Tired of one-dimensional representations from media, politicians, and even from locals, the Sweatshop collective came together to change the perceptions of western Sydney. For more than a decade it has done this through literature, film and performance, and is now bringing its show #ThreeJerks to the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne.

“Sweatshop is a literacy movement,” explains the collective’s director, Michael Mohammed Ahmad. This emphasis on literacy comes from his belief that it is undervalued. Beyond the basic acts of reading and writing, Ahmad has higher expectations of the literate individual, saying, “For me, literacy is the ability to read, write and deconstruct information and then respond to that information.”

Primarily a group of writers, Sweatshop helps young people from minority groups improve literacy and find a voice through storytelling. The stories are turned into books, films and performances, the aim being to create a local cultural and literary landscape that comes from within.

Densely populated and culturally and linguistically diverse, "western Sydney" describes a region that is home to more than 1.6 million people. The area has been troubled by the presence of drugs and crime over the years, and is still haunted by gang rapes that took place there in 2000. Ahmad believes it’s still perceived as Sydney’s “other”.

“I’m not saying we have to deny those things happened, but when you get media reports that say the perpetrators were Lebanese and Muslim, we need to develop a complex understanding of why the media is referring to them in that way … and why things like gang rape take place. We can’t just say ‘it’s because Arabs are bad’, or ‘it’s because Lebs are troublemakers’.”

Deciding minority communities from the region needed a voice, it adopted the ideas of cultural theorists and black civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, which Ahmad believes can be applied to Australian minority groups. “An African American Muslim who used literacy to change his life and begin a civil rights struggle? I think if that sort of model could work for someone like Malcolm X, then it can also work for particular groups in this country.”

Though Sweatshop is a movement in western Sydney, Ahmad is adamant the issues are transferable, saying “The politics of Sweatshop could easily go to … communities in Melbourne”, and around the world too.

#Three Jerks is a play that focuses on the media response to the gang rapes in 2000. It explores the media’s fixation on the perpetrators’ racial and religious identities and how this implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) pinned responsibility on Arab and Muslim communities. Without denying the criminals’ identities, #Three Jerks explores alternative explanations for the events, examining forms of misogyny, patriarchy and sexism that exist within these communities but are not based on ethnic or religious identity.

Ahmad says he tries to keep low expectations in terms of Sweatshop’s results, but in the last five years he’s seen a shift. “I think we’re seeing a change in consciousness in terms of what it means to be from western Sydney. I think what we are really about is empowerment. It’s about feeling good about where you come from and reclaiming that which you identify with.”

#Three Jerks is showing in Melbourne at the Emerging Writers’ Festival on Friday May 30.

sweatshop.ws emergingwritersfestival.org.au