Dr Zeena Elton - Viva la ERC!

My story as an ERC staff member mainly concerns the first half of the Centre’s history. I have too many memories to recount here so I will just provide a snapshot of some of the poignant moments from my perspective. I have worn many hats at ERC, firstly as Co-ordinator of Research and later as Deputy Director, and also Acting Director (in 2007), before I left to undertake doctoral study. I have worked with amazing people in Australia and overseas as we forged relationships and partnerships with diverse communities, and together we travelled the long road of action for justice and human rights for people in Australia and across the globe.

zeena.pngIn 1996 I left Macquarie University’s Indigenous Unit Warawara, and took up the position of Academic Co-ordinator of Indigenous Programs at ACU, working in the School of Education, and with Yalbalinga, ACU’s Indigenous Student Support Unit. Not long after I joined ACU, I remember well when a student came to me seeking advice about dealing with issues of racism in tutorials. That university student was Nicole Breeze and together with a young teacher Karen Oxley, became the first of Phil Glendenning’s staff at ERC. They were engaged in community education programs of social justice working with schools and the wider community, and I was soon sharing adult education strategies with Nicole. At that stage ERC was like a magnet as Phil was connected with many different social justice groups, as it was a time when there were coalitions like Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), forming to advocate in support of native title and Indigenous rights. University students like Ben Spies-Butcher and teachers like Marie Loller volunteered their services, as did many international students like Bruno Ver Wee from Belgium. Volunteers were crucial in the early days and have remained the backbone of ERC ever since.

Yalbalinga staff, including myself, became especially interested in ERC’s social action and community education approach as we had our own adult education agenda trying to impact upon the hearts and minds of young teachers with a new Indigenous studies curriculum, while community education strategies were vital for Indigenous communities where adult education was rapidly increasing . Yalbalinga staff Dawn Welsh and Marge Campbell were among the early participants in the ERC program ‘Let’s Talk International’; young people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous from Australia, joined ERC’s partner organisation 80:20 in Ireland headed by Colm Regan, exploring issues of identity, sectarianism, racism and human rights. From Christian Brothers like John Giacon, recruiting students for Yalbalinga in North Western NSW, came a young Indigenous participant for the ‘Let’s Talk’ program in Ireland. Cassandra Gibbs went on to become the first Indigenous Education Officer for ERC, and for many years she led successful programs taking teachers and students on ‘Let’s Talk Local’ in NSW.

The late 1990s was a time when Reconciliation was at the forefront of social agendas across the country, in the years following the Mabo decision, the Native Title Act and Paul Keating’s famous Redfern Speech. After the Wik decision and Howard’s 10-point Plan, I was incensed and joined the rallies of ANTaR, and later with Marie Loller contributed to the ‘Sea of Hands’ on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. Throughout the 1990s I had worked for Indigenous community development, adult education and teacher training. I wanted to undertake more action for the rights I believed were long overdue for Indigenous people.

Phil and I met in 1998, the year we were both turning 40. Br Jude Butcher introduced us and it wasn’t long before we became firm friends, as we shared a commitment to social justice and human rights. I watched with interest as the international programs developed and as Indigenous leaders travelled to England and Ireland. Following ‘Let’s Talk’ in Ireland, Sean Cleary took an international Immersion group to El Salvador and Guatemala, and later Marie Loller took a group to Israel and Palestine. When Cassandra Gibbs joined ERC and took a group to Western NSW for Let’s Talk Local, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this local and international action and advocacy work, but it was hard to leave Ken (Ralph), Dawn, Danni and Marge at Yalbalinga. In 1999 Phil and I began a conversation about my development of a research base for the advocacy work, and the rest as they say is history. I joined ERC following the Bridge Walk for Reconciliation in May 2000.

From the moment I joined the staff at ERC I hit the ground running. I accompanied a group to Ireland, and hosted a group from Ireland relying heavily on the back-up of my driver, cook and partner in crime, Ray Elton. There were local and international immersions, overseas students, and teachers looking for information to assist a more rigorous justice curriculum. Initially my research focused on advocacy for Indigenous issues, but it was also a time when we all became concerned about the demonization of asylum seekers. Nicole and I joined the Sydney Justice and Peace Officer for the Archdiocese Sr Aileen Crowe, on her regular visits to Villawood Detention Centre and we came back very distressed and spent a lot of time debriefing with Phil, Aileen and other staff. In August 2001, Nicole and I developed the early work on “Debunking the Myths about Asylum Seekers” and it was so successful with schools and organisations that following Tampa and September 11, Ben and I did a follow-up in October. It was a busy time and we were all in high demand to speak to schools, journalists and community organisations. Leading the research team by 2002, Ben and I were commissioned to produce a report for the Independent Education Union (IEU) on Mandatory Detention, which was eventually tabled in Parliament.

