Susan Moylan-Coombs is a storyteller. Our conversation is filled with vivid, exciting anecdotes about her childhood — tales that make you feel like you know the characters, and were even there yourself.
It’s a role well-positioned for her rich career as a public speaker, author, in the broadcasting industry and now, is currently campaigning as an independent candidate for Warringah (challenging Tony Abbott). Susan sees a responsibility to share on behalf of her community; to foster conversation and find mutual ground. She brings people together through orality.
“I think women of colour and Indigenous women of this land [should be] able to speak to truth-telling and history in a way that cares for everyone,” she says.
Susan’s identity is split between her roots and her upbringing. They are divergent yet complementary. While using her adoptive family’s last name, she is also a Calma — the surname of her biological family; her Indigenous family.
As a member of the Stolen Generations, Susan was removed from her parents at birth in the hospital. She was placed in a Northern Territory mission before being adopted into the Coombs household at three-years-old. While she is a proud Gurindji and Woolwonga woman, Susan’s consolidation with her Western upbringing also shapes who she is today.
“Being brought up in Sydney primarily influenced my lifestyle. I knew that I was different — just innately knowing things, but not having the words [or] a way about seeing things,” she says. “I’m a bit culturally weird because I’m a desert girl but I’m [also] a saltwater girl.”
“I’m a bit culturally weird because I’m a desert girl but I’m also a saltwater girl.”
The sea helped heal the “trauma and pain growing up, from birth onwards”. She has lived in Sydney’s Northern Beaches for over five decades — Curl Curl, Harbord, now Freshwater – and cites the laidback, comfortable lifestyle there for choosing to stay.
Her childhood was filled with exciting opportunities like ski trips and overseas holidays. Susan recounts bundling into the family car with her sisters every weekday morning. Her mum would drive her dad, the late Queen’s Counsel and barrister, John Coombs, to Manly Wharf. She would watch him disappear across the sea line on the ferry towards the city, before being dropped off at school herself.
She also fondly remembers her grandfather, economist and political advisor H.C “Nugget” Coombs, and proudly recalls his national impact and strong advocacy for Indigenous issues. He had open conversations with her about her beginnings, and would bring back Indigenous artwork and artefacts from his travels. But deep down, Susan still grappled with place and belonging.
“I recognise [my] privilege and the way that it was able to open my eyes to things and influence me, as well as having this innate knowing about who I was — an Indigenous person — even though I could not articulate it then.”
Nor could the bubbly, confident child escape the racism that came with being one of very few people of colour in the area in the 1970s. She contrasts the reactions towards her as a child, to decades after when raising her own children, as different and more tolerant today.
“I used to go home crying sometimes because kids were just mean at school and saying awful things,” she recalls.
“My mum [Jan] said to me, ‘It’s not you. It’s them. It speaks to who they are, it speaks about the families that they’re living in, because children see children — they just see the person. The ones that see colour are learning that’”.
From that point on Susan donned protective armour, her “edge of arrogance in survival” — apathy towards the bullies. She retaliated with radical inclusivity towards others and thrived in leadership positions and sports. At age 16, she became one of the first female surf lifesavers in Australia.
“I had this whole list of goals I wanted to do by the time I was 55. I had achieved all of them by the time I was 35."
"I nearly died,” she jokes. “I was like ‘this is crazy’”.
Susan never takes her achievements for granted. Much like her mother’s words which still ring true with her today, she is also inspired by the male figures in her life.
“One of the pieces of advice [Nugget Coombs] gave me was to use everything to your advantage and be bold […] and my Dad taught me how to formulate an argument.”
Her family supported her decision to find her birth parents in her 20s after Susan yearned to discover the rites of passage in ‘women’s business’. She describes meeting her birth father and mother as a “really beautiful” moment; a puzzle piece in unearthing and recovering her lineage and identity.
“I think I’m special because I have two families. I have a family in Sydney with three sisters. I have a family in Darwin with three brothers and [another brother] down in Adelaide.”
During her lengthy experience in broadcasting, Susan was able to connect with her Indigenous roots.
"I used to travel to all these places and people would just kind of claim me up and make me own of their own.”
“My whole career was travelling extensively throughout the country, sitting down with people in communities both rural and remote, and I used to love it because I used to travel to all these places and people would just kind of claim me up and make me own of their own.”
TV offered a chance to change the country’s consciousness and thinking. She started at the ABC to share Indigenous perspectives that were not reaching the public. “When I was young, it was about […] telling stories about who we were because Australia had such a bad perception of who we were. And that was a created perception.”
“As someone from the Stolen Generations, [it] was really healing that people would just see me being a young woman working in television and telling our stories our way, and being able to tell stories that people had never spoken about before.”
Her childhood goals may have been fulfilled early, but Susan is constantly on the move. After a three-year run as Head of Production for NITV, Susan moved on to start her own organisation and continues to break ground in new arenas. She seeks to celebrate her own heritage, and those of others, in an age of cultural divide.
“At the end of the day, we are all humans, right?” she told me. ”So how can we create a better understanding about who we are and our history, and what we are going to do with our kids and grandkids, for a better space to live and interact with one another?”
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