Linked with our presentation of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship.
She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “We can change anything. We can make a just and peaceful world. History has shown that a genuine people’s movement can move more than governments. It can move mountains.”
Faith Bandler – Australia
She works for the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship,
for the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL),
and for the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
Even as a child, Faith Bandler (86) 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. Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders have been the direct beneficiaries of her crusade. Her work for abolition of war and elimination of poverty has been of international significance, earning her several major awards.Faith Bandler (86) 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. In recognition of her efforts, Faith was awarded the Order of Australia in 1984. She received an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University for her lifetime achievements in 1994. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission awarded her a Human Rights Medal in 1997. Nelson Mandela presented her with an award on behalf of the Sydney Peace Foundation in 2000. Two years later, Allen and Unwin published Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, a biography written by Professor Marilyn Lake of La Trobe University, Australia.
Marilyn 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 humour is dreary.” Faith’s background made it seem only natural that for seven decades, she would be a leading campaigner for Indigenous rights, women’s rights, social justice and the peace movement. Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders have been the direct beneficiaries of her crusade. 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 on 27 September 1918, Faith Ida Lessing 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 labour 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. The family grew fruits and vegetables, and it was here that Faith listened to records of American slave songs and heard her father preach in the church. Even as a child, Faith exhibited the positive qualities that blossomed in her later life. On his death-bed 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. She looked upon her brother, Walter, eight years her senior, as her mentor. As Faith says, “I wanted to do all the things he did – ride horses, swim the river, be the fastest milker, be generous like him, earn and give the money to others.” 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 the Second World War, 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. Aboriginals did not have the right to vote, were not permitted to enter public bars, and were not free to travel in their own country.
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 which aimed to advance the Aboriginal cause. Faith and her colleagues waged a ten-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. “For so long this whole country had ignored the problem of its first people, who were non-citizens in their own land. Aboriginal people lived under six laws and were governed by national and state laws. So in one state they may have been citizens, but in another state, they were not.” Faith’s campaign delivered remarkable results: “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.”
She has written five books about the social and political concerns of Indigenous Australians. After visiting the island of Ambrym (in Vanuatu), where her father came from, she was determined to tell her father’s story and make Australians acknowledge that slave labour was used to develop the sugarcane industry. Her books include: Wacvie (1977), Mariani in Australia (with Len Fox 1980), Welou, My Brother (1984), The Time was Ripe: A History of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (with Len Fox) and Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (1989). She still writes, “But not with the purpose that I once wrote. I am working on a novel at present. I have finished the first draft but not done anything on it for the past 12 months. Now I am re-thinking it and I am enjoying that. But there may come a time when I am no longer able to finish it.”
Australians still look towards Faith for guidance and inspiration. People writing a book or studying or researching Australian history still come to her for advice and help. She says, “I avoid students now. I think I have done my bit over the years helping students and I do not wish to continue. At my age, the best part of a day is spent looking after oneself. If one wants to keep living, one has to lead a careful life with no extremes.”
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. She also always made it a point to listen as much as possible. She used real life stories of people deprived of basic human rights to get her message across. She tried to influence cultural beliefs and traditions to make them more supportive of social justice by leading by example: “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. She says one needs most the support of thinking people and people concerned about world affairs. 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.”
Elucidating the many rewarding experiences in her life, Faith says, “I have been sharing my life with my husband for 53 years – a wonderful experience. The greatest contribution to making it rewarding is a peaceful existence. He has absolutely supported me in my work all along. And then having my daughter was a truly magnificent experience. Even to this day when I look at her, I feel how wonderful it has been. I enjoyed public life and I feel very satisfied that I have played a part in influencing the thinking of the Australian people, particularly on the matter of racial issues.” (Read on 1000peacewomen bandler).