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The Gentle Activist
|by Neena Bhandari|
Even as a child, Faith Bandler (born 1918) showed the many qualities that blossomed in her later life. The abuse and exclusion she experienced as an indigenous schoolgirl in white Australia left a lasting impression on her, but she still exudes a serenity that belies her extraordinary energy for the cause of justice for indigenous peoples, for women, and for the peace movement.
Faith is best known for her leading role in the long campaign to win full citizenship rights for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. She has spent a lifetime campaigning for racial equality and women's rights. Her work for abolition of war and elimination of poverty has been of national and international significance - the Order of Australia in 1984; an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University in 1994; the Human Rights Medal presented by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 1997; an award presented by Nelson Mandela on behalf of the Sydney Peace Foundation in 2000.
In 2002, Allen and Unwin published 'Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist', a biography written by Professor Marilyn Lake of La Trobe University, Australia. Lake says Faith exudes a serenity that belies her extraordinary energy for the causes she has championed all her life. Her radiance commands attention and it is easy to fall under her spell. She is also very witty and says, "Life without a sense of humor is dreary."
While no longer associated with a particular organization, Faith continues to advise and guide many national and international networks. Today she reaches out to people everywhere from her home in Turramurra in Sydney: "The telephone is a wonderful instrument and has cut the tyranny of distance, linking people across the world in no time."
Born as Faith Ida Lessing, she was the sixth child of Ida and Peter Mussing. Faith's father was one of the 30,000 South Sea Islanders brought to work as slave labor in Queensland's sugarcane fields in the late 19th century. He worked in the cane fields for 14 years before fleeing to New South Wales, where he married a Scottish-Indian woman. It was here that Faith listened to records of American slave songs and heard her father preach in the church. Faith was a unique child. On his deathbed, when Faith was five, her father told Ida, "Always look after this one." As a young girl living in Tumbulgum on the Tweed River in New South Wales, Faith watched her mother nurse the sick and this experience stayed with her.
Later, growing up in the small town of Murwillumbah, the abuse and exclusion she experienced as an Indigenous schoolgirl left a lasting impression on Faith. "All that was Black was bad. When you are Black, there is so much you have to watch out for." In 1932, she was perhaps the only non-White sitting for the High School Certificate examination. "We were always begging for books, never had enough and always wished for a piano or violin," she adds.
At the age of 16, Faith left school, completed a dressmaker's apprenticeship, and moved to Sydney. While in Sydney during World War II, Faith served in the Australian Women's Land Army and worked on farms growing food to feed Australians fighting overseas. Here, she learned first-hand that Aboriginal women on the farms were paid less than the other workers. "Women were paid three parts of the male wage for equal work and there was a period when they could not borrow money from a bank. These are very serious and big issues - underpaid, disadvantaged, segregated on grounds of color and gender - these issues are from one's life," explains Faith.
In 1952, Faith married engineer Hans Bandler. Hans - an Austrian Jew who had survived imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps - supported Faith's fight for justice. They raised a daughter, Lilon, and a foster son Peter, who was an Aboriginal child they found abandoned in a park.
At French's Forest and then at Turramurra in Sydney, Hans and Faith's warm and welcoming home became a meeting ground for dialogue and discussion for artists, writers, musicians and political thinkers.
In the 1950s, her life was influenced by Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs and radical Jessie Street. In 1956, Faith co-founded with Pearl, the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, a group that aimed to advance the Aboriginal cause. Faith and her colleagues waged a 10-year campaign calling on the government to grant full citizenship rights to indigenous Australians. She organized conferences and negotiations and sent hundreds of petitions to community organizations.
In 1967, the Australian Government held a Referendum asking Australians to vote on whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Indigenous Australians the same rights as other citizens. The Referendum was passed with 90.2 per cent of the vote. The success of the referendum was Faith's most significant achievement. "Indigenous people now have all the rights that other Australians have. They can live where they can afford to live and choose. They are no longer shut away under reservations. They have freedom of movement. And if they have the skills, they have the work opportunities. But Australia still has elements of racism. People are still described more or less by their ethnicity instead of the contributions they make to the country."
Elegant and articulate, Faith is an effective political lobbyist and author. In 1972, she co-founded the Women's Electoral Lobby, and in 1974 co-founded the National Commission for Australian South Sea Islanders. She was an executive member of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) during its existence from 1962 to 1973. Her work in the FCAATSI directly inspired the second wave of Aboriginal activism in the 1970s. In a speech to the New South Wales Reconciliation Convention in 1999, Faith told her audience: "History has shown that a genuine people's movement can move more than governments. It can move mountains."
Faith used different strategies in her work. She would judge her audience very carefully and always made a point of never offending, even if she disagreed. "We have no right to ask others to do what we do not do ourselves."
To sustain her work, Faith finds emotional and spiritual support in people. Talking about the reality today, Faith says, "I think the wealth is very unevenly distributed. I think it is the cause of most problems in the world today. People generally ask for no more than food, health and shelter. But there is no guarantee for that and that is why I think there is a need for countries to have a Human Rights Council. These things are not given by grace, we should have them by rights. All people should have rights to health, food, shelter, clothing and education."
(Faith Bandler is one of a thousand PeaceWomen profiled as part of the 'PeaceWomen Across the Globe' project; www.1000peacewomen.org.)
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