A generation comes and generation goes, and where there is human misery that narrative is often from the cradle to the grave. If we can do something to change such narratives in real time and we don’t then we have been complicit in the misery of others. Our days on this earth matter and should not be wasted. It matters what we can do for one another, this tenet is a promise for the future, one in which the children of our children will walk. We are the sum of those before us. We all walk among each other and therefore have a duty to each other. Before all else, cultural identities and so-called ethnicities, we are people, inalienably equal.
For the record, I speak out and advocate and often galvanise ways forward not only for Aboriginal peoples who are living dirt-poor and deprived, in abominable inequalities but also for migrants who are marginalised. I am known as a suicide prevention researcher who has in recent years been at the forefront of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention but similarly so I have been advocating for more to be identified and done for migrant suicide prevention – at this time I am probably the most prolific writer and advocate on this issue for our migrant brothers and sisters.
I walk alongside the homeless, the impoverished and the incarcerated and speak out on their issues relentlessly. In reality my foci are with the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. It does not matter to me whether they are Black or Brown or White or other. However I recognise that inequalities – borne of generations of racism – that for instance have corralled a significant proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into a sense of hopelessness.
I do not speak on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues such as to do with identity, with their cultural content or on various rights issues. I never speak publicly on the constitutional recognition debate; this is an issue for the First Peoples in the first instance to build consensually among themselves. I stay out of the politics. I was invited by ‘Recognise’ to be on a panel on this issue. They said it would be a mixed panel and “two non-Indigenous” had accepted to participate but I refused and argued my view that any seat offered to me should go to a First Nations person. But one should speak out on issues that are about life and death – on the narratives of human misery that take broken lives to ruined lives. It is a moral abomination – the death of humanity – to stay silent on life and death.
I willed away my doctoral research in incarceration and the suicide crises into the public domain because that’s where more difference could be galvanised and authentically made. It’s not for us to own the issues of others in pursuit of personal benefit, profit (‘intellectual property’) and the vainglorious theatrics of accolades. We should not get caught up in some of the flimsy theatres of life, the charades, but stay real and most certainly when it comes to human life – but far too many do get caught up in the theatrics, accolades and the self-serving and in so doing play with the lives of others. Instead I published in the public domain more than 300 articles in two years on the suicide crises and on the ways forward. Instead of having my research published in academic journals I published without waiting for peer review on the front pages of national newspapers. The nation should know – and with the awareness raising our advocacy if strategic and relentless can leverage ways forward.
I live by my convictions at all times. I firmly believe in Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples, that means ensuring workforce parity. But this is not what this article is about. It is about what needs to be done must be done, what works should be invested in, those who transform lives, change lives, save lives, that they should be learned from, listened to. Nothing and no-one should get in the way of this. Though I am the individual who established the federally funded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project I chose not to lead it but to hand it over to strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership. This is not about self-aggrandizement, it’s about what it takes to make happen what should happen. Yes, I continued to contribute and advocate because if I am expert at something or a stronger advocate than others then where it’s about life and death it is inalienable to me that we are morally bound to do so. This project needed to be lobbied onto the Australian landscape. There were experts who could contribute through this project to the suicide prevention space and because we established this project they have now contributed pathways to saving more lives, to strengthening communities and in addition to generating a national conversation on the suicides crises that was long owed to the Australian people. I have established one project after another but I do not necessarily lead these projects – there is no greater legacy than to improve the lot of others, changing and saving lives. When I state I established, I mean that I got off the ground the potential for a project or program and advocated for this potential to be realised and from thereon people come together collaboratively in the delivering of the making of difference.
There should always be a multitude of voices. This ensures the most profound outcomes, defines everyone one of us, is a coming together.
Don’t worry about whether you’re Black, Brown or White, if you can authentically make a difference in the lives of others where in the meantime others are not able to then our common humanity obligates us to do so. I have watched the predominately non-Aboriginal led First Nations Homelessness Project and Advocacy Service become the first significant influence in the nation to reduce child removals and in preventing evictions of Aboriginal families from public rental housing. In fact the FNHPAS has thus far achieved a 100 per cent track record in preventing evictions and a 100 per cent track record in preventing child removals. Yet, the best others have to offer is to sell ‘resilience’ instead of rights, to resort to the easy option and soft language of ‘aspire’ to ‘high expectations’. That’s all well and good if there is hope on the horizon, or the years of trauma are surmountable but that’s not the reality for the majority of the trauma affected marginalised who cannot ‘aspire’ or entertain ‘high expectations’ without a solid helping hand. So to the FNHPAS I say all power to you for being the strongest advocate in the nation on the ways forward in reducing child removals. Individuals who as children are removed from their families are the most elevated risk group to suicide and aberrant behaviour.
