Healing the past for the future
19 July 2021 at 4:55 pm
After years of struggling to understand who he was or where his place in the world was, Butchulla and Gawara man Isaiah Dawe is now using his personal experiences to help Aboriginal kids find their path. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
At the age of 17, most Australian kids are preparing for the end of high school exams or finalising university applications.
Isaiah Dawe was trying to find a place to sleep for the night.
After entering foster care at just two months old, Dawe lived in 17 different homes over the course of 17 years, facing regular emotional and physical abuse from his carers.
Moving around so much without support and no connection from family and culture also meant he lost his sense of belonging, purpose, hope, love and his Aboriginal culture.
At 17, he was told via text that he was no longer able to live with his foster carer. This left him homeless until he and his biological sister were finally offered a place to stay with a family that cared for and encouraged them.
Since then, he has been able to reconnect with his Aboriginal culture, language, and family, putting him on a path to helping others.
He founded ID. Know Yourself, to mentor other young Aboriginal kids in the foster care system, and help to establish a sense of belonging and purpose in their lives.
In the past few years, Dawe has become the first Aboriginal person to be appointed chair of the NSW Youth Advisory Committee, he was a finalist for the 2019 Channel 7 Young Achiever Award, and he was part of the first Indigenous team to sail in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race.
And in 2021, he was named one of Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 Award winners.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the importance of knowing who you are, why relationships are key to leadership, and why it’s so important to surround yourself with the right people.
How important was connecting to your culture and family in starting ID. Know Yourself?
Connecting back to my family was a really important part of my healing journey. The two things people ask you as an Aboriginal person are, who’s your mob and where do you come from? That was hard for me because I didn’t know. So after going back on country and connecting with my family and my cultural identity, I started to feel the healing journey begin, and I started to feel like all that trauma I had been pulling around with me became weightless. I started to feel like my spirit was calm for once in my life, and I started to feel peace.
This year’s NAIDOC Week theme, Heal Country speaks to me because being back on my country and being connected to my culture healed me.
From there, I was able to start the next part of the healing journey, which was feeling empowered to make positive decisions based on my cultural values, rather than out of emotion. I eventually founded ID. Know Yourself, which is an Aboriginal NFP mentoring organisation, supporting Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and juvenile justice. The whole purpose is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and disadvantage. The way we do that is by establishing belonging, discovering purpose and empowering positive decisions for these kids.
What are some of your biggest learnings since starting the charity?
The biggest lesson is [the importance of] relationships and maintaining relationships. That’s why keeping connected to family, keeping connected to people in the community, keeping connected to our staff and making sure that the relationships we have are positive and impactful and valuable [is important]. There are also a lot of non-Indigenous people that support us on our journey as well, and we can’t do it without them because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up 3 per cent of the population. We need everyone from all cultures and backgrounds to work with us on this journey so that we can provide better, targeted experiences for those kids in our own backyard. It takes a community to raise a child, and so we try to include everyone in doing that.
The other lesson is to be persistent. I’ve been known as the persistent pest to some people. I remember the former governor general of New South Wales and now governor general of Australia, David Hurley, said to me once that he’d never met anyone so persistent. It’s a quality that I have always had, [and] I know that if I want something, I’ll go against all odds to be able to get it for our kids.
What are some of the things that influence your leadership style?
I’m still young, and for a long time I didn’t see myself as a leader, I was just someone who got pushed into this position. I’ve had to develop so many skills, and I am definitely still on my leadership journey. I know that my team and community help me be accountable. I think I’m open to that transparency and communication and take it on.
There’s also people that I’ve looked up to as role models across all sectors. They are people like Australian Governor General David Hurley; Ronni Khan AO, the co-founder of Oz Harvest; James McLaren, a managing partner of Sterling Black; and Uncle Shane Phillips, an Aboriginal elder within the community of Redfern. I also go to Uncle Fred, a Butchulla saltwater man, for advice on how I approach life and the decisions I make from that cultural lens. I also do a lot of personal and professional development.
There’s an old saying of who you hang around with is who you become. I’m part of a number of leadership groups and mix with high level CEOs from the NFP and corporate worlds. I learn from their stories and just try to soak everything up.
What are some of your favourite parts of your job?
I get to meet amazing people who want to make a difference. I get to connect with so many corporate people who are out there trying to do something good in the world. I get to work with an amazing team, people who are hungry for change as well. I also get to make a contribution and use my negative experiences for positive. Among all of it is the kids.
I get to see first-hand the change, the impact and the value that we’re having on the kids’ lives. And that’s what makes it all worth it. None of this is about me, and I would do this job for free. It’s not even really a job, it’s a passion. I just love everything that we stand for and what we’re trying to do in terms of breaking the cycle that we need so much in our community.