By Megan Gorrey AUGUST 26, 2021
Yvonne Weldon, the first Indigenous candidate for lord mayor in the 179-year history of the City of Sydney council, remembers the exact moment when she realised racism would be a part of her life.
It was the 1970s, the Wiradjuri woman was seven, in year 2 at Sydney’s Redfern Public School. Her best friend was a freckle-faced red-haired girl who she would meet on the stairs each day at lunchtime to play handball and hopscotch with. When the girl invited Weldon to her birthday party, she picked what she thought was the perfect gift – a red-haired, freckle-faced Raggedy Anne doll. Decades later over our lunch and a cup of tea, she can still remember the anticipation before her mother dropped her at the party at the girl’s house in Enmore.
“I was so excited,” the 50-year-old grandmother and single mother of three recalls.
The next day at school the girl didn’t meet Weldon on the stairs. Nor the next day.
“I went to her classroom and I said ‘I’ve been waiting for you’. And she said, ‘My mum and dad said I can’t play with you’.”
Weldon was baffled. “I remember saying to my mum later, ’What did I do wrong? Was it my present?” My mum said, ‘Baby, you don’t have to do anything wrong. It’s because of what they think, not because of what you are’.”
Weldon counts this realisation as a pivotal moment in her life, even if she didn’t understand it at the time.
“I don’t know if it creates a direction, but it certainly makes you reflect about the direction you’ve gone in, how far you’ve come, and how much further you need to go.”
Weldon’s ambition to improve the lives of her mob has been the driving force of her career spent working and volunteering in roles spanning education, land rights, health, youth justice and domestic violence.
It’s also at the heart of her next challenge: to topple lord mayor of Sydney Clover Moore’s 17-year reign in the delayed elections, now scheduled for December 4.
Sydney’s lockdown has scuppered two sets of lunch plans, so we’re chatting over Zoom. At Weldon’s suggestion, we meet earlier to grab takeaway from Chiswick, the Woollahra restaurant owned by chef and restaurateur Matt Moran.
Weldon knows Moran’s wife, the lawyer Sarah Hopkins, through her work with Just Reinvest NSW – an organisation that aims to reduce the number of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. The team at Chiswick prepare food for us and we meet masked up to collect it.
Moran himself appears at the door of the empty restaurant to hand over bags packed with Weldon’s slow-roasted lamb shoulder and my Bannockburn roast chicken. “All I know is, Sarah said ‘Look after Yvonne’!” he says.
Moran mentions he’s just bought an old pub at Rockley, close to his family farm near Bathurst. “Wiradjuri country!” Weldon exclaims.
‘I swore black and blue I’d never get involved in black affairs. Because it’s so challenging. It’s not easy.’
Weldon was born and raised in Sydney, but she retains strong ties to rural NSW. Her father George Weldon, who worked as a lithographic printer, was born in Leeton, in the Riverina, and her mother Ann Weldon, the founding member and former company secretary of the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern, was raised in Cowra in the Central West. The couple moved to Sydney and rented their first home in Alexandria, where they raised Weldon and her two younger sisters.
Political activism runs in Weldon’s blood: her great-aunt was the activist and social worker Colleen Shirley Perry Smith, known as Mum Shirl, while her uncle, Paul Coe, was a prominent campaigner for Aboriginal rights.
“I’ve been very actively involved in the Redfern community my entire life, from birth really,” says Weldon, who now lives in inner-city Glebe. “There were so many people who experienced disadvantage.”
Weldon attended the former Cleveland Street High School the first year it became co-ed and said her parents grew concerned when her grades, and her attendance, became patchy. An intervention came in the form of Mum Shirl, who helped broker an interview for Weldon at St Scholastica’s College, a private girls’ school in Glebe.
“I got in and didn’t look back,” Weldon says. She was the fourth Aboriginal student to attend the college, where she made friends easily and enjoyed playing basketball.
She graduated in 1988 as a prefect; the school captain was her Indigenous classmate Malarndirri McCarthy, who is now a Northern Territory Labor senator.
Weldon had ambitions to become a book-keeper, but she didn’t get into an accounting degree. Instead, she switched to arts, studying sociology, anthropology and Aboriginal studies.
She put her degree on hold indefinitely when she became a mother to her son at 21 (she also has two daughters), but later took up work with the Aboriginal Legal Service and the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
Despite her studies and pedigree, Weldon says politics wasn’t a path she planned. “I swore black and blue I’d never get involved in black affairs. Because it’s so challenging. It’s not easy. There’s the diversity of all the nations... so when people come together they have their own belief systems, their own traditions, their own practices and that often can be quite confronting.”
