That's the Spirit: Maxine Mackay OAM and Kristy Kennedy - Bourke NSW
Maxine Mackay has devoted her adult life to promoting educational opportunities in her home town of Bourke, a lifetime of commitment that earned her an Order of Australia Medal (OAM). Her passion for education and community was instilled by her mother, and Maxine has in turn passed on that dedication to daughter, Kristy Kennedy who, after studying and practicing in the city, has returned to Bourke with a law degree and a determination to advocate for the community she loves. JEN COWLEY spent time with the dynamic mother-daughter duo, both of whom are Rotarians, during a visit to Bourke.
Jen: Maxine, were you born and raised at Bourke?
Maxine: I was, although my mother was a Ngarrindjeri woman from South Australia, my father’s father was a Scotsman and his mother was a Barkindji woman from Wilcannia. I claim all of these as my heritage, but I tell people my maternal line is Ngarrindjeri and my paternal line is Barkindji and Scottish.
Jen: You have a long history of involvement with education, particularly early childhood learning, in Bourke – how did that come about?
Maxine: It started back in the day of my mother growing up in South Australia. She could only go to Year Six at a one teacher school, but she loved learning so any time she was able to she would pick up books and read, and write letters. She always wanted to continue her learning, but she couldn’t.
She instilled, in me and my sister, a love of learning and I’ve passed that on to my kids as well.
When the pre-school first opened in Bourke in the late ‘60s, Mum was one of the first Aboriginal aides to be employed there and she worked there for a number of years. The director at the time kept up a friendship (with Mum) until she passed away, which was only about 12 years ago, but they maintained that connection for all those years. Everyone assumed I would do early childhood teaching, so I did. I went to teachers’ college and did a couple of years but I dropped out and came back to Bourke. Then after a while, I went back to Macquarie Uni and finished the degree. After that, I was at the pre-school for 23 years.
I’ve always been passionate about education being the way forward – for everyone.
It’s particularly important for Aboriginal people to value learning, and because you don’t get instant results with education, it’s sometimes hard for people to see the value of the long-term investment in the future.
Years ago, I’d say to the children, “Make sure you come every day to pre-school, and then go every day to big school – get an education because your education will get you jobs.”
Then of course, we had big droughts happen, and that made things hard, but I kept saying to the kids to stay at school because your education will make your community strong.
Your education is yours for life. No-one can take your education away from you.
You can use your education no matter where you are in the world.
Jen: How have you seen the benefits of educational opportunity for Bourke?
Maxine: Put it this way: you can see the impact of a lack of education. It’s debilitating to say the least. This is particularly true with employment opportunities.
Jen: Why do you love where you live?
Maxine: Mum said that when she first came to Bourke with my father, the whole community welcomed her. She came from a very blatantly racist town, I think South Australia as a whole was very racist back in those days. When she came here, she was welcomed and she never forgot that. She always said she remembered thinking, “This is my home now.” She kept in contact with her people in South Australia and she took us back for a 12-month visit once so that we could connect with her family, but Bourke was her home. Due to not having a phone, Mum and her elder sister would write very long letters to each other to keep up to date with the family.
The same is true for me – this is my home, and there’s no place like home. If I’m ever broke, I’d rather be broke in Bourke. Here, if you’re broke, you know you’d get a feed. People will still say hello. You’ll get a bed if you need it.
Bourke is very inclusive. People say there’s still racism here and, honestly, there’s racism everywhere, but if you have a little network of people going on around you, that’s what matters. Because I’ve been involved in so many things in the community, I’m lucky enough to have a huge network of people I work with and who I’m friends with.
If you treat people with respect, you hope that in return they treat you with respect. I treat people how I like to be treated.
I care for the community and I care what happens to my community. I want to see it grow and stay strong, and I work towards that.
Jen: Do you think there is a strong community spirit in Bourke, and if so, where do you think that comes from?
Maxine: I do think there’s a community spirit here, and I think it comes from like-minded people who are proud to live in Bourke. I make a point of welcoming people who are new to town. If I’m down at the wharf having a coffee and I see someone who’s a new face, I’ll say, “Oh, you’re new here? Are you visiting or have you moved here?”
