A Verve mini-series to celebrate and acknowledge International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month with formidable women connected to the Verve community that you need to know about.
Women’s History Month (March) is designed to be a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society. Yet, in a society that is still overwhelmingly patriarchal and hostile to those who identify as women, this month is also a time for protest; a time for a declaration that we still have a long way to go in fighting for gender equity and justice.
Well, it’s our turn to demand bold action. Strap yourselves in, Verve community, you are about to have your mind blown, your body awoken, and your spirit ignited by the fire that is Ella Noah Bancroft and Kirilly Dawn.
Meet Ella and Kirilly
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Can you tell us a little about yourselves and the work you do in the world?
Kirilly: I’m a Barkindji woman, I was born on Dharug country in Western Sydney, now living on Bundjalung country. I am a birth doula and my work is about supporting women during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum, informing them about their health choices and their body sovereignty, and their rights, especially in maternity care. I’m in the process of starting a group called Indigenous doulas and our goal is to make doula training free, or otherwise accessible, for Indigenous women so that we can have more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women working as doulas in our communities and providing culturally safe, appropriate and women-led care.
I also do somatic movement therapy and I am a dancer, so I do that work with women leading up to their births as a form of embodiment and centering so that they can make more autonomous health choices. These were things that were inherent to our culture and now they’re being used as healing modalities, which essentially means that our cultures are healing cultures.
Ella: I am a Bundjalung woman from Northern NSW, and I also have bloodlines to Scotland, Poland, and England. I grew up in between two worlds as a mixed heritage woman, both on a mission and in the city. Growing up with Aunties and cousins around me, speaking and learning language, living off the land, and being so close to nature, meant that women’s work was just something that I was always taught how to do. Now, I continue that work with women, and I started an event three years ago called The Returning; a gathering that builds a bridge between privileged and non-privileged women. I’m also on the board of a women’s refuge for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault called Women Up North, and I’m very active in my community around food sovereignty and working in Community Gardens.
I’m passionate about centering women and mothers in all of our community choices and walking through the world with integrity, showing up to try and change the mainstream narrative. I have been working in and trying to push the Decolonise movement here in Australia for the last five years, and I feel like everyone’s starting to catch up and better understand how we can grow together as a community to create more inclusive spaces.
Left, Ella Noah Bancroft. Right, Kirlly Dawn.
Thank you both for sharing more about the incredible and important work you do. Could you tell us briefly what your relationship is to Verve and why you feel aligned to our mission?
Ella: We are working with Verve’s core team as RAP consultants, but we were members before we were RAP consultants. We see that there is a strong line of people working at Verve who want to be a part of the change in a really positive way. There are some organisations that have asked us to do RAPs that we do not feel aligned with and that we won’t do. I state that because it’s not just about this being our job – we really are trying to support organisations that we think will support our Indigenous community. There are definitely some that don’t cut it, but what Verve is doing is really important.
The health of Indigenous mothers is the health of a nation
We’ll come back to financial literacy amongst Indigenous women shortly, but first let’s talk about International Women’s Day. What does the day mean to you?
Ella: International Women’s Day is a day not only to celebrate the achievements of the women that have come before us and who have pioneered movements to make change, but it’s also a day to stand up and protest; protest how far we still have to go. One of the biggest things that I’m passionate about is domestic violence and sexual assault because I think we cannot move forward and say that we’re living in a society of equity when we are still losing one Australian woman a week at the hands of her loved one or trusted partner. IWD is a day to bring to the forefront what’s happening on a global scale, a national scale, and a local scale.
Kirilly: I feel like International Women’s Day is every day, you know, because anybody who’s experiencing life, anyone who’s reading this article, came from a woman. I really believe that you can tell the health of a community by looking at the health of its mothers and babies. But actually further than that, I think that you can tell the health of the land and the community by looking at the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers and babies.
