This week we observe National Reconciliation Week in Australia (27 May – 3 June). It is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.

This year’s theme, Now more than ever, resonates strongly for Mutthi Mutthi Wemba Wamba woman Vicki Clark OAM. Vicki was the founding coordinator of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, a role she held for 25 years, and is also co-founder of Opening the Doors Foundation, which was established 24 years ago to give First Nations students from across the country the opportunity to attend independent and Catholic schools of their choice in Victoria.

Vicki shares her hopes and dreams for First Nations peoples, and for a country that is united in its desire for truth-telling, healing and reconciliation, where education is equally accessible for all Indigenous students.

While Vicki was born and spent much of her adult working life in Melbourne, she now lives on Wadi Wadi Country in Nyah, in north-western Victoria. From this place, she continues to tirelessly advocate for a unified Australia, work that she believes is more important than ever, given the outcome of last year’s national referendum on the Voice to Parliament.

‘Now, more than ever, we need everybody’s effort ... to be able to stay united towards reconciliation. Being united is the key.

‘The state of Victoria has the most Reconciliation Action Plans in the corporate world, so how do we keep them going so we don’t lose momentum in those places, and how do we continue to advocate for First Nations voice around the table. We have a saying: “Nothing about us without us”.’

Vicki has taken a leading role in the national reconciliation process for several years, serving as Co-Chair of Reconciliation Victoria from 2008 to 2015. Since 2017, she has been a government appointee to the Victorian Interim Treaty Working Party. She says it’s been a years-long, complex process, looking at how treaties will be implemented among the 30-plus Indigenous land-owner groups across Victoria. There’s no ‘one size fits all’, she says.

‘In the process, our traditional owner groups have been looking at what does this framework that’s been presented to us mean? How do we unite as traditional owner groups?

‘This is a very important moment. There’s much wisdom that we must carry from our ancestors into this space. And carrying that wisdom is about reassuring that what we do today is going to bring prosperity to the family groups, that it’s going to bring culture and spirituality and connection back to the land and the waterways. So it is an interesting time for me in this space now because these are big decisions that are needed.

‘But through Treaty, it’d mean we have recognition, and that First Nations people come to the table as equal partners and players. I’ve seen it happen in America and Canada, and that’s where we need to get to here in Australia.’

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Vicki Clark OAM. Photo by Fiona Basile

Opening the doors for First Nations Students to equal education choices

Vicki remains actively involved as a Trustee of the Opening the Doors Foundation, which she proudly co-founded 24 years ago with corporate lawyer John Arthur. In the first two decades of its operation, more than 10,000 grants were provided to First Nations students and their families, providing the opportunity for them to attend independent and Catholic schools of their choice in Victoria. Funding provided through the foundation also allows families to purchase school uniforms, books, equipment and attend camps.

‘It’s about giving our First Nations students and families an equal playing field,’ she says. ‘Our philosophy is always to be a wrap-around foundation to support their social and emotional needs and wellbeing when they enrol and participate in these schools. They have the books so that they can learn. They have the uniform, so they feel just as good as everybody else. They can attend the school camp, which is an important bonding experience for students.’

There are also opportunities for students to apply for funding to assist in overseas or interstate travel. ‘Where some of the students have been learning about another country, and another culture, they’ve been able to participate in school trips to those countries, and also to places in remote Aboriginal Australia,’ says Vicki.

‘Many of our families never had passports. So this is the first time someone in their family has had a passport to go over to Europe or Asia, perhaps, just to get that cultural experience. So that’s one of the beauties of our program.’

Another ‘beauty’ is that many students of the First Nations students the foundation has supported from Prep to Year 12 are completing school and going on to establish their own small businesses. Importantly, Vicki has seen many of the grant recipients returning to their own communities, or to other Aboriginal communities across Victoria and Australia ‘to give back’.

‘It’s wonderful to see our students taking their educational experience and their knowledge back into the community. And that’s because it’s been possible for the students to study from their own homes. They didn’t need to leave. They had the beauty of family, culture, country, a good education experience, and then they’ve been able to stay and give back to their communities.’ There are also stories of students who went on to study trades now establishing small businesses and fixing up houses that Aboriginal people live in.

Looking to the future, Vicki says her hopes for reconciliation rest in the ongoing dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and the implementation of Treaty in Victoria, and in the young First Nations people who are the leaders of today and tomorrow. ‘I want to make sure that our Aboriginal children have every opportunity to bring about positive change within our family groups, and to be great leaders in the future,’ Vicki says. ‘That’s what drives me.’

‘I have seen the changes in our communities; I’ve seen the changes in our young ones, and I’ve seen them so strong and proud of their identity and culture, strong and proud of who they are and what they do. And that’s what makes me happy. That’s what really drives me too. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but being united, and being part of the conversations as equals, remains the key.’

How you can support Opening the Doors Foundation

Walk with Us fundraiser

Opening the Doors Foundation receives no financial support from the government. It relies on donations from individuals and philanthropic endeavours. Schools, parishes and workplaces are invited to host a walk on 2 August 2024, National Children’s Day, to raise money for the foundation. Find out more and sign your team up here.

Friends Igniting Reconciliation through Education (FIRE) Carrier program

Catholic schools are encouraged to implement the FIRE Carriers program, which ensures that reconciliation will always play a major role in the school’s culture and education. Find out more here.