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Across the great divide

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Dr Jackie Huggins has dedicated her life to the reconciliation movement and is an insightful role model for indigenous activism.    

With the nation taking a crucial step towards building bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, the role of Dr Jackie Huggins  has been one of invaluable contribution. She has dedicated nearly a quarter of her life’s work to reconciliation and has been instrumental to the movement. “Reconciliation means different things to different people. My life’s work is about creating peace.”

As co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Unit at the University of Queensland, Ms Huggins’ tireless efforts to elucidate the issues surrounding reconciliation, literacy, quality of life and women’s issues in the Aboriginal community have  positioned her as a world-leader in indigenous affairs.

“Aboriginal people here in our country occupy very unique status,” explains the recent recipient of the Australian Medal. “For me, it’s been very much a role in teaching and educating the wider public and certainly my students here at the University.”

The age of reason

Travelling extensively throughout Australia and the world to talk about her work, Ms Huggins tackles the discrimination confronting her community by challenging expectation and being unafraid to stand independently as an educated and astute Aboriginal woman.

In her chapter ‘But You Couldn’t Possibly…!’ in Sister Girl: the writings of Aboriginal activist and historian Jackie Huggins, Ms Huggins describes her unique and unrestricted stance as a female indigenous political activist. “The isolation of being the only Aboriginal at feminist and women’s studies conferences is unbearable at times because I prefer the solidarity and group nature of Aboriginal society and sisterhood,” she says.

“Every year gets more challenging and more uncertain – you can’t always plan for things, but you can always take a detour around them and learn from those incidences. That’s the way I look at it.”

Born and raised in North Queensland single-handedly by her mother after her father died when she was just two years old, Ms Huggins points out that she has always been “very women centric”. Surrounded by strong female role models for much of her life, including her grandmother and aunties’, who she credits with affirming her identity, Ms Huggins acknowledges that her mother was her first and most powerful mentor in life.

“There are older Aboriginal women who I really look up to and ring from time to time to get their wisdom,” she adds. “There are also younger women who work in national indigenous leadership programs in Canberra, and of course, there are non-indigenous women that I consider great mentors.”

Pride and prejudice

Ms Huggins’ journey has been one of triumph over adversity, having overcome formidable prejudice to get to where she is today. “I couldn’t do Year 12 because I was Aboriginal,” she recalls. “A teacher said to me that I couldn’t possibly have any brains and I experienced much racism at school, mostly due to low expectations from teachers.”

She remembers not having “the words or the guts” at the time to challenge the narrow-mindedness of her teachers, and the experience shaped her thoughts and self-esteem for many years to come. It wasn’t until she enrolled in university at the age of 26 to complete a BA (Hons) in history and women’s studies that she learned to embrace adversity, achieving high-distinctions and subsequently realising her intellectual prowess.

“I guess that I’ve just been a very strong minded and determined person,” she reflects. “When I receive criticism, I try to remain true to myself and be the best person I can be. The old cliché of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is so important.”

It is this constant awareness of others that lends itself to Ms Huggins’ personal leadership style, which she describes as “inclusive” and considers to be one of the hallmarks of a good leader.

The quiet achiever

However, despite her many personal and professional accomplishments, including an honorary doctorate and of course, the birth of her son, John, now 22, Ms Huggins maintains a distinctive humility and humble approach to all she has achieved.

“I often ask myself what I did to deserve this and people tell me I’m crazy to ask that after all the work I’ve done, but I don’t like to flaunt it around. To be rewarded for doing the work that you love is one of the greatest gifts in life and I’m really so honoured to have received recognition from both the indigenous and wider community who see my work of great worth and value,” she explains. “I’m very proud of my work, but I think there’s still a lot of wisdom I must learn.”

With much of her work centred around issues of extraordinary social import, Ms Huggins has learnt to balance the pressures surrounding her work with time for personal growth and development. “I stepped off three major committees last year because I realised I was leaving myself out of my own life. I always promise myself to switch off after every meeting and to not bring it home – if you’re able to do that you always feel better the next day.”

Ms Huggins adds that a strong sense of identity is the key to maintaining integrity. “I have a multitude of roles in my life, but I never forget which role I’m playing at any particular time,” she says.

“One of the things we say in our indigenous world is that we never forget where we come from, how we got there or who put you there. I think this applies to a lot of leaders.”

Published on: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

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