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Dedicated to health and education for Aboriginal women

Aunty Norma Ingram – Aboriginal Elder, proud Wiradjuri woman, the youngest of Louisa Agnes Simpson and Lachie Ingram’s 11 children, first Aboriginal person with a Master of Education from Harvard University, and long-time resident of the inner-city suburb of Redfern – has won the inaugural First State Super Lifetime Achievement Award for her work developing health and education programs for Aboriginal women.

Aunty Norma Ingram. Photo: Andrew Collis
Aunty Norma Ingram. Photo: Andrew Collis

Presented on International Women’s Day as part of the annual NSW Women of the Year Awards, it acknowledges an outstanding woman who has dedicated her life to the advancement of women in NSW.

Five women were nominated for the award, a judging panel chose two finalists and then more than 14,000 people voted online to decide the winner.

Aunty Norma was born in 1949 on Erambie Mission, an Aboriginal reserve outside Cowra in central western NSW. Her parents were back and forth to and from Sydney and in the 1930s they lived in Hugo Street, Redfern.

At one point, Mr Ingram worked at the glass factory in South Dowling Street, Waterloo, but the main work that the family managed to get was seasonal fruit picking. In the 1960s when her family made the final move to Sydney, her older siblings worked at Francis Chocolates in Stirling Street, Redfern.

“Our people either worked in factories or on the railway. My oldest sister Sylvia, she worked on the railways as a cleaner. So, that is the only kind of job that you could get,” Aunty Norma said.

One of the main reasons that Aunty Norma’s mother moved to Sydney permanently was to ensure that the three younger girls would get an education. “She strongly encouraged me as the youngest, well, all of us, but particularly me as the youngest, to get an education. ‘You can’t get anywhere, you have to have an education,’ my mother said.”

Aunty Norma went to Erskineville Public School in sixth grade and then across to Stanmore Girls Junior High, at the time a single-sex school, now Stanmore Public. “I loved school and I always did really well. I was always in an A class. I had good teachers in high school who really supported me and encouraged me. A lot of people had bad experiences of school, or not so good experiences, but I loved it.”

She was the first one in her family to finish high school, where she had the option of choosing home economics or commerce. She hated cooking so commerce it was, and she learned touch typing and bookkeeping.

Her first job when she left school was as an office clerk at the Sabina shoe factory in Redfern. Aunty Norma said: “That was my first and I was so lucky because I could type, and I could do bookkeeping.” After that she moved onto Percival Publishing in Alexandria.

Aunty Norma says that her involvement in Aboriginal affairs is a result of the time she spent as a teenager at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

The Foundation was established in 1964 as a one-stop shop for Aboriginal people arriving in Sydney. Located at 810-812 George Street, Sydney, it helped Aboriginal people find accommodation and jobs; it also had a counselling service, short-term accommodation and a hostel. It was seen as a safe place for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal teenagers at a time when there weren’t many places where Aboriginal people could congregate safely.

Aunty Norma says that she is still in touch with teenage friends from that era who are now all grandparents.

There were dances for the teenagers on Friday and Saturday nights and concerts on a Sunday. Aunty Norma was quite the shrinking violet, hopping up on stage with her friends as a go-go dancer! She made her “debut” at a debutante ball in 1966 and remembers the social activities as a positive time for Aboriginal people, similar to what happens during the Koori Knockout these days.

Aunty Norma’s memories are of a 16-year-old who, along with the other teenagers, was influenced by Aboriginal activists like Charlie Perkins, Chicka Dixon, Roy Carroll, Bob Maza, Gary Foley and Paul Coe. Just being at the Foundation and soaking up what was happening was an education in Aboriginal political activism.

Members of the Foundation were involved in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 and campaigning for the “Yes” vote in the 1967 Referendum, which saw Aboriginal people counted in the Census and allowed the Commonwealth government to make laws on their behalf.

The other influence on her life was the Black Panther movement in the United States.

Four Aboriginal people went to America and returned with ideas from the Panthers’ “community survival programs” which led to the setting up of the Aboriginal Legal Service (1970), the Aboriginal Medical Service (1971), the Children’s Breakfast Program (1972) and Black Theatre (1972).

Aunty Norma was involved with the Breakfast Program and stayed involved as it morphed from a children’s program in Hollis Park, Newtown, helped by the Wayside Chapel, to Murawina in 1973, a pre-school that integrated Aboriginal culture into its learning programs. This included simple things like having jigsaws with Aboriginal artwork and Australian animals, kangaroos and emus instead of foreign animals like elephants.

Only Aboriginal women could be members and on the board of Murawina.

As part of her work at the pre-school she undertook the Aboriginal Education Assistant Teacher Training Program (ATA) and later did her teacher training at Sydney University, where she majored in English and History, and then undertook a Master of International Education at Harvard University, Massachusetts in 1984-85.

When asked why they hadn’t thought to include non-Aboriginal children in the pre-school program, Aunty Norma observed that it had been illegal for Aboriginal people to practise their culture and even including it in the pre-school program was a subject of dissension because it was pointed out that the children would be attending mainstream primary schools.

She remembers the old people on the Mission making sure that the younger children did not speak language because they were so scared that their children would be taken away from them by Welfare if they were seen to be speaking language or practising their culture.

Aunty Norma retired two years ago.

So, now there’s plenty of time to do consulting work for government and non-government agencies, be the chair of Wyanga, which runs services for Aboriginal Elders in Redfern and Waterloo, conduct Welcome to Country ceremonies, as well as Aboriginal cultural awareness and governance training, contribute as a member of the Indigenous Advisory Panel for the City of Sydney, and sit on boards for the Red Cross and the National Congress of First People.

And last but not least she’s an active member of the Redfern community in which she lives.

Aunty Norma was invited to help choose the NSW Australian of the Year and says: “Just reading some of that information about what people do is really incredible. Because people are out there just doing stuff. You need to do stuff, you know. Get out and do it.

I’ve retired from full-time work, but I haven’t stopped.”

A fitting motto for the winner of a lifetime achievement award.

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