Weldon’s curriculum vitae includes a string of government and non-government roles rooted in those challenges. She’s deputy chairwoman of the NSW Australia Day Council and chairperson of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. Weldon also sits on the board of Domestic Violence NSW and Redfern Jarjum College, which helps Indigenous children who struggle at mainstream schools. Her current job is manager of the Aboriginal unit at Youth Justice NSW, tackling the over-representation of Indigenous people in detention. Last year, she was featured alongside 29 other women and men – all identified as changemakers – in a portrait series for Australian fashion brand Aje.
One of her earliest challenges, in her 20s, was running an Indigenous childcare centre in Mount Druitt, which she describes as “a baptism of fire”.
“I was 26 and the CEO of an organisation ... The amount of resistance you often get from people because of change, it can become quite volatile. But you just roll with it, you get on with it, and you keep your eye on the prize.”
Weldon says more than half (about 55 per cent) of the state’s Aboriginal young people were in detention when she started in her role at Youth Justice.
“I remember saying, ‘I’m here to do myself out of a job. I cannot accept the status quo.’ We got down at one point to 39 per cent, so there’s still a long way to go, but it’s going in the right direction. One of the problems is, we’re downstream. It’s the upstream issues we need to address: like policing, education, the health system.
Weldon feels most capable of making a difference when she can navigate systems and change them from within.
The next one in her sights is the City of Sydney council. Weldon joined the lord mayoral race after sitting councillor Kerryn Phelps bowed out in May, and is leading a team of independents under the slogan Unite for Sydney.
She acknowledges she faces an uphill battle to beat the incumbent Moore, Sydney’s mayor of 17 years, but reckons it’s time for a change – and an Aboriginal voice – on council.
“I think there’s a level of complacency because there have been the same people doing the same thing for a long period of time. It’s about challenging the status quo and seeing what difference we can make.”
Climate action is a priority, as is delivering more affordable housing and social housing. She also wants to provide more support to the arts and business sectors as they attempt to recover from the pandemic.
Why does she think it has taken so long for an Indigenous person to run for mayor?
“I think it’s a sign of the times. Have we truly grown up as a country? There’s a nervousness around addressing issues relating to my people … It comes back to control, and it’s about who controls the narrative all the time, versus who’s living it.
“If Sydney does it for this Aboriginal woman, they will do it for everyone.”
Weldon grew up surrounded by strong female role models, but says she’s also had the “staunchest men in my life”.
‘Don’t be outside the tent throwing rocks from afar, get in there and have the conversation. You make the difference.’What Yvonne Weldon’s uncles told her
She turned to her male elders when she was approached to join the NSW Australia Day Council. Weldon feared it would be controversial and that she might be criticised as “tokenistic” or “a sell-out”.
“I said to my uncles, what do you think? And they said ‘You get in there, you get inside that tent. Don’t be outside the tent throwing rocks from afar, get in there and have the conversation. You make the difference’.”
“One of the real reasons why I’ve stood [for council] is yes I have three children, but I have a beautiful, talented grandson, and I have to make a difference for him.”
Weldon’s grandson, Tailan, is two-years-old. “He’s got an Instagram account because he plays golf. It’s very cute,” she says, grabbing her phone to show me. “He’s very clever.”
We’re too full to contemplate the bread and butter pudding with rhubarb that’s in our takeaway bags. Weldon intends to try it later. She often uses the early hours to read and write, and got to bed at 3.30am the morning of our catch-up.
She’s recently discovered audiobooks, her current favourite being Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (“It got me”). Weldon has written about Indigenous rights and the Black Lives Matter movement for Vogue magazine, and her own unpublished manuscript, 67 Days, was short-listed for the David Unaipon Award in the Queensland Literary Awards in 2016. It’s a tragic love story about an Aboriginal girl growing up in Redfern. “She finds love and it heals her. There’s some lived experience in it. There are people in it that are real. But it’s a fictional book.”
Writing is an activity she’d like to find more time for, she says as her mind turns to the next few years. “I’d like to be the lord mayor, and if I’m not, I’d still like to be on council making a difference. I’ll give it a red-hot go.”
Does she believe she can dethrone Moore?
“Stranger things have happened,” she says. Like she did back in Mount Druitt, she’s keeping her eye on the prize.
Chiswick, 65 Ocean Street, Woollahra, (02) 8388 8688; Tuesday to Thursday, 5pm to 8pm and Friday to Sunday, 12pm to 8pm for takeaway during lockdown.