Every brand has a story. I just hadn't predicated that I would be the brand"
How I finally found my voice as a Brand Activist and Climate Business Champion.
The draft version of my brand origin story.
It's in the process of becoming a book.
The book will be a highly practical guide to creating zero waste products while arguing this must be our bottom line globally, anchored in law. But like all my work, I blend the practical and the depth to increase your impact. So this is my personal story of how I began.
A warning, it starts in the most unlikely of places!
Birth of an Activist
Sometime in 1983, I sat in a tutorial for Politics101 at Macquarie University in Sydney. We were asked to do a book review. At the time, I was overwhelmed by university experience, just three weeks into the first semester. I was on the verge of leaving, so I chose the thinnest book available.
I was the underdog student that travelled 2 hours each way to university from the Western Suburbs of Sydney. As one of the last Whitlam beneficiaries of free education, my arrival reinforced my feeling of being an unlikely student. On that four-hour daily travel journey, I read the material for tutorials and wrote my assignments. Falling into bed with exhaustion after exiting the train and walking up the hill to my parents’ home in Campbelltown, only to do it again the next day. The smallest book would do just fine for my review. I was thinking of dropping out of university anyway. I felt unprepared and out of place in this institution that was culturally distant and uncomfortable.
The book was called “Black Death/White Hands” by Paul Wilson. It told the story of the trial of Alwyn Peter for manslaughter after killing his wife in a drunken rage. I remember very little about the trial story. What floored me was that I was reading this in 1984, and the trial had only been in 1981. That was the year before I sat my Higher School Certificate. My greatest worry in 1983 was completing that HSC and choosing a dress for my school formal.
It turns out Aboriginal kids my age and younger were being rounded up in the middle of the night in far north Queensland with their families, put on a barge and forcibly relocated to Bamaga, about 200 kilometres to the north. Their town of Mapoon was burnt to the ground that night. In the landmark 1981 trial, Alwyn’s defence team successfully argued that the social upheaval wrought by colonisation had diminished Peter’s responsibility. It was a radical legal outcome.
That book, the thinnest book on the list, the book that was supposed to be my last attempt at maintaining a university education, ended up changing me and determining the path of activism and awareness for the rest of my life. There was nothing gradual about this change. One day I was a seventeen old white girl who had a good but sheltered life in a small Australian town west of Sydney. I read a book one weekend in 1984 which politicised me for life. I had enrolled to study journalism at university, but I shifted my focus to history, race relations and politics. I had an overnight shift in my paradigm, and my life trajectory was transformed.
In the following years, I learned that this brutal oppression in Mapoon was part of an Australia wide assimilationist policy since 1788. I could never view my country, Australia, the same way again. I explored cultural identity in my coursework and understood for the first time the interconnections with colonisation not just in Australia but globally. Mapoon was a tiny town 3300 km from where I grew up. It could take 38 hours to drive non-stop in a car from where I lived, but it was still in my country. I was ashamed and angry but not speechless. I wanted the world to know this is what was happening. It fed a responsibility in me to share injustice with the world. I felt compelled to educate those around me and I was setting the stage for a life in political activism, academia and ultimately brand activism.
Equipped with the knowledge that this was not an isolated incident, I accepted that my government and culture were based on a lie. I had learned of Captain Cook's arrival to Australia in the history books, but the original inhabitants were mentioned only in passing. I had Aboriginal friends at school, but we didn't talk about our differences. In retrospect, I felt them deeply at the time but had no framework to process the relationships.
In my early twenties, activism was my purpose, my identity and my joy. In activism, I found a community of people who cared about more than themselves, more than what we did for a living and focused on human rights nationally and internationally. My identity was firmly connected to a group called The Committee to Defend Black Rights. (CDBR) It also opened my world to injustices worldwide, particularly in the Philippines, Nicaragua and South Africa.
The CDBR was a grassroots organisation started by Helen Corbett. She had gathered a group of activists to campaign for the awareness of the shamefully high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in police custody. I learnt to write letters to politicians and community groups. I learn to create proposals, organise rallies and illegally run around the city at night pasting posters about our rallies. It was thrilling.
