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Blog Blak excellence key to closing the gap
8 minutes

Blak excellence key to closing the gap

Jaki Adams
Last edited: April 11, 2024

Travelling to Canberra this week had me feeling very strange – unwell but not sick, anxious but not sure why, and tired, so very tired.

Travelling from Darwin to Canberra is always an effort, no direct flights and some seven hours or so of travel, so the tired I understand. The rest though, especially in my Birthday week as I looove Birthdays, I couldn’t explain away.

Heading to Canberra to attend the Launch of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Institute for First Nations Gender Justice and the Close the Gap Campaign’s 2024 Report Launch were definitely worth travelling for and events that I was looking forward to attending for some time. These are two events that have specific relevance to my work and being – human rights, social justice and accountability. I was fortunate to have attended the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Summit with my daughter Serena in 2023 and am invested in this work and the outcomes. Similarly, I have been engaged in the Close the Gap Campaign for the past twelve years and work to do what I can to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and Indigenous peoples globally, rights to; sight, good health, and self-determination.

I knew it would be an opportunity to reset and look ahead after the loss of the 2023 Referendum but what I didn’t quite anticipate is how much I NEEDED THIS. Being surrounded by mob and being warmly met with love, compassion and a clear sense of belonging was so good for my soul. I didn’t realise how sad and angry I still was, but for this to be acknowledged by others and knowing that we are not returning to business as usual (as many others expect us to), was an acknowledgement that I needed – that I was not alone and that my feelings were valid. I have left these two events with a renewed sense of self, commitment to change, and belonging to the sector and to mob.

To this end, I must now share the amazingness of these two events and highlight why Blak Excellence (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, leadership and innovation) is our past, our present and our future.

The official launch of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Institute and Change Agenda for First Nations Gender Justice was held at the Kambri Cultural Centre, Australian National University. Dr ‘Aunty’ Matilda House delivered a heartfelt Welcome to Country dressed in her amazing possum skin cloak. As an aside, Aunty Matilda said she was leaving straight after but ended up staying for the whole event, finishing around 9:30pm. It is so great to have her presence always. Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt OA guided us through the event as the Master of Ceremonies (MC) and did a stellar job, delivering a lot of information in a captivating and very respectful manner.

Our first woman, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, stole the show of course. June’s unwavering commitment to women and elevating women’s voices, her drive for justice, passion for change, deep connection to language, culture and people, and her ever engaging persona had everyone leaning in to hear every word shared. June was joined by the Hon. Julia Gillard AC for a panel discussion and Julia’s input was also very informed, heartfelt and real. Whilst June will move on from the Social Justice Commissioner role in the coming weeks, with Katie Kiss to commence in the role in early April, she will continue to drive the change agenda that she has set in place, as the Chair of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute. The event finished off with the most intricate and insightful look at the women of Roebourne, WA (Pilba Region) having the courage to share their stories through the Big hART’s Punkaliyarra project – celebrating legacy, life, connections, culture, language and women. I still get goosebumps when I think of this performance – amazing on so many levels.

We are flipping the narrative on its head and speaking to the system as the problem that needs to be fixed rather than our women…..Nothing like this has existed in Australia and it is a direct response to what our women and girls have called for.

June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Now to the Launch of the Close the Gap 2024 Report Voyage to Voice, Treaty, Truth and Beyond, held at Parliament House in Canberra. From my recollections, the Close the Gap Campaign has traditionally delivered a (Shadow) Report in response to the Government’s annual Closing the Gap Policy Report, aimed at addressing the continued failures of government policies and the lack of achievement against the indicators (closing of the gap in health equity) time and time again. Around 2019, the Close the Gap Campaign flipped the narrative to meet our own agenda – a strength-based narrative in celebration of the journeys, best practice, and successes for the sector.

The always amazing Carla McGrath MC’d the Launch, which had many notable speakers; acknowledged the passing and legacy of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue; recognised the opportunity to share our journeys, successes and what’s working through the Report; the role of allies and their much needed support; and, concluded with a presentation and a discussion to showcase two of the case studies included in the Report: The First Peoples Disability Network – “disability is a western construct…about culture of inclusion, natural way of being” and Clothing the Gaps – “employment outcomes….decolonize your wardrobe”.

In speaking to the Report, Karl Briscoe as Co-chair of the Close the Gap Campaign, acknowledged the amazing achievements of the sector and specifically how “imbedding social justice benefits us all” and that the Report is an opportunity to “showcase blak excellence”. Selwyn Button, Chair of the Lowitja Institute, officially launched the report, saying “the recommendations are about holding government to account – community led and community driven, in true partnership with government”. The Lowitja Institute has taken carriage of the narrative and has been pulling the Close the Gap annual Report together since 2019.

A number of notable politicians attended the Launch, as is the usual practice, and we specifically heard from Minister Burney and Minister Butler. It was enlightening to hear them acknowledge the “pain of the referendum defeat and that many of us are still in so much grief” and that “6.2 million Australians voted with us; young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders emerged; and that on the whole, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People wanted this”. As is the norm, Minister Burney and Butler spoke to the government’s ongoing commitment to closing the gap and a genuine acknowledgement of the increased cost of living and the increased mental health/distress this and the referendum has and is causing, whilst also acknowledging the impact of this on our health workforce, notably the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce.

Minister Butler stated that a specific change within his government is through the establishment of a First Nations Governance Group in the Health Portfolio, as a new level of partnership and codesign. This is to include looking at opportunities to transition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations – exemplifying the Puggy Hunter Scholarship. The sector has been calling for this for a very long time.
In specifically referring to the Report, Minister Burney and Butler stated:

(The Report is about) Celebrating excellence and innovation and focusing on strength and success.

Minister Burney

The Report reflects the resilience and determination to keep on with the business to Close the Gap.

Minister Butler

It is hard to convey the emotion and feelings, plus the expansive details and insights gained, in a Blog but I hope that, if you managed to read this through, that you too were inspired and uplifted by the Blak Excellence on show. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will continue to use their voice, maintain the strength-based narrative, exercise self-determination, and assert our sovereignty (of self, place and people) in all that we do. Please read the Reports and follow the ‘pages’ to stay across the information available and many successes achieved.

This report looks beyond the Referendum outcome at what is needed now to protect our existing rights and advance implementation of the Uluru Statement.

The Close the Gap Campaign Report 2024, pg.14
Jaki Adams
Director Social Justice and Regional Engagement, The Fred Hollows Foundation; ANTAR Board Director

Jaki was born and raised in Garramilla (Darwin) on Larrakia Country, and is of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, with ancestral links to the Yadhaigana and Wuthathi people of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, traditional family ties with the Gurindji people of Central Western Northern Territory and extended family relationships with the people of the Torres Straits and Warlpiri (Yuendumu NT). She has worked for The Fred Hollows Foundation since 2012 and has extensive experience in both government and international development sectors.

The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) awarded Jaki the 2023 Outstanding Contribution to the Sector Award for her more than 25 years of service.

Jaki has a personal and professional commitment to do whatever she can to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and those most marginalised.