By (Waskam) Emelda Davis and Talei Mangioni
Before the Oceania Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s “Australian South Sea Islander and Melanesian Life-Stories” workshop namba tu with Dr Melinda Mann, Kim Kruger and Imelda Miller, Talei Mangioni sat down with (Waskam) Emelda Davis to talk about her personal connections to Canberra, Black Power and new directions for Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) recognition in New South Wales and support with ASSI – Port Jackson and the City of Sydney.
Talei: We are here on unceded Ngambri/Ngunnawal/Ngunawal lands, however, this isn’t your first time here. I was wondering, could you tell us a little bit of how you came to find yourself here for eight years, many years ago?
Emelda: I know, right? No one would think that I would end up in Canberra, but I was. I was. I was born in Brisbane and raised in Chinderah, a small town on the border of New South Wales and Queensland. I grew up with my nanna, when my mum went to Sydney to pursue her career in nursing. I followed her to Sydney and as soon as I got there, I got into a bit of a humbug with the people. So what happened? My mum sent me to Aunty Naru in Canberra who was here working for AIATSIS doing reception work. So what happened was she took me on. It was a bit of a “get this girl under control” situation because I was a bit of a tomboy growing up. I used to hang out in the mango trees, pinch money and go get chocolate at the corner store and other things like that, defiant.
My aunty Naru was renowned for being very strict. So I lived with my cousin, Houkje, who was Aunty Naru’s daughter and uncle Yelta. I can’t say anything other than “Alcatraz” in terms of how she ruled the household. I went to AME, the Association for Modern Education, and then I went to Narrabundah College after that. While I was going to school, I thought to myself, well, once I’ve done this time with Aunty Naru, I’m out of here when I’m 18. I just really wanted to break free. My friends at school, who were actually whitefellas – introduced me to musicians like Bob Marley and Bob Dylan which was very political for me. I resonated with that music.
I passed my Higher School Certificate, I turned 18 and I went to live at the Ainslie Aboriginal Girls Hostel. And that’s when I guess I stepped into my identity. My blackness. If I can say that, like it was a whole different vibe from Aunty Naru was a very closed off upbringing without anything too political. And I find that interesting because if my family’s a family of activism like they brought about working with Faith Bandler and Aunty Phyllis Corowa, with people who were at the helm of the Australian South Sea Islander recognition, human rights and equal opportunities report like they drove that from Tweed Heads. But I’m grateful for being sent to live with her, for the discipline and giving that foundation. I remember, the thing I looked forward to was driving home in an Old White Ford Falcon to Chinderah every year for Christmas to see my Nanna. Aunty Naru would give us elocution lessons on those drives, telling us to say things like “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane“. So it was sort of like assimilation practices, the manner in which she was bringing us up.
When I broke away from that whole scene and went with the mark, it was just freedom. So we all went and lived at Ainslie Aboriginal Girls hostel with a bunch of girls. I shared a room. I’ll never forget Sheree Oliver, a Torres Strait and South Sea Sailor family, and Trudy Warcon, Rhonda Jacobson, and Joy Williams. It was just all us girls and we had a blast. It was just like the knockout would come around and we’d go down to the Ainslie pub and just get reckless. I remember my boyfriend saying to me, then he said: “Oh my God, you’re so black now.” And, I thought, “Are you serious?” And I was his “African queen” and all that kind of carry on. So I was just like “Oh see ya”. It’s so sad.
And then we got involved with just so many other mob, like the Coe family and many different activist types. And it was around about the 70s and then that the Tent Embassy started and we would get involved and just hang out, and talk and get to know the community and people who came from everywhere. It was really nice to connect and identify with family, protest and march. It was really an exciting time.
But I still just did what I had to do and survived it. We jumped around all over the place, share-houses here, there and everywhere. Woden, Belconnen, places like that. But then I thought, now there’s got to be more because we kept going to Sydney. That’s when I got a job working for film and television or ABC in 1983. I ended up going to Sydney permanently and we again hooked up with my family – Mum and Aunty May who were working as matrons, managing convalescent homes and doing hospital work. Before that, in Canberra I was at the Aboriginal Development Commission working in administration. But then getting involved in politics and everything that sort of transitioned me because it was all happening then for civil rights and blackfellas.
I was coming into my own identity. Yeah, and sort of understanding who I was because growing up, even with my nanna, it was very much about just “getting on”. Kids were seen and not heard and we weren’t engaged with in the capacity that I engage my kids today. So it was very much they did the hard yakka and then basically I navigated my own way in sort of researching and trying to understand things in terms of how do we identify? And also, my father, because he’s from the Caribbean, he came here in the late 50s and met my mum, so I didn’t grow up with him, but he was very much present in my thought process. When I first came to Sydney, when I was a 14 year old and mum took me from Canberra, that was eye opening because I was at the Black Theater. I think going back to Sydney then was like a reconnection with all of that scene in Redfern and just local communities, the Black diaspora. And it wasn’t just about Aboriginal and Torres Strait either, it was also the South Sea, Pacific, West Indians, Africans and just different mob, more because of that kind of era where you all congregate, all mixed up.