I’m centering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers and babies because, when we’re talking about International Women’s Day, it often feels like we’re talking about white women or the general populace, and then there’s ‘Indigenous issues’ on the side. I feel like if we centered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers and babies and asked ‘What is their health like?’, ‘What is their connection to land like?’, then that would be a strong indication of how healthy we are as a community.
Kirilly Dawn, Indigenous birth doula and advocate
The spaces that feminism forgot
What is your relationship to feminism right now?
Ella: For me, it’s important that when we look at the feminist movement and what it’s like current-day, that we ask ourselves: ‘what are we fighting for?’ Are we striving to put more women in the workplace to feel that they are only measured by success in a business space? Are we really striving towards what’s going to be best for children and mothers and women all around the world? I think the modern industrial complex has really f*cked us up in many ways; our worthiness is tied to a system and structure that ultimately is set up to go against our biology.
Women need to start fighting for paid bleed days. And, if we have women in the workplace but we aren’t putting pressure on multi-conglomerates or businesses to have crèches so that they can bring their children to work or be able to breastfeed, then what are we fighting for? We have to start seeing that women’s biology is the epicenter of health and the backbone of our society, like Kirilly said. Until we start fighting for things like that within our capitalist structure then I think we’re only striving to meet mainstream standards, which are seen through the male perspective and male regime.
What about you, Kirilly – what is your relationship to feminism right now?
Kirilly: Feminism, to me, is bringing everybody who’s been oppressed by the patriarchy along to be like ‘come on, let’s rise up and smash it down and change it’. But I feel like birth has been completely ignored in the feminist space for a really long time to the detriment of most women, and I think that was because of the push towards getting women into more masculine spaces instead of allowing us to be met where we’re at. And now we’re fighting this huge patriarchal and capitalist industrial medical system, and changing it is fundamental for the feminist movement. It’s also fundamental that we are appreciating mothers for the hard work and the pivotal, important role that is raising entire generations.
Ella: Women are the backbone of our society, and healthy mothers who are healers create healthy communities of humans who care.
Do you both feel welcome and included as part of the feminist movement as Aboriginal women and as queer women?
Ella: Yeah, I mean, I don’t really feel like I don’t have a place in space but I think it’s also really important to recognise my privilege and that I walk through the world as not only a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, but I’ve been fortunate enough to also have a very strong mother who has been able to teach me my place in this world. She has taught me to be strong no matter what and to walk through the world not giving a f*ck what people think of me. So, personally, I feel like if there isn’t a space for me, I’m loud enough that I’ll make one.
Kirilly: Like Ella said, I’m also fair presenting, and I can walk through the world without people knowing that I’m Aboriginal. So, in that way, I have a lot of white privilege and also, because of my proximity to whiteness, I can be an easy inclusion for people. You know, like we’re more ‘palatable’ and easy to fit in or be included. I do think that especially since last year and the Black Lives Matter movement that people are including Indigenous voices more. But I think it’s going to take a lot longer for there to be a shift from just including those voices to actually wanting Indigenous people and people of colour to lead the conversation or decide their own direction when they speak.
Ella Noah Bancroft, activist, poet and Founder of “The Returning” and Yhi Collective
Could you speak a little more to your experience straddling multiple identities (cultural, gender, sexuality)?
Ella: Well, I’m a Gemini so it works really well for me! I wear many different masks at any one time. But to be honest, for me, it feels few and far between being Indigenous women and in a queer relationship. Our society has somehow bastardised the heteronormative and nuclear family, so I feel like there is a lot of reclaiming to do.
Kirilly: I find the labeling more of an issue than existing in that way. As Ella said, there’s a reclaiming that needs to happen because you have to undo a lot of the programming of a patriarchal society. Then being queer, it’s also the same process of unpacking internalised homophobia. I think all of it comes down to sovereignty – whether it’s your cultural identity, whether it’s your sexual identity, or whether it’s just existing as a woman. I think we have to reclaim our sovereignty in all aspects.
