Shantelle Thompson has plenty to crow about. She’s a world jiu-jitsu champion, several times over. A teacher and sought-after speaker. A savvy entrepreneur. A mother of three who has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
But rather than blow her own trumpet, the straight-talking Barkindji woman would rather share the times she’s been knocked down. In fact, she’ll even show you a video of it unfolding.
“I was competing in Africa and I get picked up in the air and dumped on my head by this amazing Nigerian female wrestler,” she says. “It’s often the video I start my yarns with when I’m doing a presentation with kids for the first time.”
She likes to take people’s pre-conceived notions of who she is and turn them upside down. Shantelle may be known as the Barkindji Warrior but that’s only one part of a far more complicated and colourful picture.
“For me, it’s more important to start with the fact that I’ve been dumped on my head physically, literally, emotionally, community wise more often than I’ve been able to rise — and that’s how I’ve come to be the Barkindji Warrior. It’s through those moments and those lessons that have led to my greatest success.”
Shantelle is running development and empowerment workshops with Girls Academy staff, thanks to the support of the Moondani Toombadool Centre, at Swinburne. She will also help develop a trauma-informed self-development and empowerment program tailored to the needs of Girls Academy students, staff and their communities.
“It’s definitely a dream come true in terms of me and my business,” she said. “Our emerging leaders are so much my passion, but also the women who are leading these emerging leaders.”
The resilience expert uses her lived experience to connect with others and show that it is possible to shed the shackles of the past and the low expectations of stereotypes to write your own story.
Growing up in Dareton, NSW, one of 18 children to an Indigenous mother and white father, Shantelle’s story may ultimately be one of triumph but it is full of tragedy. Her mother left when she was little, she was sexually abused at six, and never felt like she fitted in, straddling two confusing worlds. She was always fierce, though, very quickly stepping into the role of protector of her younger siblings.
“I was very aggressive in high school, my fist was faster than my mouth,” she said. “I grew up fighting. I was told in school I was more likely to end up dead or pregnant than I was to finish school because statistics were against me.” She was constantly having to prove herself.
“No matter what you do, you’re never good enough, you’re never black enough, you’re never white enough, you’re too aggressive, you’re too emotional,” she said.
She goes out of her way to share her story because the journey resonates far more. “I think when people can connect with the heart of the story, why I fight … that’s a much more powerful place to start. I didn’t do any of that to impress people, that was my journey, that was my way of getting out of something and somewhere I didn’t want to be anymore.”
It was this drive that saw her complete two degrees, take up teaching and become an advocate and mentor for others. The 2019 NAIDOC Sportsperson of the Year turned to jiu-jitsu to help her cope with post-natal depression after the birth of her twins. The sport became a passion but she is quick to point out that it is her “play time”, not her life.
“Compared to the work that we do to inspire the next generation of girls to overcome everything, that sh*t’s real. Me trying to break the cycle with my kids, and be the first in my family to start a business, to get degrees, to chase a big vision, that sh*t is real, that sh*t is hard,” she said.
She has spent many years working out how and why she has been able to get back up off the mat so many times, compared with some of the girls she grew up with, and it’s a journey she shares in her workshops. She wants people to understand the person behind the warrior so that they can better relate to the journey.
“This is a part of what people know me for today, the strong fierce athlete … but she was born out of the birth of my children. I grew up fighting, I knew how to throw a punch but I was controlled by my anger and my trauma. I was always triggered whenever I felt unsafe. I was constantly in reaction mode,” she said.
“But when I found out that I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, her birth was my birth. It was the start of me becoming a woman and starting to take responsibility because I understood that whoever I chose to be from that point forward would create the legacy that she would inherit as her lived experience.”
Shantelle has made it her business to do whatever she can to ensure the next generation has every opportunity, that they are not held back by the low expectations of others. It’s what she has wanted to do since she was trying to find her own way at school.
“I wanted to get out but because trauma-informed education wasn’t even a thing – it’s still barely a thing today – I had teachers judge me based on who I was, and what they perceived of me and the stereotypes, rather than who I was trying to become,” she said.
“I talk a lot now about heartset versus mindset. Because for me whenever I try to get into my head, which I think is a very Western way of doing things, I get overwhelmed by the trauma, the mental health, the noise.”
But the world shifts when she grounds herself, and connects back to Country and culture. “Taking that deep breath and asking what’s in my heart, and being guided by that … I know that I’m going to do whatever’s right at that point in time, even if I don’t know where that’s going to lead. I’m big on living courageously and daring greatly and talking about how we can build more of that into our lives.”
It’s just one lesson she can’t wait to share with Girls Academy staff and students.