Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2021

Two Cultures, One Story, by Robert Isaacs with Tanaz Byramji

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.


Regular readers will remember that the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival featured an author event with Robert Isaacs, talking about his autobiography Two Cultures, One Story.  I have now read this inspiring life story, and it is remarkable.

At seventeen Issacs was ejected from the Clontarf Boys Town with nothing but the clothes on his back and instructions not to come back.  At the time he knew nothing of his living family, only that he was Aboriginal, and he had spent his entire life in that institution.  From this inauspicious beginning, he worked incredibly hard, educated himself, married Teresa, the love of his life, and raised a family to be proud of.  He forged an impressive career, starting in 1973 with the Community and Child Health Services and continuing a life of public service to improve the lives of Aborigines in WA.  He established dental, rehabilitation and health care clinics; led housing initiatives, forged liaison between Aboriginal people and the justice system, and helped establish a college for Aboriginal students at Clontarf where it all began.

He was also the first Aboriginal person elected to local government, eventually serving as Deputy Mayor, and amongst a swag of other awards for public service, received an Order of Australia Medal in 2001 for his service to Housing, Health, Education and Employment.

A study tour to the USA in the 1970s was pivotal to his entire career.  Isaacs had taken advantage of an Aboriginal Bridging Course to make his way into studying social science and psychology when he caught the eye and ear of Professor Raymond Moreland, at the Western Australia Institute of Technology (WAIT). With funds from Rotary, Moreland organised a scholarship for Isaacs to study policy development and government administration in the USA, with visits to Navajo reservations where he could see self-determination programs in practice.

I spent 12 weeks in the USA, and it really changed my life.  It was a turning point for me; an experience that set me on the career path I travelled for the rest of my working life.  For the first three weeks I learned about policy development and government operations at Brigham Young University in Utah.  We discussed and studied health legislation, business administration, culturally appropriate policy development and social studies.  Then Professor Griffiths, who headed up the Indian Affairs program at the University of Utah, took us to New Mexico and Colorado, where we lived alongside Native American Indians on reservations for two months.

It was an eye-opener, and my first exposure to the concept of self-determination—the idea that Indigenous affairs programs and services needed to be developed and governed by Indigenous people themselves.  For Aboriginal people, by Aboriginal people.  (p.59)

This experience shaped his view of the work he wanted to do.  His approach has always been practical, and guided by fundamentals:

…underneath it all has been the constant catchcry and complaint of the average Australian.  ‘Why should governments fund Aboriginal affairs?’  […] It’s not because the intended beneficiaries are Aboriginal.  It’s because they are Australians.  They need help, and it’s a societal obligation to both honour their history and culture while simultaneously supporting them.  The funding is not about guilt or apologies.  It’s about getting Aboriginals to school and work, into safe houses in communities with hospital clinics and shops, keeping them out of prisons, and giving them a space to be themselves while teaching them to come together as part of Australian society more broadly. (p.109)

Isaacs is also unequivocal about mutual responsibilities.  He recognises that his people were angry and hurt, they were displaced, they were wandering around with their hearts in the past and their heads in the present day.  But he sees no point in pointing fingers and laying the blame at the feet of politicians and policies gone by.  There’s nothing to be gained from that.  Instead, it’s about taking responsibility. 

He is clear about the relationship between dysfunctional behaviours and past injustices, but for him, it’s about helping his people to adjust to the reality of modern Australia.

That gap, between traditional living and Western living, and all the values and morals and obligations that go with it, was caused by decades of racism, misplaced or otherwise.  From white settlers poisoning waterholes to government officials taking Aboriginal children from their parents, ostensibly ‘for their own good’, these acts caused the gap. A gap that has led to that other, more well-known ‘gap’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

[…]

Ultimately, Aboriginal people who had no previous experiences of land or home ownership, people from broken families and parents who were members of the Stolen Generation, did not seem to understand the basic fundamentals of respecting property.  Similarly, they did not understand their role as part of a multicultural Australian community.  They didn’t seem to realise that in order to be treated as equals, they had to agree to act in the same way, abide by the same rules and laws.

Compounding the issue was an apathy and outright disrespect for anything the government provided, even when it was something desperately needed. (p.138)

For Isaacs, housing was the key to everything else, but self-determination  comes with obligations.

The foundation of each of these programs was a certain level of self-determination—we weren’t going to hand out houses and opportunities for nothing—and education.  Having an education meant understanding how to access support, health care and housing, how to look after money and take responsibility for houses.  And having a house meant having the stability to have an education, to stay in school and learn not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but how to be a part of this new Australia we have found ourselves in.  One where Aboriginal culture would have to adapt, was forced to change, and we would need to find a new way forward if we were to retain any sense of identity.  (p.120)

Isaacs acknowledges that his beliefs about bridging two cultures have detractors from within and beyond the Aboriginal community.  In a chapter titled ‘Australia Day and the politics of being Aboriginal’ he discusses the issue of participating in the day, and whether the date should be changed.  He sees the day as an opportunity to celebrate people in the community who are doing it right, who are carving out a place for themselves in this relatively ‘new’ Aboriginal Australia.

What does that mean? It means bridging the divide and being willing to see that being successful in mainstream Australian society does not mean you have to turn your back on your Aboriginal culture and heritage.  It’s not being a ‘coconut’ or a traitor, or forgetting what happened to our people not so long ago.  But there comes a time when you can only honour the past so much.  Moving forward taking the future in our hands, is the only way we can put an end to the awful conditions experiences by so many of our people right across this beautiful yet harsh land.  (p.305)

Whatever about his politics, Isaacs has made a remarkable contribution to bettering the lives of his people.  He has overcome personal tragedy to build a successful, fulfilling life in the service of others, and has left a legacy that continues to benefit his people to this day.

Tanaz Byramji is a communications professional with expertise in writing.  She started working with Robert Isaacs as a consultant, assisting with communications such speech-writing, media responses, and panel discussion points before working with Robert on this compelling biography.

Robert Isaacs is an Aboriginal Elder from the Bibilmum Noongar language group.

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large reviewed this book too.

Author: Robert  Isaacs, with Tanaz Byramji
Title: Two Cultures, One Story
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925936070, pbk., 336 pages
Source: Bayside Library Service

 


Responses

  1. Thanks, Lisa. I found this book inspirational, and I really admire what he has achieved. I think he is pragmatic and realistic.

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  2. A very impressive man.

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  3. I learned of Dr. Isaacs’ memoir on Stories Behind the Story with Better Reading Podcast Episode “Dr Robert Isaacs: on bridging the divide between white and black Australia”. Dr. Isaacs is a remarkable person for his willingness to forgive past wrongs and unwavering committment to empowering Black Indigenous communities of Australia. The activist work of educator Chris Sarra and journalist Stan Grant remind me Dr. Isaac’s reform iniatives.

    Here is the link to the episode- https://www.betterreading.com.au/podcast/podcast-dr-robert-isaacs-on-bridging-the-divide-between-white-and-black-australia/.

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    • Agreed!
      What I like about it is the way that looking back over a lifetime career enables us to see what can be achieved, which gives us hope that current initiatives can also be successful, even though there’s still so much to do.

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  4. Apologies to Jennifer, Pam and Sonia: I was AWOL for most of yesterday because I had a monster headache and spent the day horizontal and spaced out on painkillers that didn’t work.

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    • No apologies needed Lisa. I hope you’re feeling better.

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  5. […] see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]

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  6. I find it interesting to read about indigenous peoples’ experiences when they have tried or while they are working towards “changing the system from within”. Or, what Audre Lorde wrote about in “The Master’s Tools” (which would never break down the Master’s House). It’s another reminder that when we say Indigenous experience it is quite a short-hand as there is no single, monolithic experience.

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    • It’s an interesting textual connection you make between Indigenous writing strategy of iniating systematic change and Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools”. What I’ve garnered from your post is that many Indigenous writers employ colonial tools like the English language, popular cultural references, and social interactions to address important issues relevant to Indigenous people that often get ignored and/or glossed over in mainstream society. Just some thoughts. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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      • Anita Heiss is an author who makes good use of this: she has written a series of what she calls choc-lit, intended to reach readers of chick-lit with novels that feature the kind of young women characters of that genre but who just happen to be Indigenous.

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