Talei: This is what Tracey Banivanua-Mar has explored in her book Decolonisation and the Pacific, whereby the notion of Black power in this era empowered different oppressed peoples, from the Black Pacific, in Australia, the greater Pacific and all over the world. Is it continuous with where we are today, or what’s changed?
Emelda: Today, I find it really sad and it’s really challenging, but then we talk about black power or black determination because there’s so much separatism. Like the mob, Aboriginal and Torres Strait will stay with Aboriginal Torres Strait, South Sea may be mixed with Torres Strait, but sometimes others would be separated out from Africans, West Indians and Pacific Islanders. So it’s really challenging. And also how people identify with being Black. I think we get caught up in that colonial framework where it’s really groomed us in our subconscious to be able to have that separate thinking, like if we’re really going to talk about decolonizing, if we’re really going to talk about, you know what that looks like, then we need to, first of all, get rid of that federation border thinking because we are where clans were a group of clans or cultural identities were not all New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Yeah, because we weren’t brought in like that, we just brought in under people of colour, Blackness.
Talei: Totally, and I think for me as a Pacific settler, doing Oceanic or trans-Indigenous solidarity work, there is always so many tensions and collisions. It’s super hard work that I think these conversations can be really generative. And I also think your master’s thesis “Children of the Sugar Slaves” made mention of these enclaves of Black joy and creative experimentation, whether it be the Harlem Hideaway at Coogee Beach or the Black Theatre in Redfern really excited me to begin to think that my relationships are part of a greater genealogy of these political solidarity networks in this place here. Same goes for your personal history in Canberra just before.
Emelda: Exactly, but we found and recreated our own within. So that’s the decolonizing. You know, we didn’t think of it then as decolonizing, but we just did it organically because that’s who we are. We naturally gravitate and come together and create our own, you know, or navigate our own way forward rather than being controlled or guarded by others. So that natural ability and you know, and yes, look that that whole conflicting thing with all the talk, this mob and the need for positioning and power and all of that stuff, you know, we’re all guilty of that in a lot of ways. But how do we create a movement that’s going to overcome all of that?
Talei: Congratulations too on the amazing notice of motion put forward to the City of Sydney on recognition and support to Australian South Sea Islanders earlier this year. Reflecting on our recent conversation, I wanted to finish by asking: what are your future hopes and plans going forward with the City of Sydney and ASSI Port Jackson?
Emelda: I think look for us at the city of Sydney, the hopes and plans are for Australia to know and understand the impact and the history that Blackbirding has had for both our Pacific island states and Australia, and also how it built the success of the Australian economy. You can’t deny the foundation that this country was built on South Sea Islander labour. We need to get that recognition, to see it included as a mandatory part of the curriculum. If the Australian government is truly talking about improving our relationship with the Pacific, well we have Pacific families, we’ve got the original ones right here. There are some 70,000 descendants living in this country who are still unrecognised for the contribution of their forebearers. And that needs to be included across our education programs and services. Paramount health and incarceration issues need to be addressed. There’s also the fact that public structures, public narratives and public art need to be at key locations for ASSI communities.
Perhaps starting with Sydney Port Jackson acknowledging that Sydney Harbour has been a receiving port since the 1790s for all Pacific labour. It’s not even a small thing that we’re talking about, and it’s still today a continuum of receiving our people. Australia is home to the largest Melanesian population outside of their island states. When are we going to recognize that and include that? You know, Australian South Sea Islanders have contributed through the 60,000 plus people in building the economy and there needs to be representation at all those locations and sites and as we do for First Nations. And how do we build that relationship and work better together with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait, Australian South Sea Islander and Pacific people because we are one family? What does that look like?
For the City of Sydney, what is the point of me being here if I can’t put this motion forward today? I represent my mob first. I’ve only been there two months, but this has to go forward before I can even think about helping the city because no one’s helped us. That’s my mantra. That’s my foresight for our city of Sydney, is for everybody to understand and include us.
