My memories of Aboriginal people when I was growing up in WA are not overly positive. I had witnessed Aboriginal men and women throwing bottles and rocks at people in public places. There was a sense of fear for me around Aboriginal people that I'm now not proud to admit.
I would have referred to myself as a 'channel changer' -- when current affairs became too heavily about Indigenous Australians I would find myself switching off. I was apathetic and ignorant.
I made the decision not to hold back on expressing this ignorance when I joined the First Contact program and I put all my views on the table in my interviews before we left. I'm involved in the arts community which does not take kindly to those kinds of views, so I knew it was a risk to put them out there, but I saw no point in doing the show unless I was brutally honest.
Those views began to fade in the first two days. After a quick visit to Uluru, we went to the East Kimberley and were first taken to a river bank surrounded by beautiful trees and birdsong. It was idyllic. A woman named Carol gave us a 'welcome to country'. I had never understood the welcome to country when I had heard it in places such as the Rod Laver Arena -- but seeing someone standing there, in her country, asking spirits to keep you, floored me. I instantly went from 'couldn't care less' to having a lump in my throat.
From then on, I was surprised everywhere we visited. I met people with both sad and incredible stories, showing immense resilience.
We visited a sobering up shelter in Kununurra, where they bring mostly elderly drunk people who they have picked up from parks around the town. I got chatting with one of the ladies who worked there called Elaine and I'll never forget her as long as I live. She had recently lost her daughter Olivia to suicide. It happened the day after Olivia's 24th birthday. In some cosmic irony, this woman with so much grief couldn't even cry. Elaine explained that a man had gone to hit his partner with a bottle and when she intervened he had struck her in the face instead, smashing her cheekbone and permanently destroying her tear ducts.
The grace with which she has lived her life was incredible – everything she's done has been to help others. Elaine stayed in my mind as one of the most noble people I've met in my life, from any background. In the grip of the worst grief imaginable, she shows up at that shelter every day to help others. How many people have stories like that?
There was also a little boy we met at Bawaka. He loved maths and wanted to be policeman. He told me that his Dad was dead, that a monster had come, tied him to a tree and lashed him. That afternoon, I asked one of the women about the story and she said the boy's father had completed suicide. He'd either been told this story or just imagined that his dad had died a hero. I really felt for that little guy -- he needed that story to get by.
I met person after person who inspired me. I saw extraordinary community and a level of taking care of each other that I'm not sure I've witnessed in my own community. I had my heart opened up. I know that sounds very 'living in gratitude', but there's no other way to explain it. I was opened.
I was reminded that everyone has a story, that everyone is the product of something. I learned how people who would normally frighten me have got to where they are in life, and that many of them maybe never had much hope of being anything else. Every day there were new people challenging and changing me. For every negative I faced on the trip, I got 10 positives back.
It was the best month of my life. Every night of the journey, I lay there thinking about the people I was meeting. I came back changed on many levels. It was more than just knowledge -- I got enlightenment. I now stop myself from thinking things that are unnecessary. This experience has made me more tolerant and I've pledged to live my life with more compassion.
I didn't want the people we met on the trip to know what I'd said in my interviews before we left -- my ignorant comments about Aboriginal people. I was worried about the repercussions for me personally, but I did feel sick about the feelings of the Aboriginal people that were so kind and generous to us. I made an apology to some people straight away. When we met the Stolen Generation girls in Cootamundra, I apologised for my comments which they were likely going to hear when the program went to air. I said: "I wish I hadn't said what I did and I'm sorry". The women were gracious and reassured me. They said: "That's alright darling, you didn't know".
It was a strange transition back to my normal life. I went from being deeply immersed in different Aboriginal cultures to performing in a musical. I had my face painted with ochre and I was wearing a red wig and feather boa. It was a weird transition that had to be made, but I just didn't want to let my experience go.
I became a bit obsessed and desperately didn't want to lose those connections with Aboriginal Australia. When I got home I was like a demon. I think I read every word Noel Pearson has ever written -- I didn't even know who he was prior to this trip. I've made contact with Wurundjeri elders in Melbourne to see how I can get involved on a local level.
I don't have any answers but I'm excited that I've now got real questions. I'm realistic -- I know there's much work to do -- but I'm also optimistic about the future of Aboriginal Australia. I'm nervous to make big statements -- there have been far greater minds than mine working on these issues for decades and many haven't achieved what they set out to. But I now know that it's crucial to take notice, listen and never make a judgement until you know someone else's story.
First Contact continues tonight at 8.30pm on SBS and NITV. #FirstContact