Owning our past to create a more equitable future
The momentum generated by the US Black Lives Matter movement has seen Australian organisations question their own systemic inequalities. However, many feel they lack the capability to channel this energy into achieving real change respectfully, inclusively and confidently.
DCA CEO Lisa Annese spoke with John Paul Janke, proud Wuthathi man from Cape York and Murray Island in the Torres Strait, highly experienced journalist and media professional, and member of DCA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander External Advisory Panel, about what is needed to recognise Australia’s ongoing racial injustices and shift the dial to create a future that includes Australia’s First Nations people.
Bias and Discrimination in the Justice System
Though the world has reacted with outrage to this latest case of police perpetrated racial violence, John Paul laments that it has taken the death of an African American man, George Floyd, for Australians to start to recognise our own shameful record of bias and discrimination within the justice system.
Currently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 27% of the prison population and only 3% of the general population; and there have been at least 432 Aboriginal deaths in custody recorded since the 1991 Royal Commission, leaving victims’ families to endure the unspeakable pain of losing loved ones in entirely preventable circumstances, with no justice or redress available.
Genuine Progress Requires True Self-Determination
Despite decades of calls for change, many are hoping that the time is finally now for a reckoning on these tragic statistics. While John Paul has been encouraged by the expressions of solidarity shown by non-Indigenous Australians, he reiterates that genuine progress requires true self-determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enable closing gaps not only of incarceration rates, but also in health, housing, and education.
Says John Paul, “Overall, black people – we are tired of marching, we’re tired of having to take to the streets and ask for change. And in fact, change will probably only happen when we’re involved in the day to day decisions at the most senior levels that affect us. I read somewhere recently that to make lasting change, we ultimately have to get off the streets and into the rooms where those decision-makers operate.”
For that to happen, John Paul believes that organisations can play a leading role by making genuine diversity and inclusion a reality. However, he cautions that ownership needs to be the responsibility of the entire workforce, not just that of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander or other culturally diverse employees. Activism fatigue and the need to repeatedly justify and explain are compounded when there is a lack of understanding and acceptance around the devastating impacts of colonisation.
Acknowledgement of historical truths, explains John Paul, is vital to us realising our true potential as a unified nation, “We have to understand that how after two centuries of dispossession, of dispersal and discrimination, and even the denial of fundamental rights, how that has impacted our communities but overall, we have to believe that Aboriginal people are not the problem. In fact, they are the solution.”
According to John Paul, the most important action we can take right now is to read, understand and support the Uluru Statement from the Heart to help secure constitutional recognition for First Nations Australians.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want to celebrate this country. We want to be part of this country. And I think that if we can move past that we can all share this great history and great rewards that this country has to offer.”