Panel discussion captured at the ‘Women For Yes’ campaign launch (Sunday 13 August 2023, Athenaeum Theatre, Naarm). Featuring proud Wotjobaluk and Dja Dja Wurrung woman Belinda Duarte (CEO, Culture is Life); Maria Dimopolous AM (Chair, Safe + Equal); Ilona Lee AM (Project Director, Shabbat Table Talks); and Prof. Fiona Stanley AC (Epidemiologist, Child and Family Health Specialist), moderated by Alana Johnson AM (Co-Founder, Voices for Indi).
So this part of our session, this afternoon is called: Women’s Ways of Doing Activism. And we’ve invited four women to come and have a dialogue with us. Women, who in themselves are a force to be reckoned with, women who are inspiring other women. So I’ll invite them to make their way up to the stage.
So first, yes, thank you, we have Belinda Duarte.
Welcome Belinda. Belinda’s a Wotjobaluk and Dja Dja Wurrung descendent with Polish and Celtic heritage. In this shining era of women’s sport that I’ve just spoken about, she’s a director of the Western Bulldogs — Go Doggies! — and an MCG trustee, that hallowed ground of men.
Belinda’s working on improving innovative projects to influence the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to improve relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
So welcome, Belinda.
So next to her is probably a face that many of you recognise and I probably don’t even need to introduce. This is Professor Fiona Stanley AC. So Fiona is a founding director and patron of Telethon Kids Institute, a unique, multi-disciplinary, independent research institute focusing on the causes and prevention of major problems affecting children and youth.
She’s an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and a UNICEF ambassador. And that’s only two of the many distinguished roles she has.
So thank you for coming all this way, Fiona.
Sitting next to Fiona is Maria Dimopoulos AM. So she’s well known to the Victorian Women’s Trust, been a friend for a long time. She is a lauded human rights advocate and a champion of diversity and gender equality. She’s the inaugural chairperson of the Harmony Alliance,
Australia’s National Coalition of Migrant and Refugee Women. Thank you, Maria.
And then we have Ilona Lee AM. Welcome, Ilona. So, Ilona is a former teacher, a senior lecturer and senior manager with New South Wales Health. Her Award of Australia was for services to the general community, particularly in the field of multicultural health and to the Jewish community through a range of organisations.
So welcome Ilona. You’ve all been invited here today to talk about women’s activism and your agency and activism for change and your experience of other women who’ve been instrumental in changing politics, community, environment and other sectors of society in Australia.
So I’m going to start with the notion that behind us in those shadows, behind our shoulder are the many women that came before us, the generations of women who have made the pathway for us to be able to walk on today.
Those women who are in our souls, in our DNA, our mothers’, mothers’, mothers who we might not even know their stories, but we know of how they lived their lives and the work they’ve done.
So I think it’s only fitting that we start with the point of view of women out there who’ve made a difference.
So I’m interested to hear from you. Would you like to share with us an example of a woman who’s been an activist, who’s made change happen, who’s made reform happen, who’s inspired you.
So I’ll start with you, Belinda.
I’m going to say Dalk Muwil. Dalki Dalk.
Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for having me here today.
I want to echo the Acknowledgment of Country. The Wurundjeri Woiwurrung, the Boonwurrung and the broader Kulin Nation here in Melbourne.
As a Wotjobaluk woman whose family ties are also connected to Dja Dja Wurrung it’s a real privilege for me to be a part of today’s panel. And in anchoring in the emotion, to Minister Burney, Aunty Linda that we would finally, as Mob are constantly inspired by your ability to stand with grace and love into spaces that can often be, you know, places that are not and have not been historically safe for our people.
I am not, I haven’t been able to travel where I have without my family. So to acknowledge the mothers, my mother, my Bap, my grandmother, my great grandmother, Rosemary Kennedy, to Catherine Robinson, who lived during a time to be a descendant of a child, connected to massacres across this country.
Our family comes from — our families — come from extraordinary hardship. In acknowledging the hardship that many, many First Nations families are of, I also have a connection as a Babcia. My Babcia being a prisoner of war, and my father being born into a concentration camp.
So justice and fair treatment is etched in my DNA. I am of people who have taken steps through their actions in the small moments and in the moments that it truly counts.
So, um, I want to acknowledge the leadership of women in small family units that are advocating for change for their children in hospitals, for in their experiences in the education system.
Many, many First Nations families, mothers, are lobbying, continue to lobby to make healthy experiences for our young people at schools.
