Today I attended a funeral for an incredibly important Arrernte woman. She was a cornerstone of the governance of the Eastern Arrernte nation, with an unbroken history of connection to her Country for many, many thousands of years. Her story is not mine to tell, except to say she is being honoured in a strong cultural way by her family, and the wider family of Children's Ground, which she helped design, found and build.
This celebration of her life should be happening on a national level. The country has lost a treasure, unique and irreplaceable. It's a time of all too familiar sorrow, another tragic loss of unrecognised First Nations brilliance like so many others over the past two centuries. That she is not nationally known and celebrated is another stain. That's why we are proud to be hosting a discussion next week as we work together to refashion this land, to connect it to the stories and peoples of the world's oldest surviving cultures; to create space for the people who are leading change, who are reclaiming their power, and charting a new path.
In the recent report Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing our Rights, Securing our Future of December 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women spoke together powerfully to make an account of the living, ongoing action across this land. We are making change happen: educating, practising culture, speaking language, growing businesses, modelling for our families and throwing off the shackles of centuries of trauma.
The report, and the process of gathering the voices of First Nations women, was led by senior Bunuba leader and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO. It was published on Human Rights Day last year, and called for major structural change - to remove and replace oppressive western systems that have stand in the way of First Nations families living with agency, autonomy and equality of opportunity.
On the same day, Children's Ground was celebrating the 9th anniversary of its launch. The organisation was launched with the same aim of removing systems that hamper justice, and creating instead spaces for the sophisticated and integrated knowledge systems developed on these lands over millennia to flourish once again.
At Children's Ground, senior First Nations women lead. We are the designers and decision-makers. We are building a future for our children and grandchildren.
When we read in the report that western mainstream structures "constantly intervene, eroding our strengths and wisdom in all these spaces, relegating us to the margins and trapping us in poverty and powerlessness where we are increasingly vulnerable to harms or addictions and violence", we know first-hand the undeniable truth of those words, and the lived experience behind them. They reflect "broken systems, the despair of dispossession and unresolved trauma". As June Oscar bluntly put it when introducing the report, "They cannot be resolved by the dominant western systems that have caused and perpetuate them." She, and we at Children's Ground, are calling for substantive change.
At its launch on 9 December 2020 in WA, June Oscar introduced the report as the raising of the voices of First Nations women from communities around Australia in a powerful call for national structural reform. It "threads together the inter-related parts of our lives: from healing and recovery, to the practice of our women's law, ceremony and culture, the mitigation of climate change, educational journeys and establishing First Nations-designed businesses, culture-based economies, from our strength".
This is why it is critical that this report be read, and acted upon.
It is not enough that First Nations people know what they need to do, and, indeed, set out to do it. There are so many hurdles in their way, policies that do not recognise the rights of First Nations families, that constantly "intervene".
For national policy change, we must together do the work, collect the evidence, and show that the outcomes of change are positive. Beyond positive; are, in fact, remarkable. Together we must be part of building a new national narrative that seeks to empower, that will use the vote, and act to dismantle the injustices that impoverish the spirit of all who live here.
Children’s Ground was designed and launched to gather the evidence for another way. Not a wish-list, but a method and set of principles to be acted on day-by-day by local peoples for their own community. And the data and evaluation collated and analysed: the evidence that it works, for justice, for children, for all.
It is why we are backing a new First Nations Education Taskforce.
It is why we are championing truth-telling around the history of this country, from pre-colonisation through dispossession and genocide to its contemporary legacies and imposed policy solutions.
It is why mainstream Australians need to do their part in creating change: using their own inherited privileges to make a space for First Nations women, and to fight for their aspirations and rights to be upheld.
We know the discussion is important, but it is not enough; action must follow, and it must bring change.
The report has a second stage: identifying alternative models and approaches, and putting national policy change on the agenda.
We at Children's Ground are a willing partner in this change. Please join us.
- Angee Penangke Ross is the Director of Learning, Health and Wellbeing at Children’s Ground, Central Australia.