When more women have a seat at the decision-making table, change happens. That is precisely the goal of Oxfam Australia’s Straight Talk forum – to create change, led by Indigenous Australian women. The forum, which takes place in the capital city Canberra, began 7 years ago and has to far engaged over 600 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander women, bringing them together with political leaders to understand how they can play a role in environmental policies and other societal issues.
Some of the most effective political and social change happens at the local community level, and that is exactly what Oxfam wants to empower these women to know. Over the course of a week, each year the forum has held workshops and talks where leading female politicians come to engage with the Indigenous women, encouraging them to share the concerns of their communities in ways that could potentially translate to effective policy.
Issues that have been discussed include the environment, education, healthcare, housing, and how working with lobby groups and parliamentarians can assist the Indigenous communities across Australia. The long-term impact of the forums have elevated many of the women to become role models in their locales, who are now seen as change-makers who are working to make a difference in the lives of those around them.
“The purpose of it is to really work with Aboriginal women to be activists in their own communities, at the level that they chose, whether it’s local, regional, national, international. It’s all about lobbying, developing proposals, it’s actually about refining what they think will work in their community,” said Dr Helen Szoke, CEO Oxfam at the 2016 Forum.
Some of the notable female lawmakers who have taken part in the most recent Straight Talks include Labor leader Penny Wong, Linda Burney, Australia’s first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (she was also the first Aboriginal person to serve in the state of New South Wales’ Parliament), Mayor Vonda Malone, the first female mayor of the Torres Shire Council, Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, and current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said “We can take great pride in the fact there are Indigenous Australian women shaping the debate on global issues in global forums.”
While politics may not be a chosen area for most people, whether they are interested or not, important policies are being proposed and voted on every day. Senator Wong uses this as leverage to get more women involved in the process.
“You can make a decision to not be interested in politics but you can never make a decision not to be affected by politics. People work in different areas, some people work in their local community, some people work in the grassroots, some people work in Indigenous health, some people work in the justice system,” she said, outlining the many ways of being an effective leader.
“But ultimately, some of us have to work in the political system, and all of us have to make sure you’re interested in it because the outcomes for your community do in large part depend on the willingness of people in this place to do the right thing,” Senator Wong added.
The impact and work of the Straight Talks Forum extends beyond the week-long annual workshop, as they do outreach work with young women around the country helping them understand what it takes to be part of the political process. In May 2016 they partnered with the Victorian Local Governance Association and ran a program connecting nearly 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with a local councilor, helping them understand what they do in the community.
They also hold regional gatherings where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women can come together and share ideas, and work to develop effective strategies that can benefit Indigenous peoples. These gatherings are crucial because they allow for much more detailed discussions and policy developments than the main Straight Talk Forum.
The feedback from some of the women involved shows how important the work being done through Straight Talks is, and why women having a voice and a seat at the table is the only way forward to ensuring all people are represented at a political level.
“We just need to have the infrastructure and the resources to achieve our own aspirations and control our own futures,” said 20 year-old Vanessa Farrelly, a Southern Arrernte woman, who lives about 500 kilometers (roughly 310 miles) south of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
She is an anti-fracking advocate who is a volunteer coordinator for SEED, an Indigenous youth climate group.
“Traditional owners across the NT are standing up staunch to protect country and culture, and our futures and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Vanessa.
Abigail Lui, an early childcare student who participated in the forum, wants to encourage other women to know the power they have to become leaders in their community, especially in areas they are passionate about.
“The most important issue in my community is the closure of a childcare in most of the Torres Strait communities and the important thing is that our children are our future. It inspired me and made me more confident in teaching other women,” she said.
Shelley Cable, a 2016 Straight Talks participant, wrote a blog post for the Oxfam Australia website where she urged Indigenous people to enter politics. She expressed how she had no inclination or interest in getting involved or even becoming knowledgeable about politics, until she learned how powerful it is in shaping the outcome of people’s lives.
“We learned that when “women” earned the right to vote in 1908, Indigenous women somehow didn’t count. We were also taught that non-Indigenous people were completely excluded from the political system until the 1967 Referendum. And yet, we realized that the first Indigenous man was elected into Federal parliament a mere four years later (Neville Bonner, in 1971), and that today we have the highest Indigenous representation in Parliament, in history – and more than 50% of them are female,” she wrote.
Australia has its own complicated and shameful history with race and the abhorrent subjugation of Indigenous peoples (from the early to mid 1900’s, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children, often referred to as the “Stolen Generations”, were forcibly from their families by government agencies and church-based organizations) which classified them under Flora and Fauna Law from 1900 which meant they were not counted as human beings in any census until the 1967 Referendum.
Similar to the long-term effects of legal slavery, segregation and now systemic and institutional racism across the United States, the history of racially-motivated policy-making in Australia has marginalized many Indigenous peoples to this day. What the Straight Talks forum is doing is giving the female Indigenous population a chance to chip away at oppressive history by allowing their voices to be part of the change.
Shelley Cable writes in her blog post how participating in the forum allowed her to see the way Indigenous people can now be part of making policy that empowers their communities, rather than just rallying against decisions made by the government on behalf of them.
“We need to realize that we have have the experience and ability to step up to make change on a national scale,” she said.
Getting to tour Parliament house and seeing Indigenous MPs Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt was a light-bulb moment for her about getting involved.
“While their presence was may have been overlooked by everyone else in the public gallery, these two MPs were the first people we Straight Talkers saw. There’s something to be said about role models – seeing people in Parliament that look like you is exceptionally powerful. It made my heart sing, to know that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people had voted Ken and Linda as the best ambassadors for their community,” she wrote.
It’s not just the participants who were impacted by the forum. Senator Malarndirri McCarthy expressed how impressive it was to see the impact initiatives like this can make on politics.
“To build their confidence, build their self-esteem, so that when they do go back to their communities … they can take their ideas and go yes, you know what, I reckon I can make a difference,” she said.
To learn more about Oxfam Australia’s Straight Talks forum, and learn how you can be inspired to take part in the political process, click here. Watch highlights from the 2013 event below: