Thursday, August 20, 2015

Indigenous rights organiser Kevin Cook 'opened the pathways' for all Australians

SMH August 19, 2015

Kevin "Cookie" Cook, a Wandandian and Yuin​ man, was born in Wollongong in September, 1939. After work in the steel mills, he headed to Sydney to work on the new high-rise city buildings. Cookie became a dogman, the dangerous job riding the loads up the towers. This was a dramatic time in the industry: the Builders Labourers' Federation had shifted to leadership by workers from the job sites, making uncompromising demands for safety and developing green bans to protect residents and the environment.

Cook brought his knowledge of Aboriginal and migrant communities together with these new BLF methods when he became the organiser for Aboriginal BLs on the Redfern Housing Company, and worked with the National Black Theatre in Redfern, before becoming involved in Tranby​ Aboriginal Adult Education Cooperative College in 1975. He believed cooperatives were useful for Aboriginal communities, but went further.

Cook had seen for himself in Wollongong how the education system was failing Aboriginal kids. With Tranby​ support, he spent six months at Coady Cooperative Institute in Canada, meeting activists from Africa and around the world, building international networks. He returned to become General Secretary of Tranby​ and built it into a centre for adult learning and cultural revival. Young Aboriginal men and women travelled from across the country to undertake courses in basic literacy, community studies, business training and preparation for tertiary education.

Cook used his many contacts and his enthusiasm to draw in young activists. One was Brian Doolan, a teacher working in the Wilcannia community who became Tranby's​ first Director of Studies. There were Indigenous educators like Terry Widders​ and Lynette Riley, unionists and academics. At first it was mostly unpaid until, after lots of submission writing, support flowed from the new Federal Aboriginal Education structures.

Cook was taking an active role in NSW political life, becoming involved in the Labor Party's Aboriginal Affairs Policy Committee, with Bob Bellear​, Rod Pickette​ and Meredith Burgmann​. At the same time, Kevin was building his Trade Union networks, setting up the Trade Union Committee on Aboriginal Rights (TUCAR) at Tranby​ to strengthen communication between unions and Indigenous organisations.

But Cook's priority was education in the community. Despite struggling with funding, Tranby​ started courses in communities – with many in the bush. The funding mainstays were unions like the MUA, individual donations and the backing of the Australian Council of Churches. Linked with the courses running at the college and those in communities, he built links with campaigners on issues such as Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Stolen Generations.

At the same time, Kevin developed Tranby​ as a base for bush people involved in the struggle for Land Rights in NSW. From 1979 to 1983, Kevin was chair of the first NSW Aboriginal Land Council, a community organisation which led campaigning for land rights. He travelled from one end of the state to another, getting to know and listen to communities and to bring their concerns to centre stage. The final NSW Bill in 1983 was a frustrating mix which recognised some rights but took away others. After much consultation, Cook decided to work with the new Land Rights Act as Chairperson of the Interim Land Council, set up to organise the policy's structures. He insisted that community voices should be heard, and encouraged many different strategies to achieve land rights – some within the Act like land claims and others outside it altogether, such as heritage protection.

Through this time, Tranby​ offered support for communities struggling with the new policy's demands by running new courses in rural areas to build skills in accounting, legal and management skills. National Land Rights laws were promised in the early 1980s and a unified national Aboriginal response was needed.

Pat Dodson has said of Kevin that he "opened the pathways" by which leaders from all states could feel safe and confident in their new relationships with those from other states. Cook built those national relationships which brought the Federation of Land Councils into being. This network built the foundation for the push into the international arena. In the mid 1980s, Cook and Aboriginal unionists used their ACTU standing to take the arguments for Indigenous rights into the International Labour Organisation, then revising Convention 107 on Indigenous people. As unionists, they demanded the ILO listen to Indigenous people in any vote on Indigenous labour conditions. Their arguments won: the ILO meetings were henceforth opened to hear Indigenous people speak on Convention 107.