The path to reconciliation
Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about the importance of developing a RAP. In your opinion, how can organisations use the RAP process to develop culture and inform decision making?
Ella: Seeing businesses and other organisations step up and try to actually create communications with Indigenous communities is the first step towards reconciliation. I think that over the last 18 months, most Indigenous people have probably felt fullness in their hearts for the fact that people are acknowledging country more than they ever have before and I think that we really have an opportunity to talk more truthfully as a society.
Verve having us as Indigenous consultants feels really important because it’s a way of valuing Indigenous people to be the bridge between community and business. For us, showing up as RAP consultants is about being as authentic and transparent about what our community needs are here on the East Coast, and figuring out a way for this work to advantage both the organisation and the Indigenous women in this area.
Implementing financial literacy workshops with Indigenous communities throughout the East Coast will be our first port of call. Financial literacy for Indigenous people is really important, because – as much as I would love to smash the system, blow it all up, and start again – the reality is that we are living in this current paradigm and we need to make change if we want to shift the power dynamic of wealth. That’s what we really want to bring back to our community. For us, it’s also about helping Verve to decolonise the workplace and trying to increase the numbers of Indigenous Verve members so that we can also bring about this unified empowerment of all women.
Kirilly: Financial literacy matters because what we’ve got is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disadvantaged because of genocide, slavery and stolen wages, which is really important to name. Generationally, there are not people who just ‘have’ land and houses, or inheritances in general. So, I think we need extra support and extra attention so that we can gain more financial literacy because it’s not something that was handed down to us and it’s not necessarily something that was in our culture – it is fundamentally different. Our cultures are fundamentally based on sharing, and I think both parties would gain a lot by acknowledging the paradigm within which we are living at the moment, and having a two-way conversation about it.
Being better allies
Many white women are looking to women of colour and Aboriginal communities and asking how they can be better allies. What would you say to those women, or is it the wrong question?
Kirilly: It’s not the wrong question but I would say, first, that you have to start with where you are and your community and build relationships there. You need to take away this ‘productivity’ or instant gratification mindset, which is inherently patriarchal and capitalist. You have to strip that away and start to make meaningful relationships with people in your community that aren’t based on a goal or because you need to get this thing or get these people involved in your project or ‘get… get… get… get’. Instead, start by meeting people and making meaningful relationships with the community. If you mean it and you want to have that relationship, then it will take time and be slow like any good relationship, which builds over time. Take your time to establish that slow presence of meeting a space and meeting the people in it and making it reciprocal.
Start seeing that the landscape around you is alive and shift from seeing it as inanimate to seeing it as breathing beings or as an extension of your body. For some people, to take time to connect to country might be to walk barefoot, or to put their hand on a tree and actually sense: ‘what do I feel in my body when I’m doing this?’ Start meeting plants and animals as kin by introducing yourself and even saying hello every time you go for a walk. I don’t care if it’s down the Main Street where there’s concrete or if it’s in a national park. It’s all Aboriginal land. And you can be announcing yourself in the same way as if you were entering somebody’s house.
Ella: I guess, for me, there are quite a few things tangled up with allyship. One of them is making sure that you are not utilising black or brown bodies in order to capitalise on them. True allyship involves sharing and a deep understanding that runs through our blood as women. The understanding that our ancestors, not just from this land but all around the world, once partook in circles; in sharing stories, sharing breastfeeding, sharing children, and sharing the raising of consciousness.
We have to start to see where we can share our money too, or if you don’t have money, where can you share your time? Most people have an abundance of either of the two. So, I think it’s important to dig deep into that space and do your own work to educate yourself. Aboriginal people, refugees, women who are in minorities, black and brown women – they have enough on their plate. They should not need to show up and teach you.
Exactly. They do enough unpaid labour already, it’s up to us to take responsibility for our own learning journeys.
Ella: I think it’s also important to acknowledge that Indigenous women are expected to go into the Western schooling system and learn stuff that has no relevance whatsoever, but we do it in order to show up the way that society wants us to. But it seems that, when it comes to our culture and our information and our knowledge, it is not seen to be as much of an initiation process as 13 years of Western education.
