Raised in the outskirts of Warkworth, New Zealand in the 70s and swimming in a sea of settler culture my Wiradjuri/Ngarabal Dad instilled in me values and a way of looking at the world that was different to that of those around us.
Dad and I had bush ways of understanding and these naturally conflicted with settler ways. He was an idealistic dreamer. As I moved through life I saw human behaviour in contradiction with our values and this was not easy on me socially. I was not able to articulate why I felt so incompatible with the young people in the town I was raised. It felt like it was just ‘everything’. Most of Dad’s best advice to me was “You’ve gotta work the system, Jess, you gotta get. that. money. You survive, you thrive, no matter what.”
I came to see those around me from a distance. But he would reassure me in our alone time “You and me baby, we’re not on the outside looking in, and we’re not in the inside looking out, we’re on the outside… looking out.” Dad was not an easy, well or safe man but he the was source of my philosophical thinking. I understand his problems as the result of his deep existential scars, as the direct result of war, colonialism and violence. And that to be a philosopher, poet, music man is how I understand he and I both.
I knew myself to be owned by my blood relatives and owned by the world around me yet had limited contact with our family or language because of our displacement in New Zealand. Growing up we would frequently visit New South Wales (Tweed) and Gindaaydjin/Glen Innes (Ngarabal Land) and hear stories about the “reservation”, the stolen babies and the restoration of lands by the government in that area. We would then return again to New Zealand where I have always felt foreign and wrong. I knew that animals were like cousins to us and were worthy of respect and passionate-admiration. Animals are our heroes. “Look at the hedgehog, Jess! Look at him! Isn’t he amazing!” I didn’t know it then but this is named ‘totemic’ thinking. Dad was always teaching me to look at the world in a way that was completely spiritual and the goal was always “fresh eyes, fresh understanding” when dealing with struggle. It came to be that most of my meaningful, hard-wired, core values are Koori values and the way I saw us – the people positioned in relationship with existence – comes from who we are are. You cannot breed 50,000 years of bush out of these bones in two generations.
I saw myself as in relationship with the land around me rather than separate from it. I only knew our culture through blood and from stories told by Dad and Nan and when I saw her she sweep me into her arms with so much love and assure me that this was the purest truth of our connection. She told me that how we understand the world and what we know as people is what makes her and I the same, that I was only white on the outside but black on the inside. Nan and Dad told me that I was owned by our people and that connection was spiritual and had a telepathic knowing to it, which was based on natural empathy or heightened concern for each other. She died only a few years ago and I met my long, lost sister at the same time.
I moved through the world feeling mostly alone in New Zealand (but usually grateful for one or two friends and in a very profound way supported by my Nanas and Mum) and I had great compassion for animals and that they should not be in the situation they are, used and exploited. Many of my relatives would become veggie or vegan out of their values without us sharing any conversation on the topic. Some would continue with fish and bush tucker but very many of the kids came to raise their own kids with thought for animals. I spent 10 years in the corporate world then rejected that feeling my own isolation was amplified by our philosophic differences. I made money at a cost to my body and conscience. I spent 10 years doing animal rights advocacy, fighting for the rights of animals but using methods and understandings that were supporting this huge system and were still incompatible with my understandings, as were the values of many of those activists around me.
Many times I saw those with troubling or psychopathic ways being upheld and exonerated as heroes, and they fit so well in the white mans world. Many times I would feel a sense of strong discontent – shared by other indigenous friends and some white friends too – about participating in not only a society but communities that upheld and rewarded this psychopathic interpersonal behaviour. But the forces are strong and few have given consideration on methods to work to undo these group-habits. Some of my friends have. They call it ‘decolonisation’.
I came – through my history and relationships with others – to know the biggest problems to be: borders, how we treat each other as people and how capitalism intentionally gives power and a louder voice to people with anti-people values, a lack of empathy, an idea that we are natural dominators of the earth, that we had a right to exploit animals, and the habit of placing the male above the female, problems also include the way in which our little community structures reinforce the benefits of psychopathy by rewarding this with social advantage, and how we see ourselves as individuals rather than thinking about how to support the group together. I have come to feel that I don’t want to keep using these settler tools and settler ways that have made a mess and cause such disparities between rich and poor. I don’t want to be embroiled in them. I don’t want to participate in communities, even activist or vegan ones, that still reward or tolerate the same bad values without addressing them thought safe talk and rewriting how we handle struggles.