It’s just nice to welcome people and it helps make a friendly impression of the town.
Jen: You’re both Rotarians. What was your motivation in joining Rotary?
Maxine: My friend was a Rotarian and she thought it would be something I’d enjoy: the friendship, the service to community, doing things for the town… and she was right. I love it! I love doing things for our community, I love the sense of belonging to something that serves community. I love doing the barbecues and helping the senior citizens.
The Bourke Rotary club is very inclusive – there are a lot of Aboriginal people who are members, but we don’t see ourselves as Aboriginal Rotarians, we’re just Rotarians. I don’t necessarily see a divide that we’re helping to bridge – it’s not about us trying to “become white”, which some people might perceive it as, we just love being in Rotary. Kristy and I proudly tell everyone we’re Rotarians and that we have fun. When we do things for the community; I make an effort to get out and about to make sure all the Aboriginal people in the community, particularly the older people, get an invitation and that they have access to the event – so we make a special effort to be inclusive with the community too. I think that’s where we need to direct our efforts – to make sure everyone comes together. They see Kristy and me in action too. But you have to make an effort – everyone has to make an effort.
Kristy Kennedy and Maxine Mackay OAM, Bourke NSW.
Kristy: I actually just love Rotary – I’m so glad I am part of the Bourke club, because it’s such a great team. We have young people involved as well and that’s really important. I’m always telling people about Rotary and how much I enjoy it. What makes it fulfilling is the opportunity to give back to the community that’s given so much to me.
I was very active in other community groups as well when I was younger, and Rotary sponsored me to go away to conferences and things. I travelled overseas with Rotary, and went to a youth leadership program and other things. Rotary has been very good to me so when I was asked to join, I thought it was a great opportunity to help repay that.
Jen: Kristy, you studied, earned a degree and practised in law which took you away from Bourke for a while. What was it that brought you home?
Kristy: I think I wanted to be back with family and have time out in my home town. I got a bit sick of living in the city.
There are some misconceptions about Bourke being the wild west, and that’s thanks to our crime stats which, I acknowledge have been quite high – I’m not sure how the stats are at the moment, but it’s been an issue for years. Even when I was at uni doing crime studies, Bourke would regularly come up, but even with that, it’s not the hollow town people seem to think it is. People who don’t know Bourke sometimes think it’s a lawless place where you can’t feel safe, and that’s just not true. There are elements of that, as there is anywhere. Ironically, some of those people who think like that live in Sydney, for goodness sake! When I was finishing uni in Sydney, someone was murdered outside the window of the place where I’d been living.
It makes me sad that Bourke has that bad reputation. It’s a bum rap and it’s not fair – Bourke has so much to offer.
Jen: What makes you happy about your life in Bourke?
Kristy: There are a lot of great people who make Bourke their home. There are the born-and-bred locals and there are the people who come to Bourke for work and make it their home. They’re always pleasantly surprised when they settle in to town. They come with their skills and their experience and their expertise, but they also bring their personalities and they have so much to offer in terms of friendship.
For instance, an engineer who’s just joined Rotary – her husband is a local doctor and she’s a stay-at-home mum at the moment – and we’ve hit it off and we’re really good friends, it’s like we’ve known each other for years.
There’s an extraordinary skill base in Bourke. I think people would be genuinely surprised to know just how many very clever people live and work in Bourke, and that’s one of the misconceptions: that if you live in a remote town, you’re somehow a bit dense.
People go, “Really? You’re a this or that?” or “You’re a lawyer? Really?” I almost find it offensive to be honest, but I just go along with it.
Jen: Do you see yourself as a role model?
Kristy: I used to see myself as such and I used to put a lot of pressure on myself, and other people put pressure on me, to be a role model over the years. I’ve taken a step back from that and just focussed on myself for a bit, because it is really hard sometimes to be “on point” with everything and have all aspects of your life together at the one time and to know your direction, enough to be an example for others.
Maxine: My mother always used to say that a community is only as good as what you put into it. If you put nothing in, expect nothing back. Kristy and I have always contributed, but people also know that we care about community and about people. I don’t care who you are, if you need a little TLC, I’m happy to give it. I make a point of keeping in touch with people if I know they’re hurting or they’re sad.
