The Remarkables Podcast

ID. Know Yourself: creating a better world for children in out-of-home care

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Isaiah Dawe
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In this episode of The Remarkables, we speak with Butchulla and Garawa Salt Water Aboriginal man, Isaiah Dawe.
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As founder and CEO of ID. Know Yourself, Isaiah has created a positive environment for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care by giving them a place to connect with their culture, and form friendships outside of their home life. He started ID. Know Yourself – a program helping to break the cycle for children who enter the foster care system – after having grown up in out-of-home care himself. Isaiah is determined to inspire every child who is part of this wonderful community where he wants to excite them about what the future holds.

In this episode, Isaiah discusses reform in the foster care system for Indigenous children, what it was like growing up in out-of-home care, and who he looked up to through the tough times.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

For more information on ID. Know Yourself, click here.

Read the podcast transcript here

Rebecca Archer 

Welcome to The Remarkables – Grant Thornton's podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same.

I'm Rebecca Archer and today I'm joined by Butchulla and Garawa man, Isaiah Dawe, founder and CEO of ID. Know Yourself - an organisation determined to impact the lives of Aboriginal children in out of home care. With a mission to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and disadvantage, the group aims to create love, hope and belonging, so the kids can feel a sense of fulfilment and self-determination in their lives.

Welcome, Isaiah. Now to open the episode, I'm going to let you introduce yourself because I think that's the best way to find out exactly who you are and where you're from.

Isaiah Dawe

Ngara Galangoor djali, which means, “hello, and good day my language.” Thank you so much, Rebecca. Galangoor nyin – it means thank you in our lingo, Rebecca, for having me on, and thanks so much for talking about the mission and the work that we do. You said it perfectly and to introduce myself and where I'm from, I’m a Butchulla and Garawa Saltwater Murri man. So, the Butchulla country is up Harvey Bay, Maryborough, Queensland and K'gari, which is the traditional name of Fraser Island. It's Mundai Mundai country, which means "beautiful" in our lingo. If you haven't been there, Rebecca, I reckon you definitely go there. There are some phenomenal places – I was actually just on country last week for a big corroboree and ceremony, which I'm sure we could talk about a little bit more today. So I was just up there – recharging, reconnecting back to culture, but I'm also a Garawa man. So that's up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. So, I’m a Yakamarri man so I’m also from that country.

I feel absolutely privileged to be able to say where I'm from, because in the nature of the work that we do at ID. Know Yourself, and also for my own personal experiences growing up in care, I didn't know where my Mob was from. And so, I stand proudly today to actually confidently say where I'm from. That’s what I mean by – I feel so privileged, because, unfortunately, I'm one of the lucky kids who, who knows where he's from, and my identity, because many children that we work with in out-of-home care, unfortunately, they don't know where they're, where they're from, or who's their mob, which is often asked of Aboriginal people to each other. Two words, or two questions are – who’s your mob, where are you from? And I didn't really know that as a kid. So, I'm proud to know that today, and I'm calling from today, on this virtual setting from the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

Rebecca Archer

Now, your slogan know yourself is about knowing what you're capable of, knowing your worth and what you can achieve in this world. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and also, the “ID” aspect of the name, ID. Know Yourself?

Isaiah Dawe

We might start with ID – so you know, IDs, DOM representation. So, ID stands for identity, but it's also the initials of my name: Isaiah Dawe. I think a lot of people are quite dumbfounded when I say that. There are some - we've had some people joining us this mission for a couple of years now, and they say, “hang on, I'm only just finding that now.” So, for those who are listening who don't know, yeah, it's me. And the reason behind that was because I was briefly saying then I grew up in out-of-home care, my story is a shared story of what happens to kids as they grow up in this really challenging environment that we call out-of-home care. So when I talk about know yourself as well, ID. Know Yourself, it's about helping our kids know who they are, know where they're going to achieve what they're capable of in life, because from my experience growing up, and what I see with other kids, is that they see life through tunnel vision, and they don't really see what life has to offer and the opportunities that are available to them because I really get handed a platform to be heard, or they don't really get a platform for opportunity.

