"Bridge between two worlds"
Carole King sang the Tapestry of Life in the 1960’s, depicting how every experience becomes a thread in the colourful tapestry of our lives. I would like to share some of the threads that have helped to shape the tapestry of my life.
Like all human beings in this world today, I am the product of the life I have lived. Gandhi once said “be the change you want to see”. In my case that is 29 years of extreme experiences from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. I have had unbelievable opportunities and lingering moments of despair, I have faced circumstances filled with adversity filling me with feelings of powerlessness that eventually unleashed a potency that amazed everyone, including me. My tapestry is woven thickly with strong family threads and some wonderful friends. In this paper I would like to share with you my life story as a child in growing up Kowanyama, my journey around Australia and the world, my motivation to succeed and how I broke out of the cycle of helplessness and despair that still grips my community to this day.
I would also like to share my vision for the future and the path that I am currently taking to achieve it. I really believe in the basic fairness and goodwill of the vast majority of Australians, and know that, with greater understanding will come positive change and a new deal for those most in need, whatever their cultural background. By spreading the word and extending a hand to each other we can build strong bridges between cultures so that everyone can share the great benefits of being Australian.
Early Years Growing up in Kowanyama:
So, it all begins with my mother and my father. Both of these threads pulse thick and strong and have been a firm part of the framework of my life. My mother is a Kokoberra woman - strong, proud and quite traditional. My dad is a non-indigenous man who was employed as the store manager of our community at the time. Kowanyama, my home town, is a small community with a total population approximately 1200 people. Being such a small and isolated community meant that it was strongly suggested that ladies who were close to giving birth, move to Cairns for appropriate medical care. Thus I was born in Cairns Base Hospital in 1981.
The majority of people who call Kowanyama home are Aboriginal. The settlement itself was founded on the banks of the Magnificent Creek in 1916. This settlement was known as the Mitchell River Mission and replaced a smaller, earlier mission that was based on the banks of Topsy River, now known as Old Mission. People continued to move into the settlement for the next 40 years. The mission gradually drew together the Aboriginal peoples of the region who came from three traditional clans - the Kokoberra, Kokomeneja or Kunjen with each clan having their own language and language subgroups as well as their own distinct homeland boundaries with landmarks of important cultural significance.
Growing up in Kowanyama with a white father was not necessarily an advantage. I was teased by my peers and often ostracized for reasons I couldn’t understand. But this did teach me one thing – to toughen up. While the teasing was painful, it occurred mostly at school and as I attended school almost every day, it was relentless. Much of the teasing was non-verbal or in language so my teachers didn’t notice it, nor did they understand it and as a result were incapable of stopping it. My mother, my brother and sisters and my extended families protected me from this teasing at home and in the community.
I absolutely adore my mum and admire her strength and fortitude and as I grow older appreciate just how significant her support and influence has been. Despite the teasing, I would never change my childhood. I grew up reasonably carefree, camping along the banks of Topsy and South Mitchell, catching barramundi, mud-crabs and mangrove jacks, my mum cooking them on the coals, my Aunty Hazeline making damper and Johnny cakes and my uncle Chappy and the boys hunting wallabies, wild pigs and wild ducks for Kup-murri.
I remember as a little kid being so excited, watching my uncles take the food out of the Kup-murri and then sharing it around. Following Kup-murri and depending on the celebration, the whole community would come together to dance corrobee. My old barbar Colin and other elders would lead the calling and the men would dance, painted in their traditional totems. My mum and the other women would then dance to the rhythm of clap sticks and calling. This immersion in the language, tradition and the ebb and flow of the lives all around me, it was as if no other world or culture existed. This is where I found my people most happiest and at peace.
Life in remote Kowanyama was always filled with adventure. There are two seasons to choose from in the far north, the Wet or the Dry season. In the dry season there are many activities to look forward to like camping, dragging and fishing.
