The activist: Jill Reichstein

Social justice, the environment, leadership, taking risks, impact investing and philanthropy as the R&D arm of the nonprofit sector: The leading Australian philanthropist in her own words. This is a short extract of a candid interview by Nicole Richards published in Generosity Magazine, September 2015.

Jill Reichstein, the picture of dignified composure, is sipping a latte at an outdoor table of an inner city cafe, her genial dog, Missy, lolling contentedly near her feet.

Answering each of my questions in a calm, level voice, she pauses occasionally to rifle through a mental filing cabinet crammed with 40-plus years of grantmaking experience to retrieve the name of a person or project to illustrate a point. Her responses are considered and assured.

On the one hand, it’s hard to picture her protesting on the streets of Paris in 1968. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to imagine her there at all.

The passionate student protestor might have yielded to propriety and the passage of time, but the activist spirit is alive and kicking.

One of the most influential leaders in Australian philanthropy, Jill Reichstein’s name remains synonymous with progressive thinking and bold choices. Using a mantra of ‘change not charity’ the Reichstein Foundation has been on the frontlines of the fight for social justice and environmental sustainability for decades.

What follows is an edited extract of a wide-ranging conversation with Jill held on a grey August day in Melbourne.

NR: After a privileged upbringing in Toorak you took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and apartheid and ended up in London and Paris in 1968. Those must have been interesting times?

JR: Very interesting times! I was hanging out with a couple of young French students and I was right there in Paris while the riots were happening. It was extraordinary. I was down in the Metro helping people who’d been gassed. I was running along the streets.

I suppose, when you’re young you feel like you can take on anything, and it was the resistance to power that at the time was almighty. The police, who were referred to as ‘les vaches’—the cows—were really violent. They’d sit in their buses all day and drink brandy and then they’d come out and go for the students with their batons. I’ll never forget that.

I was there for a week. And you know, the lights went on for me. It was amazing to be part of such a social change movement. I rang the liberal arts college back in London where I was studying and said ‘I can’t get a flight out of Paris—sorry!’

NR: Some of these actions and activities weren’t so popular with your parents?

JR: Oh, God no!

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