Pride in the face of racism
Joelene was born in Cairns, and spent her primary-school years there before moving to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait Islands. She was raised by her non-Indigenous mum, but she always felt close to her Aboriginal roots.
“My parents separated when I was very young. Dad is an Aboriginal man, and mum has always encouraged me to be proud and connected to my culture. My childhood was spent surrounded by Indigenous community, and when we moved to Thursday Island the community was mostly Indigenous people.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Joelene recalls elements of casual racism and tokenism present in her childhood.
“When a former Prime Minister visited Thursday Island, we had to perform a traditional dance as part of a welcome. For six weeks during school, rather than engaging with the regular curriculum, we were practicing the dance. I loved it at the time because I always loved anything we did that involved culture, however I now realise that we weren’t doing it to connect with our culture.”
After finishing primary school on Thursday Island, Joelene started Year 7 and commenced boarding school in Townsville. It was here she experienced what she calls ‘polite or casual racism’.
“I remember one teacher saying that Indigenous students were always two years behind in their schooling. The way she said it was sort of like, ‘No offence, but that’s how it is’. The teacher also expressed that she did not think I would ‘do well’, or ‘fit in’ at high school. Only now, looking back, do I realise how inappropriate this is, and that it is indeed a form of racism.”
Joelene moved to Brisbane to finish high school, but ended up dropping out in Year 11 and struggled to find where her passion lay. Joelene met her now ex-partner, and become a young mother to two young daughters.
Raising girls; experiencing upheavals
Fast forward five years, and Joelene’s relationship was unravelling. After a difficult split with her ex-partner, Joelene and her daughters moved in with her parents.
“It was an incredibly tough time. The girls were only three and five. We had nothing left at that point and I was emotionally drained. I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I wanted to make my girls proud.”
Joelene enrolled in a bridging course at TAFE, then commenced university studies to become a teacher. But after quickly realising teaching wasn’t for her, she floundered. Pain and anxiety from her recent separation wasn’t far from the surface, and Joelene was ready to call it quits. If not for the insistence (and interference!) of a certain person, she may not have succeeded.
“I visited the Gumurri centre, a support service for Indigenous students, to tell them uni wasn’t for me and I was leaving. Somehow, they convinced me to talk to the guidance counsellor. I saw her and told her my story. She said, ‘you need to give up teaching and enrol in social work’.”
Unconvinced and uninterested in adding another year onto her degree, Joelene hesitated - only to find out that the guidance counsellor had taken the liberty of enrolling her into social work anyway! She returned the following year with a fresh outlook, and a spark of interest quickly became a fire.
The path to fulfillment
As luck would have it, Joelene’s first student placement was with The Benevolent Society. She was working in our playgroups and immediately felt at home. Joelene continued working casually with us during her degree. Sadly, there were no roles available when she graduated uni, so she started her career with Queensland Health. However, The Benevolent Society was never far from Joelene’s mind.
“I loved The Benevolent Society from my very first prac. I remember feeling, ‘Yes, this is for me - I’m a social worker, no ifs or buts.’ The support I experienced was amazing. When a job opening became available, I applied straight away.”
In her current position as Child and Family Practitioner, Joelene focuses heavily on early intervention work with kids and their families. She recognises that all families have a different story, and require tailored support to help them live their best lives.
“We can work with families in our centre or in their homes; whichever they prefer. Our support is voluntary; we never push it. If a family is just getting to know us, I’ll invite them to come into the centre and have a look around our ‘one-stop shop.’ They can come to our playgroup with their little ones and access health services or family support - all in the one place.”
Joelene loves that her role allows her to connect with Aboriginal clients and share her culture. Her wish is that all Australians express a willingness to learn about their country’s rich culture and history.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are all of Australia’s first people. We should all have a thirst to learn about the strength, resilience and customs of our country. We should come together and have productive conversations towards moving forward in a creative way that supports healing, growing and, most importantly, Our Culture”
A guardian angel
Casting her mind back to that formative moment in the university guidance counsellor’s office, Joelene can’t help but smile.
“I think the universe was looking out for me that day! Who knows where I’d be if I didn’t have that conversation and stay at uni.”
Joelene is proud of the life she’s carved out for herself and her family. She says the trials and tribulations that have led to this moment have all been worth it.
“I think I was meant to take the path that led me here, and my girls were meant to see me do it. I remember being in front of the computer at night, studying, struggling, and trying to make it all work. My girls saw everything; they were taking it all in and I think that’s made them into the people they are today.”
While the road to personal and professional fulfillment for Joelene has been paved with hardship, there’s been plenty of love and laughter too.
“I used to come home from prac at The Benevolent Society with paint on my clothes and a tub full of goo that we’d made with the kids. My daughters used to say, ‘What do you do for work, mum?!’ They thought I had the best job in the world! They were right - I had the best job then and I still do today. I feel very lucky.”