So to talk about reform and visibility of, of women that have been supported by men and women to get to where they are, that do have strong visibility, whether it’s Traditional Owners here of this Country, you know, Aunty Joy Murphy, Aunty Di Kerr, Aunty Caroline Briggs and many, many others up on my Country and many women that have advocated publicly on a range of different levels, whether it is for Treaty advocacy here and the importance of that in this state and now more broadly the likes of years of, you know, advocacy with Aunty Jackie Huggins and the reconciliation movement, and witnessing and being exposed to their leadership and how they ensure that the Rights, Recognition and Reform agenda are a part of what keeps us well not only as Aboriginal people, but as a broader community.
I could talk about many, many women.
Dr. Anita Heiss and her way of sharing in her arena of writing, or if it is the likes of advocacy work that different mediums and women like a Shelly Ware, that has gone about using media to advocate around some of the needs and the education needs for our young Mob and our young people as well.
And I guess finally at the end of the day, we’re here for the women in the room to remind each of you, and the men, about the power of women to influence change in the small moments and in the big moments.
Our kids deserve to be recognised. And the journey to recognition, told us that this is the way we should be recognised in the Constitution. Through the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart, this is the priority.
As you protect your children, as you protect your families, as you love your families. As an Australian family, this is the most beautiful, oldest living culture in the world. I shouldn’t say the most beautiful, I’m a little bit biased there. But we should be proud of that as a collective.
And I feel like I’ve taken up enough time on that answer. But thank you, Alana.
So Fiona, not only did I have to follow Linda, but now you have to follow Belinda.
It’s quite an ask, isn’t it?
It is, it is indeed.
Kaya. Nganyang kwerl Fiona. I come from Noongar Boodjar in Western Australia.
I just want to acknowledge the amazing people that I have worked with in not just in the land, the Noongar Boodjar, but across the whole of this country.
It’s changed my life.
I’ve got so many people. I was inspired by Marie Curie, for example. What an amazing person. And so early on, to do so well scientifically and academically, and to be so criticised by the French, who all had mistresses all over the place, and yet when she, after her husband died, took a lover, they tried to take the Nobel Prize away from her.
She only got two. She was my first inspiration.
Another inspiration for me was Eleanor Roosevelt. As my girls say to me, oh, you went through your ER phase, didn’t you, Mum? And I did.
And I just think you should dwell on the fact of how powerful she was. She was powerful by small actions. And I think, Belinda, that’s what you were saying too.
The small actions of having her photograph taken, kissing a Black child during the height of those lynchings in the Southern American states, the way that she wrote a letter every day to the people of America, wherever she was in the world, and she put up with being the wife of a president, and all that meant, who was unfaithful to h
And then after he died, she took on the role of the United Nations and social justice.
So for me, she’s like the model right up ther
But another woman I want to mention is Dr. Joan Winch, who was the most outstanding Aboriginal nurse in Western Australia who died last year. Dr. Winch. And you may not have heard of her, but in 1980 when I was working with her, a privilege to be so, she established the first Aboriginal health worker training program in the world.
It’s been incredibly successful.
Many of the Aboriginal health workers have gone on to be nurses and doctors and to have roles in prevention across the whole state and she actually won the WHO prize for public health.
It’s called the Sasakawa Prize, and she won that in 1988. And I just want you to know about her because she was always so warm, and so loving and so strong, and you knew that she would never give up. And for her, the trauma that she had been through with her own family.
Her daughter died years and years before she did. Lots of tragedies in her family. You never, ever saw Joan ever give up. And I feel so privileged to have known her.
You come to us with the own your own rich heritage that you have brought to this land. And so I’m interested to see who you would like to share as inspirational in your life, given your own historical context.
I too want to start by acknowledging that as a migrant to this country, as a racialised settler to this country, as someone sadly who was not confronted with the fact that we’d been told lies about the history of this country until first year law school at Monash University, that I very much encourage those of us who are migrant refugees here to this country, that this is a land that is yet to reconcile its past, a country that has yet to tell the truth about the history of this country.
And as migrants and refugees, it’s particularly incumbent on us to really embrace the fact that we can make a difference to the way in which the future narratives are described.
So I just want to start by talking about the importance of our accountability as racialised settlers.
We are, I mean, what an extraordinary event. And how could you not be moved?
You know, it’s very rare as friends out there would know for me to get nervous about speaking anywhere. I speak underwater, apparently. But I am incredibly overwhelmed because you can feel the energy and the power that is in this room.
So when you ask, you know, we stand on the shoulders of giants and there are so, so many that come to mind, it would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do to have to isolate one or two.
But can I say that my mother, who migrated to this country without a word of English with all of her struggles, I always recall the retort that she gave when she was confronted with that daily tirade of ‘go back to the country that you came from’.
But I’m so proud as a six year old hearing her response in broken English, ‘Well, you better leave with me because it’s not your country either.’ So to this day, I know she’s quietly proud of me, even though I don’t have a law firm in Melbourne. She doesn’t quite understand what Human Rights Law is. But I can tell you that just last week we practiced writing Yes in that ballot box.