His view was that these were issues of social justice.

"We needed to take it out of this narrow focus of 'these are issues for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people need to be the ones that fight it'. These issues do restrict and oppress indigenous peoples. But we needed to involve a much larger portion of the community to achieve what needed to be achieved, because it was a thing for all of us. It wasn't just a thing for black fellas. It was for all Australians."

In the later 1980s, despite his worsening emphysema, Cook continued to nurture the innovative role of Tranby​ in education, national and international politics. As a national hub, Kevin enabled Tranby​ to be the base for the long march Bicentenary Celebrations in 1988. Over this same time, his support for international movements was extensive, building on the links he had made at Coady Institute, Tranby​ had visits from Hilda Lini​ and Barak Sope​ from Vanuatu; Herbert Chitepo​, the Zimbabwean leader; Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela's ANC comrade; and from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In the last years of his life, bed-bound and using an oxygen mask, Cook remained more active than most healthy people. Young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers would often drop in to visit him. And he stayed closely in touch by phone with activists from across the country.

Kevin Cook was an Aboriginal activist, a worker, a trade unionist, a leftie and an internationalist. All those things explain why he was admired, but not the mourning following his death. He thought that everyone had a value, and he worked on that principle. In an era when many of our leaders have egos that need their own postcode, Cook had no need for an ego to be stroked and did not have a grain of pretentiousness. He liked to assist, help, promote and encourage other people and never to take the limelight.

It was why people who might not work with each other elsewhere, would find they could come together within his framework and why, as Terry O'Shane joked, before people met him, "They thought he was 10 foot high and bullet-proof!" Cook was not someone who came to believe that everyone was equal. It'd just never occurred to him that it would be any other way.

Kevin Cook is survived by his brother Ronnie, sister Joy, cousin Kathy and by his children Suzie and Mereki and first wife, Margaret. In the early 1980s he entered a life-long partnership with Judy Chester, sharing her life and her children: Peter, Jody and Janette, and five grandchildren.

Paul Torzillo and Heather Goodall

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Saturday, August 01, 2015

Stan Grant: I can tell you how Adam Goodes feels

I can tell you how Adam Goodes feels. Every Indigenous person has felt it

I have wondered for days if I should say anything about Adam Goodes.

Stan Grant
My inclination is to look for common ground, to be diplomatic. Some of the fault is with Adam. Maybe he’s been unnecessarily provocative. Racism? Perhaps. Perhaps the crowds just don’t like him.

Yes, I could make a case for all of that. But there are enough people making those arguments and all power to them.

Here’s what I can do. I can tell you what it is like for us. I can tell you what Adam must be feeling, because I’ve felt it. Because every Indigenous person I know has felt it.

It may not be what you want to hear. Australians are proud of their tolerance yet can be perplexed when challenged on race, their response often defensive.

I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right.

But this is how Australia makes us feel. Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.

The “wealth for toil” we praise in our anthem has remained out of our reach. Our position at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator tragically belies the Australian economic miracle.

“Australians all let us rejoice” can ring hollow to us. Ours is more troubled patriotism. Our allegiance to Australia, our pride in this country undercut by the dark realities of our existence.

Seeds of suspicion and mistrust are planted early in the Indigenous child. Stories of suffering, humiliation and racism told at the feet of our parents and grandparents feed an identity that struggles to reconcile a pride in heritage with the forlorn realities of a life of defeat.

From childhood I often cringed against my race. To be Aboriginal was to be ashamed. Ashamed of our poverty. Ashamed of the second-hand clothes with the giveaway smell of mothballs and another boy’s name on the shirt collar.

Ashamed of the way my mother and grandmother had to go to the Smith Family or Salvation Army for food vouchers. Ashamed of the onions and mince that made up too many meals.

We were ashamed of the bastardised wreckage of a culture that we clung to. This wasn’t the Dreamtime. This was mangy dogs and broken glass.