It was my introduction to activism and became a focal point for many life decisions. It fed the academic choices I made at university. It fed the radio programmes I made as a volunteer producer at the university radio station. My friend Corinne and I started a group called Students Against Racism and I shared writing and production of the university newspaper when it was our turn to write about racism. In those years, I learnt to be a leader and a team member. I made short films on Aboriginal injustice and received a grant to travel the Northern Territory to find positive stories of Aboriginal life and produce radio programmes for community radio. It felt like we were changing the world. Having a leadership role, being involved with the key means of communication to a dedicated audience and being part of change. Those fertile years at university provided a strong foundation for what was to come.
In those years, we did not yet see the connection between racism and environmentalism. It was the mid-eighties and compartmentalising ideas was standard. We did not see the interconnection that more obvious after the millennium and central for all activists post 2020.
After I left university, I could not face the 'normal world' of employment. I knew too much of what was wrong with the world, and I needed some time to integrate this information. I donned a backpack and used my wits and thumbs to travel around Australia and the pacific.
In Tasmania and New Zealand, I connected with the environment in a way I had never before. I'll never forget the moment I stood on a mountain in New Zealand and absorbed the vista from the Routeburn track. Something deep in me was touched at that moment but I did not have the maturity or understanding to know it was another seed in my activism story. If you had told me that day I would start a business, not once but five times and the planet would always be the focus of care in those businesses, I would have laughed.
I sought out walking tracks in more isolated and challenging destinations. The further I could get from the world and learn to survive was exciting. I discovered festivals, tarot reading and all forms of spirituality. It all made sense and was easy to embrace.
In Tasmania, we walked wildly in the South West, collected bush foods and smoked fish and abalone that we caught with line rods and knives. We walked for ten days which felt like ten weeks. Time stopped in the bush. On those trips, the trees, the snakes and the earth spoke to me, and I understood finally what I had read academically. When Aboriginal people said 'the earth was our mother', I felt that sacred connection and often cried with the overwhelm of this new knowledge. The somatic experience gave me a new dimension of our relationship with nature. The earth is part of our DNA. It is us. We are it. When we don't look after it, we suffer as people, yet most people are not aware this very disconnection is the cause of so much suffering.
Travelling fed an urgent desire to understand and know everyone and everything globally. My focus became travelling instead of finding an occupation. I just loved the dawn of a new day and the adventure of finding a new landscape to explore or a person to meet. I still do. In later life, it would become key to my business mentoring style, helping others to be inspired by change and resilient to adaption. I was inherently nomadic then and suspect as I write this at fifty-five that this has never changed.
I made the decision to head to Europe with just two weeks’ notice sometime in 1990. I had a call from Helen Corbett, the Malgana Yawuru activist and academic who had led us at CDBR, to join her at the Indigenous Women’s Conference in Sami land (Norway). Acting on pure instinct and absolute knowing that this was the right path for me, I gave notice to my T.A.F.E employer. I gave notice on my rental property and sold any possessions remaining. I was on a plane to Norway with my new Sony Walkman, determined to make great radio programmes and communicate to the world what indigenous women had to say. The trip was pivotal in understanding that indigenous people worldwide have more in common with each other than the nation-states that held them captive.
It was another leap in brand activism learning, understanding the earth and spiritual connection we all have to our environment and the crucial role that indigenous peoples play in the survival and renewal of humanity. My vegetarianism was challenged on a privileged trip to a Sami community after the conference. I sat in a tepee surrounded by reindeer and was offered reindeer meat, the staple diet. There were no vegetables. I could not eat the meat, nor could I offend my Sami hosts. I settled for the broth, and they were pleased I accepted their hospitality. At that moment, I learnt flexibility and respect had a place that was not always comfortable. In that remote tundra, I felt alive and at one with the earth. I also felt more in common with indigenous culture and community than my own. Later I understood it was our earth connection that brought us together, not the colour of our skin. It was one of many times I was the only white person in an indigenous community which remains one of my life’s great privileges.
I recorded extraordinary radio interviews on that trip that I would later offer to the BBC. They were never accepted, which just cemented my will to tell the stories to whoever would listen in any way possible. So I organised protests in London, which was not only something I was well qualified for, but I did not need permission or acceptance. I gathered the red, black and yellow colours of Indigenous Australians and we protested outside Australia house in London. I wrote protest and love songs and played the guitar on the streets of Portobello Road in West London. I did not need permission to busk or protest. It was a way my voice found an audience.
