July 2015

Powerful personal stories of courage

Let’s have more conversational forums where we hear the personal stories of ordinary, courageous Australians, says Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

I was privileged to be among those gathered in a packed Sydney Town Hall last week for a fascinating conversation with four amazing and inspiring women. During a live televised event organised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, our 2015 Australians of the Year – Rosie Batty, Jackie French, Drisana Levitzke-Gray and Juliette Wright – spoke to ABC presenter Annabel Crabb about their commitment to human rights.

In the history of the Australian of the Year awards, 2015 is the first time that women have received the four top honours. In summing up the evening, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, rightly said: “It is personal stories with courage that create systemic change. We move from the head to the heart”.

The personal story of each of these women is one of courage, resilience, strength and determination.

Most Australians would know Rosie Batty’s story of incredible tragedy when her only son was murdered by his father in February 2014. She has risen up as an outstanding and credible advocate against domestic violence in this country, and for that, was honoured as the 2015 Australian of the Year.

When asked about how she has responded to this unimaginable tragedy – by converting such pain into strength and such devastation into advocacy for goodness – Rosie said that we have that strength within us: that it comes from how we have observed and engaged as children with our parents and grandparents, and particularly in the way they have responded in difficult and demanding circumstances.

In other words, we learn by being with others, by slowly and unconsciously developing skills and strategies within us through the example of others – through the social capital built up in a community.

Young Australian of the Year Drisana Levitzke-Gray is the fifth generation in her family to be born deaf. She, too, spoke of learning independence, confidence and courage through her relationships in her extended family and the deaf community. From her perspective, deafness is not a disability, but a gift. She belongs to a community with a culture and a language – Auslan.

Juliette Wright, who was this year honoured as Australia’s Local Hero, established the website GIVIT, which developed from a very simple need of hers to give away a few baby clothes. She has become utterly committed to connecting people who can share their excess with those who are in need. As a nation she believes we are poor in “guessing” what people really need in times of distress and emergency. She is focussed on attending to the symptoms of poverty in this country. In its short life, the GIVIT website has already facilitated over 200,000 connections between the person giving and the person in need.

Jackie French, this year’s Senior Australian of the Year, and the author of over 150 books, is a pre-eminent story-teller. Citing the words of a girl in a refugee camp – “I am human, therefore I have a right to read” – Jackie spoke with passion about literacy as a human right. She went on to talk about the importance of books in her early childhood and made the claim that for every complex book a child reads, she or he learns empathy. The reader engages with a number of diverse characters in every book. By reading, our imaginations are enriched and extended.

So what did I take away from this evening of conversation with such a celebrated group of women?

These women told their personal stories with honesty and humility. There was nothing brash or exaggerated about them. They have made real changes to the lives of ordinary people because of their practical action and their empathy. They reminded me that respect, recognition and integrity are foundational in attending to the human rights of one another in our democratic society. These women are clear about their purpose in life and their desire to bring goodness and happiness into their own lives and the lives of others.

What a refreshing evening of conversation with real and inspiring women within our society! What a change from the political bickering and derogatory commentary we so often see on television!

Let us have more such conversations across the country and continue to build social capital by listening to the stories of ordinary Australians told with clarity, courage and empathy.

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence. In 2022, Clare was awarded an Honorary Doctor of the University from Australian Catholic University.

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