Vicki Clark is a Mutthi Mutthi Wemba Wamba woman who has dedicated decades of her life to increasing understanding of Aboriginal spirituality and defending the rights of Aboriginal people to express this spirituality in its many forms. Vicki has worked to embody Aboriginal culture within the Catholic Church and education system and to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal children and youth. She is committed to strengthening understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians so that we may walk together towards reconciliation.
Vicki was born in Melbourne in 1961, the only child of parents Joan and Les Robinson. Growing up, she was inspired by the actions of both her mother and her grandmother Alice Kelly. Alice, who remained in the Balranald District in New South Wales for her whole life, was an activist for the recognition of Aboriginal cultural heritage sites. It was on Alice’s country that the remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were uncovered in 1968 and 1974. Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were between 40,000 and 42,000 years old. They were the oldest human remains ever to have been found to have been ritually buried. Alice Kelly recognised that the remains emphasised the long and enduring culture of Aboriginal people in her country and actively campaigned for the remains to be returned to country from the Australian National University. Her granddaughter Vicki learned at an early age that Aboriginal people’s ceremonial culture extends back for many thousands of years.
Vicki grew up in Melbourne and was educated in Catholic schools. As a young woman and mother in the 1980s, she, with her mother Joan, were members of a small group of Aboriginal people who shared a Catholic upbringing and met regularly in private homes to discuss their faith and their Aboriginal spirituality. When the group successfully received funding from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne for a headquarters of their own, Vicki was asked to become the Coordinator of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) in Victoria. She would remain in this role for 25 years until 2015.
Understanding the enduring spirituality of Aboriginal people
Vicki carried her understanding of the enduring spirituality of Aboriginal people into her role as Coordinator of the ACM, seeking to share the vision of the ministry’s founding group within the wider Church and within society. She recognised a connection between the Aboriginal ceremonies that had been conducted for many millennia and the ceremonies of the Church. Much of the focus of the ACM was on the Catholic school.
For Vicki, there were two reasons for this. She developed curriculum materials about Aboriginal perspectives, spirituality and history for schools so that Aboriginal children could feel culturally safe and therefore begin to thrive within classrooms. Additionally she believed that educating non-Aboriginal children about Aboriginal perspectives was the most effective way of breaking down racist beliefs and behaviour in the wider community. Vicki believes children take their learning home to the family and that is where changes happen.
Inspiring school students
Eventually, Vicki would use her skills as an artist to develop the Proud Race program, which invites schools to research, create, decorate and erect life-sized bollards of inspirational Aboriginal people. The FIRE (Friends Igniting Reconciliation through Education) Carriers program also sought to embed the spirit of reconciliation within Catholic schools. Schools that make a commitment to the FIRE Carriers program elect student leaders to carry out the duties of FIRE Carriers; making Acknowledgement of Country at school masses, raising the Aboriginal flag at assemblies and planning activities to celebrate significant dates in the shared history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
A commitment to enabling access and choice in education for Aboriginal families saw Vicki, through the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, establish the Opening the Doors Foundation in 2001. Now independent of the ACM, the foundation provides financial support to enable Aboriginal children and young people to participate fully in education in Catholic or independent schools. The foundation assists families to purchase school uniforms, books and extras such as music, camps and excursions for students. Relying on philanthropy and donations, the Opening the Doors foundation has made a critical difference to the educational outcomes for many Aboriginal children and young people. Vicki remains a trustee of the Opening the Doors Foundation.
Appointment to the Aboriginal Treaty Working Group
Vicki’s strong belief in the reconciliation process has underscored much of her work in schools, including acting as an artist in residence and visiting speaker. Vicki has been a long serving council member and former co-chair of Reconciliation Victoria and points proudly to the achievements of the reconciliation movement. In recognition of her commitment to reconciliation, Vicki was appointed by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Natalie Hutchins, to the Aboriginal Treaty Working Group, whose task is to provide advice and consultation on the next steps in a treaty making process in Victoria. Vicky’s contribution to the reconciliation process has been recognised in a number of awards. Her greatest honour, however, was not bestowed by such an award. Over many years Aboriginal community members have turned to Vicki to conduct the funerals of their deceased family members. It is a sacred trust on which Vicki places a high priority.
Since her retirement from the ACM in 2015, Vicki has returned to her own country in northern Victoria, though she has continued in a voluntary capacity to bring her knowledge and expertise to a number of programs and boards. In partnership with Christian Brothers Oceania Province, she guides immersion experiences for school students on the land of her ancestors at Lake Mungo. She gains satisfaction when students of the 21st century understand the connections that go back over 40,000 years. Vicki continues in her quest, inherited from her grandmother, to enable visitors to listen, learn and feel the spirit of the land.
Reviewed 26 September 2019