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Indigenous Leadership – No More Gaps

Speeches and Opinions
Sep 08, 2014

Wesley Enoch, 2014 ACCELERATE Announcement Event, Thursday 4 September 2014.

It’s wonderful to be in this space. This place is a demonstration of true leadership by a community and a group of individuals to make this happen. A confidence and strength to articulate a different way of going about their business and building a new way of embracing our cultural heritage and our modern lives. Teaching a museum new ways.

My name is Wesley Enoch and my people come from Minjeeribah (Stradbroke Island off the coast of Brisbane) I am Noonuccal Nuugi of the Quandmooka people. I never tire of being welcomed to this country here. Aunty Caroline is an inspirational leader and her welcome is also a challenge to grow into our elder-­‐status with equal  joy and adventure and wisdom. Thank you.

I say my people are from Minjeeribah but this is a half truth because my people are many and varied. I have a great great grandfather called Fernando Gonzales who was a Philopino fisherman, and then a great grandfather from Rotumah Island in the South Pacific. On my mothers side I have a great grandfather who is Spanish, a great grandmother who was Danish and the mix of Irish/English/Scottish. I am the sum of my parts that have brought me here. I am not a division of Identity I am a whole person. And the survival of my family has awarded me blood lines and experiences that make me confident in myself.

I know my family. I know my Land. I am know I belong.

As Indigenous Australians we occupy a unique leadership position in this country. Yes leadership. We think of ourselves as providing leadership within our communities but I believe we can provide greater leadership to the whole country. We express ourselves through our song, dance, storytelling, visual arts, music and craft. Our genealogy, geography, history, economy, legal system and sense of community comes from expressing ourselves through the arts. We have both a moral authority gifted to us through our heritage, the history of injustice and continued connection with this landscape AND we have solutions that are based on the concept of putting the arts and cultural expression in the centre of society.

There is a dominant discourse around deficiencies in our communities. We seem fixated on what we don’t have as opposed to what we do. You read the papers, you listen to way we are talked about and you get a sense of what we don’t have, what we are not good at, what we lack. We are compared on criteria that may not be of our choosing. This is a glass half full/half empty argument and is by no means meant to diminish the importance of addressing long term systemic injustice that has created ‘gaps’. Housing, education, Health, incarceration, employment, social mobility the list is long and we have had generations of attempted and successful redressing the causes and the symptoms.

BUT I am arguing that we also have to see the positive aspects of our Communities and what we have to offer to the changing face of our country as a whole. I say our grandparents fought for basic human rights – the right to raise a family, provide shelter and food, to live; our parents fought for political rights – the right to vote, access to education, self determination; our generation have become cultural leaders who battle for our recognition and cultural rights. Our parents and grandparents fought for a world that would be better and to some degree we are achieving that. Improvements in living conditions, mortality rates and education are signs that we can ‘close the gap’. But closing the gap alone this leaves us in the role of vigilant monitors of progress, I think there is more we should be seeking.

As Indigenous leaders we have learnt to articulate ourselves and not work from assumptions. Where many of ournon-Indigenous counterparts breathe the air and never question what it is made up of – Indigenous leaders mustanalyze what is in the air, take it down to its composite parts and try to understand it, to make sense of it. We breathe with an awareness. We become the interlocutors, interpreters and translators – we have skills that allow us to grow beyond our own cultural milieu and act as leaders for the whole country. To build the bridges, re-­imagine the social infrastructure and generally interrogate our national assumptions from within and without.

Imagine a world where we teach our parliament how to respect elders better, to create a council of elders that oversees the moral development of our nation; Imagine what we have to teach the country in terms of environmental protection and use; How to think about change in terms of multi generational acheivements; Imagine a Parliament that dictated gender equality so that men and women’s business could be discussed fairly; Putting the arts in the centre of the country’s cultural practices; family structures; welcoming visitors; even the amazing things we achieved in our recent history around family based health initiatives – you have to remember we had a work for the dole scheme way before governments considered it beneficial for all Australians.

Indigenous leadership is based in values and cultural practices that have universal application. These ways of working are not uniquely ours but they represent millennia of trial and error, testing the bond between humanity and this landscape.

With these skills and perspectives I have gone on to run a mainstream state theatre company and create levels of success, artistic adventures and audience development that has seen roughly a 20% increase in participation, turnover and employment in 3 years.

The way I see the world and the ways of engaging with the world comes from my cultural background and the survival skills I’ve learnt. I express my cultural values differently to my non-Indigenous counterparts and the success that is being measured in western metrics can also be measured in cultural metrics that build pride and influence in our communities. Look around at all the issues this country faces and I challenge you to find cultural solutions from our traditions and cultural inheritance.

Leadership is cultural when it comes to ‘closing gaps’. Part of the ‘closing the gap’ narrative has often cast us as deficient but I want to say at this gathering that despite the “GAP” narrative we have more to offer. Our culture is expressed through our arts and relationship to our place and we here are artistic leaders. Those who are receiving this opportunity today to build their leadership skills and those who have already done it over the past few years I challenge you to see this invitation as a reminder of what you have to offer as much as what we have to learn, what are we teaching in this reversal of colonial norms. Be articulate interlocutors. Think about the roles of Bungaree or Bennelong or William Barrack or any number of ancestral figures who taught as well as learnt.

Thank you.