So, our whole role is about opening that lens and showing them what is possible and motivating them to show them that they can be anything that they set their mind to be. And you know, an old saying we say to the kids, and when I work with them is that, “If you can think of in your mind, you can hold it in your hands.” And so that high idea of you know, thinking about what you want to become and manifesting it is so important.

Rebecca Archer

Such a beautiful philosophy; I love that. Now the ID. Know Yourself program is broken down into five components, and that is culture, life skills, education, wellbeing and advocacy. Can you talk a little bit more about all of those aspects?

Isaiah Dawe

Yeah, so I think for, as you mentioned, our vision statement for ID. Know Yourself, our whole vision for ID. Know Yourself is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma disadvantage for our kids, and the way we do that is by love, hope and belonging. So, every child can have that sense of fulfilment and self-determination in their lives. And when we talk about fulfilment, you know, it's called “the art of fulfilment” for a reason – it’s different for every single person, and that's the same for our kids – it’s different. What I might find, you know, valuable in life might be very different to someone else, or even the other kids.

So why we have such a holistic approach to mentoring in so many different components, is because we want to make sure that no kid is left behind and forgotten, and that we can really help them advance in all aspects of life – you know, wellbeing, as you mentioned, is so important. I think we've all probably experienced in the last couple of years with all the environmental challenges. You know we had COVID-19, the bushfires and the floods, and let alone being an Aboriginal kid in this society, and also being, you know, in out-of-home care, with a lot of traumas that the kids been exposed to. So, wellbeing is such a crucial part to our kids reaching that sense of fulfilment in their life. So, you know, we have partnerships with headspace, and we have Aboriginal Reach Out Officers and psychologists who come into the sessions and run mental health workshops and help empower – and help our kids heal. And culture does that. And you'll see with most of our outcome areas, they intertwine like just then, I’ll talk about wellbeing.

As an Aboriginal person, knowing where you're from, and having that connectedness to Country, being able to take your shoes off on Country, and swim in the oceans, where your ancestors have been for thousands of years is such a refreshing thing and healing and thing. So, and we do that through our Concrete to Country Cultural Camps. At the end of every school term, we take kids back onto country where they're from, which then most of the time, they haven't been on there or never knew about it. So yeah, there's so many different aspects, and another that I don't think was mentioned was employment, you know, really helping, and that's kind of intertwined with education, you know, helping kids finish school, but then also, you know, all of those transferable skills that I've learned during that 12 years finishing school, to then be able to go, “Alright, what am I passionate about? What do I want to do in life?” And that's that other aspect of, you're feeding into that fulfilment and self-determination.

Rebecca Archer 

And when you say, the kids, what age groups are we looking at here?

Isaiah Dawe

Yeah, kids we work with from six years old to 18 years old; we have all of those ages in one group setting. And so, a little bit different, I'll say unorthodox, as opposed to many other programs, but we see tremendous value in that because, you know, feeding into our slogan “break the cycle” unfortunately, in Australia, we've seen forced assimilation and removal forever, for generations, and that's what we're talking about breaking the cycle there. We’re making sure that these kids, when they have children of their own someday, that they aren't then removed, and the cycle just continues on disadvantage, and trauma. So, we're actually seeing, with the older kids and the young kids in the same group setting that the older kids are really taking on that responsibility and carrying that baton on and showing these kids through maybe their own learnt experiences in life, but also what they learned from us and the mentors that are helping guiding them through their journey, to then give back to the next generation and support them.

We've seen a lot of those kids is take that leadership by the hand and, help support the younger kids in the group settings, getting them to participate into the activity that we might be doing, them sharing their own personal journey with another kid and helping them keep strong through what they're going through. And so, we don't have to wait four or five generations to see the kids breaking the cycle now. And so, we've got some of these older kids who are 17/18, who are now starting to become shadow mentors, and join us in our team. I tell you what, it's the most proud and exciting thing I think we've seen over the last, you know we've only been three and a half years in operation, but seeing these kids become Alumni and carry that baton forward just makes this incredible journey even more exciting!

Rebecca Archer

Isaiah, I wonder if I can ask you to share a little bit about the experience of being in the foster care system. What was that like? What was your experience there?

