Firm Foundations

For the past few years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to engage young people across Australia and the world at various conferences, workshops and events. I am often asked to share my story and what led me to the path that I have been so blessed to follow, but in doing so I never begin at my story because the path that I am on has been made strong by both my parents, their cultures and their faith. I have simply made decisions in my life that have always been informed by strong values and passions instilled in me from an early age.

My mother is Aboriginal. She was born in Bordertown, a very small town near the border of Victoria and South Australia. It is through her that my siblings and I are connected to the Wemba Wemba, Wergaia, Jardwadjali and Gunditmara Aboriginal nations of western Victoria. My mother grew up in a time of great division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Until she was 11 years old she was classed by the Australian Government as ‘fauna and flora’ and not classed as a citizen of Australia. It is very hard for people to understand the impact this has on someone’s identity, not only being ‘state-less’ but not even being considered human.

Mum and DadShe spent most of her formative years living in a tin shed with dirt floors in a paddock on the outskirts of Bordertown. The walls were made out of crushed kerosene tins, and most of their furniture and toys were collected from the local rubbish dump. It is true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Growing up in a time when it was government policy to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from families and place them in state schools and homes, my mother and her 8 siblings were fortunate to never be removed, but for my Grandmother it was a time of great worry, danger and suspicion. My Grandmother, who is turning 100 years old in September this year, remembers nights when my Grandfather was away shearing or on odd jobs, when she would have to open the door with one hand and a shotgun in the other.

My father is from New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. We don’t know how old he really is because he was born on a beach in New Hanover, so he got to pick a date for his birthday. Each year it changes depending on when he wants presents from us. His father was from Neikonomon, which is located in the mountains of West Lavongai, and his mother was from Lafu on the west coast of New Ireland. From an early age, my father always had a curious mind. He fondly recalls leaving school at a very young age and following his father around New Ireland, who was a medical practitioner. He speaks 5 dialects and would often disappear for weeks, sometimes months, walking and exploring different villages across the Province. I think this is why he is such a people person. My father came to Australia over 30 years ago to follow his calling to become a Minister.

Their stories and individual journeys still amaze and inspire me. They met in a very small rural town called Cootamundra, in New South Wales, where they both attended Bible College. The story of how they both came to Bible College is a novel in itself; filled with courage, faith and determination – which I hope to write one day.

Faith has always played a significant role in our lives, as well as being at the service of others in our communities. My father once told me that he didn’t like the term ‘a sense of responsibility’ because it means doing something because of an external requirement, but if service is your core, if having a servant’s heart is what forms the flesh on your bones then ‘a sense of responsibility’ is not required because helping others is just an extension of yourself. It has been this idea that has driven me in my life. It has brought me courage when pursuing opportunities or overcoming challenges, because there is an ultimate belief that my life has purpose.

This path has enabled me to work with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia to empower their voices on issues that impact them. Issues like climate change, mental health and suicide.

Below is a campaign called ‘unity in the community’. Our team of young people developed at the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy in 2014. We engaged 50 Indigenous young people from across Australia – provided the tools and skills to develop youth-led social action campaigns. Here is just an small insight into the talent and passion in our communities.

Shifting Sands

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I believe that grit is an undervalued element of life. Grit can mean the difference between standing strong or simply standing by. It can be the difference between pushing through or being pushed over. Grit even sounds like its a gritty word as it forms on the back of your tongue, rolls across the roof of your mouth before the decisive and abrupt end to the textured word.

We disguise or misrepresent the importance of grit by associating it with the annoyance in your shoe after a visit to the beach or the unwelcome crunch in your salad sandwich. This association of grit as dirty or annoying has led us to dismiss the true power of grit when we sense it in others. We say things like “here we go again” or “when will they be satisfied?” It is often accompanied with an eye-roll or a disapproving shake of the head. But, we need to rethink grit and its value in our society.

I don’t know where grit comes from, but I like to think that it has two key elements; courage and integrity. The origins of the words courage and integrity refer to whole of heart, innocence and blameless. To me, grit speaks to a dedication to justice.

In recent times, we have witnessed great social shifts in Australia. From our Government’s hardline approach to refugee and asylum seekers, discussion of privatising universities, which would impact the cost of and access to tertiary education, and dramatic budget cuts to the social services including organisations delivering programs to our most vulnerable and those most in need of support. This constant bombardment of regressive rhetoric and action creates a sense of ‘what can I really do’. This is creeping into the minds of the most steadfast human rights defenders, not to mention the everyday person who cares about issues, wants to be engaged but doesn’t feel like their voice matters. As these social shifts happen across Australia, cracks form and things we value fall through. Hopelessness grows, empathy diminishes and frustration peaks.

One such social shift which has fuelled this frustration has been the planned closure of over 100 remote Aboriginal communities, which will impact thousands of Australians; men, women and children. It will signal, in many cases, a disconnection from traditional lands and traditional ways of life for a large number of Aboriginal people in Western Australia.

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

– Martin Luther King Jr

On Friday April 10, people from across Australia came together and in one voice denounced the planned closures of these remote communities. They disrupted streets, bystanders and public transport to exercise a democratic right to protest. Flinders Street in Melbourne became the meeting ground of up to 5,000 people who are passionate about equality, care about community and who possess grit. They were met with disapproving head shaking, the rhetoric of ‘here we go again’, the slander of being labeled ‘bleeding hearts’ and ‘lefties’. The newspaper headlines read ‘Selfish Rabble Shut City’ and the Lord Major called it ‘self-indulgent’.

But as the disapproving cries rang out from mainstream media, it was swiftly drowned out by those who possess the fundamental belief that we are our brothers keepers, we are our sisters keepers – the belief that one community being impacted by laws that undermine universal human rights, does not just impact that community, it impacts all of our communities.

When we stand by while people and communities suffer in our own backyard we allow gaps to appear in the fabric of our society and the things we treasure to fall through.When we allow the value of one person’s life to be measured over another person’s life, our society ultimately pays the price. When we dismiss grit as an annoyance, we dismiss the courage and integrity of those willing to show grit.

The message here, beyond the importance of possessing true grit, is that if you find yourself being labeled the rabble, think about who had been labeled the rabble before, and draw strength from their dedication to justice in the face of unjust laws, draw strength from the friction created through grit.

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