A proud Wiradjuri woman armed with compassion, culture and connections, former 2014 Canberra Woman of the Year and ACT NAIDOC Person of the Year, Katrina Fanning has been announced as 2020 ACT Australian of the Year.

A pioneer both on and off the field in women’s rugby league, Ms Fanning has been player and manager to the Indigenous Women’s All Stars team, Chairperson of the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council and pushed for female representation in the sport during her time as the President of the Canberra and Australian Women’s Rugby League Associations.

“Sport is a great place to start learning a whole bunch of lessons that help you in life, things like teamwork and work ethic. For me being a bigger girl, my strength and size was an asset, not something to tease or be embarrassed about,” Ms Fanning said.

“Sport is a place where everyone has a place to be valued and a job to do and that connects with me even in the work I do today. You need difference, if you had thirteen wingers out there that’s only one part of the game they could really play, you need diversity.”

Ms Fanning has worked in various senior government roles with Centrelink, Aboriginal Hostels and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

She is also Director of Coolamon Advisors, an Indigenous majority-owned and managed consultancy firm and this year has been welcomed to The Fred Hollows Foundation Board.

An advocate for First Nations self-determination, Ms Fanning’s career has been underpinned by her own personal desire for freedom in her own decisions.

“What sits under the surface for me was as a kid there was a lot going on that was out of my control. I made the choice that when I could, I would make the decisions that affected my life, not others,” she said.

“As I got that sorted for myself and became more confident in myself and who I was, I thought about other people who were in these positions and wanted to make sure they could get out of those situations and have choice in their lives. It’s that fundamental belief we should be able to decide for ourselves what happens to us.”

Ms Fanning believes its about clearing a pathway for mob to move forward freely and with agency.

“We need to enable the opportunities for mob, and get them to know that it is an opportunity for them which is sometimes the hardest thing as they’ve learnt to be wary of everyone and everything,” Ms Fanning said.

“When you clear that pathway for them to back themselves and get themselves there, seeing that moment in their eyes when they believe in themselves is that moment where I feel success.”

“One of things people fundamentally miss is that so much about First Nations people is still in that deficit model. We haven’t survived for the longest time on earth because we can’t look after ourselves, it isn’t about us catching up, it’s about people listening to us and investing in what we say because at the end of the day it will help them.”

“What is the report card that talks about our success? What we talk about now is everything that doesn’t work. But the same scorecard isn’t held up to the rest of the community.”

With truth-telling in the air, Ms Fanning said this has enabled the rise of diversity within First Nations voices, something critical to the moving forward of the nation.

“People are becoming more comfortable that we have different voices speaking on different things. We are building momentum on different issues and the strength comes from the diversity within our voices,” she said.

This is enhanced through empathetic and emotional connection between First Nations people and non-First Nations people.

“One of the only ways that people can understand or comprehend systemic discrimination is to explain it to them in a way that impacts people who don’t experience it. The example I use that they were discriminated against in their education because they weren’t told the truth.”

“I think a lot of people have the right intent but they can’t cope with the guilt that comes with that. But it’s about having the compassion to start the journey now. Seeing these things through their own eyes, this can lead to some non-Indigenous people becoming our greatest advocates.”

“The most significant photos that capture points of change in our country for our people, like the Referendum or the freedom rides, there’s not just blackfullas on the bus or in the voting booth. We have had to do it with good people with us.”

Whilst holding an impressive career, Ms Fanning is also in a loving same-sex relationship and a mother to three children. Bearing a strong sense of self, Ms Fanning has been able to create a life which honours the multifaceted, powerful woman she is.

“Sometimes you don’t put the whole quilt together and you can’t see that bigger picture. I can say that I don’t think I do much that is extraordinary I just do a lot of ordinary things that when you put them all together it looks like a lot,” she said.

“If you take up a job and it doesn’t end up working for you or it doesn’t work towards that purpose you are after, then change. In the same stream, if you keep following the things that are important to you, and you keep at it, you will end up making a difference.”

By Rachael Knowles