And I’m so proud of my mother. Thank you.
So I’m here from Sydney, from the Gadigal land, and I really want to speak from the viewpoint of the Jewish community. And I have to tell you that the Jewish community is eternally grateful to Indigenous communities because William Cooper in the 1930s led a delegation to the German Embassy in Australia protesting about what was happening in Germany to the Jews at the beginning of World War Two.
If you asked me about role models, and how I’d benefited, the Jewish community in New South Wales has many organisations. We have youth organisations, we have seniors organisations, welfare organisations, Jewish schools, synagogues. We have everything.
But 40 years ago, the boards of every one of those organisations were made up of men, and a group of women got together, and formed a group called Women Power, and they identified, mentored and supported women to get onto boards.
And I benefited from that. And our boards in Sydney, there wouldn’t be an organisation without at least one woman, but we’re now working to get gender parity. But I benefited from that and I’m now able to mentor younger women to do exactly the same thing.
So that’s my experience of the power of women.
I think this has been such a relevant starting place for women to start with the stories of other women and the recognition that we are all part of this bigger story, a story that comes from other lands and a 60,000 year old story of our land, that we have been invited to be part of that story, and to recognise that, for generations, not only have Indigenous women been stepping up and stepping forward, but women have been forging pathways on this land for a long, long time.
And that’s due, you know, we recognise that.
So let’s turn to now and you, as extraordinary activist women. So tell us a little bit about what you’ve done that actually has forged change and reform for the nation of Australia.
And just a comment on what you think would be useful to other people to hear about stepping up. What does it mean to step up and how do you do it? And this moment in time that Linda spoke about, how can we step into that and look over our shoulders at all those women who’ve gone before us and say, I’m the one to take the next step?
For me it’s very much about recognising the points at which coalitions can develop. I recall, Belinda, you mentioned Dr. Jackie Huggins.
About 30 years ago when I first, I used to stalk Jackie. She reminds me of that from time to time. But 30 years ago she launched Sister Girl, which was one of the most profound books that I had ever come across, and it captured what I suppose many of us in the anti-racism or multicultural movement were trying to deal with, and that is the rejection of this idea that homogeneity characterised those of us who are often described as ‘the other’.
And I think what Jackie did was two things in this book. She talked firstly about the fact that we don’t live our lives in single issue ways, that we are complex beings. And this idea of intersectionality, that wasn’t just about adding a list of identities to who we were, it was about saying, Look, are you asking the questions that matter?
The questions about who has power, who doesn’t, the questions about who’s around the table, whose voices are we listening to? Who’s allowed to be around this table?
And then the other point that she made was that the feminist movement needed to really take into account the impact of colonisation. And more importantly that we, as non-Indigenous women, needed to appreciate the way in which we too contributed or benefited from the ongoing dispossession of land.
And that was an incredibly pivotal moment for me, where I think an appreciation that the effectiveness of the women’s movement could only be enhanced when it embraced this idea of colonisation and its impact, when we truly embraced the truth of our own history as non-Indigenous women and the role that we too played and continue to play through, I think our collusion, if you like, with colonisation.
That was a profound time for me, and I hope that what we’re doing now is really deeply listening to the offer out there for genuine, painful but genuine truth telling. It is time for those of us including multicultural and refugee communities to step up, to embrace the offer on hold.
And as somebody said, let’s not squander this critical opportunity for a genuine future.
Maria, I think the whole nation actually needed to hear that, don’t you? Fiona.
Well, when I set up the institute back in — I’m very old — 1986/7, this was an institute of looking at pathways into child health and wellbeing. So it was a very unusual institute.
It wasn’t sort of immunology or genetics, it was all of those things, but it was about pathways and trying to. And so I went to the Aboriginal community in Perth, the WA Aboriginal community controlled organisations, and I said, Look, we’re a research institute, we’re not a service organisation. What do you want us to be for you?
And they said, We want you to be our mother. Now what does a mother do? A mother loves her children.She gives them all the power and the capacity and the knowledge and the funding to cope in a world that’s really tough out there. I thought, right. So we recruited, and this was very early on, legion after a legion of Aboriginal researchers.
So over the last 30 or 40 years we’ve trained and recruited over 40 PhD scholars who are now flying around this country and doing amazing things. Maybe they were even a bit of the reason why the Aboriginal population did so well in terms of the COVID pandemic. I can’t mention all of these people, but they really changed my life so that I then understood about what Aboriginal health really was. It’s about land, it’s about culture, it’s about language, it’s about relationships, it’s about love.
And it’s really that whole relationships that drove, and does drive, Aboriginal health outcomes.
And what they showed me was how to do community participation acts and research methodologies, which I’d never heard of. It changed my whole view of research and I was doing research in other areas.
