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Banding together to create change


24 August 2020 at 9:05 am
Maggie Coggan
Belinda Duarte is the CEO of Culture is Life, an organisation pushing forward Indigenous-led solutions to lower the rate of youth suicide. She’s this week’s Changemaker.


Maggie Coggan | 24 August 2020 at 9:05 am


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Banding together to create change
24 August 2020 at 9:05 am

Belinda Duarte is the CEO of Culture is Life, an organisation pushing forward Indigenous-led solutions to lower the rate of youth suicide. She’s this week’s Changemaker.  

As a proud Wotjobaluk and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, Duarte points to the first time she experienced racism as a child, and how it woke her up to the inherent challenges and disadvantages Aboriginal people faced in their country compared to their white counterparts. 

Since then, she has drawn on the strength and experience of her elders past and present, and her community, to inform her leadership and achieve change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Rather than focusing on what she can achieve as an individual leader, she has embraced collective leadership strategies to create long-lasting sustainable solutions. 

She was recently named the winner of the CEW & Vincent Fairfax Fellowship, which she will use to shift people’s mindsets around what leadership should look like. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Duarte discusses what inspires her to keep going when times are tough, where she draws her power from, and why our ideas of leadership need to change. 

Was there a moment when you realised you wanted to follow a career path in the social sector? 

I think about moments as a young child where I recognised I was on the receiving end of racism, and I found a way to navigate and challenge that in my own way. But I remember that awful, sick feeling of wanting to change things.

When I look back on my working life, I think I’ve always felt compelled to do things that matter to me or have impacted communities and people that I care about. Often those spaces have meant working with some of the most socially excluded groups or some of the most vulnerable groups. 

The life experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not consistent with the rest of the country and in some cases with Australia as a developed nation. And that, for me, compels me to want to keep getting up and doing the work that I do.  

What impact are you trying to make through your work? 

Culture is Life is really about supporting our mob and our people to create environments where young people can have that strong connection, amplification, affirmation or revitalisation, depending on where they’re at in their journey around culture and how critical culture is as a protective factor for young people. 

The evidence shows us that you can do social determinants for health, but without addressing the cultural determinants, nothing will really change in the wellbeing of our young people.

There’s a whole range of places in our communities and schools and workplaces that have not evolved into places where our people have been treated with the support and dignity that historically should have existed. There were policies in place that were discriminatory and acts of genocide in the country. So dealing with history and how that affects our current environment is really critical. But working with the broader community at Culture is Life, with our education and advocacy work, is actually about reframing how non-Aboriginal Australia relates to this country. And a critical conduit and connection to this country is us as First Peoples.

And so for non-Aboriginal Australians, it’s important to just stop to think about their relationship to the oldest living culture in the world, and therefore that sense of place and belonging here in this country. 

You are a big advocate for collective leadership, why is that? 

To talk about change is not about talking about an individual that does great work, it’s talking about a collective. My aspiration is always to think from an approach around collective work, because that’s where real change happens. If I can be the best contributor to assisting with collective movements to change, then I’m on track. I just don’t sit comfortably with having impact as an individual. We all know that you cannot create change without that amazing cohort of people invested in that. And that’s even more so the case in our space, because sustained change comes with our ally-ship and non-Aboriginal people taking that journey with us and standing with us and listening to us.

Where do you draw inspiration from? 

I just don’t sit comfortably with being viewed as the sole leader having impact on any agenda like the Western world views it. We all know that you cannot create change without that amazing cohort of people behind it. And that’s even more so the case in our space, because sustained change comes with Aboriginal led work and the ally-ship and non-Aboriginal people taking that journey with us and standing with us and listening to us.

I often think that if you scrape back the layers of what drives people in their work, it’s often  something that’s deeply emotive. And I’m inspired by this pursuit of being open in our relationships with each other and how we connect and relate, and understanding what blocks us. 

My soul food is also when our communities are in their pocket and thriving, particularly our young people. I’ve got a lot of hope in the future that our young people will collectively keep this country accountable, anchored and real but a great place to be. 


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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