There are very few people whose presence can bring a room to standstill, there are very few people who take a crowd from tears to laughter with a few words, and there are very few people who have immediate access to the office of the NSW Governor.
Isaiah Dawe is one of these people.
He’s unlike anyone you’ve ever met.
Armed with passion and pride, and carrying the weight of his past, he is moving mountains to make change for First Nations children living in out-of-home care.
The last three years has been a labour of love for the Butchulla and Gawara saltwater man, and on the 18th of April, all Isaiah’s hard work paid off.
At NSW Government House, in the presence of 160 esteemed guests, family and the Governor himself, Isaiah launched his non-profit organisation ID. Know Yourself.
ID. Know Yourself aims to empower and encourage Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
The program offers a holistic approach to empowerment, consisting of six key elements: culture and identity, yarn time (which focuses on spiritual empowerment and healing), life after care, health, education and volunteering and community engagement.
“ID. Know Yourself, it’s the initials of my name, but it stands for identity, know yourself, know what you can achieve and know what exists outside of foster care,” Isaiah said.
From two months to 18-years-old, Isaiah lived in the system—he was placed in 17 different homes and suffered unimaginable abuse.
“The slogan, never be left behind or forgotten, is what we were. When I was growing up in care, we were forgotten by the system but no kid that comes through ID. Know Yourself will ever be that.”
“I may be the driving force but it’s about the kids, the next generation. I’m part of the journey. I just got to be the person pushing it, but it’s not mine, it’s the community. We have to do it together to change the negative experiences of these kids in care.”
The launch was an opportunity for Isaiah to celebrate his success with members of his family.
He took the opportunity to follow his Uncle Fred in playing the didgeridoo, which had his songlines imprinted deep into the wood.
“Everyone used to say ‘family first’ but I never really knew what that meant. When I was growing up in care, I was vulnerable, and I felt completely worthless. I was stripped of culture and I didn’t have a sense of belonging so having my family there was incredible.”
Isaiah is the fourth generation within his family to suffer removal.
In 1922, his great grandmother, Winnifred Tanna, a Butchulla woman, and his great grandfather Nimrod Reynolds, a Gawara man, were taken to Barrambah Mission. Their daughter, Isaiah’s grandmother, ‘Mookie’ Marsha Dawson had her children removed and placed into care.
The same fate awaited her grandchildren.
“I never got to meet my grandparents. The system that took them away was the same system that took my uncles, my aunties, my nieces, my nephews. It is the same system that took me away and this trauma has lasted four generations in my family. This is the generation where it stops.”
“I was taken from one of the largest Aboriginal families in Queensland. I met my family a couple of years ago, they contacted me through Facebook, and positioned themselves for me. They never stopped thinking of me or loving me.”
“I was always told these horrible things about my family [that] they were unemployed, they were drug users, they were homeless, but all that is wrong. My family are the most wonderful role models.”
Isaiah was separated from most of his family except for his sister. With only a year between them, the two have a strong bond.
“We were best mates growing up and we used to say when times were rough, all we ever had was each other. We used to say, it’s you and me against the world, because that’s all we ever had.”
Isaiah has had many mentors in his journey with ID. Know Yourself, including Uncle Shane Phillips, CEO of Tribal Warrior and the former NSW Governor General David John Hurley.
But one of his most influential role models was his foster carer, the late Ngunnawal elder and OAM recipient, Eric Bell.
“He was an inspiration to me, he taught me the attribute of hard work and subconsciously I took that on. I’d help him in the garden and in the winter, we would chop wood and drive around in his beat up old white Toyota. All the kids would call him uncle, everyone knew us as his kids, he was my pop. He was someone who was kind to everyone, a real community man.”
This prompted Isaiah’s love and passion for community and empowering the people that surrounded him.
“You have to know that life isn’t about you, you are part of life but it’s always about the future. We just pass on knowledge, pass on experience and make sure the people after us have a better experience than what we did.”
“There’s this quote, the victim mind-set dilutes the human potential. By not accepting full responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them. By no choice of my own I went into the system and I can either let it tarnish my future or I can become more from it.”
“I can remember, getting the official letter, and I still have it, saying I wasn’t a ward of the state anymore. I was free of the system, I was so happy but at the same time I felt this huge kind of burden and shadow of doubt.”
The doubt cast by years of feeling voiceless and unsupported in the foster care system, and the fear of moving into the unknown.
Looking back, launching his own organisation, being the first Indigenous recipient of TAFE NSW Graduate of the year and now a renowned inspirational speaker, Isaiah Dawe is cool, calm and collected.
“My purpose was found in my wounds. Who would have thought? A young Aboriginal kid with no family, told he wasn’t going to amount to anything now on a journey to empower those to believe they can be somebody, that they are somebody and that they just have to realise they are.”
“Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care are the most vulnerable children in the whole of Australia, we make a mere three per cent of the population but over forty per cent of our children are in the system. This is the generation where it stops, it’s happened for too long. We need to support these young people because these cycles of intergenerational trauma are still continuing.”
ID. Know Yourself will start small, taking on eight kids this year and twenty next year, from Redfern and surrounds. But Isaiah dreams to expand ID. Know Yourself nationally, making connections in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, and internationally connecting with people in New Zealand and the United States of America.
“Right now, no one has the key to success for these young people, they don’t have the right support or anything.”
“This isn’t a ten-year company, it’s going to be 100 years plus, because this cycle of intergeneration trauma keeps going, more than fifty per cent of Aboriginal children in juvenile justice have and out-of-home care experience.”
“There’s this quote by Ronald Reagan, if not us, who? If not now, when? When I heard that I was beginning my journey to start ID. Know Yourself.”
“Everyone needs a role model, everyone needs someone to fight for them. The policies and procedures have changed since I was in the system but the negative stuff hasn’t.”
Isaiah is determined to strip back the ego. He doesn’t want his organisation to be the biggest, he wants it to be the most influential.
“I want these young people to become leaders in their lives so they can become leaders for their families, leaders for their community and then they lead those positive footprints for the future generation.”
With goals in motivational speaking, acting and politics, Isaiah has big dreams and the discipline, determination and heart to pull them off.
“Who knows, maybe one day I could be the first Aboriginal Prime Minister. But I’m only 24. I’ve learnt a lot in life, and I have learnt a lot from people, I have wisdom from the old people and their spirit lives in me.”
“We need to make sure we have as many collective minds and spirits along this journey – You know what they say, if you want to go fast in life, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. And that’s what I want to do.”
By Rachael Knowles