What does Social Justice mean to me? Reconciliation? Multiculturalism? The impetus in my work comes from my sense of the sacred. Of the three areas of service for which I am being acknowledged, 'reconciliation' is probably most meaningful to me.
We live in a world of relationships - with each other, with communities, with organizations, with governments and with nature. Often we seem to be at war with each other and with nature itself. We have made a mess of our lives. We continue to make a mess of our environment. We continue to drive a wedge in every way to prevent us from collaborating and supporting each other. We need to heal and to do this, we need to trace the source of our wounds which is quite often self-inflicted. Finding our unique identity is the first step. We need to know who we are. Only then will we begin to understand how we relate to one another. We need to have a sense of the whole and a sense of purpose. That is the problem. We have lost our sense of connection. What is the source of the wounds from which we need to heal?
Australia is an island continent. If the first peoples in this country had 'border protection', very few of us would have made it here. When I left the Philippines for an Australian territory (Papua New Guinea) in 1972, my country had a government under martial law. People's rights were curtailed by a repressive regime. This situation represented for me an individual and collective wound that needed healing. Social justice was needed for the disappeared, for the people whose voices were silenced, for those deprived of workers' rights, adequate education, health and employment. I found it essential to be part of a group in Australia that let people outside the Philippines know the plight of those suffering under President Marcos' regime. The Philippine Action Support Group with active members from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in the late 70's produced a newsletter and sponsored talks by visiting Filipino activists and leaders seeking support from Australia to tell the Australian public that Filipinos wished to return to a democracy and to have a change of regime.
The impact of poverty and the loss of basic human rights resulted in the exodus of many Filipinos from the country. In Australia in 1976, census statistics showed that there were 15,000 Philippine-born migrants here, mostly women. The demographic profile indicated that a significant proportion of Filipino women were married to Australians. The term 'mail order brides' emerged in the media's vocabulary as a stereotype associated with Filipino women. Women's Refuge Centres started to report cases of violence against Filipino women perpetrated by their Australian fiancés or husbands. Other phenomena of violence eventually came to light - spousal murder, serial sponsorship, sex tourism, paedophilia practices in the Philippines with links within Australia.
After a state-wide consultation organized by the Ethnic Affairs Commission, The Filipino Women's Working Party (FWWP) was formed to address some of these issues.
One of our tasks was to raise awareness in the community about the nature of the problem and to help women who had become victims find ways of empowering themselves. The FWWP produced a training kit, 'Dealing with the Media', to help community workers learn how to be effective spokespersons for their communities and to counter media images that reinforce negative stereotypes and prejudice.
The widely-used term 'multiculturalism' precipitated a questioning of cultural interaction and relationship between diverse cultures in Australia. Intolerance for difference was a wound that needed healing. Mutual respect for diversity needed to be instilled amongst Australians. What needed to be changed was the Australian establishment's hierarchical and elitist presentation of 'culture', a taken-for-granted view that in the main, only a particular cultural identity was worth preserving - the one that springs from an Anglo-Celtic heritage. All others may be tolerated if they are willing to 'assimilate'. The stigma against Filipino women created by the 'mail order bride' media stereotype presented an opportunity for me to participate in discourse about Australia's version in practice of 'multiculturalism' when confronted by denigration of people from other backgrounds and religions.
An essential part of understanding 'who we are' is an acknowledgment of the place of Australia's first peoples. Aboriginal people who had been classified with flora and fauna were not counted in the census until after 1967. I began to live in Australia in 1974. I felt that my introduction to Australia, the land on which I have raised my family, ought to have reflected also the wisdom of Aboriginal people who were here first. When considering the composition of Australian society, I felt Aboriginal people were the most disadvantaged and oppressed. I have thus made a conscious effort to get to know them personally and be part of the reconciliation movement. I have participated in positive and concrete activities and have written articles and poems that helped promote a deeper understanding of our relationships with them and with the land. I have been with this movement since 1996 as a foundation member of the Women's Reconciliation Movement and Redfern Residents for Reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a restorative process, one that truly heals. There can be no peace without justice. There can be no justice without accepting our common destiny as diverse groups of people fated to live together on this ancient land. The human rights of all sectors in our society need to be addressed and all cultures afforded respect. Only then can we begin to evolve a shared vision of our future as a wholesome Australian community that has an independent understanding of its own identity and destiny, without the need to obtain confirmation and approval from perceived powerful political allies from the other side of the globe.Deborah Ruiz Wall OAM
Is it the air we breathe
or the earth beneath our feet
that claims that we 'belong'?
A mystery it may be, but I feel no need
to examine the slant of my eyes
or the colour of my skin
in order to 'belong'.
This ancient land embraces all
who come, without judgment.
The pulse of the earth
beats within you and me,
and our fate is sealed together
like a dance,
choreographed by the kangaroo,
the emu, the goanna,
accompanied by the kookaburra,
brilliantly imitated by our first peoples -
our teachers who by heart knew
what respect for this land meant.
It was they who learnt the first steps,
who read nature's alphabet,
who flowed rather than raged
against the current!
But oh, we have become so clever,
we, newcomers who have scarred
the earth with ugly edifices
we call Civilization,
that has little respect or understanding
of our connectedness to the earth line -
that invisible line, the song line, the soul line
Our minds have been turned into fortresses:
obstacles, barriers, divisions, classifications.
Our paths have diverged into highways and byways:
quarter caste, full blood, one eighth...
upper class, middle class, working class...
first world, third world, fourth world...
No wonder, we no longer know
who we really are,
that we stumble in our imposed blindness
as we walk upon this land.
But there is a discomfort, an urging,
a disquiet deep within the heart
that will not give us peace.
No peace until we take the first steps
that will close this gap, this growing chasm that
screams out for
Many moons ago, our ancestors
gave birth to our great, great, great, great
grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, and fathers,
and by a twist of fate
in the twenty first century,
we found ourselves here:
Australia it is called now.
We call it HOME!
Destiny has drawn us to these shores:
this ancient land
has called us to its breast.
You and I -
black, white, brown, yellow,
whatever colour on the surface
we may be.
Bound we are now by this common heritage
as the new offspring of this ancient land -
to respect, to nurture, to flow
with its energy,
this, I believe, is the first step
27 May 2001
Reconciliation Poems a collection of poetry and photographs