Isaiah Dawe

When I was two months old, I was removed from my parents, and I grew up in the system until I was 18 years old. I went through many different foster homes as a kid and, you know, the hardest thing was not ever having someone to call family; the hardest thing was never having a mum or dad around; the hard thing was never really having, I guess you know, a really strong consistent father figure or mother figure and you know, so therefore I didn't really have much love, hope or belonging in my life, and that can be a really dark and lonely place. So, let alone, you know, all the other challenges that come about such as racist comments from our caseworkers or carers and the other kids and not knowing who I was, you know, as I said earlier, not knowing who I was.

So, I wasn't really strong in myself and to back myself up as well, when I was getting bullied from the other kids, because I couldn't spell, read or write my name – I had to do reading recovery. Because of that, I had to repeat year four. It was really, really tough, a really tough time, you know. I had carers who, I'd come home from school, and that get inches away from my face, and they’d say Isaiah, you're nobody, that's why you're in foster care. And I remember when I was kid, I used to run away with my younger sister, and we used to hide from the foster carers all the time. So, we would run away from the abuse that we were suffering, and fortunately, I was placed in my younger sister. Originally, I was displaced from all of my siblings, but got to meet my younger sister when I was seven, but for the other siblings, I didn't. So, me and my younger sister have a really tight relationship. And when we used to run away from these carers, you know, we used to say to each other, “it's you and me against the world,” because that's all we ever had.

And so, when we were hiding from these foster carers, that kept us strong. So, within all the dark days, I suppose I try and remember the light as hard as it is, and think of the, you know, the strength that we had, rather than, you know, the tough times. Because even though all these things that we were exposed to his kids, it was hard, I wouldn't want to experience it ever again. I wouldn’t want to hear the things that I heard. At the end of the day, it's made me who I am, and I always believe it's not what you get in life, it's who you become, that really matters. And I unfortunately had to go through this pathway to get to here, and now making sure that these kids don't have the same experiences, and that they can have this fulfilling and self-determining life.

Rebecca Archer

It's so inspiring to hear that story, and to know that the negative experiences that you've had, a lot of people would just potentially say, “Well, okay, that was my lot in life.” But you're actually turning into something so positive for so many other people. I wonder if, as you were growing up, did you have anyone to look up to, to role model the kind of behaviour that you're demonstrating throughout the world now?

Isaiah Dawe

I had a few people, you know, that I didn't stay with them for too long. But you know, there were pockets of kindness that I had of people. I remember one Aunty, who used to take us in, and she was probably, and still is, one of the most special people I ever could think of and, you know, her name was Nanna McPheeters. She used to take us in, and she would just look after us. She would take us in in a play cards with us; she would give us love, and really make sure that, you know, we had some sense of love and care from someone. And it was just the most simplest things, and I will cherish those memories I have with her. We used to play Uno, and stuff like that – they were so, so enjoyable. She stood up for us, even though it was tough to our carers at times, and she told us what was right and wrong as well, and that it was not, you know, because of who we are, it was because of them. And it was a representation of them not us, which was kind of hard sometimes to differentiate when you’re told you’re the problem your life. So, she made us realise, you know, showed us that we weren't.

And then also, you know, I had an Aboriginal Elder called Uncle Eric Bell, you know, he was awesome. I used to go gardening with him, and we’d stay at his house for a bit. So, he was another inspiring person who led by example. I've met so many other incredible elders over that time and obviously reconnecting as well with my family that was such a really positive thing. And that really set a an understanding around, you know, kind of the strength that has been passed down from generation to generation.

You know, we've had so many incredible Elders who have gone before me, who have really set us up to be where I am today, I always say, you know, I stand on the shoulders of giants, because so many of my ancestors and elders that I've learned, met through family have helped carry this baton forward, and that's why I believe I'm able to do the work that I do today because when I was growing up in care, all these challenges I was experiencing, I never knew where it really come from that desire to just keep persevering, and that resilience that was built that wasn't just, you know, something I learned it was – I had to go through it. When I heard about my Elders and what they experienced, I knew that was just something that was ingrained in my DNA.