Community is about keeping in touch with people. That’s about humanity, not about trying to be a role model or doing it for any other reason than you genuinely care.
Kristy: That said, I do feel very strongly about mentoring young people. When I was at Sydney Uni, I lived on campus at Women’s College and we used to have a group through which we took girls from college out on country. We’d do workshops with young Aboriginal girls in regional and remote communities, and we’d do a whole day with them talking about career paths and different options. We’d talk about the different pathways to careers and employment, not just necessarily university or TAFE, but it could be about getting a job. At the same time it was also about a cultural exchange. You had all these white girls from Women’s College talking to young black girls – sitting together and getting to know each other and learning from each other. It was an exchange of ideas and culture, where we’d do fun stuff as well as the nitty gritty of what they wanted to do with their lives. Sometimes (formal school) careers advisors don’t get a chance to have those kinds of conversations. Part of it was talking about scholarships and other pathways to further education, and we also took some of the students down to visit Women’s College to get a little experience college life for a week. We would find out which faculties they were interested in, and we’d buddy them up with mentors who could show them around the campus for the week.
Some of those girls (from Women’s College) went on to do placements in rural communities, including some of the medical students who went to Dubbo. That was all part of it too – bringing people out to the bush to experience it and to see what it’s like. There’s a lot of benefits that flow on from a program like this, that flow both ways.
Now they have formal programs like this set up at Sydney Uni, but they didn’t at the time when we were doing our program.
I’m looking at setting up a similar thing here in Bourke.
Jen: Why is that important to you?
Kristy: It’s my home community and I want to get to know some of the young girls here a bit better and work with them. I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of educational opportunities and I’d like to see others be in a position to take up those same sorts of opportunities.
Kristy Kennedy and Maxine Mackay OAM, Bourke NSW.
Jen: How important do you think the pursuit of education is for regional communities?
Kristy: Absolutely vital. It’s the lifeblood of regional communities and I don’t think we can invest enough in education in rural areas.
If you have a generation of young people who are being educated, the whole community will benefit from that. Through education comes opportunity, so they can choose what they want to go on to be and do in life – they can choose between different job opportunities. Their lives are not limited.
As Mum and Nan always told me, once you have education, no-one can take that away from you. You might lose everything, you might lose all your money, but if you have education you can rebuild. You can start again from scratch if you have an education.
For me an education has meant that I’ve been able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Of course you hope young people will have a look beyond their own communities and see what’s out there, but also give back to their own communities. It’s nice if they want to come back, but they don’t have to – just being educated and taking up opportunities means they will give back through other programs and other mentoring opportunities. Being successful is in itself a way of giving back to their own communities because people see them as an example of what’s possible – as role models.
Maxine: But we don’t seek accolades. That’s not why we do what we do for community and for people.
Jen: Speaking of accolades, though… Maxine, you were awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2019, and while you clearly don’t seek it out, it must be nice to have your contribution acknowledged?
Maxine: It is and I do see it that way. You don’t do what you do in anticipation of awards, but it’s a validation of the value of giving back to your community. You go along on your merry way and do what you do because you care for community and the people in it. I had such a shock when I received the email, and I wasn’t actually going to accept it at first because it’s like, shame, for people to put your name forward. Then I thought about it and I thought, “No, I’m going to do this because I do work hard, and it is nice to be rewarded.” It’s not that you do it for the accolades, but it is nice. And it’s a good example for others to know that hard work is valued.
I still feel uncomfortable using the letters after my name, but if I can use the award to help other people, then I will.
Small towns tend to have very long memories and that can be both good and bad, but in a small town, a sense of social justice is a very important thing to have. I’m very strong in my belief in social justice – if something isn’t right or someone isn’t being treated fairly, you stand up and you say so. You have to call it out.
I’m very proud that Kristy has used her education to stand up for other people. She’s had very strong female influences in her life – she’s been surrounded by strong women, so she’s a strong woman herself and she stands up not only for herself but for others. We bump heads occasionally because we’re both strong women (laughs) – I’m not afraid to shirtfront her if I think she’s wrong… and vice versa!
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.