I am a Wiradjuri man with roots in central NSW, however I grew up in the Dharawal community in Wollongong. Being Indigenous means everything to me. To me, Indigenous equals success. It means celebrating our culture’s history, resilience, stories and achievements and most importantly, our connection to country and our contribution as First Nations' People to this diverse land. This sense of pride, empathy and positivity is what I hope to instil in our future Indigenous leaders.
I’d like to share my story with you.
It starts with one kid – a skinny, fair-skinned Aboriginal boy who’s not having the happiest time at school. He’s into sport – fast, agile, and his favourite label is cheeky. This boy has a few encounters with racism and lands himself in the Deputy Principal’s office on more occasions than he has the care to count. There he sits, writing the school rules over and over again. His grades are passing; he fares better in health and physical education. The label of ‘cheeky’ becomes a label of ‘naughty’, and gradually grows worse.
That kid was me at 14, scraping by in school, and on the path to some pretty dark places.
Two things changed that. One was AIME, the other was footy.
It’s a privilege to be able to give back to the community and inspire the next generation of Indigenous leaders to dream, believe and achieve excellence.
The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) is an organisation committed to educational equality. Our Theatre of Education consists of 49 interactive theatre shows proven to support Indigenous kids through high school and help them navigate the issues of our time.
I was one of those kids.
As a mentee in the Wollongong program from 2010 to 2012, I found that simply having a discussion about topics that weren’t often raised at home or school was a way for it to become a reality in my mind. Ideas like going to university or having a dream suddenly became approachable, and real.
My other rock was footy. Footy was always a big part of my life, but it wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated it for what it was: a way to get out, clear the head, and clear the mind.
As a kid, I was the one running around with a footy at community events. It didn’t matter if it was a school holiday program with the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation (IAC) or a NAIDOC celebration, I’d always have a footy. As I grew older, I started helping the IAC workers and our Elders, and it was in these settings that teachings were passed on from my Mum and Nan, and from older members of the Aboriginal community. This is my culture; this is how I was raised. This is my identity. Ain’t no one going to tell me it isn’t. Through footy, I found a sense of connection to people, places and most importantly, I found pride in myself.
In 2012, I was scouted at the NSW Combined High Schools Football Championships and offered a contract with the Canberra Raiders, an opportunity which saw me move to the nation’s capital. One of the most daunting factors of moving away from home at 16 was the transition into Year 12 and not having AIME in Canberra to support me.
However, in my years prior to the move, AIME had given me the tools I needed to succeed in Year 12, and I did just that. I completed Year 12 at Erindale College in Canberra and became the first in my family to transition to university after school. My family was overwhelmed. Going to university was not something that was spoken about in my house until I had identified a pathway for myself in the AIME program.
Now it’s my turn to give back and ensure that the younger generations continue to learn our culture and traditions.
As ACT Program Manager, I deliver AIME’s 49 interactive theatre shows to hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in Canberra. Those same discussions that made the impossible seem possible for me at 14 years old are the very discussions I hope to fire up for our kids.
This is my culture; this is how I was raised. This is my identity. Ain’t no one going to tell me it isn’t.
A couple of years back, I ran an AIME show that gives kids the chance to express gratitude to someone who’s supported them to get to where they are today. Often, kids will write to their Mum or Dad, an older sibling, or their AIME mentor. On that day, as the show drew to a close, I asked if anyone would like to read their message aloud.
Ben, a Year 10 mentee, jumped at the opportunity. He stood before the gang and read:
“Dear Cleveland, thank you for what you have done for me over the past year and a half; for providing me with a lot of knowledge on how to deal with all of life’s problems such as racism, how to be a leader and take chances that life throws at you and not take it for granted. Thank you for being the best role model and also helping out everyone else at AIME. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
In that moment, I realised I was exactly where I needed to be. It was so powerful to know that in some small way, the example I’d set had inspired a young kid to build a better future himself. It’s a privilege to be able to give back to the community and inspire the next generation of Indigenous leaders to dream, believe and achieve excellence.
These are the people who will continue our cultural ways of celebration and songlines – our song, dance, art, storytelling and dreaming, for years to come. This is the only way to ensure our culture does not disappear, and one day hopefully see our languages return.
Challenge yourself to learn about Indigenous culture and history. Be open to the stories, read and listen to others. I know you will be amazed by this beautiful culture we share as Australians; by the potential of our kids, and the knowledge that beats with the bloodlines of the world’s oldest continuous culture.