(Waskam) Emelda Davis is the first Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) Councillor of diverse indigenous heritage to serve on the Lord Mayoral governing team to the City of Sydney Council in its 180-year history. Emelda is a passionate resident of Pyrmont with strong links to her local community, as well as a strong advocate for cultural diversity and greater inclusion for her First Nations, Pacific, Caribbean, CALD and Australian South Sea Islander communities. Emelda is a second generation born ASSI and is Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander heritage of the Santo families across far North QLD, Cape York, Bamaga and Erub Island as well as Caribbean descent. In recognition of her leadership Emelda bears two important skin names Waskam of ni Vanuatu as a descendant of Australia’s Pacific Slave trade and Lumbuman of the Wadeye Aboriginal women’s group from Port Keats Northern Territory these names are customary recognition of her community standing. For well over a decade Emelda has spearheaded a voluntary social justice campaign as one of the founding members/chair of national body ASSI – Port Jackson which consulted widely the National ASSI Association constitution supported by Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers. Having worked for federal, state and grassroots organisations Emelda exhibits a deep respect and culturally diverse insight with sound expertise and lived experience in community capacity building, education, and training. Holding a Master of Arts degree from the University of Technology Sydney, Emelda completed the first ASSI oral history research doctorate by an ASSI person through the Networking Tranby ARC Scholarship titled Children of the Sugar Slaves – ‘Black and Resilient.’ Under Emelda’s leadership ASSIPJ have revived the focus on ‘The Call for Recognition’ for the descendants of Australia’s Pacific slave trade through the coordination of seven ‘Wantok’ national workshops between 2012-2015, the development a National ASSI Association constitution adopted at Tweed Heads (NSW 2015). NSW Parliament Recognition in 2013 and 2014 Federal Parliament Recognition of slavery. In response to climate change natural disasters with support of local Sydney first responder organisations ASSIPJ procured the necessary resources to rebuild Pacific nation communities in Vanuatu and Fiji delivering 2Mil worth of national disaster resources for cyclone devastated communities while working on the ground with culturally specific women’s groups stationed across island provinces. Emelda has been an active member for the COVID-19 to 2022 response Health Directory for Pacific Communities coordinated by NSW Council for Pacific Communities and Multicultural NSW. Recently (2022) Emelda distributed 500k worth of national sanitiser resources across states to Indigenous, Pacific, Seasonal Worker’s and broader communities. In combating Modern Slavery after ASSIPJ 2017 federal government submission Emelda continues to work with Government and community representatives as an advocate for genuine change across Department of Foreign Affairs, State and Pacific nations to foster culturally specific and community led solutions for the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme (PLMS). 2022 ASSIPJ board completed a per review for the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat consulting 17 Island states, New Zealand and Australia Pacific Labour Mobility. Emelda was a key advocate in 2019 in the establishment of the Australian Museums – Pacific Cultural Collection Advisory Panel to one of the world’s largest collection of relics, appointed to the Board of Trustees for the International Coalition Sites of Conscious (ICSOC), Sydney NSW committee – International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Emelda has worked extensively as a producer, event manager, film, TV, media, and marketing practitioner as well as across sports, music, and arts platforms. Her continued advocacy builds on existing relationships as a global leader for First Nations, Australian South Sea Islander, Pacific, and Broader community cohesion. April 2022 the City of Sydney Council adopted Emelda’s notice of motion to recognise and support for the ASSI community and to raise the ASSI flag at Sydney Town Hall annually on the 25th of August. Some 500 Councils (August 12th) across Australia received a co-signed letter by Lord Mayor Clover Moore and Clr Davis calling for their colleagues to adopt all or part of the resolution. Elected in 2021 Emelda serves the City of Sydney as the Deputy Chair of ‘Resilient Communities Committee’, is the Lord Mayor delegate on the ‘Indigenous Advisory Panel’, LMD on the ‘Multicultural Advisory Panel’ and is the Alternate Chair for both Local Pedestrian Cycling & Traffic Calming and Central City Planning Committees coupled with Council representative to City Business events and Community Advocacy Groups.
Extract of our community engagement on Vanuatu/Pacific/ASSI:
Over the past decade, the success of our Advocacy and Pastoral Care services in providing the necessary culturally specific support and local community management framework is evident in the strength of our grassroots ASSI network organisations and the number of instances where we have furthered the employment opportunities of our peoples through the operation of our compassionate care networks.
ASSIPJ have worked effectively and collaboratively where we assisted our female and male workers in coping with mental wellness and health issues, soft skills education, 24-hour outreach through local leaders and grassroots associations, national disaster resources, covid response distribution and receiving country culturally specific networks, translation services, emergency housing, sustenance and troubleshooting broader communication with authorities.
We have been recognised for this work and awarded by federal, state, local and grassroots community organisations and testimonials.
Wantok strategy Team:
This event is supported by the Oceania Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the ANU Gender Institute and the Decolonial Possibilities/Decolonising the Academy: Trans-Indigenous Possibilities, School of Culture, History and Language Flagship for College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It was organised by Katerina Teaiwa, Talei Luscia Mangioni and Nicholas Hoare.
The Oceania Working Party is chaired by Katerina Teaiwa and supported by CHL since 2020. The Oceania Working Party is one of ten specialised working parties at the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) tasked with drawing up lists of individuals for inclusion in the ADB and giving advice on appropriate authors. The working party consists of 22 experts in the fields of Pacific History and Pacific Studies and uses Pacific Biography in Australia as its platform for disseminating news, research and other findings. Talei Luscia Mangioni and Nicholas Hoare are the research officers for the Oceania Working Party.
For more information goto: www.facebook.com/PacificBiographyInAustralia or email: OceaniaWorkingParty@gmail.com