The Quiet Activist


Karen Salam has lived a life of quiet activism. As the eldest of five girls born in Townsville to a miner father and a hard-working mother, Karen knew early on that she was destined for something beyond her regional, Far North Queensland community. While idyllic in many ways – surrounded by a big mix of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander families to grow up and attend school with – the eldest Salam girl clearly saw the disparity that plagued Indigenous people. What she didn’t know then is that her life would take many twists and turns and eventually lead to her life’s calling to be an advocate for First Nations people.

“My dad was in the mines, so we moved over to Western Australia, then we settled in Mackay," Karen said. "I didn’t finish Year 12. I left school and found work at the checkout in Big W then got a transfer to Cairns. I was always independent, even from an early age.”

When Karen had just turned 20, and with a newborn in tow, she moved to New South Wales. Fiercely independent, it was the start of many adventures to come. It was also where the first seed was planted that was the catalyst for Karen to not only complete her senior but continue on to higher education.

    My goal always was that the future would be a little brighter and better for my kids when they got older

“I vowed to myself that I would stay at home and raise my son until he was a bit older. He attended the Wiradjuri preschool in Griffith and I was helping out, and eventually, I started working there. That’s where the teacher at the school encouraged me to study and that sparked something in me.

“I enrolled in the Aboriginal Rural Education Program at the University of Western Sydney and did my Associate Diploma in Social Welfare. I did it in blocks and met other students from New South Wales. I realised how much I had missed it and flourished.”

Seven years later, Karen returned to Far North Queensland, making Cairns her home once again and continuing her passion for Indigenous affairs. It was Karen’s mother, the late Josephine Akee, however, that was the impetus behind it all and the inspiration to keep going throughout all the challenges she faced.

“My mother was in her forties when she went back to university. She was inspirational to me, and many others. She did her teacher education at James Cook University, along with three of my sisters. I felt this need to go and do something with my life. I wanted to be a role model for my son. I wanted to offer my son choices, and for me that started with gaining employment that was meaningful.

“My goal always was that the future would be a little brighter and better for my kids when they got older," Karen reflects. "My mum did that, she filled her time with study, and she achieved so much later in life. She did a lot of volunteer work with black organisations, and she was always trying to make things better. She worked for over 25 years for the Family Court, and was awarded an OAM in 2006 for her work in having Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage and practices recognised.

    Mum was such a strong woman, and she was determined that even though we were all girls, we didn’t have to accept that women’s roles were only to have babies and be in the kitchen cooking and cleaning.

"Mum believed in our inherent right to pursue careers of our choice, and the choice was always ours to one day settle down and have a family and children if we wanted to. When I reflect on that it gives me strength. I am very much my mother’s daughter.”

While Karen started her career in child protection and justice for the Department of Community Services in New South Wales, her return to Cairns marked a foray into the criminal justice system. Working in a local legal centre provided a keen and often heartbreaking insight into life on the inside for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates of Lotus Glenn. As a field officer, she worked closely with prisoners on appealing their cases and it was here that she saw the vicious cycle of the prison system and the devastating effects on families and communities.

    If there is a most oppressed person in the world, it has to be the black person in prison...treated like they are sub-human. The system puts them in, locks them up and throws away the key.

"These men wanted to know why they were here, what had gotten them to this point. Even though they knew they were wrong for what they’d done, they yearned to learn more about themselves and how they got to be in the position of being locked away. They yearned for real contact with people and to be treated like normal human beings.”

“Our Indigenous people in prison are treated like they are sub-human. The system puts them in, locks them up and throws away the key.”

This time of life for Karen marked a busy period of raising her growing family while working full time, and by 1997, Karen had a family of five children - four girls and a boy. Life was busy but rewarding.

Karen moved into the academic field and became an Associate Lecturer for James Cook University but maintained her connection to the prison system by delivering lectures from a Tertiary Access Program to eligible inmates at Lotus Glenn, as well as on campus.

During this time, Karen also found herself interrogating systemic and institutional racism within mainstream society, and how ingrained it had become in the Australian population.

“Mum taught me a lot about how to deal with racism and my attitude goes back to her. She experienced a lot of racism but she taught us that you always look to see what else might be behind that attitude, you rethink the situation and you interrogate the facts.