Capitalism and power is keeping us all oppressed by the ownership of resources. But I want something new on all levels, and that’s not just about veganism. ‘Not exploiting animals’ is just one of the many touchstones or central values that I feel are important to my morality. It’s true I strongly know it is wrong to use generations of animals as breeding chattels, to inseminate them without consent, to hijack their reproduction, to take their babies, to take their milk, to kill them without need. And as I see people turning to veganism in droves I feel like things have changed for me. It feels so good to be able to speak about it.
When I first started vegan advocacy and AR there were far few of us amplifying that vegan message and it was essential that we did so because few were. Now I feel like there are lots amplifying that particular message and is gaining the exponential growth that we envisioned. But something has been lost for me along the way and I think that’s our fault for not communicating it right early on, I think I didn’t have full vision because I was still young at that time (I love aging!). People come to veganism and bring many of their troubling mainstream, consumer, capitalistic power values with them. They see veganism in isolation to everything else, they have their other troubling ‘ism’ values in tact and unchallenged by a change in eating. This is something I want to change.
If I’m going to tell a story and encourage something, I want to draw attention to a whole new way of understanding, new ways of interacting with each other, accountability processes within communities. These things are deeply related. And this is hard, because this violently implemented state wants individuals in relationship with itself rather than each other. Making a society like that specifically encourages psychopathic relationships. So when it comes to holding each other to account, every person feels as though this is not really their responsibility.
Because the nature of the communities are undefined or held together only by a thin thread of opt-in ideas instead of a strong body of ideals. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that when we become a part of a community we also take on shared responsibility to each other. Because in this situation what does it mean to be responsible for those in your community? How do we do this? Who is even in your community? Who are your allies? Are all of these people your community or just some? Isn’t the settler culture one that values a passive response? What does passivity mean? What are the consequences of it?
The settler culture encourages community members to be seen as disposable when there is an abundance of people. Relationships are commodities, including romantic ones in a scenario where resource ownership was historically controlled through a system of titles held by males, and this subsequently influences behaviour in romantic partnerships. It’s easy to swap out social communities with a change in wind or opinion or when you begin to disprove of others. We disavow responsibility and lay that on the police, the state, and we’re encouraged to. The idea that the government doesn’t want dependents is a lie. Our communities are all in-fact due to the nature of resource control necessarily dependent. I get that. But we can still work with that to create emotionally healthier groups and we can still develop accountable communities, even in the urban environment.
So I want to use my creativity and energy to work on the deconstruction and reconstruction of every part of this while recognising the challenge as someone who is also dependent on resources that are controlled by capitalist powers. I also want this work to reflect the fact that some of us will be in urban and others in rural environments. But we are still in a relationship with existence around us (the earth, the animals, the people, the places). And that’s what I want to discuss. Not just being vegan and keeping every other bad trait. No.
The world is in crisis and together we have something to learn about how to be. We are causing harm. I don’t agree with the ways of power accumulation and to reward psychopaths as heroes and leaders. I don’t agree with this in our own communities. I believe in community based solutions to violence and think Koori ways of understanding can be shared. I want to work on new solutions and I will reconstruct all of my work to reflect this. I will still advocate strongly for animals but it will be a part of a fundamental gear shift that acknowledges and clearly communicates the rest. This realisation when it really slipped into place for me was as powerful as that of veganism ten years ago. This is all part of my journey and if you want to understand walkabout it’s also about this… it’s where I put my foot, due to measuring how my values align with my understandings, experiences and relationships. That’s what it is to walk in rumination and what it is to live a life of mindful consideration.
I take my greatest inspiration from the elders in my life, my Mum who worked so hard to raise me in balance with my loud and unruly nature, my Nana Flo with her handsomeness, wisdom and humour, and my Nana Billie by adoption, a hard-working, deeply loving settler Nana who at times singularly managed a dairy farm, I also feel that love for my Jewish-Nana who I never met but the reports of her sharp, intelligent wit is something I see in my Mum, my Aunty and me… In the next year or so will be changing my name and will cast off the settler names and names of patriarchy that have a history of elevating settler men over women. I take inspiration from my Dad – a wild man – Georgie Kookaburra, a man, a mouth, with a foot in two worlds and who never found home in either. And I will do what is in my nature, I will speak.
The purpose of my life and work (there is no separation) is to bring all of this together and make sense of it, to understand it and to share what I know with others.