23. Jenna

Before joining the board of Cambodian Kids Can, I had a meet and greet with Jenna and was immediately struck by her energy and warmth. Fast forward two years and I’m lucky enough to see her friendly face across the boardroom or at fundraisers on a regular basis. From checking in on me when I have a cold to taking on more than her fair share of work on the board, Jenna is the sort of person who gives everything and everyone her all. I’ve always been amazed by the breadth and depth of Jenna’s experiences and chatting over a vino before a recent board meeting, I was completely gobsmacked by what she manages to fit into her life. 

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“I work as a Partnerships Coordinator for the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Victoria. We take a very strong gender equality approach to our work which is why I love my job.

My feminist streak comes from family. My grandma was born on a dairy farm in 1922 and she imparted on me a strong sense that women can do anything. I grew up with a single mum who raised three children and worked for sexual assault response services and in politics. My Aunty is Australia’s leading (and only female) Egyptologist and my cousin wrote her doctoral thesis on gendered language bias. All of them are strong, inspiring feminists so, I grew up with this as my frame for understanding the world. My social justice focus throughout my criminology and political science degrees was founded on feminist principles and drove my passion for improving the way women are treated.

My commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights started when my mum shared what she learnt in her social studies degree. This commitment became firmly embedded in my life in 2002 when I did a subject at uni on the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system. I attended a three-day cultural camp run by my lecturer’s husband, Ron Murray, where I learnt about the culture and history of Ron’s family. I formed a strong bond with Ron’s father, Bes Murray, who took to calling me his granddaughter.  

For 13 years, Bes called me every Thursday morning for a yarn at 8:20am while I was on the train and my partner and I would spend weekends on country with Bes, learning about midden sites through to the farming history of the region. Bes taught me a lot about his experiences as an elder on the Koori Court, the discrimination he faced growing up and his vision for the future. Bes passed away last year, but I feel a sense of him being with me in my work as he inspired so much of it. With Bes’ support, I became a respite foster carer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and I know he would be proud to see us together.

Alongside Bes’ influence, I also spent a life changing three weeks volunteering in Jigalong, a remote Western Australian community. It was such an eye opening experience that drove home my passion to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because of the absolute sense of injustice experienced by the community. I witnessed the lived experience of racist policies, institutionalised racism and the impact of Australia’s ongoing discrimination towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Until you are in community, it’s really difficult to grasp the systemised way in which white Australia has attempted to completely decimate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.  

The issues of racism and gender inequality are intertwined. Australia was founded by a settler culture of white men. Women were deported from Europe and brought to Australia for men to choose as either a wife or servant. And for Aboriginal women, genocide, rape and the forced removal of their children were the horrific reality of colonisation. These are the roots of the society we are living in. This history reverberates; and as white Australians we have so much work to do – I feel very driven to being part of that.

My current role is working on these two issues at a really critical time. Family violence, particularly against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has been ignored and minimised by the broader public. This silencing of violence began to change when the deaths of Luke Batty and Jill Meagher caused public outcry. The advocacy by their families along with the family violence sector led to many Victorians finally recognising that family violence is something affecting our communities with devastating consequences.

A subsequent bi-partisan commitment to conduct a Royal Commission into Family Violence signaled change was underway. In March 2016, the Commission handed down 227 recommendations and the Victorian Government committed to implementing every single one of them. It was a turning point in our history. Most significantly, Government acknowledged the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and made a strong commitment to end the violence. This needs to be a whole of community commitment because violence against one woman is violence against all women. Contrary to commonly held views, violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children is perpetrated by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men and the high level of violence is a direct consequence of colonial history, racism and gender inequality.

There’s so much that we need to undo and there’s so much responsibility on white Australia to step up around things like youth detention and the removal of children (more Aboriginal children are being removed now than they were at the height of the stolen generation but people just don’t hear about it!) There’s often no consideration given as to why people find themselves in disadvantaged situations.

For example, because of the way our system operates, when an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman experiences violence, frequently the outcome is that her children will be removed. In fact, the Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children reported that 88% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their mother’s had experienced family violence. Beyond that, once children are in the child protection system and cultural and family ties are interrupted, engagement with the juvenile justice system is inevitable. There seems to be a graduation from family violence to child protection to out of home care to juvenile justice through to a lifelong engagement with the justice system.

There is no support given to a woman to try and keep her children with her. A victim blaming culture with child protection is rife, resulting in Aboriginal children being 12-13 times more likely to be in out of home care. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are actually scared of reporting family violence issues for a number of understandable reasons – negative interactions with police, a sense of shame in reporting others and a fear of child protection involvement. When you consider that historically, police were enforcers of brutality and responsible for tearing families apart, it’s no wonder the idea of police as protectors seems perverse.  

And it’s not just historical experiences of poor police behaviour, it is happening right now. For example, in 2014, police were called to a Western Australian property to arrest a man who had breached an intervention order. Police found an Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu on the premises, discovered she had close to $3000 in unpaid fines and subsequently arrested her. Ms Dhu died in custody three days later from septicemia from an infected broken rib caused by family violence from the perpetrator the police were originally sent to arrest.

This points to how broken the system is. Quite often those with unpaid fines are those experiencing marginalisation and disadvantage, yet they are imprisoned (which aside from anything else, makes absolutely no sense when it costs about $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison). There’s such a strong linkage between racism and violence and it is really difficult for Aboriginal people to get the support that they need from mainstream services, which often subconsciously reflect bias or discrimination.

That’s why the current system reform in Victoria is enormous and unlike anything we’ve seen before. It is asking us to reflect on deeply ingrained and systemic racism. I think Victoria is leading the way globally so there is a glimmer of hope. But white Australia still has an issue with acknowledging Aboriginal people’s experiences. So, until we have some serious conversations about who we are as a country and all of the structures of power that exist, violence in many forms will continue toward Aboriginal people- exclusion, discrimination, physical, emotional and spiritual violence.

I need to be conscious of all that I bring to this environment as a white, middle-class woman, because I can never truly understand Aboriginal culture, history or experience. The biggest lesson I am learning is how to balance my anger at injustice with committed, conscious advocacy – it’s not about appropriating a voice, it’s about disabling the societal structures I am part of that silence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s voices.

When it comes to gender equality, I also think we have a long way to go. It’s definitely become very topical to talk about feminism, but it’s become a very individualised concept. For example, a common argument is that “if a woman chooses to be a stripper that’s her choice.” This completely disregards the structural power paradigm that sits around why that is a choice a woman would have to make. The focus of my work is on primary prevention, for example, the pay gap disparity. This shows women and their work is valued less, creating an environment that is more conducive to family violence occurring. The fact that we’re in 2017 and this is still an issue just doesn’t make sense to me.

So, I guess my message to anyone reading is that we have a long way to go but we can’t give up the fight. When I consider the level of disadvantage I’ve bared witness to, here and overseas, I feel a real obligation to do something. I’ve worked in traumatic spaces for a long time, but I would find my work much harder if I was aware of human suffering but unable to do something about it.

I encourage everyone to step outside of their day-to-day lives and give something –volunteer or donate – through any number of organisations. We can all help create a greater sense of equality in this country and be part of the change.

Photography: Lucy Bastick from @StreetsofMelbourne

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