Just a few minutes into the panel discussion at the Equals Now Symposium at the University of Canberra, Allira Davis is brought to tears; she’s just learned that a young man from her community has died by suicide.
“A few years ago statistics showed that in the last decade, Australia had a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate among First Nations people. And this happens in our community, this is our trauma. And we need to step up and change it, we need to change the structural systems that affect our people,” she says with a strong voice that’s wavering with emotion.
“I don’t want to see my little brothers and sisters go through the same thing,” she continues, “We want to be the change.”
Allira, 24, is a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungum and Birrigubba nations South-East Queensland, and also South Sea Islander from Ambae and Tanna islands. She shares the stage with Bridget Cama, 26, a Wiradjuri Pasifika Fijian woman. The pair are in conversation with UC’s Dr Holly Northam.
Together, Bridget and Allira are co-chairs of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, which works closely with the grassroots Uluru Statement from the Heart movement and has focused largely on ensuring Indigenous youth voices are given a platform to be heard.
In case you haven’t heard of it, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a profound document which calls for an enshrined “First Nations Voice” in the Australian Constitution. It also seeks a “Makarrata Commission” to supervise a process of conflict resolution, truth-telling and justice between Australian Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (You can listen to Professor Megan Davis reading the Statement and Discussing it here. It’s moving – bring tissues.)
Allira says young Indigenous people can’t suffer the way their elders have – and this is just one more reason why the Youth Dialogue is so important: “Our young people definitely need a say in, an opinion on what matters to their lives [and] in their future.”
Bridget agrees with her friend and co-chair: “The Uluru Statement talks about our futures. It talks about the incarceration rates of [Indigenous] youth, it talks about the high rates at which First Nations children are taken away. And it talks about our futures and the future generations to come. And how Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians need a change for a better future.
“It’s about our people’s lives, it’s about our rights, it’s about our self determination, but it’s also about creating a better Australia…It’s time now to right the wrongs of the past,” she says.
The day before the symposium both Allira and Bridget went lobbying to Parliament House for the first time – alongside Indigenous elders – and met Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Senator Jacqui Lambie. The pair told the pollies what was in the Uluru Statement and explained the work they are doing.
“Is it sad to say, I really enjoyed it?” Allira says with a laugh, “It was great!”
Reflecting on this “amazing” experience, Bridget says: “Our people have been pushed out of…having a political voice for so long – since colonization – that we don’t necessarily feel like we have a space there.
“We want to make sure that young people know that you can go to Parliament and lobby, you can write to your local member,” she adds, “You have the right to do these things in your own country.”
By way of explaining the intergenerational trauma, Allira briefly tells the audience many of her family members were forcibly taken to the so-called Cherbourg Mission, which operated from 1904 until 1986. Once you start reading about the horrors of that Mission, it’s hard to stave off despair:
The government administration controlled almost every aspect of the Aboriginal people’s lives; the language they spoke, what they ate, what they wore, where they went, for whom they worked and, in some cases, whom they would marry. Aboriginal people, removed to Cherbourg were either placed in dormitories or lived in camps. Large numbers of boys and girls, men and women were brought up away from families in the dormitories. Anyone breaking the strict laws were severely punished – locked up in jail or sent away to other reserves like Palm Island and Woorabinda.
Back at the Equals Now symposium, the two young women tell the audience they job-share the role, and all decision making is done with deep trust and respect for one another.
Explaining how it works in practice, Allira says: “Bridget and I have a very good relationship and friendship, I think because it relies on communication, respect and trust, which is our big three things. If we didn’t have that, it probably wouldn’t work.
“I’m very humbled and privileged always to be in Bridget’s space and energy,” she continues, “ I can’t wait to see Bridget a few years down the track on where she is in life. Because she’s really inspiring.”
“Likewise,” Bridget agrees, “We just trust in each other’s abilities.”
“Aww cute moment!” Allira jokes.
Picking up this thread and directly addressing them theme of the symposium #sharetheload #sharethebenefits #sharethepower, Bridget says the Uluru Statement movement is a great example of how a broad spectrum of Indigenous viewpoints are continually considered and incorporated: “The power is shared around.”
Bridget explains the pair’s work ethic is inspired by female elders, including their mothers, grandmothers and aunties: “We’ve seen women in our communities and our families just do it. They just get the job done. And I think that’s what we try and uphold and that’s what we take forward in everything we do.”
Allira, who is the oldest of 15 grandchildren, says the women in her life taught her to be genuine and respectful and to give back to community: “It soothes my soul when I know that my family is okay, and that I’m doing them proud.
“My mother has told me to always look after the land and the land will look after you so that’s the connection to country and culture that she’s taught me instilled in my brain.”
Want more? Listen to the interview with Allira and Bridget by ABC presenter Dan Bourchier, inspired by the Equals Now symposium.