“You know it’s important work. But we can tell you it’s more than important — it’s essential.”
The Governor-General, His Excellency David Hurley, was full of praise for Girls Academy during a Zoom conversation rich in personal stories, and alive with the spirit of reconciliation.
Held as part of National Reconciliation Week, the meeting brought together people from around the country to talk about what reconciliation means to them and the impact of COVID-19 — all wrapped up with a dose of sunshine.
As Girls Academy staff and students shared their thoughts with the Governor-General and his wife, Her Excellency Mrs Linda Hurley, common themes quickly emerged.
Zakia McKenzie, a Year 10 student from Esperance Girls Academy, said Reconciliation Week was about her ancestors being recognised in the same way as non-Indigenous people. “Also raising awareness about their stories. With them sharing their experiences and stories through Reconciliation Week and other historical events … you show a lot of empathy, you can acknowledge what they’ve gone through, and how our culture is still here today and how we can be, in the theme, in this together.”
“Reconciliation for me is about the wider community understanding the effects of past policies and coming together,” said Hannah Bagnall, a Year 12 student from Maryborough Girls Academy.
Urshula Clark-Jacky, a Year 12 student from Kempsey Girls Academy, said Reconciliation Week helped create a supportive and diverse community. “It’s also a way of ending racism, creating a society of equality regardless of race and respecting one’s differences and similarities as we work forward towards a working community and society.”
Madison Lodge, from Taminmin Girls Academy, said she was passionate about Reconciliation Week. “I love just being able to share our culture and making sure people understand our shared history and how it impacts our generations today and our future generations carrying on.”
Mr and Mrs Hurley were very impressed when the Year 12 student told them about her research project on the Stolen Generations that she had presented to Charles Darwin University.
Gemma Gala, program manager at Maryborough Girls Academy, said having Girls Academy in school “shines a light on what reconciliation is about”, while Misty Kelly, acting program manager at Kempsey Girls Academy, said Reconciliation Week was a chance for people to learn, “strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people, working together to become one for a better future for all of us”.
Esperance Girls Academy program manager Anna Bonney believed Girls Academy had a big part to play in reconciliation, building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“We’re really remote and a lot of people haven’t got understanding, our culture’s not strong here, and we don’t have a lot of Elders,” she said.
“So I feel like we have a massive role at Girls Academy at our high school to help create those opportunities. Just this week we did Sorry Day badges and lots of students came and all teachers wore one and there were lots of conversations and lots of questions. It’s just about learning, learning everybody’s journey, everybody’s story and having the empathy and understanding.”
That empathy was evident when Taminmin Girls Academy program manager Melissa Tipo shared a little of her story.
“When I think of Reconciliation Week, I think of my personal story. I’d just like to show a picture of my grandparents,” she said, holding up a beautiful black and white picture of her Indigenous grandmother and white grandfather. “My grandparents were from total opposite worlds. My grandfather served in the army, he took POWs back to Germany after the war, and he travelled all the way up to Darwin — he was from Bendigo ± and met my grandmother in the bush. He was a timber cutter and quite a well-known croc hunter. And I think about their story and how their love transcends all boundaries: skin colour, race, religion, where they grew up. Seventy years later I think Australia should be able to get it right by now.”
She also spoke about the poignancy of Sorry Day — her grandparents had their seven children taken away from them. “My mother and her two siblings were taken to a family in town and the four youngest were taken to an institution for Indigenous children,” she said.
“I think about my daughter today, she’s only eight, and I think as parents how they must have felt having their children taken away and not knowing where they were or who was with them. And then I think about my Mum, the fear she must have been feeling when she was taken away for the first time and all the years she must have felt alone. I think of how strong she is, to survive all that. I think Australia needs to get this right and we can do this together. Australia has everything it needs to be able to do this.”
The Governor-General agreed, saying it was a critical time in our history. “If we miss this opportunity, it’s another generational loss,” he said. “What you’re doing with these young women is very much part of that. You have the confidence, the ability to think and analyse and express, all of these are very powerful and very important tools. Emotion is important because it drives us, but it needs to be explained and expressed.”
Girls Academy chief operations officer Terry Boland and general manager operations (west) Narelle Henry also gave insight into how the organisation had responded to COVID-19, with Terry revealing the crisis had created a stronger sense of family.
“In adverse times sometimes everyone just rises to the occasion and we found from the moment that threat emerged all of our staff came together and we were able to put together a whole range of ways in which we were able to keep our connection with our girls,” he said.
Narelle sang the praises of Academy staff. “Our program managers are absolute angels and in so many ways they jumped into action and a lot of the schools looked to them for guidance and direction. Because our program managers and development officers know the families, I feel like we led quite quickly in that space,” she said.
“It’s frightening where some of our students lie in terms of resources that are available but in terms of how we’re going to operate going forward and how we’re going to lead… I think we’ll do a really good job.”
Girls Academy post school transitions manager Pat Keay said her team hit the ground running as soon as the severity of the pandemic became evident. “We checked in with every possible Year 13 girl and some Year 14s we were supporting and made sure that everyone of them, even in the circumstances of being stood down, were able to be provided for in one means or another,” she said. “Whether it be emotional and social help and support, everyone in my team worked collaboratively and showed that empathy.”
This empathy, Girls Academy CEO Ricky Grace pointed out, extended to the health and wellbeing of staff, which included rolling out mental health webinars. Staff were expected to lead the girls, so it was critical to ensure they felt supported.
The Governor-General talked about the “lessons learned” approach to evaluating activities or events when he was in the military. “Rather than being critical of people or their performance or whatever, we’d divide it into two separate ways of thinking: what has to be sustained, what was good, and where do we need to improve. Then you combine them and go on,” he said. These principles could be applied to Girls Academy’s response to the pandemic. “This is not just for now, it’s for the future. This sort of interaction and this sort of response, I think it’s great work, well done.”
As the conversation drew to a close, Her Excellency, a former teacher passionate about music, was ready with a song she had written. We think these lyrics are worth taking forward in the spirit of reconciliation:
Spread sunshine every morning/ Spread sunshine every night / With kindness and patience / Our world will be alright.