Graeme Mundine, Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, and his wife Gabrielle Russell-Mundine, Research and Project Coordinator at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, kindly gave their time to talk to GKA volunteers on Saturday August 4th. Their talk was about being inclusive and began by pointing out that all of us are foreigners in Australia. Graeme himself is a Bundjalung man from the north coast of New South Wales and he pointed out that he is an economic refugee from that area. His parents, brothers and sisters moved to Sydney to receive education and to find work.  Gabrielle hails from England which Graeme claims is still trying to colonise Australia! With humour and great generosity Graeme and Gabrielle shared their own experiences with GKA and gave volunteers the opportunity to take the time to understand some of their own prejudices and beliefs about Aboriginal issues. Graeme asked us to: Remember – the history of this land and its people; Recognise - what happened and continues to happen through the process of colonisation; Rectify – the injustices.

Graeme emphasised the importance of knowing Australian history. Learn about what happened in this country and understand that just as you may have your own stereotypes about Aboriginal people – they are drunks, drug addicts, criminals; Aboriginal people also have their own stereotypes of you – they’re not trustworthy, they do not follow through on their promises.

He asked us to think very carefully about what it is that we want to do. He reminded us that we ourselves do not know the answers. He asked us to engage with Aboriginal people and work hand in hand with them. He advised us to take the time to talk with the people that we are intending to work with, to say to them: “Here I am. I have got the resources. What are your hopes, dreams and resources? What are the ideas that you have”? This is important because the Aboriginal people are the ones that need to come up with the ideas.  He asked us to understand that different people have different priorities, and the people that we would like to work with also have different priorities.

For instance, if we want children to attend schools, how would we go about doing that? What would be the best way? Would it be to offer scholarships? Would it be to send children away to boarding school? Would it be to have more teachers? What are the consequences of each of these actions, on the individual and on the community? Is there only one way of education? Are there other ways of learning?

He asked us to understand the processes that have been involved in the disenfranchising of Aboriginal people – the way government programs are able to turn money on and off while affecting the lives of Aboriginal people. He pointed out that there has never been long-term investment in the future, rather there have been short term fixes which tend to change as budgets and political priorities change.

He also said that if there is already a structure in place, do not create a new one. Rather use the one that is already there.

People ask: “All this money is spent on Aboriginal people but nothing ever changes, where does it go”? It goes to building new prisons, lawyers fighting against Native Title, fly-in fly-out workers. Ask yourself, does the money ever reach Aboriginal people?

He also pointed out the hypocrisy of the concentration on Good Governance – what does it mean and why is the onus on Aboriginal organisations and not also on the government organisations that provide services to Aboriginal people.

Given Graeme’s role as Executive Officer of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry it was inevitable that he would use stories from the bible to illustrate points that he wanted to make. He said many stories in the bible, including the creation story can be considered to be Aboriginal stories. The creation story shows that God, Erumbu, Wajana, Bayami created the world and all that is in it. In the beginning there was darkness; then God said, “Let there be light; let there be land; let there be birds; let there be fishes”; and finally God grabbed a handful of dirt and breathed life into it. The creation story shows God’s great power and that he created all things and that all things are related. This is a story that Aboriginal people knew 40,000 years ago and 4,000 years ago Abraham would have wandered through the desert wondering about the marvels of creation.

He used the story of sister Emu to tell us why we need to get actively involved to change things. Sister Emu was enjoying her day when she saw a great storm moving inland from the coast, so she set off to investigate and after much walking she realised that the storm was in fact cousin Jabiru and cousin Brolga having a great ‘to do’. The fight was so fierce that to this day you can still see the red marks on their legs and their head. Sister Emu went to the edge of the fight and yelled: “Stop! Stop”! Cousin Brolga and cousin Jabiru, turned around looked at her and then turned back and continued with their fight. Sister Emu was so distressed that in the end she had to run into the centre of the fight at which point her back was broken by a digging stick and to this day as sister Emu walks you can see her broken back. Graeme used this story to illustrate the fact that you cannot stand on the edges and just make noise because people, fathers, politicians, will look up for a while but in the end they will continue to do what they have always done. You need to get involved, get into the middle of things, and while it is true that you might get hurt, that is no reason not to get involved.

Graeme then told the story of the chook farm and the eagle. A farmer went out one day and found a baby chook under a tree. He brought the chook back and put it in with all the other chooks in the chook house. Slowly this chook grew with the other chooks, but one day the farmer noticed that this chook looked a bit different, so he took it out of the chook house to the top of a mountain. There were eagles there and the farmer set it free, but it fell back to the ground. So he took it back home and put it back in the chook house. A little while later the farmer tried again. He took the chook out of the chook house, took it to the top of a mountain to where the eagles were and threw it up into the air, the chook rose through the air, spread its wings and flew away to join the eagles. Sometimes, Graeme said, we all like to be in the chook house, but is that really where we should be? We are called to be eagles: majestic, soaring, looking out over everything.  He said it was often easier for us to continue to be the chook in the chook house than to be the eagle that soars.

Another point that Graeme made was that religion and spirituality are part of the whole of life. That you cannot engage with just one part of it, you have to engage with the entirety. His words reflect Gawad Kalinga’s own methods of entering communities, listening to the people in communities and allowing them to lead the way.

We thank Graeme and Gabrielle for spending their Saturday afternoon with us and for their generous sharing.

Suganthi Singarayar