As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, National Indigenous Times shines a spotlight on Australia’s incredible First Nations women.

A fierce, gentle and courageous woman, Kirli Saunders has been awarded the 2020 NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year.

Saunders was named a finalist beside Professor Ngiare Brown, who is a strong and passionate Yuin woman, and creative and driven Yaegl woman, Associate Professor Pauline Clague.

A Gunai woman, Saunders has ties to Yuin, Gundungurra and Biripi Country with links to La Perouse.

She is an award-winning international children’s author, poet, artists and forthcoming playwright. Saunders manages Red Room Poetry’s Poetry in First Languages program (PIFL).

Saunders facilitates PIFL on Dharawal, Gadigal, Yuin, Gundungurra, Gumea Dharawal Country, along with workshops in the Northern Territory and on Ngunnawal Country in the ACT.

Speaking to NIT after her win, Saunders said the award was a huge privilege and honour to receive.

“It was a big surprise and a huge honour. I’m super excited to have shared the stage with Ngiare and Pauline, well her sister Grace, to celebrate all the deadly stuff happening in our communities that our incredible First Nations women are leading,” Saunders said.

“I’ve been guided by really wonderful Elders and custodians and community to develop Poetry in First Languages and to follow my Dreaming and to become a storyteller and a teacher.”

“It is exciting to be able to lay down the footstones for the young ones who [will] follow us and I think the future is really bright.”

Saunders draws inspiration from her family, particularly her parents.

“My mum has been a big inspiration in my life, I know Bronnie Taylor, the Minister for Women, spoke … [at] length about the importance of the roles of our men in our families … in raising good women and supporting us to be strong women and powerful women.

“Bronnie talked about her Dad who let her know that she could be anything she wanted to be. I was really blessed to have two really dedicated, hardworking, kind, compassionate, all-round beautiful parents who helped shaped me to be the woman I am today.

“I follow on a strong lineage of go-getters. I feel so grateful that these beautiful people have laid down a strong path for me, one that I can follow.”

Saunders also draws inspiration from the Country that surrounds her.

“Being born of the earth and being in some way … akin with her power and her wisdom … if we are born and shaped with the earth, we are also her beauty … her wonder and her ferocity.”

“When I get lost in the world and I forget what it is to be woman, I return to the trees and I go find myself on the mountain or in the ocean, and I feel empowered by her and aligned to her and her power and her Dreaming.”

To those coming after Saunders, she gives advice to listen and follow their Dreaming.

“I am so lucky that this award has come about simply because I followed my Dreaming and the path laid down for me by Yuin and Gundungurra Elders which set me out to be a storyteller and a teacher.”

“I think if we share our gifts with community in the same way that I have tried to honour my Dreaming … I think the world would be a much stronger place.”

Saunders is currently working on a verse novel which explores the journey of a young girl living on Gundungurra Country during the aftermath of the bushfires. This will be released by Magabala Books.

She is also pursuing her artist career displaying an exhibition at Verb Syndicate in Wollongong, NSW.

By Rachael Knowles