I got another call in London a year later to fly to the United Nations in Geneva. Once again, with just a few days’ notice, I arrived to support Helen Corbett in her role with the Australian NGO Indigenous Delegation, speaking at the Working Group for indigenous peoples. It was established in 1982 as a subsidiary organ to the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, allowing indigenous peoples worldwide to share their experiences and raise their concerns at the UN. It is here that I witness the gap between NGOs and the government. I also learn that the resources available at the UN are extraordinary but also how laborious the wheels of change can be in these institutionalised environments. The working group had been established in 1982 and this we arrived in 1990. It was 2007 before The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed as a non-legally-binding resolution passed by the United Nations in 2007. It describes the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including their ownership rights to cultural and ceremonial expression, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It was a critical document that has informed government decisions since. The experience of the United Nations was powerful and led many decades later to me adopting their 17 Sustainable Development Goals as pillars of my business mentoring.
In all these decades, there was a big gap between the events I mention above. There was a profound loss in personal confidence brewing that I was not consciously aware of at the time. I didn't feel heard. I was not listened to by my family. I felt some kinship with friends but had no firm allies. I had so much to say and too small an audience. I wrote stories and sent them to multiple magazines and newspapers. None were published. I wanted to tell these stories, but the rejection wore my confidence down. I had incredible experiences. I was meeting outstanding humans and wanted to tell their stories. The experiences remained personal, not public. Looking back, it was my first experience with depression and anxiety, but there was no common understanding or label for extended sadness and lack of action in the late eighties. I had long periods of not being able to face work, people or function well. But it had no name. I kept thinking I just had to cheer up. Professionally, I did not know how to be vulnerable and humble enough to tell the stories appropriately.
I would eventually get well paid and regularly published years later, telling a different story of oppression of workers oppression in the clothing industry and why we should choose chemical-free products as an act of activism.
Message on a beach
I was lured back to Australia in 1992 after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody was finally delivered by the Australian government. It had investigated Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia over 10 years, giving 339 recommendations. I was excited that we may finally see a change in the number of deaths, reducing slowly to nil, and I wanted to be a part of this next step in the evolution.
I arrived in Perth in 1991 full of hope for the change we would now see and stayed with Helen and her son Lars. The Royal Commission had recommended that counselling for families was a priority, and Helen was determined that this would be culturally appropriate. Helen suggested a gathering of families from all over Australia would be held so they could support each other and continue to demand justice as part of their healing. To these families, their sons, daughters and cousins had been murdered by systemic racism. The generational trauma was acute, affecting the very fabric of daily life in a way that non-indigenous Australians could not grasp.
The ground roots activism demonstrated by our leader, Helen Corbett, has always remained with me. She kept the issue high on the Australian political agenda. She was able to capture the hearts and minds of many Australians to place pressure on the media and government to get behind a Royal Commission. She led fearlessly and often at great personal expense to retain the ground roots family focus and personalisation of this issue. I had the privilege of living and working by her side by side for 18 months in Perth. It was a unique insight into urban aboriginal resilience in the face of daily racism.
Arriving in the Noongar community in Perth. Helen trained me to apply for funding from the WA government. She was a great mentor and together we created a conference to support families who had died in custody for counselling, gathering and support. When the funding came through, I got to work and spent the next twelve months creating and delivering that event.
At that family conference, one year later, after years of campaigning and now holding the Australian government accountable to one of the Royal Commission recommendations, I sat on a beach in Bunbury, Western Australia, exhausted. I was satisfied that we had brought the families a small piece of justice, but it also felt like a drop of water in a sea of desperately needed change. I wondered what was next.
We can all look back on our lives and see key personal pivot points. On that beach, I was approached by one of the family members. She gave me some information that would lead to another turning point for me exactly 28 months from this moment.
As I share this information with you, I am going to call the woman Alison. This is not her real name, as privacy is key to cultural respect.
Alison came up to me and did not mince her words. After a short pleasantry and genuine care for my welfare, she told me it was time for me to move on from this campaign as my life was meant for a different direction. I was stunned.
