CYNTHIA Rowan knows what it’s like being the only one not invited when the other kids at school were having birthday parties, and she’s leaving no one out of what she’s got planned.
Her experience is about being part of the only Aboriginal family at her school when she was growing up and now she’s the project officer steering the implementation of the Reconciliation Action Plan in Brisbane archdiocese.
Everyone in parishes, schools, agencies, groups and communities across the archdiocese will be invited into that.
Launched by Archbishop Mark Coleridge in Brisbane on November 17, the RAP is being piloted in several parishes.
The RAP aims to address “past injustices” by promoting new and stronger relations among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.
Cynthia’s whole life, right from her early days growing up in Rockhampton, her years of university study and teaching, involvement with Church and community groups, and her working life, has been all about that.
“At primary school my sister and I we both did very well in our grades – we always came either dux or second …,” she said.
“But you do so well and then you read in social studies about ‘dirty, lazy Aboriginal people’, and we were Aboriginal people, we weren’t lazy, we weren’t dirty, and it was very confusing and very hard to understand.
“I think it was our first exposure in the classroom to racism from some of the teachers, and we didn’t know what it was.
“We were the only Aboriginal family in the school and we didn’t see ourselves as different until we got older and we didn’t get invited to birthday parties and things like that.
“Mum always organised something else to distract us, and we didn’t realise that that was part of what society was like.”
For Cynthia, it’s interesting that this “never really affected us to the extent that it inhibited us and where we wanted to go in life”.
Much of that is due to the influence of her mother Eveline who would always tell her children, “You’re as good as the person you see in the gutter …”
“And we’d look at her strangely (when she said that),” Cynthia said.
“She was trying to get us to be seeing that we’re equal to everyone so that if we could see a really poor person as being equal to us then anyone who was rich would be at the same level, so her psychology, when you think about it as an adult, was absolutely tremendous.
“But it’s those attitudes that we grew up with in terms of our engagement, and being respectful …”
Even though they were poor, Eveline and Cynthia’s father Albert, made sure they “could afford a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and for a poor family that would have cost a lot of money”.
“So my older sisters used to do the reading to me, and that’s how I learnt – through my siblings,” Cynthia said.
“Mum was illiterate and so was Dad but they instilled in us as a family two key things – work ethic and education.
“So from a very young age they were the values that they encouraged in us – other than telling us that we’re Catholics and we needed to behave ourselves because God is watching …”
Pivotal moments for Cynthia were coming back to the Church as a young woman and meeting Fr Mick Hayes – who was ministering in Rockhampton diocese’s Aboriginal apostolate – and then following his advice to enrol in a pilot TAFE program that allowed her to lift her education standard from Year 6 to Year 12 level.
She then completed a Bachelor of Arts degree.
“My majors were history – because I wanted to find out why white people treated Aboriginal people the way they did,” she said.
“Once I got involved with university studies it opened up this whole new world for me and it excited my passion for self-determination and how to deal with ‘lateral violence’.
“They didn’t have that term at the time – it’s when you articulate that you’re dealing with racism and someone dismisses it as it’s not an issue which further reinforces that feeling of hopelessness and feeling less than equal …
“It’s not something that stopped me but I was able to recognise what it was and I found that people tried to manipulate you into a corner.”
Cynthia benefitted greatly from working with Fr Hayes when she was secretary-treasurer of the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council in Rockhampton.
“It was really interesting working with Fr Hayes because when we used to go anywhere and if we were catching a flight I would go up and make the inquiry – because I was the secretary-treasurer – and he used to always stand back and whoever was behind the counter would look past me …,” she said.
“I’d ask the question and they’d look past me and they’d give the response to Fr Hayes, and he’d always say, ‘Cynthia asked the question; could you please respond to Cynthia?’
“And I used to get so annoyed and he said, ‘You can’t change overnight something that’s been going on for years’.
“He said, ‘You just have to be persistent …’
“And one of the things that Mum taught us is that when someone is racist towards you it’s an opportunity to teach them what they’re doing wrong …”
Those lessons and the skills she’s developed she’s used for the good of reconciliation.
She’s found she “could challenge, I could be innovative and push the envelope in terms of self-determination and self-empowerment because it’s not just the empowerment for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people in creating opportunities for them, but it’s empowering the wider community to be confident to step forward to ask (questions)”.
“It’s about dispelling the myths that are around the place and it’s encouraging people to go to sites to learn information but the best way to do it is to build relationships and sit down and have a chat, and if you want to do something it’s negotiating who is to benefit from whatever you’re going to do,” she said.
Although there was still a lot of racism in the community, Cynthia believes “it’s slowly breaking down”.
“And children don’t know racism; they learn behaviour from their adults, they mimic the behaviour,” she said.
“Children in preschools and in primary schools and high schools, they’re getting a lot more exposure to reconciliation and a greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture and Torres Strait Islander cultures than their parents or their grandparents so there’s this whole group out there and if they want to come on this journey then I’m happy to guide them through it.
“And it’s not asking them to do anything other than to participate in opportunities to understand.”
In dealing with the injustices of the past, Cynthia is well aware there are people who say, “Oh, but that’s in the past …” and “It’s got nothing to do with me; my family didn’t come here until … I’m first-generation Australian …”
“But as I keep saying to people, when you claim Australia as your home, as your country, you’re claiming its history and you should understand the history factually, not some of the myths that are going around,” she said.
Much information and resources for cultural learning was available online through Reconciliation Australia and church websites where “information is from that Christian perspective and how we respond”.
“And it’s about all of those hard things like understanding that, yes, in Queensland over 10,000 Aboriginal people were massacred during the colonisation process, and that was still occurring in the 1950s …,” Cynthia said.
“It’s not about being angry; it’s understanding, well, that did happen, as well as Aboriginal people having to deal with the fact that their mob massacred white people.”
The RAP being piloted in parishes was “inviting everyone to be prayerful in their intentions”.
“It’s important for all of us to understand and accept what’s happened in the past, and ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Cynthia said.