I am a Noongar man. An Aboriginal elder. A member of the Stolen Generation. A father, husband, mentor and friend. But most importantly, I am a proud West Australian, and I am truly honoured to be named both WA’s West Australian of the Year and Aboriginal of the Year.
I have travelled a long and challenging journey since I left the gates of Clontarf Boys’ School at the age of 17, leading initiatives in social justice, health, education, housing, employment and community service.
I believe that in order to facilitate change in the community, you have to be a part of the process. That’s why I’ve sought out and accepted roles such as Chair of the Australia Day Council WA, Chairman Administrator of the Aboriginal Housing Board and Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister for Housing and Aboriginal Affairs. I have also been involved in a wide array of negotiations relating to land rights, Aboriginal affairs and conflict resolution.
However, some of my greatest achievements have been assisting in establishing Clontarf Aboriginal College and Marr Mooditji Aboriginal Health Workers College, helping over 1000 Aboriginal people become home owners through Keystart social lending, and serving as a Justice of the Peace.
Being awarded WA’s West Australian of the Year is an accolade I hold dear to my heart – because it comes from the people I love, the people of this state, who I am committed to working with and for, to create a better life for all Australians. For me, that means bridging the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in our community.
At the end of the day, we are all West Australians, and it is critical that we work together to build a strong and vibrant future. I believe my role is to support and enable Aboriginal people to make the best of themselves. Only then can they put aside the hurts of yesterday and become valuable contributors to today’s community.
I have a vision for Western Australia – that we come together as one people while respecting each other’s differences and embracing our cultures. One of the key messages I hope to promote as West Australian of the Year is that it is possible to be true to your culture while contributing to broader society. It is possible to break the cycle of resentment and disconnect that has resulted in decades of conflict and disadvantage.
Most importantly, it’s possible for Aboriginal people to help themselves, respect themselves and others, and contribute meaningfully to the wider community. They need to work with government, contribute to policy development and provide insight into the real issues on the ground.
This is something that must be expanded upon and carried into the future.
For the past 50 years I have endeavoured to be a role model to Aboriginal people, to demonstrate what we can achieve with education, self-management and self-determination. Aboriginal people need to learn these skills in order to be empowered. Equally, Wadjulla (non-Aboriginal) people need to understand that these are not naturally learnt skills. I hope, as ambassador for Celebrate WA, I can help facilitate discussions to better understand each other, and help the wider community be in tune with Aboriginal culture and law.
Nowhere is this more important than in the discussion around closing down remote communities, a critical issue facing WA today.
In the 1980’s I helped establish village housing projects in rural and remote WA, working collaboratively with up to 20 communities ranging from a population of 500 to 15 people. Decades later, some of these communities aren’t functioning the way we had hoped. The question is – why?
My work in housing provides the answer. Aboriginal people in remote communities, just like in many metropolitan areas, haven’t taken ownership of the assets in their community. The houses, schools, canteens, community halls – they just don’t see the value in these. I hope to be able to help these populations and the government come to the table and develop a real solution that will allow remote Aboriginal communities retain their connection with their country in an economically sustainable manner.
The answer will lie in education. Culturally appropriate education to give Aboriginal people confidence, teach them how to manage their own land and assets, to invest in their communities, to enable them to go to a bank and take out a loan rather than rely on public funding. We also need to see Aboriginal elders respecting the learning that youth bring back to their communities from the big smoke. Our youth are increasingly completing their education, at Clontarf and in mainstream schools. It’s up to them to bring their skills and knowledge back to country.
We need to see Aboriginal people gaining meaningful employment, feeling like part of the community, sitting on statutory boards and committees for housing and healthcare and beyond, and not being afraid to speak up and voice both their strengths and weaknesses.
Their future – everyone’s future – will look much brighter then. This is the vision I’m looking forward to for Western Australia.
Dr Robert Isaacs, OAM, JP, is the Executive Manager Social Lending, AHOS, ACCESS, Goodstart and Sole Parent Loans. He was awarded the WA Australian of the Year in 2015, and has just recently been awarded an OAM as part of the Queen's Birthday Honours 2016.
This article first appeared on the WA Festival 2016 website.