Alison and I had known each other for a few months. We had not spoken a lot, but she always told me what the spirits were saying to her when we met. It always intrigued me. Many people called her crazy as she would sometimes walk along chatting to these spirits in the streets, but I was always drawn to her and intrigued by this spiritual connection. Thirty years later, when I had this experience myself, it made sense that she opened me to this world of intuition that day.
On the beach, Alison did not thank me, ask me or question me. She simply said it was time. Her words felt true, but I panicked. It was the ultimate fear to be the white Australian who has the choice to walk away from this pain. I felt the truth in her words but could not accept them that day. What a betrayal to have the 'choice' to not deal with daily racism.
Activism and support gave me a way to cope with being Australian. I felt it was my duty to support the community and educate Australia about the realities of daily life and institutionalised racism. I could not imagine another life.
It would be another three years before I accepted her advice fully. I stepped sideways initially, remaining in Western Australia and living in Fremantle to attend Murdoch University. It felt important to document the history of this grassroots campaign and how it brought international recognition to a critical human rights abuse issue in Australia. I did not realise that this would be a milestone to publish my first significant work. My voice was finding an audience.
The name for the thesis was “‘The Silence is Deafening’ The history of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.” It still sits on the bookshelves of Murdoch University and hopefully other universities Australia wide. I hope it continues to be a reference work for students to understand that activism starts with small groups of people in borrowed rooms. It tells the story of a small group of people gathering at Tranby college every Thursday night. I name all the community people and families involved. It felt important to document the people's history. I was determined that the record of this campaign would be told from the campaigners and suffering families versus the official government Royal Commission documents. I documented the rallies, the band nights and other fundraisers. It was a community-based campaign, and I wanted the world to know about the people, the families and the lives of the activists. Change happens in small steps.
I left WA with sadness. I missed the families and the wide-open spaces of Western Australia. I arrived in Northern NSW on the east coast of Australia and found employment at what was then known as the Gungil Jindabah centre within Southern Cross University (now known as Gnibi). It was here that I could finally let go, but I would not realise that for another two years, just before the birth of my second son.
I used my academic skills to write external studies courses for the university. I wrote of what we knew of Aboriginal History prior to settlement and a second work was the Indigenous Modern History. I imagine it has been updated by someone else since 1995. I loved applying all this knowledge and history to the page so Indigenous and non-Indigenous people could learn a new aspect of Australia's history.
One day, in a seemingly non-eventful moment, I looked around Gnibi. I realised the ‘self-determination’ I had campaigned for, written about and historically campaigned for was happening around me.
When I first entered university myself as a student, only a handful of Indigenous Australians were on each Australian University Campus. Now fifteen years later, there were centres of support like the one employing me. Indigenous academics were leading the way is what I saw that day in 1998.
I finally understood the words Alison's words on the beach in Bunbury that day. I, the white woman, had to step away.
The relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians today ranges from delicate to ignorant to violent, depending on where you are in Australia. Institutionalised ignorance and systematic abuse remain. Particularly in the police force. The number of indigenous deaths in custody has remained, we did not change that with our campaign. We successfully raised awareness, but still, the deaths continue in suspicious and neglectful circumstances. It feels like a failure to not have changed that. The gap in health and education outcomes remains shameful in Australia.
The good news is that any changes and progress we see are being led by Indigenous community leaders, incredible individuals and communities setting leadership at the community level. Indigenous women, in particular, are taking charge.
I see time and time again that actual change will always happen from the ground up. This start with the soul searching and personal development that all of us as humans need to do. Healing from our own pain, learning how to overcome challenges and building resilience and stoicism that helps us take the next step. Learning to trust our instincts and let our hearts rule our minds is vital for a new paradigm in thinking.
Sustainable change will always happen from the ground up. We need the research, policy, and milestones to be set by the government for sure, but shifting our understanding from top-down to bottom-up is the true revolution.
POTENTIAL NEXT CHAPTERS
* Creating my first eco-product
* Launching Australia's First Organic Baby Store in 2000 - Nature's Child
* Creating a pregnancy retreat
* Taking a chance on an IT support business
* Lessons from Depression and Anxiety and ill health about the nature of how we work as a society
* Challenging the 'hard work' paradigm to achieve at personal expense
* Looking for a new paradigm in an era of Climate Change
* Becoming intuitive
* The Unconventional Business Mentor