The Centre for Volunteering, in proud partnership with Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation, is excited to continue the YarnUp storytelling series with rugby star and Githabul man, Brendan Williams.

We are thrilled to continue this partnership by holding space for Githabul man Brendan Williams to share his story and his passion for volunteering. Starting off as a boy from Muli Muli, he would go on to travel Australia and the world as an international sport star, before finding himself on the flooded banks of Lismore, where his volunteering journey really kicked off…

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers and listeners are advised, this series contains stories of a sensitive nature and images, voices or names of people who may have died.

Full interview with Brendan Williams, international rugby champion

Facilitated by Tribal Warrior Talent

My Mob is Githabul mob from Muli Muli. An Aboriginal community on the Far North Coast of NSW but I grew up in Redfern on the Block on Gadigal land.

Up there in Muli Muli, we’d go roo-hunting and turtle diving but Christianity really took over up there and had a big impact on culture. It’s like it was schooled out of us. Coming back down to the Block there was no culture at all, like Aboriginal culture didn’t exist. Except for dancing with Aboriginal Dance Theatre, that was the only connection to culture we had.

Our family back home spoke a little of the language but it was lost in Sydney. I felt the same about my identity as well. When I would go home, my niece and nephews could speak language, but I couldn’t. It was shame and I felt unwanted, like a stranger.

Growing up in Redfern was about survival, we couldn’t practice too much culture. We all marched but they didn’t bring anything into the school except for Aboriginal dance. I leaned on sport and footy as an outlet and an escapist mechanism to deal with the environment I had to grow up with on the Block surrounded by drugs and crime.

Sport changed my life and changed who I was as a person – getting outside my comfort zone. People looked down at Redfern, degraded it and surrounded it with negativity. I went on to play professional sport for Australia, travelling around the world to South Africa, Amsterdam for the Waratahs, the Brumbies etc.,. I knew I was Aboriginal but I wasn’t allowed to express that I was Aboriginal, we were just Australian. It was a racist system.

In the sport I played they didn’t care who you were, you were just an Aussie. If you speak about your Aboriginality it’s brushed off. Rugby Australia, NRL, AFL and all that racism still goes on and I don’t think it’ll ever change. Inherently Australia won’t allow that. Everywhere I travelled people would ask me, ‘Where’s the most racist place you’ve been to in the world?’ I would say ‘Australia!’

Racism is taught, nobody is born racist. It’s a shame it’s still out there affecting the kids and we keep punching on through but we’re sick of it.

In sport if you’re Aboriginal, you’re already two steps behind. Firstly because I’m built small and secondly because I’m Aboriginal. I had to do all the extra training and extra work to make it to where I did. That’s the difference between a good sportsperson, you ‘ve got to put the effort in despite being on the backfoot.

It took me living overseas, on the other side of the world in Italy to realise how much I wanted to learn more about my culture and who I really was. How much our Ancestors did, what they fought for and what they stand for. To do that, I needed to learn more about myself and my identity.

I had to go through life being on the backfoot. Then travelled and came back home to embrace my culture, I’m so proud to see my nieces and nephews now dancing and singing and shakin’ a leg. Communities are teaching culture in the schools now in La Perouse.

I reconnected when I went to rehab. I went to The Glen and found who I really was. After playing professional sport, I felt I had a lot of identities going through my head. It was confusing and I had to focus on survival. When you’re fighting addiction, you’re fighting your identity. When I learned about culture, I found my identity. We’ve always had a voice but nobody ever wanted to listen.

When the Lismore floods came up, I went up to volunteer and help out for a couple of weeks. It was unbelievable to help people and community, but also to grow myself as a person.

It was back on my Country, Bundjalung, I rarely go back to my Country up there. I loved putting my feet back on the ground up there. When I get there it’s a load off the shoulders, it’s a release. I’m re-connected to where it all started.

I was there for the first flood, then I packed up just before the next flood, even though I wanted to stay. The flood is Mother Nature, it’s Country Speaking. When everyone got together we were able to punch through and help each other out.

One person asked me while I’m up there – ‘Where do you get your energy from?’

I couldn’t believe they asked me that question. I said just look around, how can you not be so excited and so happy to see everybody from different cultures coming together to be one mob? Despite the flood going on, people are still smiling and that’s just priceless.

We had mob show up from all over the country showing up to help with cooking or cleaning or anything else. The government can never replace or buy the power of community volunteering. At the end of the day it’s people on the ground doing it because they are making people smile, being good stewards for Country and that’s just life. I couldn’t ask for anything better, I’d volunteer anytime any place anywhere. The reward is the smile, the thanks, the care.

When you remove the money from the job, you remove the systemic racism and means to measure wealth. That’s the beauty of being Aboriginal as well, when we come together as one people we’re winning each other’s respect. We’re not here to win the championship, we’re winning each other’s respect.

I’ve given back most of my life by coaching all the community teams, U18’s and girls footy. Recently I coached overseas and volunteered to take an Aboriginal team of kids to Thailand for footy. They ended up naming an award after me!

These kids come from all different communities from Wooroobinda to Eden on the South Coast, many of them have never left their communities let alone the country. Now they’re brothers for life these kids. They’ve been mixing and socialising with all different people of different races and when they introduce themselves, they introduce their Country. I’m so proud of that, that’s the strength our culture has. Our young generation will thrive off that.

We work in a team of different fullas from up Brisbane, Sydney etc. Indigenous & non-Indigenous. I met them through my rugby career and they went on to be successful in their own careers. Then they later approached me to facilitate as a volunteer coach and my employer said yes. I took work without pay and it was supported by my employer because it’s giving back to culture.

We took them over on a home sponsorship, we got small Black businesses to pull together funding to take the kids overseas. We’re going to do it again next year and next time, we want to open the experience to regional and remote kids to give them the opportunity to not just play rugby but also to mix with other cultures and other Mob outside their own communities. To give them that opportunity to see lions and tigers and bring those stories back home to Mob.

Another thing I talk to them about is fear. It’s the fear inside you telling you not to do it. It’s not the people around judging you that you have to deal with, it’s your own fear. It doesn’t matter if you lose – if you have a go, you’ve won.

The beauty about it is it’s not who you’re facing, it’s not how big they are, or how scary they are – it’s beating your own fear. When they overcome their own individual fear, then their entire mindset and self-respect changes. They’ve got room to have dreams and want to go to university and have careers.

My biggest advice to people wanting to volunteer with Mob is don’t judge when you volunteer with community, approach it equally. Leave the power and ego at the door, it doesn’t matter who you are. At the end of the day you’re a person. You’re a woman a man a child, a baby. Don’t try to be better than anyone. Respect. Listen.

I set myself three goals every day:

  1. Go to training
  2. Say hello to someone
  3. Make someone else happy, or make me happy

And I achieve them all before 6am every morning.

Even a hello is a volunteer and volunteering is the best thing ever. It shows who you as an individual really are. Loving. Caring. It shows you’re willing to go above and beyond to make someone else happy. It’s love.

Image credit: @jessie___prince


Learn more

About YarnUp

To learn more about this project and partnership, visit our website.

About Tribal Warrior

Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation website (Tribal Warrior) is a non-profit organisation founded and directed by Aboriginal peoples, with Elders from various NSW Aboriginal nations at its helm. For more information on their range of programs, cultural tours and experiences, visit the Tribal Warrior website.