Aboriginal women in our families and our ancestral lines have been working their whole lives to basically try and be seen by mainstream spaces. And now it’s time for the scales to flip. If it takes you until you are 85 for the penny to drop, then that’s the time it is supposed to take. Until we start seeing Aboriginal issues at the forefront of every problem we have in this country, then we’re not moving forward.
Kirilly: I agree that it’s about self-responsibility. Our education system is racist and upholds the colony; I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand that they’re living in a genocidal time. People who don’t learn anything before 1788, they get such a warped sense of time. If you think that the beginning of time was 1788 and everything else before that is ‘over there’, then your timeframe of the world is so freaking small and narrow and that’s not a mistake. It’s there to uphold the colony and brainwash everybody. But taking responsibility and going and doing the research, learning things and hearing from Aboriginal voices is not that hard. You can go and you can find it.
And don’t just seek information from Aboriginal people who meet the requirements of the colony in order for you to accept them as valuable and someone to listen to, like those who have a degree or the loudest voices in the media. Go and connect with the local people in your community – especially the women. Go and meet the matriarchs! They’ll be able to tell you a lot about where you’re living and what’s going on.
Lastly, for Verve members, how you’re going to really shift things is to support Blak businesses, share resources within your community, or consider donating part of your wage to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run organisations. If you own a business, and we know a lot of women in the Verve community do, go and hire an Indigenous contractor because there’s a lot of us out there who are graphic designers, who are programmers, who are lawyers, who are artists, who are everything!
Ella: And make sure you are putting your money towards supporting organisations that are keeping culture alive and not continuing assimilation. We have to remember that many Indigenous people around this country have been colonised, including ourselves, and it’s a big unpacking for us. So, for real change to happen, we need the mainstream world to support us financially with keeping culture alive. It is the only thing that’s going to make Aboriginal people reinvest in themselves.
Telling the truth
Lastly, as an homage to the title of Ella’s new book, ‘It takes courage to tell the truth’ – we wanted to finish by asking you both: what is the truth that you want the Verve community to know right now?
Kirilly: My truth is that the health of mothers and babies is indicative of the health of our communities and that the way that women are treated in birth matters, it matters deeply, and it matters for the whole community.
Ella: The biggest truth that I’d love to ripple out is that we need to start seeing success as the health of our planet and the people that live on it and stop seeing it as monetary or social status. One of the first steps to decolonising is basically saying a big ‘F U’ to the mainstream narrative, which then makes everything not so exhausting and it recharges you.
And with that we want to graciously thank both Ella and Kirilly for their time, wisdom and generosity in sharing with the Verve community.
To the Verve members reading this, we hope you find a way to support Ella and Kirilly’s phenomenal work and we look forward to providing you with regular updates about our RAP process. Thank you and happy Women’s History Month!
More about Ella
Ella Noah Bancroft is Bundjalung woman and descendant of the Bundjalung peoples of Northern NSW. She also has blood lines to Scotland, Poland and England. She is an artist, storyteller, mentor and founder of “The Returning” and Yhi Collective, as well as a pioneer for The Decolonisation movement. Passionate about rewilding the world and unleashing the feminine force, Ella believes that by creating small movements and communities of women to reconnect back with our wisdom, each other and the land that we can solve a lot of the root causes of our current social and environmental crises.
More about Kirilly
Kirilly Dawn is a proud Barkindji woman, born on Dharug country and living on Bundjalung land. Passionate about women reclaiming and remembering the sovereignty of their bodies and births, Kirilly is a birth doula, an advocate for birthing on country and incorporates her love of dance, somatic movement and meditation into her work. Believing in the ancient power of storytelling, Kirilly is joined as a regular presenter & producer on the Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond podcast, with a vision to share more Indigenous women’s voices, stories and experiences of childbirth and maternity care in Australia.