Proud Indigenous Christian Brooke Prentis says racism remains a reality for many, and that’s because the divide between black and white can be a very grey area indeed, writes Jessica Morris.
Brooke Prentis was six when she learnt that being proud of her culture made her a target for discrimination. A descendant of the Waka Waka peoples in Queensland, she recalls being taught by her single mother about racism for the first time.
“A racist joke was told to me, and when I went home to my mum she sat me down and explained what racism was. She told me how this country has treated my peoples.”
As an Aboriginal Christian, Brooke experiences racism about once a month within and outside of the church. She is a successful senior financial professional, a former board member of TEAR Australia, a keynote speaker, the coordinator of the Grasstree Gathering (a national gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spokesperson for Common Grace, a movement of people passionate about Jesus and justice.
She was also the pastor of The Salvation Army’s first Aboriginal church in 2012 and a member of The Salvation Army’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reference group since 2012.
Yet when it comes to the expression, ‘close the gap’, she experiences the divide between white and black every single day.
“When you walk this land as an Aboriginal person in Australia in 2017, we see a very different Australia than the line that the media wants to portray,” says Brooke. “For us the land is broken, I describe it as, ‘the land is weeping’. You might see that just as ecological injustice, but also the way that we Aboriginal peoples have been treated and continue to be treated.”
Launched in 2007, the ‘Close the Gap’ campaign which was marked this year on 16 March, is the partnership of Australia’s premiere Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal health bodies, non-government agencies and human rights agencies to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with the same health and life expectancy equality as all Australians by 2030.
In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to closing the gap and being kept accountable to meet six targets related to Aboriginal life expectancy, health, education and employment. And when they released the first ‘Close the Gap’ report in 2008 under then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, it became clear why this was so important.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had a life expectancy 17 years shorter than non-Aboriginal peoples. Infant mortality was 12.3 deaths per 1,000, compared to non-Aboriginal infants at 4.2, and only 49 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people completed high school.
Nine years later, the statistics show little improvement and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted that more progress needs to be made. The government is not meeting six of their seven targets. And, as Brooke highlights, these are more than statistics—it’s the lives of real people.
“When you look at our statistics of disadvantage, we have the highest rate of suicide in the world. We die too young and too often,” she says. “We know as members of the Aboriginal community that we are always going to funerals. So there’s this constant state of grief.”
Becoming a Christian at age 21 at Albion (now Stafford) Salvation Army, Brooke’s fervour to bring justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is both cultural and spiritual. Yet this year she found herself becoming ‘disillusioned’ with the report.
“The reality is that we know the gap’s not closing because we see it with our friends and family and community every day. There’s still injustice and disadvantage that exist. When they presented the report and talked about it in parliament, it’s all just words, there’s no action.”
In Brooke’s opinion, the reason the government’s actions aren’t working is “because Aboriginal people still aren’t being listened to”. Yet we all have a role to play in closing the gap and reconciling non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples.
“We’ve got this concept of reconciliation being between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. And I prefer to call it friendship. And if we could look at it as friendship, then we could close that gap a lot quicker,” she says.
“If we want to be a mature nation in 2017, we have to deal with our history. That’s really the starting point,” says Brooke. “Watch the SBS series First Australians. It should be compulsory viewing for every Australian.”
People who have Aboriginal friends, loved ones or colleagues are encouraged to have a conversation with them about their lives. “Ask them what they would like to see changed and what you can be doing as their friend,” she explains.
Reconciliation Australia tells us that one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had experienced recent verbal racial abuse, and experiences of racism toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are often associated with increased anxiety, depression, suicide risk and overall poor mental health. Therefore, pointing out racism in everyday life is also a key part in closing the gap.
“If you hear racism in a conversation, call people out on it and say, ‘That’s not acceptable in Australia in 2017’ and have the conversation. Try and extract some of that racism and dispel the myths with truths,” says Brooke.
“There’s amazing Aboriginal people doing amazing things, but unfortunately there’s structures in both our government and church that don’t allow us to reach our full potential and for our ideas to be enacted upon and our voices listened to.”
Brooke’s dream for Australia is a nation built on truth, justice, love and hope. And that starts by joining our hands in friendship and committing to reconciliation together.
“Get to know us. Get to know the world’s oldest living culture. Get to know peoples who have been in this land we now call Australia for over 60,000 years, over 2,000 generations, peoples whom God placed here as his stewards, custodians, caretakers,” says Brooke.
“Please don’t think you know everything about Australia’s history or base your thoughts about Aboriginal peoples on one negative experience. Come on the journey of reconciliation in truth and love.”