Australia in the early ‘90s and is now happily settled with her partner of seven years in Sydney’s Potts Point.

She has served on the board of ACON for four years and was also a co-chair for the Twin Cities Human Rights Campaign chapter in the US.

Now in its 35th year, Kommedahl said Mardi Gras faces different challenges compared to when it first began, one of which is staying relevant at a time when the fight for gay rights has largely been taken over by organisations such as Australian Marriage Equality (AME), Equal Love and the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

“The organisation is evolving and if you look back over the 35 years, the community, the organisation itself, the political climate, the social issues, the demographic, all of that has changed over that time and for any organisation the struggle is to stay relevant to a large body of stakeholders,” she said.

“So, you know, not only do we have people who have been involved with Mardi Gras for the whole 35 years, but we have young people also coming onboard who view the world differently and I think in order to be relevant to the community at large, which is huge and diverse, we have to look to al those demographics.”

Kommedahl said that while the torch on key LGBTI issues, such as the fight for gay marriage, is being carried by groups like AME, Mardi Gras still has an important role to play in ending discrimination and standing up for LGBTI rights.

“Our mission statement is through the power and beauty of diversity we inspire the world to love each other,” she said.

“I think that that can be a broad statement; we are not a single issue organisation by any means, but we certainly want to support our community in the issues of the day.

“The parade has always been a vehicle for messages and protest and celebration and marriage equality is topical so it’s certainly something that if our community has an interest in, than Mardi Gras has a place in it too.”

The shared co-chairs plan is designed to spread responsibility and workload as well as creating greater representation of male and female voices on the board of Mardi Gras, according to Kommedahl.

“Our community is very mixed and this appointment is showing the community that we have leadership that is mixed,” she said.

“It’s not to say that a male or a female can’t represent the other, however, even just that visibility of a female in a co-leadership role sends a message.”

Part of her mission is to help the organisation engage with more women, as this has traditionally been an area of weakness for the organisation.

Kommedahl said a large part of this was about getting different sections of the community involved in areas that they have traditionally avoided.

“A lot of people do not realise but our volunteer base is more female than male, however we have party attendance more swayed towards males,” she said.

“We want to increase participation in the festival and get more volunteers and people in the parade, and have everything very mixed and equal.

“So, showing that leadership from the top, that we value both, and having that statement of visibility when you have a female in a leadership role, it shows others that’s what the organisation values.”

Mardi Gras 2013 runs February 12-March 4.

INFO: mardigras.org.au

Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna

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