In Her Shoes gives us the rare opportunity to briefly step into the lives of the women who inspire us and discover the strength, courage and ingenuity that has got them to where they are today.
“you just got to keep stepping up and leaning in.”
— Belinda Duarte
As a Wotjobaluk and Dja Dja Wurrung descendant, Belinda has dedicated most of her life to championing the celebration of Indigenous culture. In her role as CEO of Culture is Life this is her main focus, and she has led a number of programs designed to break down barriers within communities and encourage the celebration of Aboriginal customs and traditions. Belinda’s goal is to strengthen these connections, in an effort to prevent youth suicide and to support young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In 2020 Belinda was presented with the Parbin-ata Louisa Briggs Award 2020 for making a significant contribution to reconciliation in the community. She was also awarded the Chief Executive Women (CEW) and Vincent Fairfax Fellowship for her amazing work.Belinda wears the Hada boot in sunkissed tan.
Can you tell us how being a Wotjobaluk and Dja Dja Wurrung descendant with Polish and Celtic heritage has had an impact on you?
I have been cut from a pretty extraordinary cloth, although my family would say they are ordinary people. My matriarchal culture stems from my matriarchal country, Wotjobaluk country, also centrally from Dja Dja Wurrung country. My beautiful mum, aunty and uncle, along with others, were raised in a system of care (an orphanage), and from a cultural perspective, that displacement from country had such a huge impact on their identity, as it did on the rest of the Stolen Generations. My mum, being the resilient person she was, transitioned to a place of strength and confidence through the power of sport where she able to articulate her talent without being inhibited. On my dad’s side I have also witnessed a lot of resilience. My dad was a Vietnam Veteran and Polish refugee and my babcia (grandmother) and grandfather were prisoners of war. My family has not been without struggle and their experiences have inspired me in so many ways in the work that I do. The more I get to know about my family, the more I am inspired to be braver and bolder to honour their resilience, so that my family and my community can be really proud of the opportunities that they have given me.
Tell us how sport has been a pathway for you?
My love for sport began when I was a little girl, I remember loving to run and feel the wind in my hair! I followed a journey of track and field, starting as a sprinter and following my passion as a heptathlete many years later – it gave me a place that was just for me. I look back on my early sporting days and I wasn’t very confident, but what it set up for me was thinking about how to put myself in places that were completely uncomfortable in order to grow. Getting through my own inhibitions allowed me to trial for both the Commonwealth and Olympic games which was an extraordinary experience.
I am very fortunate to have competed in pro-running and the Stawell gift, a traditional and historic event that is very dear to me especially since my Uncle Robert Kinnear was the first Aboriginal man to win, and I say that with such pride. I also have the amazing story of my great-great-great grandfather travelling to England to play with Australia’s first international cricket team. When I think about my family in sport, I am really proud. As my family and my mob would attest to, we have a great history of just being able to express talent in an environment that was not historically as restricted.
I have always felt sport was built into my DNA. My father was conscripted to serve in Vietnam and his mentality and physicality were about being tough. So, from a very early age, I felt sport was a place where I belonged. I felt that I could challenge myself. I felt that I didn’t have to use words, I could use actions. I really encourage people to connect physically and express [themselves] physically, particularly for young women. Challenge yourself to grow, feel your body in a way that you can understand what you can do with it. You can be strong, you can be powerful and you can be healthy, just by exercising regularly. Wittner’s mission is to empower women to ‘walk tall’. What does walking tall and standing up for what you believe in mean to you?
For me, ‘walking tall’ is about knowing who we are as women. First Nations women, particularly our young women, have not always been told that they have worth or a that there is safe and nurturing place in this world for them. Unfortunately, this takes away a lot of their self-confidence. At Culture is Life we support our youth to learn who they are, by understanding their history. Once they understand that, it can provide them with a platform to be inspired to move forward, regardless of what their story is.
Personally, I have always had this yearning to know not just the history of my immediate family, but the communities I have come from. There is this collective cultural fabric that is undeniable for us as First Nations People and I also see that when I spend time with my family in Poland.
As women, it’s important to surround yourself by people that truly see you, and ensuring that you encourage other women around you to create a holistically supportive environment. This changes how we relate to each other and reminds us to have each other’s back. I have so many extraordinary women and beautiful people in my world and I feel very blessed to have them walk tall with me.
