By Kirra Grimes
AFTER close to 20 years promoting awareness and acknowledgement of the Indigenous community in Bass Coast, Wonthaggi’s Patrice Mahoney has been recognised with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
A woman of many talents – balancing raising a family of five children with full-time work, university studies, volunteer work and making art – Patrice has a long history as a self-described “agitator” for change in Bass Coast.
Her achievements in the space of advancing Indigenous recognition are too many to list here, but to give you an idea, some of the highlights include introducing annual NAIDOC Week and Reconciliation Week celebrations and Sorry Day commemorations to the shire, getting Aboriginal flags flying outside the council offices, and working with prominent organisations such as Phillip Island Nature Parks, Bass Coast Health and Westernport Water to establish their own reconciliation action plans.
She’s done advocacy work at Monash University; served on numerous boards and committees for Aboriginal health, education and justice; and is a director at Baluk Arts, a not-for-profit arts centre representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from all across south-east Victoria.
Much of the service that’s earned Patrice the OAM has been voluntary, but it’s been complemented by paid roles such as Parental and Community Engagement (PaCE) work, focused on bridging the gap between Aboriginal people and educational facilities – from kinder to university and TAFE.
Sitting down with the Sentinel-Times last week, Patrice explained that when she arrived in Bass Coast in her early twenties, in 1999, Indigenous people were “invisible,” especially when she compared a town like Wonthaggi to her hometown of Armidale, New South Wales, which she described as an accepting place with a high population of Aboriginal people, including Aboriginal teachers, nurses and other professionals.
She said it was “confronting” to find, in Bass Coast, there was virtually no knowledge or understanding of the Indigenous history of the area, nor the will to learn about it, let alone celebrate Indigenous culture.
“Not only was nobody celebrating it, nobody even wanted to know about it. There was never that understanding that Bass Coast is on Aboriginal land and that we should recognise that,” Patrice said.
She felt she could make the biggest difference by getting through to community leaders who could set the example for others to follow, so she focused on lobbying institutions such as Bass Coast Shire Council to introduce initiatives that would promote respect for Indigenous people.
When her eldest son, who’s now 26, was badly bullied at a local primary school for the colour of his skin, she became even more determined to educate the community on Indigenous history and culture, and in turn, break down some of the negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people.
“I wanted to help my kids not experience racism in a town where there was no evidence to validate that Aboriginal people are ‘less than’. And I didn’t want my kids to grow up racist either – hating white people because they’ve treated them like s**t their whole lives. That was a big driver for me,” she said.
A big challenge was getting people to come around to the idea that these issues mattered, despite the relatively low number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Bass Coast.
“People in government always want statistics to justify funding anything, so they’d say ‘but there’s only 200 Indigenous people here… why should we?’” Patrice said.
“The view was, if white fellas don’t see the benefit in it, why do we really need to do it? Why do we need to fly a flag?
“But there was once a flourishing population here, and the fact that there’s only a minimal number still around is all the more reason to celebrate it, to show Aboriginal people that live in these smaller places, who have no other visible Aboriginal community to support them, that they are recognised in their own country.”
She persevered in the face of sometimes fierce resistance to achieve things most of us now take for granted, like the display of the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian National Flag.
“It took eight years of lobbying the council to get an Aboriginal flag in Wonthaggi,” Patrice said.
“South Gippsland [Shire Council] was even harder. People were quite hostile to the idea. I had people physically turn their back on me in public meetings when I spoke about it. But we got one after about 10 years. That was a real step forward.”
Things have gotten “a thousand times better” since then, Patrice said, but there’s still a lot more work to be done in moving beyond mere ‘tolerance’ of Aboriginal people to true respect and inclusion that ensures access to the same education and employment opportunities as those that are available to non-Indigenous Australians.
“We think we’re this country of equality but we’re not. Aboriginal people are treated differently based on how they look, and organisations still have a fear… yet they’re the ones with the power to employ, educate, advocate.”
As for Patrice’s role in all this going forward, she’s keen to focus on her art as a way to celebrate culture and spark conversations, and will be beginning a Master of Fine Art this year.
“I’ve often felt like I was forcing people to learn about their own history. And it does get tiring. You’re either preaching to the converted or you’re trying to convince somebody they’re uneducated, so they always get defensive.
“Art is a way you can bridge gaps for people who want to engage and learn. That’s where I want to focus my energy. I don’t want to march in the streets.”
She’ll also continue community work including cultural sessions with school aged kids – a place she finds “real and true” rewards in sharing her knowledge.
“Teens and adults already know or think they already know, so you’re always telling them they’re wrong, but kids are always happy to hear, they’re always willing to participate.
“And they carry those memories with them for a long time. I have people coming up to me years later that still remember that hour I spent with them telling stories, making art. That sort of positive change is what it’s all about,” she said.
* Introduced annual NAIDOC Week, Reconciliation Week, and Sorry Day events to Bass Coast Shire.
* Lobbied local councils to fly Aboriginal flags alongside the Australian National Flag.
* Consulted on reconciliation action plans for Phillip Island Nature Parks, Bass Coast Health, Westernport Water, and Bass Coast Shire Council.