Derek Walker

Derek Walker- my story

Hi, my name is Derek Walker and I am a Bundjalung man who now lives in Sydney. I grew up in a place called Baryulgil which is situated about 90km north-west of Grafton on the mid-north coast of NSW. People from there affectionately call it the “Square”. It is a very small Aboriginal community that has risen to fame over the years for many things like my families sporting talent, the Mundine name, and also the curse of being the largest open asbestos mine in the southern hemisphere.

Growing up in Baryulgil I was surrounded by family and the bush. Weekdays consisted of getting up at 6:00am to be on the bus to school by 6:40am to arrive at school by 8:40am with 5 minutes to spare for playing some handball to loosen up for the day.

Going to school was enjoyable at times. I loved to learn interesting facts about science, history, dance, drama and sport. Although I liked learning I was easily distracted if I felt the teacher was not very entertaining or engaging and would get bored very easily. Most of the time I felt the learning at school didn’t relate to me in anyway and would have no practical application for me. The long days made it harder to concentrate in the afternoons but if it was subject that I liked I would focus harder and would have a nap on the bus on the way home, which would take us til about 6:00-6:30pm some days.

The weekdays were long but the weekends seemed to fly past. We would jam pack them with swimming, hunting, running around and a lot of outdoorsy type activities but the nights consisted of watching videos or Nintendo. It was an enjoyable time in my life because it seemed simple and we didn’t have many things to worry about.
Looking back I was very ignorant of a lot of the troubles my community was facing. Not only was there alcoholism with some, not all, of my family. But also the rate of which my family died at a young age was something that didn’t occur to me until I was a lot older. I would read the stats about Aboriginal life expectancy, education, employment and health but didn’t think that something as simple as your race would place you in better or worse circumstances. I kept myself fit and healthy and made sure I kept active. I knew some of my family were sick with illness but that didn’t seem out of the ordinary because I was so used to seeing it.

The older I became the more I started to take notice of the issues in my community that contributed to making up the statistics in health, education, life expectancy and employment. I had been to many funerals growing up and I reckon by the time I was 11 or 12 I had been to at least 10 to 15. I remember at one of them I started to walk around and take notice of my elders that had been buried in Baryulgil cemetery and I began to take notice of the ages on the head stones or wooden crosses. I remember being amazed that there were about 40 graves but less than a handful had lived past the age of 60 and pretty much all but one of them were female. I remember looking at my dad and uncles and thinking ‘if my grandmothers and grandfathers kept fit when they were young and looked fit. What age do I expect my dad and uncles to live too when they look a bit over weight and out of shape?’

I wanted to break this cycle so I said that I must first start with my own lifestyle and try to then hopefully inspire others around me. Having moved to Sydney at 14 I tried to exercise at least every second day and eat healthier options rather than McDonalds or KFC. I stayed away from the vices of life and didn’t drink alcohol until I was around 22 because I found that it affected my sport or just made me feel sluggish the next day. My weekends were 2 days and my working week was 5 to 5 ½ days so there was no way I wanted to waste my weekends.

As busy as I was trying to keep on track with my own self I noticed family and friends around me slipping into the unhealthy lifestyles that lead to health complications later in life. I tried to encourage people to exercise and even during training when they were struggling a little because they were out of shape. I noticed that when they started to look better and feel good about themselves then I felt good for helping them when they needed it. The most effective method I noticed that they responded to was education with physical activity but also getting in and doing the hard work with them and letting them know that exercise and eating right is not just a phase but that you have to make your personal health a lifestyle and not a diet or only physical activity. It wasn’t just keeping the body healthy that made a difference in the way I felt but also educating my mind and keeping it learning something new from time to time. I believed that I had found the secret to staying fit both mentally and physically and wanted to share it with my people around me.

Back home in Baryulgil though it had seemed like nothing had changed when I visited from time to time. The time to time visits seemed only to be based around funerals though. Each relative seeming to pass before their time and not reaching that 60 milestone that non-aboriginal people seemed to so easily reach. I have thought about a goal that I have wanted to achieve that would make a difference to my people and also the family and people I care about and it seemed very obvious that it was to firstly change their health and lifestyle.

I currently work at the Australian Museum as an Indigenous Education Assistant and have been doing so for the last 3 ½ years. I find it easy to talk to people and find things that relate to them to make the content a lot more interesting for them. Without any formal qualifications other than remembering the knowledge that was passed on to me by my mum, dad, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties and uncles I can still very confidently do my role here at the museum. I am currently undertaking courses to have the formal qualifications but I would not have been placed in my position without having the drive to want to learn, listen and want to better myself. I do know what I want to achieve in my life. It took me until I was at least 22 years old for my goal to become clear to me but I am slowly carving my path towards achieving it and hopefully I finally do get to see some of the rewards.

Derek Walker
Australian Museum’s Indigenous Education Assistant


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World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education

26-Jun-2016

The World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education is in Toronto, Canada in July 2017

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