But this group of people, you know, I’d love to just mention Sandra Eades, Juli Coffin, Cheryl Kickett-Tucker, Michael Wright, Ted Wilkes, Helen Milroy, Ngiare Brown, you know, they are just — Rhonda Marriott — they have just been amazing and they are all now leaders in their own fields getting NHMRC grants.
What they told us was about the real way to do research into wellbeing, the real way, the collective way of love and how important that is for health and wellbeing. But what we taught them was how to get an NHMRC grant and how to get your track record right and how to actually deal with the white misogynist viewpoints that are assessing you
in the NHMRC and the ARC, sorry, National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Australian Research Council – my daughter said not to use acronyms. I’m so sorry.
So, and this was incredibly powerful for them because what we taught them to do is to walk in both worlds so successfully that they could then beat everyone at their own game.
It was like women 30 or 40 years ago for Aboriginal people in research where you had to be better than the blokes to get there and they have to be better than, the non-Indigenous researchers, to get there. And that’s why we lifted that bar.
Initially I didn’t. Initially I was too frightened to criticise an Aboriginal person in case I upset them because of colonisation. Uh-uh. No, you raised the bar. You don’t help anyone by lowering the bar.
So this outstanding group of people now have got another outstanding group of people, mostly Aboriginal people, who they are training in research.
In 2005, I was president of the Jewish College on the campus of the University of New South Wales, and we had no scholarship program for anybody. And Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, who was head of the Indigenous unit at the School of Medicine at the university, came to me and asked if we would provide a residential scholarship for an Indigenous medical student.
We did that and Lisa and I established a program called the Shalom Gamarada Indigenous Scholarship Program.
That program now sees in a Jewish college at least 30 Indigenous students living there each year. We’ve graduated over 70 professionals, including 32 medical doctors, which is about 8% of the Indigenous medical doctors in Australia. And it just proves to me that all people need is an opportunity and they’re grabbing it and really running with it, so that’s one example I wanted to give.
And the other is when I went to the launch of the Yes campaign, and I heard [Mary Crooks, Victorian Women’s Trust] talk about “kitchen table talks”, and now in our community on Friday nights, we all sit around what we call the Shabbats table, the Sabbath table, and we talk about our weeks and what’s going on in families.
So the organisation that I work for, which is a Jewish media organisation, established Shabbat Table Talks and we’re working with Together, Yes. And we’ve spread that right through the Jewish community. Right across the country, encouraging Jewish families to talk about this issue on Friday nights around the table so that we all vote Yes.
Such inspiration. Belinda, you have to bring this home.
It’s really uncomfortable to talk about the things you do as an individual because culturally, the perspective is collective.
And that’s been a real walking in two worlds experience for many First Nations Mob working in a colonial context, I guess.
So the things I’m proud of being involved with have been the Regional Dialogues as a part of, that led to the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart. The Community Assembly that has built the framework for the First People’s Assembly here in this state, to fund and resource work around Truth Telling in this state as co-chair at the Annamila Foundation.
They’re the things, and many other things, like having the courage to walk out the day after Her Majesty passed and Acknowledge Country and the sorry business of this country, the Wurundjeri people at that time, and the sorry business that was occurring globally with the passing of Her Majesty.
And having to lean in to an uncomfortable conversation, they’re the things I’m proud of. But that’s me the individual. Behind that is Nyernyila. To listen deeply. To listen and watch. And I’ve had the blessing of witnessing what can happen in the arenas that you’re functioning in by your actions through being a descendant of the first Australian cricket team, seeing the first Aboriginal man as my family in the Stawell Gift, and many years later to be on the trust of the MCG Trust. Not anymore. Only recently.
But to stand on the grounds of men that were given the opportunity to voice their power and equity in areas that were colonially, there was such racism. And to double back on that, what I’ve had the blessing of is witnessing the likes of Aunty Pat Anderson stand with grace, wisdom and pride, and continue to talk about how important this work is when other energies, other people were actively trying to take her out.
There is a grace, there is a power and a admiration that instills me to step into those spaces. And for many people, many women around kitchen tables, leaning in to those hard conversations, which will make people uncomfortable. When we step in with the love and the aspiration of what is the complete identity of this country, 60,000 years of the oldest living, continuous living culture globally, that founding document, to not have that present, to tell us all who we are connected to, and that innate connection to Country that we as First Peoples have, but any custodian on this Country is a part of that story.
We have to, we have to be courageous enough to continue to talk with that pride, and lean in when it’s when it’s tough because it’s going to get tougher.
What can I say? There’s many things I could say, but I think the thing that I would like to reverberate around the room is this an example of the privilege of listening and to step into that space and actually hear, and I’ve heard you, Belinda, and I think I will take with me and every woman in the room will take with me the story of that courage to step into those spaces.
So please thank our panel for sharing with us.