Tammy Solonec on how to practice courage

Tammy Solonec speaks out at the rally marking 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Tammy Solonec knows where her passions lie and isn’t afraid to fight for what she believes in. But courage isn’t something she was born with; it’s something that has grown inside her as she’s made her way through life.

A human rights lawyer, Tammy is currently serving as a director of the National Congress of Australia’s First People, and is also on the National Aboriginal and Islanders’ Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) and the NAIDOC Perth Committee, which finds her heavily involved in the organisation events including the Survival Concerts in Perth, held annually on January 26. Add to that, in 2012 Tammy won both Young Lawyer of the Year with the Law Society of WA and Young Female Lawyer of the Year with the Women Lawyer’s Association.

At the conference Celebrating Mowanjum’s Future, held at Floreat Uniting Church in August, Tammy spoke on the importance for justice reinvestment within our prison and corrections  system, having worked closely on the Mr Ward case representing the interests of the Aboriginal community in Western Australia, with the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS).

Tammy  believes that the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric needs to change.

“I’m guided by people like Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa,” she said. “Anti anything ain’t really going to work; you’ve got to be solution focussed.”

Speaking at the conference, Tammy explained that justice reinvestment offers a positive approach to dealing with crime by providing programs which strengthen communities and prevent at-risk people from entering the system, and programs for offenders to help ensure they are supported and less likely to offend again. And the evidence shows that it works.

“In Oregon, using justice reinvestment, they were able to reduce the juvenile incarceration rate by a staggering 72%,” she said. “And in Dallas, Texas, for the first time ever, the  incarceration stopped growing and they have recently closed three prisons.”

Justice reinvestment is just one area that Tammy is passionate about, as she has been involved in a number of initiatives which build a better community for Australia. But finding her  courage to speak out has been a process of learning to trust in herself and what she’s capable of – a journey that started young in life.

Having spent most of her childhood in regional and remote Western Australia, Tammy moved to Perth at age 16. As a Nyikina Indigenous woman, originally from Derby, Tammy  struggled with racism throughout school and into adulthood, but has a mother who taught her to be proud of her Indigenous heritage. She always did well at school, and jumped at the  chance to study an Aboriginal pre-law program at the University of Western Australia (UWA) – not only succeeding and entering into law, but becoming dux of her class.

Growing up seeing domestic violence, Tammy then married into a similar situation. After trying to make it work for 8 years, she eventually left her husband, leaving her two children behind.  It was during this  period of her life that Tammy really found out what she was capable of, after falling to her lowest point. Because Tammy had left the family home, she lost custody of her children. But  after years of struggle, she eventually found the strength to fight her ex-husband in court.

“There’s no hole that’s too big to dig out of,” she said. “All I had to do was throw a rope up and get someone to catch it.”

Representing herself in court, including having to cross-examine her ex-husband, she won shared care of their children.

“I went down to the river, because I’ve got this affinity with the river, and I sat there and I realised that I could do anything,” she said. “That’s when I started to really have belief in  myself.”

It was not long after the case that she was selected to be a guest on the 2009 Compass series, The Abbey. Tammy joined four other women as they lived as Benedictine Nuns for just over  a month and worked through the various issues each woman was facing – all caught on camera and aired on ABC1. The series used a range of different spiritual techniques to help the  women in their personal struggles. While Tammy said she found the filming of the process quite confronting, the time with God and the universe was exactly what she needed to heal.

“My soul needed it, it was just so good,” she said.

“In my mind there was a deliberate decision to be open and honest because I wanted other women who had grown up in domestic violence, who had been with domestically violent  people, who’d had their children removed, to be able to find comfort in spirituality like I have.”

Looking to the future, her next project is with Shelter WA, dealing with housing and teaching people their rights and responsibilities within the Residential Tennancies Act. And with  political aspirations, Tammy is definitely one to keep your eye on.

“If I want to do this stuff I’ve got to be tough and courageous,” she said. “And life is giving me plenty of opportunities to practice that.”

The Uniting Church in WA has strongly advocated for justice reinvestment for a number of years. To find out more about the campaign visit http://buildcommunitiesnotprisons.org.au.

Heather Dowling

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