“My father used to carry a dog tag as an Aboriginal person in Australia then, and people were made to feel shame for being who they were. In the last 20 years we’ve kicked plenty of goals, but in my day you could expect to be beaten around the head,” he recalls.
He also remembers the early pioneers like the late Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Riders of the ’60s.
“They came to our house and I remember these flash university fellas. In those days you didn’t hear of blackfellas going to universities and they made a big impression on me, as did the late boxer Lionel Rose when he won the world title in Tokyo. They were people I looked up to,” he says.
“In my day you left school in Year 10 and did a trade, or became a rural worker, or worked in a factory. That was your vision.
“Today, if you work hard, things can happen for you and kids see university as a natural option for them. The world is the vision for our young people now.”
Warren went on to become a student, studying business and then law, and he later became the National President of the Australian Labor Party. He has recently taken up the challenge of heading GenerationOne, a not-for-profit movement that is dedicated to bringing all Australians together to end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in one generation – our generation.
But despite the changing environment for Indigenous people, there is still much to be done, and Warren is well placed at GenerationOne to drive change for his people. He sees the main problems for his people as being socioeconomic issues – housing, health and jobs and, in particular, the high incarceration rate of young Indigenous people.
“In the juvenile justice area, the figures are going through the roof and we have to look at how do we break that cycle? I believe the key to everything is education. It’s been responsible for the biggest advancement across the globe. Last year I went to India and there they have a passion for education because they have a huge population trapped in poverty. I want to see that passion for education in our Indigenous society in Australia,” he says.
“We also have to embrace our own history and culture. We have to learn our own languages, too. Yes, learn English because it is a global language, but we have to preserve our own languages. It defines us and puts us in a cultural set.
“Multi-language learning is so important because we have to break out of taking second best.”
Striving for excellence will also yield results and there are many examples of Indigenous people who have accomplished great things – across art, literature, the performing arts. Indigenous people have taken their talents to a global stage.
“We have to turn away from being cute and capturing the tourists’ attention for being Indigenous, to being recognised as a true, strong culture, and we have to share that culture with others,” he says.
He also cites more than 100 Indigenous doctors, 500 lawyers and high numbers of school teachers in our schools as examples of those who are striving for excellence.
“The opportunities are there for this generation and we should be asking ourselves how we can play our role and strive for that excellence. There are career paths in medicine, nursing, teaching and the opportunities are there in the classrooms around Australia.”
Unity among Indigenous people is particularly important at this time for Warren. He recently appeared on the Insight program on SBS TV, which explored the theme of Aboriginality and who decides who is Aboriginal.
“I was shocked by comments from our own people. I never saw being Aboriginal as a disadvantage and if people are caught up in the colour debate, they are denying the wide diversity of experience Aboriginal people have. We need to embrace our experiences and work with our brothers and sisters and say, ‘You’re our blood,’” he says.
“Australia as a nation needs to learn about its own history and the tremendous diversity of Aboriginal people today. One region is different from another, we are different colours and we need to recognise that. The stereotyping of Indigenous people is quite strange.”
Including Aboriginal studies in the school curriculum has been a positive step, but the embracement of Aboriginal history in Australia has not gone far enough.
“In Germany they confronted their past and dealt with it. You can’t move forward until you’ve done that.”
As the CEO of GenerationOne, Warren has priorities for the future. The organisation works closely with a sister organisation, Australian Employment Covenant (AEC), which aims to gain commitments of 50,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians, and the P-Plate program, which links those AEC commitments with school children. Getting jobs for Indigenous people is firmly on Warren’s radar.
The juvenile justice area is another priority as are innovative solutions like diversionary justice, rather than incarceration, for young people.
Partnerships with other peak bodies like the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) are important areas for progress.
“We are a large Indigenous organisation and we need to forge partnerships with others because it’s all about getting results,” he says.
Fostering Indigenous business is another priority, so that Indigenous commerce is created in communities.
GenerationOne is active in the school community and has recently held an extremely successful schools’ competition, which involved some 30,000 students. In the competition, primary schools were asked to re-create the GenerationOne theme song “Hands Across Australia”, while secondary school-students were encouraged to reform the Warumpi Band’s 1980’s hit “Blackfella/Whitefella”.
Change has happened and is continuing to happen, and Warren Mundine is happy to drive it from his CEO seat at GenerationOne.
“When I think back and remember that we were banned from swimming in town pools and the theatre, there has been tremendous change in my lifetime.”