The wet season heralds a change to different activities, different food sources. The magpie geese migrate in immense numbers to the swamps that have formed around Kowanyama during the wet. Some of my fondest memories are of collecting geese eggs from the swamps, wading into knee to thigh high water to collect eggs from the nests. We were always careful to leave one or two eggs in the nest and to splash it with a little water to ensure that the goose would return to her nest and hatch the bird. Whenever I get a chance to return home, I sneak back into the swamps and gather a few eggs with my family. I have to laugh at what this must look like to an outsider. There I stand, wading thigh high through a swamp, not giving a thought about water snakes or leeches until one is firmly attached to my leg! Then scrambling shrieking through the sharp reeds, patterning my arms and legs with scratches protectively clutching a handful of large geese eggs. A far cry from the globetrotting stiletto wearing entrepreneur I have been likened to at times.
The story of my education, both in Kowanyama and Brisbane has been well documented. I guess that’s what happens when you ask the Prime Minister of the day why it is that my grades miraculously slipped from A’s to D’s when I changed schools, or why I was the only student from my year 8 cohort who had not been in prison or addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Like many remote communities, alcohol abuse, violence, high unemployment and poor educational standards were the norm. Despite these circumstances I grew up barefoot and relatively carefree. I was not as carefree as my mates though, my mum was very strict so I had to go to school every day and wasn’t allowed to skip off school to go fishing or swimming. I didn’t have a school bag, didn’t carry books, most of my classmates came and went when they felt like it. I had no homework and only one assignment in my 9 years of schooling that I can recall. We didn’t use a computer, in fact I am not sure if there were even computers in the school for students to access. But I didn’t question it, I was one of the best students in my class - I could read and write and had what I thought to be good math’s skills. I won a scholarship to a boarding school in Brisbane. Imagine my surprise the first day at ‘real’ school. My barefoot days were over.
The standard of work was so much higher then what I was used to back home, the rules and expectations so much tougher. I went from being an “A” student in Kowanyama to being an “C” or “D” student in Brisbane, and the shock of going from first to almost last in class really tested my confidence. For a while it even changed the way I thought of myself as a person. I had always felt confident about my self and my abilities, but now I was not so sure. I was faced with the thought that, while I might have been a winner in Kowanyama, I was going to be a loser in the big wide world of Brisbane and beyond.
Coping with this challenge was initially incredible difficult. At first, I thought a lot about running away and going home. The tug of home was irresistibly strong and one that I had to contend with daily. The first funeral that I missed due to school cut deep. I felt like I was cutting parts of me away, denying my traditions and being submerged in a new culture. The first year at boarding school was suffocating and demoralizing.
It took me a long time to gradually narrow the gaps I had in my knowledge and skills compared to other students. I studied hard and read books to help me to understand myself and this whole new world that had been opened up to me. Much of the history and structure of this world was foreign, events that formed part of the common understanding of our society were completely unknown. I had to be taught about such things as ANZAC Day and the World Wars. How could I engage with this new world if I didn’t have even the most basic understanding of it?
As much as I struggled with learning to cope in this new environment I now appreciate the opportunities it opened up for me and have come to realize that this particular transition from Kowanyama to Clayfield was the key which unlocked the doors to all the others which have followed. Had I stayed in Kowanyama, I know my life would be very different from what it is now, and no where near as rich and satisfying.
So, there I was. I had successfully made it out of Kowanyama. I had moved at the age of 14 from a very small, dysfunctional community to Brisbane. I had moved from a school of less than 200 to a secondary school of over 2000. The total population of my school was more than that of my community! I had to learn new social skills to overcome the humiliation of not belonging. I had overcome the shame of being in grade 9 but having an academic level of a grade 5 or grade 6. I had overcome being the only black kid and an object of fascination, ridicule or fear. I had overcome the embarrassment of not having shoes, or underwear let alone trendy clothes. I had overcome the homesickness I felt for Kowanyama - my crippled community. I had dedicated myself to study and hard work, teaching myself new skills. I had learned how to study unsupervised. I graduated year 12 and enrolled in a course at Griffith University and completed that, graduating with a degree in criminology and becoming the first woman from my community to have earned a degree. I had achieved all these things in an alien environment with just a few good friends and teachers to support me.