Rebecca Archer

It's just amazing. And I believe on top of all the goals that you kick in your daily life and what you're doing, you were also elected as a member of the 2017 National indigenous Youth Parliament awarded the most as positive influencer of the group. As you have this position where you can influence change, what would you like to see done differently in the foster care system for Indigenous children? And can you talk a little bit about why?

Isaiah Dawe

Yeah, I think a lot of that needs to happen is really hearing the kids voices and understanding what their needs are, rather than what the organisation or the government's needs are, and, you know, support that they think that kids need. I think, really thinking and hearing what the kids want, and making decisions based on that. And, you know, it's important to have all these different outcome areas, but ultimately, it's got to be reviewed and seen, is it actually serving what the kids want? Not just what, you know, other people want of the kids – adults want of these children. Because, you know, I think we've had a lot of reflective sessions around what can we do better in, and every time, we always include the kids, and make sure that we are hearing what they want to do, and when we make a decision, we inform them and get their feedback.

So, I think that needs to happen a lot, not only within the carers homes, like where the kids live, but also within the departments and the organisations that work to support the kids. I always feel you know, the best way to really understand if you’re making a difference is ask the kids. What do you need to change? What do we need to do better in? And always getting that constant feedback has been really valuable for us as an organisation.

Rebecca Archer

Do you think we need to also extend support for kids in care and potentially look at screening or better screening and training for workers in this sector?

Isaiah Dawe

There does need to be able to cultural awareness training for carers, and then also on top of that, I think, like trauma awareness, and that's so important, you're to really understand what the kids responses are, to their triggers. You know, if it's flight, fight or freeze, and you know, how to, I guess deescalate a really emotionally hired situation. And, you know, how do we build the confidence with our carers and the supporters in their networks? And how do you create better consistency, so these kids know with certainty who's in their life, who's not coming in and out, and so we're not breaking all these, you know, trusting relationships, and you know, that long term down the track as these kids become adults, it really impacts their livelihood.

Rebecca Archer

Isaiah, you are positively changing so many lives of so many young people who are in care. I'm wondering if there have been any particular moments that have really stuck with you from the work that you do?

Isaiah Dawe

There's so many, right like I've had – there’s been hundreds of sessions we've rounded up into with kids, I would probably point out one, and that's because – I really think it's what the kids and this is from highlighting the kid's voice. And this is, and this was never forced upon by anyone, and it kind of was so spontaneous, and we were all kind of shocked, and like, also, so happy to hear it – was one session, we had so many different activities; I think there was three activities going at once. And I think some people were doing some art, some Aboriginal art, some people were in the kitchen cooking, and then others were playing like soccer and sport – there was a lot happening.

And then we had one new girl start, and I think she was around 9/10 years old, and you know, this was kind of mid-session. This girl just kind of stands up and really puts volume to her voice and says, “Hang on, is this a program for kids who don't live with their parents?” And everyone just kind of went silent. It was like, you could hear a pin drop. And then she kind of looked at me. I thought, all right, I've got to address this. And so, I said, “You know what, yes, it is a place where a lot of kids come who don't live with their parents.” And then kind of one of the other younger boys jumped in – he was about 15 at the time – and he had said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we may not be blood related here, but we're family in here.” And he pointed at his heart, and he smiled at the young girl, and then the young girl smiled back at him. And then everyone just went back to normal.

And I thought, a moment and just reflecting, you know, after the session with the rest of the team, I was thinking far out, you know, that's what it's all about, is, you know, we may not be blood related to these kids, but we're family in our heart, and it's where – we’ve become their chosen family, which is the most incredible feeling to be able to hear that because, you know, we're filling a gap, which is, you know, one of the most crucial things for our kids is that, you know, feel a sense of belonging somewhere and feel a part of a family, because often the time that's what they've been taken away from is their parents. And they don't really have that sense of love or belonging in their lives. So yeah, that was really special, and I'll cherish that, amongst many other things that have happened over the years, but that's definitely one that stands out.

Rebecca Archer

And how does it make you feel personally, when you're meeting these kids who are in care? Does it sort of remind you or take you back to your own experiences?

