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We Can and We Will: Celebrating Dr. Jackie Huggins AM

On a warm evening in late November, a crowd of people stood outside a heavy wooden doorway in the upper levels of the Melbourne Town Hall. Some gently arch their necks in an attempt to peer inside; others politely stood back, listening to the goings on. Sounds continually flowed out from the very full room; the warm banter of speakers and friends, notes from a Tongan Samoan musical number, a cappella singing, the strumming of guitars — and a hell of lot of laughter. This lively gathering was to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Jackie Huggins AM, author, historian, teacher, and beloved community activist. It was also her 60th birthday. Everyone in the room (and in the hallway) were Jackie’s friends, colleagues, community sector mates, and family members; each an ardent admirer of Jackie.

Jackie Huggins is of Bidjara Central Queensland and Birri-Gubba Juru North Queensland peoples. When thinking of Jackie, the term ‘social justice warrior’ immediately springs to mind. While those on the far right may use it as a pejorative (oh, how mistaken they are) we know the hard truth; it’s a title reserved for people like Jackie who have been fighting the good fight, in style. Her work on reconciliation, Aboriginal rights, gender equality, and education has influenced generations of activists, feminists and community advocates.

Jackie is about as decorated as they come. Capturing the full range of her body of work is quite the tall order (that said, there is a great blog piece by Sharon M. Harrison that does encapsulate the full gamut of Jackie’s work). Her insight and expertise has elevated numerous boards ranging from the National Aboriginal Gallery, Australian Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Queensland Domestic Violence Council, and the Telstra Foundation, plus many, many more in between. She’s also worked as a consultant across community, academia and government. Drawing on her own stories and family history, Jackie has penned essays, educational materials and books such as Sister Girl: the writings of Aboriginal activist and historian Jackie Huggins (1998) and the seminal work Auntie Rita (1994) co-written with her mother, Rita Huggins. She has been awarded countless accolades for her work as an educator, playwright, historian, and writer. In 2001, she received the Member of the Order of Australia for her years of service in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Jackie is also the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

Dr. Jackie Huggins AM on the left with restaurateur Hana Assafiri. Photo by Bri Hammond Photography

Performers Sialei Paotama and Martha Metuisela. Photo by Bri Hammond Photography

But back to that packed out room. Despite the huge numbers, there was a strong feeling of intimacy with people seated on the floor and spilling out into the hall and balcony. The night started with music from Anthea Sidiropoulos and her band, followed by a moving Welcome to Country from Kellie Hunter, “empowered women, empower women”. In between chats amongst friends, there was a number of speakers, including introductions from Leanne Miller, Executive Director of Koorie Women Mean Business and warm words from Duré Dara OAM, Board member of the Victorian Women’s Trust.

Singer Aseel Tayah. Photo by Bri Hammond Photography

Later, we heard from Kerrie Tim, the First Assistant Secretary, Principal Advisor, Indigenous Affairs at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. “Jackie is inspiring because she has loved what she has done,” said Kerrie. “Jackie, it’s a true honour to know you.” Heather Nancarrow, CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, delighted the crowd with photographs from over the years, detailing the violence prevention work they had done together (as well as some interesting haircuts along the way). “Jackie puts the love out to everybody,” said Heather.

Midway through the evening Palestinian singer and artist, Aseel Tayah, bought the room to a standstill as she sang an emotional tribute to mothers in Arabic. This significant moment was no accident. Lead organiser of the event, Maria Dimopoulos, social justice advocate and multiculturalism expert, touched on importance of migrant women paying respect and homage to First Nations People. “It’s time for us to recognise that we as migrant and refugee women have unfinished business,” she said, in reference to reconciliation. Paying respects to Jackie Huggins through the medium of music was a beautiful choice. Jackie echoed Maria’s sentiments, “One of the big things Maria and I fought to do…is looking at the nexus between Aboriginal and migrant women.”

CEO of  Wishin, Trish O’Donohue, and Marjorie Thorpe, the former Director of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, also spoke of their connection with and admiration of Jackie. Trish recalled the first time she met Jackie, after having read Auntie Rita many times over. The only thing she could think to say to Jackie was, “You changed my life.” Majorie Thorpe followed on soon after, declaring, “It doesn’t matter how old we get, we’re never going to give up and we’re never going to shut up!”

This celebration came on the eve of Breakthrough 2016; a two day conference centred on the status of gender equality in Australia. And while the Jackie Huggins celebration may not have been open to the general public, it was the only way to kick off the proceedings. Dr. Jackie Huggins AM has changed Australia for the better, and she continues to do so. People like Jackie come once in a generation. We must keep celebrating the work of leading advocates like herself. Jackie brought the evening to a close with the remark, “I’ll never forget the work we have done together…let’s keep doing it.”

We Can And We Will: Building Coalitions to Recognise Australia’s First Peoples event was supported by 1800 Respect, Myriad International, the Victorian Multicultural Commission, and the Victorian Women’s Trust. Co-hosted by Leanne Miller, Koorie Women Mean Business, and Maria Dimopoulos, Myriad International.

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