• AJ Williams-Tchen


This is my speech from the EMERGING INDIGENOUS LEADERS AWARD...

I want to acknowledge the Wurrendjeri people as the traditional owners of the land we meet on to today, pay my respect to Aunty Diane, and all Elders here past and present.

Hi. My name is AJ Williams-Tchen.

My background is Wiradjuri / Wotjobulak.

My family are the Dempsey’s from the Wellington / Dubbo in New South Wales & the Dimboola / Horsham area of Victoria.

I have been asked to talk about myself – and for those who know me – this may appear not very difficult thing for me to

On a serious note I have ben asked share a little about my story – where I have come from and what it is that I wish to achieve.

Growing up, I never felt or saw my self as a leader in anything. I was not even really a follower. I look back now & considered myself a being loner. I grew up in an adopted environment, after being removed from my family, my community and culture. As a child & young person I knew about my Aboriginality – it was always mentioned in child protection reports, it was mentioned at the school- but it was not never really discussed openly. It was often hidden. I remember a teacher telling me – ‘your white enough for people not too know – you will be better that way’. I would seek out information of culture through my Aboriginal friends & their families – asking then to teach me anything they could about being Aboriginal.

I moved a round a lot. I was bullied at school. I could not even stand up as I am today - in front of my class / peers and even do a class presentation. I struggled at school. I suffered with anxiety. I had very low confidence & self esteem. In Year 9 I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

I had no one to really guide me through adolescence. I don't recall anyone speaking to me about going to Year 12 – I did not even know or even heard of a university. I was a kid that I grew up thinking no one really supported or cared about. I had no good role models – and I did not think or believe that I was good at anything. I think I believed this – as I don't recall anyone telling me or praising me for doing anything good. This had a significant affect on how I saw myself, respected my self and acted.

I don't tell you this – to make you feel sorry for me – but rather to see how far I have come – what I have achieved – and who I have become.

After running away from home – living on the streets for a bit - I was given a very rare opportunity – to do a hospital based nursing course without completing Year 12. I struggled through this course – not practically but academically. I could not write an essay for shit – but I could take your pulse, temperature and draw up medication with perfection.

During nursing studies – I met my wife– whom I married a year after I met her.

My life then changed. She taught me what family was supposed to be like. She taught me to love myself – so I could love someone else (meaning her).

I also learnt to start to respect myself.

I began working in Aboriginal health first as a nurse – then after an serious assault at work where I could no longer to something that I finally thought I become good at – I was forced to think of what I could next. I knew I liked helping people – I knew I liked helping people like me – so even though I was not to fond of social workers growing up – yea they come into your life every 3 months say “hi I’m your new worker’ and then you never see them again. I studied a combined social work / arts degree at Victoria University. I took subjects like – Gender Studies (only guy in the class out of 120 women), Linguistics, sociology and psychology. I become fascinated at the theories that were taught by the lecturers – and began to understand the cycles of violence, child protection, bullying, personality and mental health.

My kids think I pretty mental most of time.

All the things that helped explained the cycles of where I had come from.

Mental health become much of a passion of mine. I began to study anything to learn more to empower young people – both Aboriginal & non-Aboriginal. I studied career development, disability studies, aboriginal health worker, drug and alcohol studies, child protection & justice studies, community work, community development, community services work.

I even completed a diploma of youth work – to learn more about adolescent development – and how mental health impacts on young people.

I was – and become to determine to address some of the cycles I was seeing my young Aboriginal clients in. I took jobs such as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer, Indigenous Employment coordinator, Aboriginal health Worker. I worked at VACCHO training Aboriginal Health Workers. The more I worked with Aboriginal clients the more I could see the high levels of suicide, high psychological distress, trans generational trauma and other mental health issues.

And not just with adults – but so much with young aboriginal adolescents.

I became AASW Mental health accredited social worker – and a Mental health first aid instructor – first in the aboriginal course, then the youth stream, the standard stream and the TEEN stream.

At the same time I was hearing stories from my clients that the services that they attended were not culturally appropriate – staff having no idea about how to work with Indigenous people – and this sparked my idea to begin delivering cultural awareness to mainstream services. From what started in 2008 – as a few workshops in the western suburbs : I know deliver workshops across Australia and also help organisations develop their own cultural awareness / cultural safety / cultural appreciation programs. I also deliver mental health first aid & other resilience workshops across Australia.

For 5 years I worked at the head quarters of MHFA as their national program manager supporting over 150 AMHFA Instructors nationally. It is only in this role did I start to see myself as a leader – training and supporting over 200 AMHFA instructors how to deliver this course in the community, and helping them through the difficulties that they should. I left this role late year – to focus on my business….

I have just delivered my 350th Cultural awareness program and my 310th MHFA program. I don't know the exact number of people that I have provided training to. What I do know is that I am becoming a leader in thought change - make significant impacts in how people think about mental health – and how people work with Aboriginal clients.

I can see now how I have become a leader in this area. I can tell you that many people in this room are leaders in their field – and they may not call themselves leaders – but that is what they are.

I see this opportunity that the fellowship is offering me as chance to develop my further leadership potential, build my confidence as leader through developing and implementing a project close to my heart while giving me the skills and knowledge to explore the capacity and capabilities that I may not even know I have.

We know that Aboriginal mental health statistics is high.. 2.5/5 ATSI people will have a diagnosis of a mental illness – another 2/5 are walking around with permenant high psychological distress.

We also know that the onset of most mental illness occurs at before the age 15. This is the adolescents of our community – most prone to mental illness. What services are there out their to assist them. How do the recognise the signs and symptoms in themselves – and in others? And what tools do they have to stay resilient.

Looking back – if my friends knew what was happening with me at school – could anyone have helped me. A few friends (that I do have from high school) who now know what It was like for me – say I wish you had told me – I wood have helped.. But could they have? Would they have known what to do – and could they have stayed strong and resilient while helping me. I don't know but I really don't think they could have.

This is what my project aims to do. It is about building mental health resilience for young Aboriginal teenagers in the Victorian community.

I want young aboriginal people to learn about how to see the early signs and symptoms in their friends and family and how to most effectively respond. It's not about training them as counsellors rather to identify the signs and help their mates. My project is about developing a and triailng a program that will do this. But looking after a friend or family is hard work – and I want them to also learn self resilience in the process. How to look after their ones own wellbeing at the sometime as assisting others. Working with a specialist in emotional intelligence – the project will develop a short workshops aimed at aboriginal adolescents to teach self resilience through either art, sport or an activity of choice that they enjoy- as well as the skills taught within the TEEN MHFA program. It will be a unique experience where they will learn how to assist their friend – but stay safe and strong themselves.

But young people need support – they can not do it themselves. This project will also allow me to deliver a number of YMHFA programs for community members, Elders, and families. I want community people to understand how adolescent development is affected by mental health, how to identify the early signs and symptoms and how to refer young people to appropriate services when they come to them.

It is envisioned that if this program is successful – it can replicated in other areas beside the four proposed location sites yet to be determined. Any additional funding, and I have had some interest from community health services and a hospital to maybe undertake additional trainings

I would like to thank the fellowship, the selection panel, my family and friends for all their support so far – and for my further journey as an emerging leader embarking on this next stage of my journey .