You have experience in a range of positions within the sporting community, including the AFL. Can you walk us through your career in sport?
I’ve always loved sport, so it seemed like a natural progression to do a teaching degree in Physical Education after starting out in track and field. From there, my first board appointment was in a sports administration position with Vic Health. That set me on a trajectory around governance and where I would go on to work in the AFL industry for a number of years. I started with AFL Sports Ready, then I worked with an awesome group of people at Richmond Football Club. This is where I became a founding partner of the Korin Gamadji Institute, Richmond Football Club’s institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth leadership. CEO Brendon Gale, Simon Matthews, Aaron Clark and Luke Murray and the team have really taken the work at Tigers to another level, I was really proud from a ‘Culture is life’ perspective to have been a part of that journey. From my experience career-wise, sport has a way of opening up a number of opportunities for not only people to perform, but to connect.
Following my chapter at Richmond Football Club, the Western Bulldogs approached me to take up the opportunity to be a board member. As a Western District girl, born and bred in Ballarat and having industry experience, it’s been a really amazing journey to work with them.
Sport provides a vehicle for inspiring change, but also a place to find common ground with one another. What I’ve loved about working in the AFL industry is some of the amazing individuals who are so authentically committed to the work around honouring, celebrating and supporting the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, women and diverse groups. The power of sport is something that cuts across socio-economic backgrounds. It brings together people from very diverse upbringings and communities.Belinda wears the Qadira boot in kermit green.
We’re so excited to be partnering with ‘Culture is Life’. What led to becoming the CEO and tell us about a moment where you really saw the impact of your organisation’s work?
My journey started 6 years ago with Culture is Life, a not-for-profit, Aboriginal-led organisation. I was approached by an extraordinary entrepreneur, David Prior, who asked if I could come and be the inaugural CEO of Culture is Life. David is a bold and ambitious man who is deeply affected by issues surrounding Aboriginal wellbeing. He was particularly moved by the experience of an elder, Uncle Max Harrison. Uncle Max does incredible work inspiring and transforming men in Southern NSW (Yuin Country) through critical cultural initiatives.
Culture is Life, as an organization, is all about backing Aboriginal-led work. All of the evidence shows that if you do that, the impact and the sustainability of the work is long term. We believe that First Nations people thrive when they make a connection to their history.
I am constantly amazed by our young people. We had the blessing of facilitating the youth stream of the World Indigenous Suicide Prevention conference a few years back. I witnessed young people take the lead on the music mentoring piece with the Homelands project. I was proud to see leadership facilitated by young people and community members in expressing love and hope for our country.
I’m proud of my country connections and my family’s story but I’m also unbelievably inspired by so many communities across this country. I am particularly in awe of the strength of our matriarchs and the defiance they have shown. When I’m feeling sorry for myself and have to have a reality check, I just think about them. I think about what they’ve gone through and call myself out and say you just got to keep stepping up and leaning in. There are hard conversations to be had and as a nation we’re facing a lot of that at the moment through the treaty and treaty discussions – the Uluru Statement and the work around constitutional reform. As a nation, we have become better at connecting to this country, a country with the oldest living culture in the world, but we still have a way to go and I look forward to much more of it in the future.
What would be your piece of advice that you would give out to the Wittner community?
I think vulnerability is a rare thing to witness and when we see people who allow themselves to be truly vulnerable and speak from what is in their heart, it creates an opportunity to connect and ultimately, that’s what we’ve got – how we connect and relate to people.
When things are put out in the media, I want people to think through what comes up for them and explore those issues. Interrogate it with a curiosity, and listen to Aboriginal voices. Listen to their perspectives, rather than the way it may be portrayed in media, because of unconscious bias that needs to be relearned. Ultimately, the hardest thing I’ve chosen to do in my life is being brave in circumstances where I am unbelievably scared. Listening to yourself, and what you know you need to do to take those steps, requires courage.
Part of the work of what we’re trying to do at Culture is Life and the organisations I’m associated with, is help people connect, because once we connect, we have the opportunity to learn. I believe in the power of relationships, in how they inspire people and encourage people to stand together.Belinda wears the Joslyn boot in camel snake.
As part of the In Her Shoes series, we will continue to discover the incredible stories of women like Belinda. If you want to join us on this journey, connect with us on social media or sign up to receive emails to get inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.