14 July 2018

Celebrating Canberra’s trailblazing women this NAIDOC Week

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names of people who have died.

NAIDOC Week is an important time of the year. It is a time to reflect and to celebrate the histories, cultures and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC Week has its roots in the emergence of Aboriginal protest groups in the 1920s and 1930s that sought to raise the awareness in the wider community of the status and treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. NAIDOC Week is community driven. It is not organised by governments, it is movement by everyday Australians – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and that gives this week a special place in our nation’s calendar.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme, ‘because of her, we can’, celebrates the individual and collective contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to communities, families, histories and cultures. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried their dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge that has kept their cultures, the oldest cultures on earth, strong. We all benefit from this work.

This week we have celebrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are trailblazers, change activists and mentors. Women who have achieved incredible things in their community, and leaders at the Territory and national levels. Canberra is a better place because of their work, and Canberrans can look to their examples of resilience and strength.

June Patricia Eatock, or Aunty Pat, was a passionate advocate for her people and a successful academic. Aunty Pat was the first Aboriginal woman to stand for Federal Parliament in the ACT in the 1972 election where she campaigned on Aboriginal, women’s and children’s issues.

Olive Brown and Kay Mundine were determined to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Both Olive and Kay were instrumental in the establishment of what is now Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services. Their tireless work championing and enabling self-determination at all levels now reflected in Winnunga’s enduring contribution and legacy.

The history of Winnunga, and the women behind it, cannot be mentioned without Julie Tongs OAM. Julie is a fierce advocate for Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and under her leadership, Winnunga has gone from strength to strength. Julie was awarded the ACT NAIDOC Person of the Year last Saturday in recognition of her decades of service and advocacy for her community.

Many of the women making a difference in the community are volunteers, like Meg Huddleson and Coral King, who lead the ACT Nannies Group. This group provides an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander grandmothers to come together, share stories and to provide emotional and spiritual support to each other. These grandmothers have lived, worked and raised children and grandchildren Canberra over decades. They have built strong connections and kinship ties with their families and communities across the ACT. Guest speakers from service providers attend many of their meetings and this enables those organisations to identify service gaps through the grandmother’s feedback.

Indeed, throughout this week, we have heard stories of and paid tribute to those women who have quietly worked behind the scenes – the mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters and daughters who have made it possible for those around them to thrive. These are the women who first come to mind when we think about the NAIDOC Week theme, because of her, we can.

This year’s Banardos Mother of the Year is Noelene Lever is one such woman. Now 78 years old, she has dedicated her life to caring for children. Over the years, Noelene has fostered more than 50 children and her ‘door never closes’. The spirit of this year’s NAIDOC theme is echoed by the words of one of Noelene foster children, 39 year old Sarina. Noelene began caring for Sarina when she was just two weeks old. In the words of Sarina, “my mother is my role model and I am the woman I am today because of her. She always made sure that I knew where I came from. This was very important because she didn’t want me to lose my connection with my family. By doing this, she gave me the knowledge of my identity – of who I am and where I belong.”

Aunty Pat, Olive, Kay, Julie, Meg, Coral, Noelene and many more women make our community stronger. They have made sacrifices and put others before themselves. They are an inspiration and strength to all of us. Because of them, so many can.

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