After graduation I returned to Kowanyama employed by the community council as the training support officer. Through the help of the Justice Group we secured funding for youth programs where I re-established the Sports Club in the community. I started softball training and was so proud of the young women who took up the challenge of being involved in a healthy past time rather than the alcohol, gambling and apathy that surrounded them. I reconnected with my family and worked with some sectors of the community to tackle the issues that were destroying us.
My grass roots community work lasted two years, then I was offered a position by my mentor, Noel Pearson to work with young people from Cape York based from the Cape York Institute in Cairns. I was accountable for developing and leading the Education Pathways Programs - Higher Expectation Secondary (boarding school program) Higher Expectation Tertiary (Uni and Tafe programs) encouraging and supporting students into boarding schools and training programs. It was through this work, which has affected state and national education policy and the mentoring I provided for countless young men and women from all over Cape York that I was nominated for and won the title of young Australian of the Year in 2007.
I have since gone on to earn my Masters in public Policy at Sydney University. I was driven to do this by the need to understand how decisions that affect our lives are made. I came to understand how policy changes human behavior and this has led me to change direction and begin my own consultancy. It is my goal to try and build bridges of understanding between indigenous and non indigenous Australians and try to achieve grass roots, bottom up reform through people power. I would much rather be part of a movement which unites, rather than one which divides.
Understanding my goals
My life to date has taught me to reflect on many things. The importance of my country, my family and friends, the people who come into my life to help me and teach me are all woven securely into my tapestry. Those shining threads hold tight and comfort me.
Having lived apart from Kowanyama, and travelled a little in the world, I feel that I now have some perspective and I am able to look at my community more objectively. I see it warts and all and I am able to look at the sad state of life in remote Indigenous Australia. To see the violence especially towards women, the abuse and neglect of children, the lack of opportunity for young people and the devastation caused by alcohol, petrol sniffing and drugs. I realize that I have a very clear choice. I can choose to say nothing, do nothing and mind my own business or I can speak out and try and make a difference
There is a maxim in English Common Law that says “silence gives consent” that is if you say nothing, you are actually agreeing with what’s happening around you. When I am confronted in much of my life and work by awful realities, there is no way that I can be silent and through my silence say it is OK for this state of affairs to continue.
My motives are pretty clear. I am working for equality of opportunity for anyone suffering disadvantage, especially young people. It just so happens that at this point in time a great many of those who are suffering from disadvantage are my own people. I certainly look forward to the day when this is no longer the case and I can set myself new goals and choose a different career path.
During my year as the Young Australian of the year I met some of the worlds most fascinating people. I visited Israel and South Africa and was inspired by the stories of African children who are overcoming adversities like those we face in Cape York but with the added complexity of famine and war. I met national and international politicians and have been able to raise the profile of my people and highlight issues and celebrate successes. I have met sporting personalities and have worked with some of the most brilliant minds our country has to offer. I have been given the opportunities to present my opinions and have them listened to you will never, ever, fully appreciate what that means to a kid from Kowanyama. And I have been able to mentor, encourage and motivate other young women - just like me - to live their dreams, to take life by the horns and be the change you want to see.
My tapestry is full of rich and varied colours, the lasting legacy of the highs and lows of my life. I also hope that my story, the pride I take in being a Kokoberra woman, my celebration of being a young, Australian woman will encourage and motivate other young people to take on challenges that might at first seem insurmountable, but as I have demonstrated, can be achieved through determination and grit.
I know also that the road ahead for Indigenous children, will be full of potholes and blind curves and corrugations, but I know that if we work together across both cultures, we will be able to smooth out many of these obstacles and make the transition to adulthood and work less painful. I look forward to a time when our youth, both indigenous and non-indigenous, are strong, proud, responsible individuals who work together to enhance the strength and leadership of our nation.