I have taken a significant risk in writing this article because some will misunderstand and go muddled-minded with associations to the confusing notions around ‘saviour complexes’. I find it tragic when people who know how to crash-through into the bringing about of the making of difference are cut down, excluded. We can be damned if we do, damned if we don’t – but in the end I know which of the two I’d prefer to accept being – ‘damned’ for doing. We need everyone who can positively change and save lives. No-one who needs help should be left behind. No-one I’ve helped, the many lives saved, the families that have been kept together, those I have ensured pathways to education, support from beginning to end, those who I’ve lifted out of the jails and out of homelessness into university education, those who have begged me to advocate on health, welfare and legal issues, many who had nowhere else to turn to, all they needed was someone like me who was there for them in the now, that I’d fight for them with a sense of urgency – that I’m not limited to the chattering classes.
I digress, but I liked a reflection by Stan Grant, “No one in that parliament has the broad range of experiences and expertise I do. I’ve lived in five different countries and reported from more than 70. As a journalist, I’ve covered the great events of our time. I can speak about world affairs, global economics, international politics. Working for CNN and travelling the world gave me a unique vantage point on my own country and deepened my perspective. I mean, how many federal members have sat down to lunch with a member of the Taliban? Or stood in the blood of a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan?”
If someone has the capacity to influence decisions within political, economic and social systems then that advocacy must be encouraged. My advocacy is limited to social justice advocacy for the poorest, the most vulnerable, whomever they maybe. I will not sit idly by and watch our prisons fill with the poorest and most vulnerable. I have written hundreds of articles on incarceration and the ways forward, on the transforming of the lives of inmates. Nearly 90 per cent of the national prison population has not completed Year 12, with 60 per cent failing to get past Year 10 and 40 per cent not getting past Year 9. In my time in the tertiary sector, over a few years, I brought into university education former inmates and homeless individuals. I advocated strongly for this to occur, initially I was a lone voice. But we must be relentless. However I did not want to just ‘bridge’ them in. Students from mature-age entry and disadvantaged backgrounds have a low student retention rate. I organised psychosocial and tuition support for them from their point of entry to the point of exit. Most of them graduated. We changed lives.
Advocacy represents a timeline of actions that educate others as to the ways forward but coupled concomitantly with other layers of advocacy that in light of what has been highlighted subsequently lobbying for that more decent society has a better chance.
With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – the First Peoples – according to my measure of poverty, not the Henderson Poverty Line, nearly 40 per cent live below the poverty line. From within this poverty, are found nearly 100 per cent of Black suicides, are found nearly 100 per cent of those who are incarcerated. When 30 per cent of Australia’s child suicides (to 17 years of age) are Aboriginal children, when 80 per cent of Australia’s suicides of children aged 12 years and less are Aboriginal, I will not sit idly by or remain voiceless. If we galvanise others to do likewise, if we raise the bar then good and often it is about energising those who have become exhausted in what appears a constant struggle.
I know when to let go. I am part of another national project which I helped establish – another Black issues project – but I have time-limited my involvement because this one, as soon as possible, should be an all-Black led Black workforce. I am part of other projects too, prison to wellbeing to education to work and they would not be heading to where they deserve to be in the name of so many souls who are crying out for them if without the advocacy and the relentlessness that needs go with, that gives them ‘spine’.
This article was sparked by my day in the Children’s Court – by the sea of despair. We have ways forward that can reduce the number of people finishing up in the Children’s Court. We have ways forward that succeed in keeping families together but we let money, politics, ego and laziness get in the way. This is not about a saviour complex, it’s about the right thing to do. If we do not focus on those most in need then who and what are we really about?
Advocacy can be mass or through standing up in decision-making circles. In terms of social care advocacy these two forms of advocacy are vital.
So, this is why I speak out on Black issues. It’s a common humanity thing and once again it’s not a right thing to do but the only right thing. Others fought for us, so too we.
– Among the writer’s qualifications are included a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy and a Masters in Human Rights Education and a lifetime dedicated to fighting for others – starting as a young child interpreting and advocating for Greek workers who were asbestosis victims – to decades later where Gerry was vital in the release of Indonesian children from Australian adult prisons.