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Aunty Joyce Williams: Almost a Century Worth of Resistance and Still Fighting Strong

27 Jan 2022

In many ways, Nan is like a real-life superhero torn from the pages of a Marvel or D.C comic. She was taking care of me and my health issues, she was raising my siblings, making sure we were always fed (her homemade damper a delight), keeping that red roof over our heads, driving us to school to receive an education. That same love has been shared with her grandchildren, children, and many nephews and nieces throughout a near full century of living.

For many in the town of Wellington, New South Wales, if you mention the name Aunty Joyce Williams, it will be met with praise for one of the region’s oldest living Wiradjuri elders. Her tireless work for her mob, the wider community and the state has resulted in her being awarded many achievements in a lifetime that has spanned many decades. And now, even at the age of 95 she is still looking for ways to give back as she remains active on committees such as Gallangabang and being a strong proponent for a Wiradjuri cultural centre to be built in Wellington.

To me, she’s my great grandmother or as I’ve always called her ‘nan.’ She taught me to make our voices heard on Invasion Day and beyond,  and that we should  take action through activism and advocacy, always keeping reconciliation in mind and never forgetting the past.  She reminds us to continue to survive and rise up from the despair we feel as a result of the dispossession and genocide perpetrated against t our people – something that is front of mind this time of year.

Nan was born on Nanima Mission in 1926, the daughter of Private Herbert Reilly who served in the First World War. She grew up during a time when the White Australia Policy was in full swing, as segregation, discrimination, stolen generations, and the mistreatment of First Nations people were having devastating impacts and would continue to have major ramifications that are still felt today.

Segregation was rampant in rural Australia at the time and when nan gave birth to her first born and only daughter, Wendy, it was at a Chinese laundry. By the time she was allowed at the hospital to bring in her sons, nan would tell me the story of having to give birth at the back of the building describing that the maternity room for women of colour was in poorer conditions  compared to a cleaner room at the front for white women.

Through  enduring those experiences and fed up with  being treated second class she had the realisation that there must be more done for her people. It would become a defining point in her life and the beginning of speaking out and attempting to close the gap. She worked towards putting in place programs that current and future generations could benefit from: to live longer, healthier and fulfilling lives. .

In one of her first trips to the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service to receive treatment for her eyes, she was amazed at the high calibre of nurses and doctors:  a health service aimed towards equality and improving the health of her people. Nan cites trailblazers and activists such as Sol Bellear, Charles Perkins and Naomi Meyers as early influences – it was during that trip to Redfern where plans for her own medical centre were cemented.

Nan would always tell me the stories of the initial meetings of the Wellington Aboriginal Cooperation Health Service, better known as WACHS. Before there were any building or concrete plans, it was nan and the other founders gathered around a table in her backyard discussing their ideas and future vision: a physical health service that is still part of Wellington today and playing a pivotal role for not only those in the town, but from surrounding districts too.

WACHS might be nan’s magnus opus, and  her long journey has seen her set up many other health services in rural New South Wales, For myself personally, she is so much more than the elder with the remarkable legacy. She’s my great grandmother, and  she also played the role of my mother. I was very young when my great grandparents took me in. Nan made sure that I wouldn’t be taken away and that I would grow up on country and not be a stranger with my connection to Wiradjuri.

She understood the importance of family and remaining on the land our ancestors once roamed. From Blacks Camp to Nanima, this is her place of belonging, and she was almost removed from it. She can still remember the ‘vacation’ to Peak Hill to stay with her aunty. It wasn’t until she was older when she learned that it was a plan to keep her safe from Protection Board officers that were coming to take her away.

At the age of ten I was diagnosed with a rare connective tissue disease. It was in the same medical centre she founded where the doctor realised something was wrong with my health and from there, I was sent down to the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick with nan by my side in what would become eight years of frequent back-and-forth trips.

In many ways she’s like a real-life superhero torn from the pages of a Marvel or D.C comic. She was taking care of me and my health issues, she was raising my siblings, making sure we were always fed (her homemade damper a delight), keeping that red roof over our heads, driving us to school to receive an education. That same love has been shared  with her grandchildren, children and many nephews and nieces throughout a near full century of living.

Through everything she’s achieved, there has also been pain and loss. Losing both sons and many relatives at young ages speaks to the disparity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy that nan has fought to change. The ongoing cycle of intergenerational trauma, and the devastation that drugs and alcohol has had on our hometown are still prevalent.

But she lives with a hope that the progress she has made and her work for the betterment of First Nations people will continue in the hands of today’s youth. Educating the young ones and helping them get into positions to carry on the work of the elders has always been important to her.

Nan is quite a humble person and isn’t one to talk highly of her accolades, but she doesn’t have to either because it’s all there to be seen.  She’s one of the most important figures in my life and a well-respected Wiradjuri elder. She has survived a white Australia, and without bitterness, but motivation from her love of mob, community, and culture, she has carved out a life of longevity fighting for equality and recognition in a land we’ve always belonged to.

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