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Toni Janke is making a difference ‘one family at a time’ by getting out of the way and letting God work

Toni Janke: “The thing I love the most about driving across the Story Bridge every day, is thinking, ‘Well, God, what do you want me to do today? Who’s gonna walk through the door? And how can I be of use?’ And it’s incredible, because you really can. We really can make a difference.”

HOW’S this for a job description – “My job is to get out of the way, and let God do His work”?

That’s what it boils down to for Toni Janke in her role as Indigenous Services co-ordinator within Centacare Family and Relationship Services’ Brisbane Metropolitan Region.

Day to day she’s supporting people in crisis, sometimes facing the toughest time in their lives.

Toni’s at the coalface of helping people caught up in years of entrenched inequality and injustice – “every day, every day, every day”.

“Part of my role as a practitioner, is working every day with families who walk through the door in crisis – sometimes three, four, five families a day – and being able to get a good result …,” she said.

“When I say a good result – that’s keeping somebody safe or trying to keep them out of the system, whether it’s to put them in touch with housing supports or put them in touch with specialist services, counselling support – all of those things – I think that’s the way forward.

“We see a lot of vulnerability, right across the board – not just with Aboriginal people.

“The services we provide are to vulnerable people – people who need targeted family support, very specific support – (people) who fall through the cracks; who have multiple, complex issues.

“It’s not just ‘My husband and I have had a fight and I need a domestic violence order’; there’s layers of trauma.

“There’s mental health issues, there may be no house, there’s no job, there’s kids who have been abused.

“There’s a whole range of issues.

“There might be inter-generational trauma, where people don’t know who they are because they have been removed or stolen – the stolen generations we talk about.

“A good outcome is keeping kids out of the system. A good outcome is trying to make sure the basic needs are at least met, to start with.”

Toni, a descendant of the Wuthathi and Meriam peoples of Cape York and Murray Island, Torres Strait, has had this role for four years.

She works across south-east Queensland providing support, through Centacare Family and Relationship Services, to clients and staff, and primarily working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

That could include offering support in parenting, child protection, family mediation, counselling, information advocacy and domestic violence cases.

Speaking during National Reconciliation Week 2019 (May 27-June 3), Toni was well aware of the ground such problems were built on.

“I think the first moment you’re aware that racism exists is the day you start school, unfortunately, or the day you actually come into contact with people who are different from you,” she said.

“I think that is regardless of who you are; you suddenly realise that everybody’s treating you differently, for some reason. ‘Why are they doing that, Dad? Mum?’, (you’d ask)

“My dad said, ‘Go home and look in the mirror, and have a good look because you’re not going to change. That’s who you are.’

“Racism is learned. It’s always something that we grow up and are challenged by all the time but we learn to just do and be who you are, and you’re constantly educating or trying to change or challenge people.

“That’s what this (Reconciliation Week) is about as well – challenging those stereotypes and having those conversations one on one in the corridors that help really …” 

Toni referred to “what the theologians talk about in terms of ‘authentic dialogue’ and what that means in terms of that exchange and that vulnerability that happens in our capacity to be open-hearted to the person”.

“And, for me, that’s what it is on a daily basis, whether I’m talking to a colleague or whether I’m talking to a client …

“We’re still people so it’s how can we best respect each other’s truth in spite of our differences, and find that way through with courage.

“And that’s what this message is about,” Toni said, referring to the National Reconciliation Week theme – Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage.

Toni, who hailed originally from Cairns and then grew up in Canberra, has had many and varied roles working in community and government agencies for more than 30 years, and served on boards and committees at various levels in the arts, media, music, education and the community sector.

She worked for three years with former federal MP Robert Tickner when he was Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Islander Affairs in the Hawke Government. 

But her current work with Centacare is her “dream job”.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I explain to them what we do, and … you suddenly see the look on their face change, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible … It must be a really demanding, heavy job’,” Toni said.

“And I say, ‘No, I love it. I absolutely love it’.

“I get to work with people who entrust you into their lives, and you get to actually be useful and affect people’s lives in a real way.

“I think that’s what I’ve always loved – being able to have some impact in a real sense.

“Whilst I think Uluru Statements and Reconciliation Action Plans are great, we’ve got to be working at all levels.

“I like to see real outcomes for families and for people and that on the ground our practices are supporting people where we can.

“And we’ve got a lot of work to do.

“The thing I love the most about driving across the Story Bridge every day, is thinking, ‘Well, God, what do you want me to do today? Who’s gonna walk through the door? And how can I be of use?’

“And it’s incredible, because you really can. We really can make a difference.”

Toni hoped for more services to be doing similar work.

“It shouldn’t just be left to the Aboriginal community organisations or Aboriginal communities to run themselves,” she said.

“People will say, ‘Yes, we want self-determination’, and I totally support self-determination but at the same time, when a child suffers it’s everybody’s responsibility, not just one community’s responsibility, because there are bigger systemic issues that need to be addressed that none of us can address on our own.

“That’s why reconciliation’s really important in helping change the culture of organisations and agencies that we work with, to ensure that we are doing this work.

“We’ve all got an important role to play.”

As well as her Centacare job, Toni’s recently been involved in a national campaign with Family Matters, which is “working at a national level to try to reduce the number of Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care, which is really shocking, shocking stats – (the  number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care) is 11 times higher than non-Aboriginal kids in care”.

“In the Northern Territory 100 per cent of kids in out-of-home care are Aboriginal, which is just not right,” Toni said.

“We know that, and governments know that, we all know that.

“Yes, we’ve got a lot of work to do but it’s about how best we try to work together and try and address some of these issues – chronic issues; underlying, systemic issues that have been around a long time.

“How do we move forward?

“I just say it’s one family at a time. It literally is – housing that family, giving that family support …”

Toni said she saw a lot of hope.

“It would be easy just to think, ‘This is too hard; I’m not going to do this …’,” she said.

“But again, for me personally, I feel very much called – always have – to work in this space and that’s who I am, so I couldn’t imagine not doing it.

“I actually get the buzz out of being able to help, or being able to assist change.

“For me it’s all around engagement, dialogue and trust – building that – and having that heartfelt connection with people, black or white.”

Toni said there were “massive challenges” in the quest for reconciliation and justice for Indigenous people.

“But, no matter who we are or where we are there are always challenges,” she said.

“That’s why we don’t do it, really, do we? God does it.

“My job is to get out of the way, and let God do His work, through me, rather than getting in His way and trying to make it harder.

“Well, you try, don’t you? I think we all try but it’s certainly not perfect. We could do a lot better.

“And I think that’s why reconciliation’s important …

“It’s about building relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

“But at the heart of it, it’s (similar to the Church’s sacrament of Reconciliation) because it’s about forgiveness, … and saying sorry, and healing, and moving forward.”

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