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Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

1 July 2022

Reflecting on resilience

NAIDOC Week has just begun and the theme this year is Get up! Stand up! Show up! It encourages us to amplify the voices of Indigenous Australians and champion systematic change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, a cause JCU Alumni Jesse Martin has spent his whole life advocating for.

NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its origins in protest, when Aboriginal communities boycotted Australia Day during the 1920s. It began as a Day of Mourning, but during the 1950s it was decided the day should instead be a celebration of Aboriginal culture. By the 1970s, NAIDOC had become a week-long celebration of history, achievement and culture.

For Jesse, a Wagadagam, Yuin man, it is a time to reflect on the resilience of Australian First Nations.

“I grew up with the Aboriginal rights movement when NAIDOC was still a protest. I remember being a little kid marching down the street and hearing the old fella’s at the front of the crowd, shouting for land rights through a megaphone,” Jesse says. “Since colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been at the sharp end of the spear. We’ve lost our voice, we’ve lost our rights, we’ve lost so much along the way. But in saying that, we’re still here. We can’t afford to lose momentum for change now.”

In 2014, Jesse graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History, Politics and International Relations. He has since founded The Streets Movement (TSM) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander International Engagement Organisation (ATSIIEO) to help empower Indigenous communities and work to ensure they can meet their own social impact needs.

“I want to make a difference for my mob, and that starts by giving our First Nations peoples their political control and autonomy back,” he says. “We were our own people before; we had our own government, our own systems, our own structures, our own communities and our own way of doings things. That never stopped. With these organisations, I want to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in matters that affect their communities, and that they can freely determine their own lives and their own fate.”

Jesse wearing a suit and tie, smiling for a photo at the United Nations Forum in New York.
Jesse sitting on the ground in front of a sign for his first organisation, The Streets Movement, with his knees tucked to his chest.
Left: JCU Alumni Jesse Martin at the United Nations Forum in New York. Right: Jesse in front of The Streets Movement Organisation (TSM) logo. Supplied by: Jesse Martin.

A champion of change

Growing up in Bentley Park, Queensland, Jesse recalls being inspired to drive change after witnessing his friends and fellow community members struggle with destructive patterns of behaviour.

“We had our issues out in that community; I watched far too many people end up at the bottom of a bottle, in jail or with needles in their arms,” he says. “At the time, our community reached out to the local council and politicians and we asked for help, but no one seemed to care. There was a complete lack of service provision and we thought, ‘if no one is going to do anything, we’ll do it ourselves’.”

So in 2007, as a 20-year-old university student, Jesse founded The Streets Movement Organisation with the mission to create opportunities for young Indigenous people through education, pathways and empowerment.

“We started as a community centre run out of a local boxing gym. It was like a nexus point in community; it kept everyone safe, focused, out of trouble, away from drugs and alcohol and off of the streets,” he says. “We would run community programs out on the street and from the centre. We had basketball programs, boxing sessions, dance classes, homework groups and footy teams; you name it, we had it.”

From there, The Streets Movement began to run outreach programs in schools and detention centres.

“We worked with almost every high school across Cairns, going in with the medium of boxing and mentoring the students on issues like violence, self-worth, identity, community, substance abuse, peer pressure, education and more,” Jesse says.

“Then we started working in prisons. In partnership with another local Aboriginal changemaker, we would go in there and deliver men’s groups focusing on mental health. We’d engage them through the medium of boxing, because if you’re talking about things like mental health in an environment that’s very macho and tense, people tend to shy away. So we started a boxing club, and then afterwards we had the space where we could sit down and have a yarn about things in a much more comfortable environment. It was a very successful program, eventually we had about 450 people on a waiting list, wanting to take a class that was 20 people at a time.”

In 2013, The Streets Movement went international when it became the first grassroots Aboriginal organisation in Queensland to be invited to attend a United Nations (UN) Forum in New York.

“I’ve been very lucky to travel to different parts of the world and address the mob, giving talks about community development and impact. During these talks we try to highlight that, in Australia, what we often perceive as issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities aren’t actually the issues. We always say we need to address things like alcohol, drugs, domestic violence and housing. And don’t get me wrong, these are all very important problems, but they’re not the issue, they’re the symptoms of the issues,” Jesse says.

“The issues we really look to rectify are around economic development within communities, and political control and autonomy being returned to our First Nations. And that’s a primary focus around self-determination, to ensure there is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in that space.”

After visiting the UN, The Streets Movement partnered with universities across the globe to set up an initiative called the Mulumulung International Experience, or the MI-Experience.

“We partnered with the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom so that Indigenous students from remote and regional areas have the opportunity to build real-world relationships and experience some of the top educational institutions in the world,” Jesse says. “More than anything, beyond the formality of encouraging them to get a university education, no matter what journey their life takes them on, we want them to always remember these unique experiences.”

The Streets Movement continued to grow, partnering with institutions and organisations all around the world, in places like China, Los Angeles, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Jordan and more. But when COVID-19 hit, the organisation was forced to pause their international programs.

“Considering the logistical vulnerabilities of a lot of regional and remote First Nations communities, it might be quite some time until we will be able to resume our international work. Hopefully we can reassess in the coming years,” Jesse says.

“Now, our main focus is advocating for and supporting the transition of community infrastructure projects for other local organisations looking for a home or to get started. Whether that be a community centre or collective impact projects, any sort of community structure that’s going to benefit the local population, TSM wants to support that.”

Jesse speaking at the United Nations Forum in New York.

Supplied by: Jesse Martin.

Moving beyond the performative

More recently, Jesse founded his second organisation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander International Engagement Organisation (ATSIIEO), with the purpose of fostering Indigenous partnerships and connections internationally.

As a published author with Columbia University Press on social, economic and political impact for First Nations peoples, Jesse wants to put political rhetoric and posturing around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement into practical application in regards to self-determination.

“In 2019, I was fortunate enough to go to the embassy in China and meet their staff. While I was there, I had a conversation that really stuck with me and inspired this organisation,” Jesse says. “A lovely lady was telling us how she was head of cultural engagement to China on behalf of Australia, and she said to me ‘I’m in charge of conveying and expressing Australian culture and values to our population. It’s great to meet you, but to be honest, I don’t know anything about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’ And I thought, how can you be in charge of projecting an image of who we are as a nation and who we are as a culture to 1.6 billion people, when you know nothing about our people?”

After Jesse returned home he began to consider how Australia is represented in the international sphere.

“In regards to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we’re often invited to dance or to bring a didgeridoo and shake-a-leg; you know, to do all of the cultural performances, but as soon as the serious conversations start about trade, economics, environmental protection, regional peace and stability and all of these other critical issues impacting us, we’re sent out of the room,” he says.

Jesse started ATSIIEO to ensure the interests, values, culture and identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are portrayed to the international community through an undiluted First Nations lens.

“I wanted to make ATSIIEO a vehicle, particularly for regional and remote Indigenous communities, for them to put themselves forward as a representative and a voice from their community. It’s similar to The Streets Movement, only this time we’ve cast the net a bit wider and we’re going out and engaging directly with other countries working beyond just the social impact space,” Jesse says. “We’re discussing issues critical to our development like climate change and education pathways, but it's not just about what we ourselves can share, but also what we can learn from the international community.”

Jesse is passionate about ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation is coming directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and if you are, too, it is time to get involved and Get up! Stand up! Show up! this NAIDOC Week.

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