“I remember one time clearly when I was invited to lecture a reconciliation subject within a social work degree and I was speaking on the frustration and pain of experiencing first-hand racism and discrimination, and how difficult and challenging it is to battle against it."

    I’m passionate about fighting racism and discrimination because I’ve got children that continue to suffer from this, and this is a world for us all. The fight against racism is a fight for us all. I’m a mum of five kids, and I wanted the world to change, I want the suffering to end.

As Karen has watched her children grow into adults themselves and take on the weight of the world, she too has changed the way she reacts to, and deals with, racist situations and people.

“Over the years when you encounter these racist acts, you have to get smarter on how you react, so you have the opportunity to turn it in a way that’s going to hit the message. If you’re forever going to be battling racism, and this is the world we live in, then what life do you have? When you do go into battle, it’s about trying to do it in such a way that you leave an after-effect that will sit in their minds and change their thoughts for the future.”

Of course, Karen admits, there are some battles that you will never win, and some people that will never change. The key, she says, is to pick your battles wisely and learn to use your voice as a deadly instrument for change.

“How you do it is by being creative – thinking in their world. As a parent, you want to change things for the better. You’re sending a message to your child that looks on," she said, "They see you being treated differently, and they see how you react to it. It’s about changing the world to make it a better place.

"The battle is not just for us blackfellas. There are important learnings to be had and it’s about everyone taking part and doing what they can. Challenging people’s thinking and getting them to think differently is one of the hardest things you can do, but we all have a responsibility to at least try.”

Karen has seen the world change a lot over the years, in both good and bad ways. Challenging the status quo, she says, requires a strength of spirit and bravery.

“We’re living in a different world now than in the days of our grandparents. I’ve been a teacher and a scholar of history. Historically, there’s certainly been some changes. The racist element has gotten smarter, but our mob has gotten smarter and braver and now we name it for what it is and demand change. There was a time when our mob didn’t do that.”

Karen says the global movement and recognition of Indigenous rights that connect us across the globe is helping us to remain united.

    Technology binds us all, all of the Indigenous groups around the world. You don’t feel so hopeless and that you’re battling things alone. Our fight isn’t just our fight, it’s for everybody. It’s not for you to suffer by yourself. There are so many good people out there

Karen says that despite a long career giving back to community, she is far from hanging up the gloves. In 2018, she started working with senior students, their families and communities, based at Djarragun College. She also worked in the Wellbeing Program as an Assistant Head of Boarding at the Gordonvale campus, supporting the wellbeing of Boarding Students. In May 2021, a move has seen her transfer all of those skills out to the Wangetti Campus – Cape York Girl Academy – initially as Head of Boarding, and then to her current position as Dean of Campus. In her latest role, Karen’s role requires her to be many things: teacher, receptionist, aunty, nurse and counsellor all in one. On any given day, she will hustle to get her grandchildren ready to school before dropping them off and then taking the long commute from Southside to Wangetti. But for Karen, it’s just another typical day of taking care of her family, working and somehow finding a bit of time during all of that for herself.

“I love it out here working with these girls. I want to offer them the right support and help them work towards opportunities that could be available to them if given the right pathway. Let them dream big, I say. I connect with them because I have my own kids, but I’m also invested in where their futures are going to be. I have a love and understanding from an Indigenous mother’s and grandmother’s point of view.

“It’s really given me a new perspective working in the school system, understanding what a parent’s frustration can be and the cultural divides that can be present even with the best of intentions. We get students who come with certain challenges, and we try to work with them to understand what they want out of their experience. We need to understand what their world is like in the remote communities they come from. How do they survive outside in society?”

Karen says that one of the most critical things in the education setting is working with the child in conjunction with the parents and community. There is not one without the other. And just as importantly, she says, is the acknowledgement of history.”

“If we don’t have the patience or time to understand the impact of history on our remote Indigenous communities, how are we going to be successful with the child? We need to educate and support the family as much as we possibly can. So that by the time the student leaves the community, the family feel as comfortable as they possibly can that their child is going to be safe.

“To be truly successful in our endeavours we can’t be a mainstream school and expect good student outcomes. Our family and cultural connections, the way we do things to include community, that’s what sets us apart from other educational institutions. That’s what makes a difference for our girls.”


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