Carolyn Lewis has been a dynamic campaigner for the rights of Indigenous Australian’s for many years and has recently been moved to focus on deaths in custody as a primary area for change and reform, as well as working with women in various spaces shifting ideologies in a changing world.
A mother, grandmother, teacher, trainer and student, Carolyn is a member of the First Nations Deaths In Custody Watch Committee who continues to gently but firmly press on with campaigning to address issues in the communities around her. She is willing to lend her strong voice to others that can’t speak out.
Carolyn is a Nanda-Widi Noongar woman who grew up in Perth and has strong cultural ties across the state of Western Australia. Activism is in her blood; since she was a child Carolyn saw her parents take an active stance towards Aboriginal affairs. At 18, she followed her father to Canberra where her attention was widened to issues of a national focus, and she largely remained there on and off for a period of nine years, marching the streets and making her voice heard. Carolyn believes big change can come about through speaking to all people, and that sharing knowledge and stories to bring light to injustices can and will facilitate awareness and conversation.
As a trained educator Carolyn has spent years in lecturing and training roles and employment and career guidance. She is currently studying towards a Graduate Diploma in Indigenous Research and has plans for a PhD.
In 2014, Carolyn experienced a third family member dying in a custodial space and since then has been campaigning for Australia-wide custodial change and reform. The death of young Ms Dhu in custody in South Hedland for unpaid fines affected Carolyn deeply, coinciding with her fiftieth birthday, and she has since worked tirelessly with the First Nations Deaths In Custody Watch Committee to bring some accountability to the factors that played a part. Key areas of focus are legislation and policy in Western Australia, systemic and institutional racism and inequity in the medical communities. She regularly advocates for those in custody with a view of eradicating unnecessary deaths.
Unfortunately Carolyn acknowledges there is a lot of work to be done. The Deaths In Custody Watch Committee is drastically underfunded compared to the time of its inception in 1992, and a lot of the 300+ recommendations it brought about not adhered to, despite there being statistical evidence that the implementation of these recommendations has significantly reduced deaths in custody in New South Wales. Carolyn is not deterred and continues her work in this arena by speaking out publicly on radio and at events, and sourcing representation and legal assistance for aboriginals in custody. “Everyone has to do their little bit to help where they can. Stay true to yourself and what’s right.”
The range of projects and activities that Carolyn is engaged with are all geared towards connecting all women, sharing information, and building on courage’s conversation to create change. When guest lecturing, Carolyn says audiences are regularly flabbergasted by the realities of the stories she relays, and often embarrassed and horrified. People are listening though, and coming together and talking, and she believes big change can come about from this. “We all need to work together for change to happen. All people.” Carolyn is currently involved in two research projects: one in women’s prisons researching educational programs, and one sharing letters with their original intended recipients, which is generating a new wave of awareness and identity within some indigenous communities.
You can find Carolyn buried in reading at the State Library, speaking at a local event, or, on a rare day off, giving the West Coast Eagles some one-eyed support.
Carolyn will be speaking at the upcoming Indigenous Allyship Workshop, August 28, 6pm-8pm.
Words by Katherine Valvasori