The Health Employees Superannuation Trust Australia (HESTA) 2019 Community Sector Awards hosts an array of powerful community-first people, including two Aboriginal women who are reviving their languages and guiding others to learn their language to connect with Country and begin deep healing.

Diane Riley-McNaboe and Rhonda Ashby are Aboriginal Language Nest teachers within the New South Wales Department of Education. They hold two of the five new positions across the state implemented through the OCHRE Plan, a strategy designed by the Department to improve the education and employment outcomes for NSW’s Aboriginal people. These positions enabled them to teach language within their areas.

Ms Riley-McNaboe works within the Northwest Wiradjuri Aboriginal Language and Culture Nest and has been teaching for over 30 years passing on the knowledge of her old people.

“This is not my knowledge that I pass on but the knowledge of my old people. I have always felt privileged and honoured that, for one reason or another, these Elders have shared their knowledge with me and pushed me to share it with others,” she said.

Ms Ashby works within the Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay/Yuwaalayaay Aboriginal Language and Culture Nest. Based in Lightning Ridge, she networks across four local schools.

“Language is its own medicine, it was language that got me back on track within my life. It was the old people that guided me through that process,” Ms Ashby said.

“I started off as a community language teacher then I was teaching at the local school. We used to have a teacher that came in and supervised – we shouldn’t have anyone supervising us teaching our language, so that gave me the prompt to go on and get my teaching degree.”

Both women completed their Master of Indigenous Languages Education (MILE) at the University of Sydney (USYD).

Through this, they connected with MILE Director and Lecturer in Aboriginal Education, Ms Susan Poetsch and her colleague, Dr Lynette Riley – a Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman from Dubbo and Moree and Senior Lecturer at the USYD School of Education and Social Work.

Both Ms Poetsch and Dr Riley nominated the pair for the HESTA Community Sector Award. Ms Poetsch said it was the pair’s length and depth of commitment that inspired the nomination.

“In NSW, they have really been some of the earliest trailblazers, they worked closely with linguists who also have special knowledge of their languages, and Elders. [It was] the way they drew on so many different pulls of knowledge to bring everything together,” she said.

“Their circle of influence widened and grew, they were really at the forefront of Government policy in NSW … They’re advocates for people beyond their own circle, they’re role models and leaders.”

Ms Ashby and Ms Riley-McNaboe have assisted in creating teaching programs and resources for communities, schools, TAFEs and universities and have taught and supported programs in 30 schools and to over 3,500 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

Their work aims to enhance the wellbeing of Aboriginal people by reconnecting them to language and culture.

“It isn’t just about us being Aboriginal people with our language, it’s about sharing that language and culture space for that broader understanding and knowledge of First Nations people,” Ms Ashby said.

Both Ms Riley-McNaboe and Ms Ashby are incredibly humble about the work they do.

“Being acknowledged for all the work I’ve done with language and culture is like everyone who does language and culture is being acknowledged. It’s about being a good role model for Aboriginal people and giving something back to the communities we live and work in,” Ms Riley-McNaboe said.

“It’s about building those relationships and connections to the country and everything around you. It’s about following protocols that our old people lived by and put into place. It’s not about the money it’s about the wellness our language and culture create.”

“We are all born with language, it takes something to ignite that flame inside of us,” Ms Ashby added.

“There’s a saying from one of the old women that taught me, that language is our soul. I didn’t quite get it at the time, but as I grew on the journey I looked back upon that and I realise this is what Aunt was talking about – it is so powerful.”

The HESTA Awards are presented in partnership with Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) with winners receiving $10,000 in prize money to further their community work.

Winners will be announced at the 2019 HESTA Community Sector Awards on Tuesday November 26 in Canberra.

By Rachael Knowles