As the opening keynote speaker at the National Child Protection Conference on Monday, 24th June in Brisbane, award-winning journalist Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri man, paid respect to traditional owners and noted that his is a living culture – something to be embraced and lived. He thanked the Yerongpan Aboriginal Dancers for their inspiring Welcome to Country and said: “To hear the story of Brisbane in a performance through story telling reminds me of what an incredible Country we are in. We hear so often about disadvantage, deficit, loss and failure. Seeing an absolute display of strength such as that is awesome.” Stan also noted that Aboriginal Tennis player Ash Barty is now No. 1 in the world. Again, telling of strength and resilience. “A remarkable person,” he said.

“I once told a senior departmental bureaucrat the story of young boy born into abject poverty, living in an overcrowded home, moving from place to place with a father in and out of jail. A life lived on the fringes. What would the best outcome for a child like that be I asked? Should they go into care? ‘Yes, probably we should consider that,’ he responded.”

“What if I told you that child was me?”

That little boy was Stan Grant. He noted that his parents struggled. “My father was a saw miller who lost fingers providing for his family. We moved around – sometimes for work, sometimes other reasons. My grandfather, siblings, cousins and aunties and uncles all stayed in one house. We had room for anyone who had a need.”

“I was loved and nurtured by a family that still loves and supports me. A family that grew up in a history that excluded and marginalised them. They taught me about connection and kinship beyond permanency of education and home. I was fortunate to be born into that family.” Stan was clear that he was in no way at risk. Yet, that’s how it appeared to someone looking in from the outside who makes a judgement.

“My mother’s brothers and young sisters were taken from our family. I lived in fear of being taken away. I was taken out of school and my hair and ears would be checked. I was asked questions about my home life such as: ‘Does your Dad drink?’. I first recall that at about age 6 but it happened over and over. If I approached home and saw a white car I wouldn’t go home.” White cars denoted government employees. Stan said that his parents moved around, in part, to stay one step ahead.

“My Great Aunty Eunice was taken to a girl’s home. She lost her name and was given a number. She was 658. On the wall in the dormitory was a sign that said – think white, act white, be white. There was a policy of no trace for our people. Our people were to be absorbed.” Stan’s Great Aunty died at only 38 years of age from complications from rheumatic fever, contracted during her time at the girl’s home. She left behind 6 small children.

Stan talked of the fear of government intervention, juxtaposed with those struggling who would take on other family members in need. “You’d stretch the soup with more water, add another bacon bone to the pot. You’d find what you needed. At no point was there any government involvement in that. Yes, there were three people in one bed, but we all looked out for each other.”

He noted that, “Somewhere between how we did it and what government expects is what we’re here to answer. How did my family raise me to be a person who stood in the White House with Barack Obama, the President of the United States? How did they raise my cousin Evonne to become Tennis champion of the world? Lionel Rose became an international champion. Our families did this.”

Resilience and strength were the attributes Stan continuously referred to when speaking of his family and culture. “I am here because of my family. The nights my mother went to bed hungry because she made sure we were fed. The 5am mornings my dad woke up to in order to start humping logs to put food on the table. What they had was remarkable strength, humility and resilience.”

“That is the answer to what we need in our world. Yet now we’re seeing more kids than ever before coming into the care system. We’ve experienced more than 70 suicides of Indigenous kids this year so far. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people under 14 years of age are ten times more likely to take their own lives.” Stan asserted that the judgement on Indigenous families open to criticism by systems is a major issue: “If they’d come to our home, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“Humanity, kinship and sharing – that is us,” said Stan. He also recognised that there is significant trauma to address. He outlined the importance of questioning how to recognise and own the trauma and heal whilst not being defined by it. “How do we draw from the strength and resilience we need?” He spoke to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. In essence, it’s the trauma of history that is written into DNA. The memory of trauma is in the DNA and impacts the physical and psychological being. “The child in the mother’s womb can carry the trauma of their mother’s life. DNA becomes distorted. I think this is at the heart of what we’re seeing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people today.”

In conclusion Stan emphasised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to find a way to be free and tell their stories. “I can tell you the story of my life. It’s all true. I can also tell you the story of a young boy who is only here because of his family. My father saw his father jailed for speaking his language in the street. My father was denied an education yet went back and learned his language and revived it. He now has a Diploma from Charles Sturt University and received an Award for saving his language, all those years after his father was incarcerated for speaking it. That’s our strength and resilience, that’s how we survive.”

Stan Grant is the author of Tears of Strangers: A Family Memoir (2004) and Talking to my Country (2016).