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Q&A With Children's Activist Gwenda Davey AM

Gwenda Davey (centre) and co-founder of Grandmothers ADRC at a Palm Sunday rally, 20 March 2016
Gwenda Davey (centre) and co-founder of Grandmothers ADRC Clare Forbes, (right) at a Palm Sunday rally, 20 March 2016. (Image provided by Gwenda).

Gwenda Davey AM is a children’s activist, eminent children’s folklore researcher (for which she was appointed into the Order of Australia), and a former teacher, lecturer and counselor in the field of children’s development and psychology. In 2014, Gwenda co-founded the Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children (Grandmothers ADRC) in response to the Australian government’s asylum seeker detention policy. Gwenda has since led the group in several protest marches in her home town of Melbourne, and a protest in front of Parliament House in March this year with more than 200 people in attendance. Aged 84, Gwenda is about to retire from Grandmothers ADRC, so I asked her about career, her activism, and her thoughts on the future of children in detention.

Q. You have worked extensively in children’s education, development and advocacy throughout your career. What led you to begin work in this area initially?
A. To be honest, I think I fell into it.  My first real job after graduating in about 1953 with a BA (Hons) in Psychology from Melbourne University was with the Victorian Education Department Psychology and Guidance Branch.  So I worked with them as a school counsellor for about ten years, then took six years off work for the two children (Jim and John). I went back to ‘Psych and Guidance’, as we called it, for a few years, until I took a job as a lecturer in child development at the Institute of Early Childhood Development (Kindergarten Teachers’ College) in Melbourne.  I developed a great interest in children’s traditional playground culture, and eventually completed my PhD at Monash University, writing about folklore and folklife in Australia.
Q. You co-founded the group ‘Grandmother’s Against Detention of Refugee Children’ (Grandmothers ADRC) in 2014. How and why you did you found this group?
A. About six women of mature age met in June Factor’s house in early 2014, to talk about our outrage about asylum-seeker children being confined to detention centres in both Australia and Nauru.  Most of us had worked as lecturers in early childhood, and we were appalled at the damage being done to children physically, mentally and emotionally by their incarceration.  We were all impressed by the report which Professor Gillian Triggs had prepared for the Human Rights Commission, the National Inquiry into Children in Detention.  I put forward the idea that we set up a group of Grandmothers to lobby on behalf of refugee children, and the others liked the idea.  We emailed all the grandmothers we could think of, and invited them to a meeting in the Fairfield Uniting Church.  We expected twenty, and seventy came!
Q. What has been your proudest moment during your time with Grandmothers ADRC?
A. It’s hard to say which was the proudest moment.  Perhaps when we launched the Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne in September 2014, and several hundred grandmothers and a few friends came.  Or when about six months later we had a City Walk in Melbourne, and six hundred came.  Or perhaps only last month, when on 16 March this year more than two hundred grandmothers came to Parliament House in Canberra, from almost every state in Australia.
Q. What action can the general public take to help effect the kind of change that Grandmothers ADRC strives for?
A. Write to, and visit, their federal member of parliament asking for change. Try to get support from State and local government.  At present, a key issue is our demand for the closure of the detention operation on Nauru, where nearly two hundred children have been effectively marooned, in terrible conditions.  Keep trying to change the opinions of the general public, by actions such as pop ups in the street, street stalls, and handing out leaflets on railway stations.
Q. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Australia’s asylum seeker policy, and the welfare of children caught in this complex situation?
A. I am honestly pessimistic about the welfare of these children, who have already been terribly damaged. [But] I still have to maintain some optimism that we can eventually change government policies in this matter.  We remember the work of the suffragettes, particularly in the United Kingdom, and the women of Argentina and Chile who protested silently about ‘the disappeared’.  Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children will never give up.
By Helena Game

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