Isaiah Dawe

Yeah, definitely does. I see a younger self in some of the kids, you know, different behaviours, and, you know, their interests, like, you know, I was, I was a young sporty kid, played a lot of rugby league, I'd often, at times, you know, I was also inappropriate, and playful and fun and giggling and laughing. And I see some of those kids have the same kind of personality traits, so I definitely see myself there. But I also try and put myself in their shoes as well, and that's why I think we have such a great team who do that as well, in terms of creating really fun, engaging, but safe programs and activities. And I always also think, how amazing would this have been, if I was a young kid, I would have loved to come to sessions like this. The kids absolutely love it.

Like they yes, I was saying about, ID. Know Yourself, they have become a part of that family. That's also including the other kids with each other. There are these incredible relationships that these kids have established is phenomenal. You know, kids are, you know, staying in touch outside of the program, whether it be on Facebook, or whatever, and, you know, they're communicating. And it's kind of like, you know, that some of the kids saying as well, that's my brother, or, you know, that's my best mate, or – that’s really important because, you know, we've got our vision, we've got our mission, we've got our values and our components, and, you know, that's all great. If I was putting in a sentence, it's, you know, we really want to create positive relationships in these kids’ lives. And there's an old saying, “The quality of your life can be determined upon the quality of your relationships.”

So that's what we want to create – really good relationships with each other, between the team and the kids and make sure it's enjoyable, but yeah, it's really special. It makes me feel incredible, knowing that we're playing such a small part that might make a huge difference in our kids’ lives in the short term, to long term.

Rebecca Archer 

It’s so rewarding, absolutely. It gives back I think far more than what you're putting out, which is already a great deal. Now, I just want to ask, finally, if you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Isaiah Dawe

For my younger self, I would say, “You're enough you matter, and that you are loved.” And that doesn't – you know, you don't have to do anything more that you're doing to be enough that you're enough as you are, you're not any less, if things are taken away from you.

You know, keep going strong, it will get better. If I'd known that, I suppose everything would be, I'd say a little bit easier, having that hope, but yeah, just stay strong. And tomorrow will be better than today, so keep your head up.

Rebecca Archer

Isaiah, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you and to get to meet you today. If people are interested in following your journey or finding out more about ID. Know Yourself, what should they do? Where should they go?

Isaiah Dawe

Absolutely, I would suggest people to, we'd love to hear from you. I think there's an old saying in life, “If you want to go far in life, go alone, if you want to go far walk together.” We want to bring as many people as we possibly can, on this journey with us. It's such a big vision and ambition. You know, there's over 20,000 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in Australia, and so we need collective mind, spirits, and energy of people to join us on this mission.

So, you know, reach out, you know, we've got Instagram, we post a lot, and sometimes the kids actually taking those photos over the sessions, getting involved really owning, you know, imagery and what we do in the sessions. So yeah, follow our journey on our social media. So, we're on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – pretty much, you know, most platforms, just ID. Know Yourself.

You know, we just got to your website just redeveloped. So, it’s https://idknowyourself.org.au/, check that out. And, also have a look on our website for some merch. We're always dropping stuff around Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC week as well, depending on the theme and you know, it's all creative, fun stuff that we look to try and utilise some of the kids artworks and stuff like that.

So, and donate, you know, every dollar goes towards our programs and, and support for our kids – particularly at the moment where you know, self-fundraising for our Concrete to Country Cultural Camps, so please get around that. That's all about helping our kids have that greater sense of belonging and spiritual connectedness to the country, people, mob and clan. So, get around that – we’re trying to fundraise as much as we can, so the next couple of years, we can take these kids back on to their homeland. And as I said earlier, kind of take their shoes off, dig their feet into country and connect back up. So yeah, please, please join us for this change. We couldn't do it without the incredible support. We have ready and we're always welcoming more people to join our family.

Rebecca Archer

That sounds great and wish you all the very best in the future. It'd be great to check in again down the track and to see how things are going.

Isaiah Dawe

Galangoor nyin again, thank you, thank you, Rebecca. It's been a pleasure yarning with you.

Rebecca Archer

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