Like the Goodes family, we moved constantly as my father chased work. But wherever we went we found our place always on the fringes. What semblance of pride we carried too easily laid low by a mocking glance or a schoolyard joke.

We were the blacks. So easily recognised not just by the colour of our skin but by the whiff of desperation and danger we cloaked ourselves in. What resentment we harboured, we too often turned on ourselves, played out in wild scrambling brawls from the playground to the showgrounds that sent the same message: stay away from the blacks.

There was humour and there was love and there was survival. And as I grew older I pieced together the truth that we didn’t choose this. We are the detritus of the brutality of the Australian frontier.

As Australia welcomed waves of migrants and built a rich, diverse, tolerant society, we remained a reminder of what was lost, what was taken, what was destroyed to scaffold the building of this nation’s prosperity.

We survived the “smoothing of the dying pillow” of extermination to end up on the bottom rung of the ladder of assimilation. Too many of us remain there still. Look to the statistics: the worst health, housing, education, the lowest life expectancy, highest infant mortality. An Indigenous youth has more chance of being locked up than educated.

To Adam’s ears, the ears of so many Indigenous people, these boos are a howl of humiliation.
If good fortune or good genes means you are among the lucky few to find an escape route then you face a choice: to “go along to get along”, mind your manners, count your blessings and hide in the comfort of the Australian dream; or to infuse your success with an indignation and a righteousness that will demand this country does not look away from its responsibilities and its history.

I found a path through education that led to journalism. A love of knowledge and an inquisitiveness that has shot me through with anger. A deeper understanding of history, of politics, of economics, leaving me resentful of our suffering.

I wrestle with that anger as the boy I was wrestled with his shame. I want to see the good in a society that defies the history of its treatment of my people.

It is the legacy of my grandfather who signed up to fight a war for a country that didn’t recognise his humanity, let alone his citizenship. It is the lesson of the example of the lives of my mother and father, my uncles and aunties. Lives of decency and hard work and responsibility and rooted in our identity as Indigenous Australians.

When I was 16 I summoned the courage to speak to my class. As the only Indigenous kid, the only Aboriginal person my schoolmates had met, I wanted to tell my family’s story. My teacher was proud and encouraging. When class returned after lunch the words “be kind to abos” were scrawled across the blackboard.

The rejection, the humiliation, cut me to the core.

This is the journey too of Adam Goodes. A man whose physical gifts have set him above and given him a platform available to so few and whose courage demands that he use it to speak to us all.

Events in recent years have sent Adam on a quest to understand the history of his people, to challenge stereotypes and perceptions. I have spoken to him about this. I recognise in him the same quest I see in myself. It is a conversation I have had with so many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters.

This is rare air for anyone, let alone a footballer. He has faltered at times and the expression of his anger at our history and his pride in his identity has been challenging, if not divisive.

The events of 2013 when he called out a 13-year-old girl for a racial taunt opened a wound that has only deepened. To some the girl was unfairly vilified. Adam’s war dance of this year challenged and scared some people. His talent, the way he plays the game, alienates others.

And now we have this, a crescendo of boos. The racial motivation of some giving succour to the variously defined hatred of others.

To Adam’s ears, the ears of so many Indigenous people, these boos are a howl of humiliation. A howl that echoes across two centuries of invasion, dispossession and suffering. Others can parse their words and look for other explanations, but we see race and only race. How can we see anything else when race is what we have clung to even as it has been used as a reason to reject us.

I found refuge outside Australia. My many years working in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa liberated me. Here were the problems of other peoples and other lands. Here I was an observer freed from the shackles of my own country’s history.

I still wonder if it would be easier to leave again.

But people – like Adam Goodes, other Indigenous sportsmen and women who are standing with him, his non-Indigenous teammates and rivals who support him, and my non-Indigenous wife, my children and their friends of all colours and the people of goodwill who don’t have the answers but want to keep asking questions of how we can all be better – maybe they all make it worth staying.