We began to hear alarming reports from international Church organisations of asylum seekers who had been sent back to their deaths in their countries of origin. And so began our early monitoring before Phil was joined by Carmel Leavey, Mary Britt, Margaret Hetherton and Tony Morris for the extensive research project on rejected asylum seekers, “Deported to Danger”. In 2006 I delivered the Report to ExCom NGO meetings of the UNHCR in Geneva, and returned in 2007 to report the RSD processes returning people to persecution. Phil’s experience travelling into war-zones was needed for research on the ground, and as he was increasingly engaged with this research, I took on more of the role of managing the ongoing work of ERC, and there was plenty of it. From publications, press releases, public speaking and media interviews, there was also ongoing research into so many areas. A stream of international students became interns and made massive contributions with their energy, ideas and research projects. Clare McGeady from Northern Ireland and Mireille Widmer from Switzerland joined ERC in 2002 and stayed for 18 months, amid a constant stream of interns from the United States such as Piper Hendricks, and all needed support for the issues we were grappling with at ERC, especially as they were away from home. Many young people who found themselves at ERC needed strategies to understand the complexity of socio-historical issues of justice and human rights, and ERC elders Michael Walsh and Aileen Crowe were joined by teachers Michael Elphick and John Finneran as we responded to as many schools and community groups as we could. The ‘two Mark’s’, Fitzhenry and Yettica-Paulson, kept us sane with their humour and insights. Mark Fitzhenry answered the phones while Mark Yettica-Paulson was ERC’s other Indigenous Education Officer working with business and community groups. Paul Wijngaaden and Steve Cram kept the place running, and it wasn’t long before Sr Daphne McKeogh, Fr Claude Mostowik and Sr Kath O’Connor joined us, while Christian Brothers Lex Hall and Cliff Fogarty took care of archives and IT. The Christian Brothers’ Indigenous Education Officer Julieanne Manson also began to assist with Let’s Talk programs and worked with Cassandra and myself hosting local and international groups. Many more staff and volunteers have since followed but those mentioned became a core group in the early days.

Mark Yettica-Paulson and I were also involved in the development of Animation training programs with Julie Foreman, Teresa Harm, Mauro de Nicola, Sr Helen Foley and later Ella Hogan, on the Campbelltown Animation Project, building on the earlier partnership that Phil had developed with Sr Mary Gregory and Paul Power. This work involved partnerships with South Western Sydney communities focused on right relationships, human rights and critical social analysis and advocacy. At the same time as I was working with the Animation team in Campbelltown from 2001, I was also involved in ERC international programs led by Brogan Mulhall who was based in Brazil and later in Zambia, hosting immersion groups from Australia and Ireland. By 2002 we hosted a group from Brazil, and with Julieanne Manson’s help we offered them a Northern NSW Indigenous experience. By the time a group came to Australia from Zambia in 2003, we had already hosted Emily Sikaswe from ‘Women for Change’ in Zambia, who came to Australia to open the ERC photographic exhibition, “The Spirit of Zambia”. International photojournalist Dan Peled had joined our immersion group to Zambia in 2002, to raise awareness of issues for women and human rights across Africa. When the Zambian group came to Australia we were able to share animation experiences with diverse communities in south-western Sydney, and experience Indigenous culture and heritage in North Western NSW. By the end of 2003 I had joined Mick Elphick with a group to India and Bangladesh, and assisted Sean Cleary with preparation for groups he was taking to Latin America. In 2004 I joined Marie Loller in the Arab village of Ibillin in Israel, as together we researched strategies for peace for the new Peace Centre that had been established by Archbishop Elias Chacour at ‘Mar Elias University’. And the list goes on…

In the early days the impetus for so many programs developing was due to Phil’s inclusive leadership style. When Jill Finnane came with her ideas for the Pacific Calling Partnership and Hossan Omar came with his concerns to develop an agency focused on the Horn of Africa, Phil invited them to join the ERC team and eagerly found them a desk to advance their developing ideas. As a leader Phil always enabled the capacity of so many diverse ideas to coalesce in the gatherings of like-minded people, and this is the strength of an organisation that continues to ‘box well above its weight’. It’s the old catch-cry, ‘together you can make a difference’! As Deputy Director,  I followed Phil’s lead in supporting as many rights based agendas and as many people as I could, from staff, students, teachers and Indigenous community leaders, to those seeking asylum and those seeking support for their human rights. The job remains massive and I hold the utmost respect for all the ERC staff who have continued this vital work for so many years. Carmel Clark and Marisa Brattoni were at ERC before I left in 2008 and like those from the early days - Phil, Daphne, Claude, Jill, Sean, Steve, and Paul, and the many new faces - their contribution is immense.

I had many personal milestones at ERC, and one that I am particularly proud of is the development of an International Women’s Network, ‘Lilla’ inspired by the Aboriginal elder and activist Lilla Watson. From the enthusiasm of female staff led by young researchers Samia Khatun and Marthese Bezzina, we brought together the social justice and human rights issues of women locally and globally, in gatherings and forums with a focus on grass roots networking, advocacy and action. Following significant research in 2008 we responded to the Federal Government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children, with a detailed Submission ‘From Victims to Changemakers: A Grass-Roots Focus for the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children’. Although ‘Lilla’ is no longer active as a network, it was one of the many ERC initiatives that facilitated new directions for research, advocacy and networking for women, and from our experiences we engaged with new imperatives and agendas and have never forgotten the wonderful feeling of like-minded people working together advocating for justice and change. 

As many of us moved on to pursue our dreams of making a difference in various sectors of society, Phil was fond of saying that ERC was like the Hotel California, ‘you can check out any time you like but you can never leave!’ And of course once you follow the path of social justice and human rights, your heart never leaves. This is the significance of ERC as a non-government organisation – the impact upon the hearts and minds of people everywhere; an understanding that we all have a right to live a life of dignity and respect, and to have injustice and persecution acknowledged and past wrongs redressed. ERC provides a foundation for this understanding and a diverse coalition of rights based advocates and researchers ready to embrace the diverse struggles of the marginalised and oppressed. I have been proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with so many in the fight for justice and rights, and I apologise to the many names I haven’t mentioned, but the heart doesn’t forget even as the recall grows dim.

In love and solidarity - Viva la ERC!!!                         

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