Woman Barker, Mary Theresa Torres

Aboriginal Leader

Written by Elaine Rabbitt, Independent Scholar

'A leader has to be very committed, you have to want to do it. You have to be hungry, when you are hungry you will do anything, you will read anything', says Theresa Torres Barker; who has spent hundreds of hours reading books because she 'wanted to know what they are wanting' (Interview). Theresa knew she had to acquire knowledge and develop her skills to be a leader. When her two children were grown up she went to Darwin Institute of Technology, to learn business skills and in 1975 graduated with a Certificate in Community Work. Her motivation to take on further education came from her family, as she comes from 'a family of workers and leaders, active people who had backbone, not frightened to work' (Interview).

'My mother, was a great worker, she was a champion, I think that's where it came from and from my grandmother. They were both workers, they were, leaders. Doesn't matter what they did they were always doing things, they were never still. I never saw them sitting down, laying down, doing nothing. I think this is where I got the desire to do something because I could see that was what I was looking for. Through that I was always looking, searching for something that I needed. I need to be educated to get more skills in me to understand what was happening in the world' (Interview).

Theresa quickly made use of her newly acquired skills. Her first 'official' leadership activity was initiating and organising the Kimberley's first cultural festival in Derby in 1981. It was Theresa who invited the fourteen Aboriginal language groups from the northern communities to come together to attend the gathering. She encouraged them to celebrate the cultures of the Kimberley. 'I have always been part of the culture scene. Let's get on board, let's start doing something, bring family together, bring culture to town to show people what we have to offer and share', she said. She started 'waking people up for their culture' and she was able to do this because of her family connections with senior law men and women, at a time when National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) celebrations were virtually unheard of in the Kimberley (Interview). A truly remarkable feat for a young woman, emerging as an Aboriginal leader of the future.

Theresa went from strength to strength, always with the support of the 'old people'. She was instrumental in the formation of the Yawuru Jarndu Aboriginal Corporation, in 1987. She called meetings and encouraged others to be involved and the Aboriginal women's resource centre was established to provide services to women including training to gain employment. It was the old women that gave Theresa encouragement: 'You have to have the ingredients to be a good leader. A leader doesn't sit at home and think about cooking. It is not about what you want, it's about what people want. You have to be a good listener, you have to understand what they are needing, you have to have respect for each other's views. It is important to know how to communicate. Why are you there if you can't communicate?' (Interview). Leadership depends upon the role you are performing, Theresa says. 'Aboriginal women come from a place of culture, respecting, We are taught by observing listening, looking, touching feeling doing, that's where we come from' (Interview).

Amongst Theresa's many achievements was her election to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSIC) Regional Council, where she served one term of office, for three years. The women voted her in and it was a memorable experience. Theresa has not retired and continues to be a part of boards and committees. She says: 'there is so much learning, every time I sit down I never stop learning, always something you learn' (Interview).

Additional sources: Theresa Barker, interviewed by Elaine Rabbitt, Broome, Western Australia, 21st November 2012 and 15th May 2013.

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