This year’s Governor General’s Honours List sees the appointment of Bangalow CWA’s Social Justice Officer, Rhonda Ansiewicz, as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). Georgia Fox sat down with her to learn of an incredible lifetime of selfless service.

Rhonda Ansiewicz was so conflicted at the news she was being recognised for her 40 years of social activism, she initially felt she couldn’t accept as a matter of principle. Not from a government she sees to be failing the marginalised communities she’s dedicated her life to. But the prospect of facing the formidable group of 11 fellow long-time activists who’d spent three years secretly working on her nomination was daunting enough to decide it would be easier to “go for the Governor” instead.

While Rhonda’s appointment acknowledges the breadth of her contributions across multiple causes—refugees, disability advocacy, homelessness, women’s welfare, and more—her primary focus is her work with the Aboriginal community. “That’s my core. The person I am today is because of them.”

In 1974, Rhonda was a teacher at a Sydney Catholic high school, “turned off” with the church but “looking for some spirituality” when she ventured into Redfern to lend a hand at St Vincent’s soup kitchen. There she came into the orbit of prominent Wiradjuri woman and humanitarian activist, Mum Shirl, and the progressive and anticlerical parish priest, Father Ted Kennedy—one of Australia’s most fearless advocates for Aboriginal rights. It was a “full-on” time during the land rights movement, and her involvement in Redfern not only swelled to encompass every spare moment but led to studying social work at the University of Western Sydney, where she went on to become a member of faculty for 22 years.

Her visit to St Vincent’s wasn’t the first time the trajectory of Rhonda’s life had been altered by an exceptional priest. Raised by nuns in a children’s welfare home, she was en route to becoming a hospital laundress, until her interest was piqued hearing the ‘outside’ girls she played netball with discussing ‘the Intermediate’ (today’s School Certificate). A visiting priest told her he’d see what he could do, and facilitated her sitting for both the Intermediate and Leaving Certificates. “People opened doors for me. Good people. I think that’s what led to me being drawn to these situations in life.”

Rhonda loved the diversity of UWS, full of people who, like herself, never dreamt of tertiary education. She co-created their Aboriginal Rural Education Program to assist students from all over New South Wales in a modified learning format, gathering every holiday in various regional centres for week-long intensives. “I built a real bond with them. I love them. Some of my students are working around here, and they often ring me for my take on something, which is lovely to have the contact.”

Life was full. Her day started at 5am with a call from Father Ted delegating tasks, then out to UWS, then into Redfern for evenings and weekends—plus her Rural Education Program, visiting prisons with Mum Shirl, making regular submissions on black deaths in custody, and providing assistance in court. Somehow, she even found time to write a letter a week for 27 years campaigning for Nelson Mandela’s release, eventually getting to meet him during his 1990 visit.

Cardinal Pell’s crackdown on Redfern upon Father Ted’s health-related retirement in 2002 radically changed the landscape, and Rhonda’s own increasing issues with environmentally induced asthma forced her to look outside of Sydney for a new life. With a community of friends already in the Northern Rivers, she relocated to 13 acres in Federal in 2005, and immediately sought out the old train shed soup kitchen in Lismore—just as she had done in Redfern so many years earlier. “I fell in love with it. … They were the same people.” Securing the Winsome Hotel got everyone out of the unbearable heat of the tin shed, and, as well sit-down lunches and takeaway sandwiches 365 days a year, allowed for the additional provision of health and housing services.

Rhonda’s on the coffee machine one morning a week and encourages everyone to come and enjoy a “good $2 barista coffee” and see the beautiful clinker bricks and tiles uncovered during the 2022 flood restoration. “It’s a lovely, comfortable place to sit down and have a yarn. … A lot of these people are artists, ex-tradies. When you get to know people, they’ve got a really interesting story to tell. And something’s happened.” She firmly believes we’re all only one step away from experiencing homelessness, and balks at people’s assertion it couldn’t happen to them.

Rhonda’s embraced country life over the last 20 years, developing a reputation as a breeder of Angus cattle—limited to herds of six and only sold to “good homes” for breeding. She says she’s been looked after “brilliantly” by the community, whether it’s support during illness or unprompted assistance with property maintenance. She joined the RFS when she first arrived, but after three years was forced to swap a hose for a catering apron due to a debilitating back condition.

She’s also heavily involved with the Bangalow CWA and their social action group working for women and children, which along with the Winsome, is her main interest these days. It certainly seems a match made in heaven, the CWA the perfect support mechanism to her frontline action. “I think that’s my skill, I’m good at linking that to that.” Rhonda insists this award is for the “invisible” people—those without a voice, whose troubles and suffering went largely unnoticed.

“That is my stance, that this award is in memory of them, and for the struggle, and how they tenaciously tried to make a go of it.” She doesn’t think what she’s done is remarkable, more that she’s simply “part of a chain”. She hates the word charity and its connotations, feeling the people she’s helped have given her far more than she could ever give them. “It’s about reaching out to people in need when you see a need. And not to be afraid of it because the benefits are just wonderful, both for the person and for how you feel. There’s so much injustice in the world—if you can just make a little dent. … We can be the conduit to make a difference.

“I do not think I’m 80,” she says of the milestone coming up in May. “I’ve got a lot of energy still, and while I’ve got it, I’m going to give it.” She’s devastated by the defeat of The Voice, but knows you have to “stay in it to make the change”. Not even major spinal surgery last year has put a damper on things, although it has limited her to four hours at a time on her feet. When the nurses wrote her age on her hospital whiteboard, she told them to put 60 next to it in brackets. “That’s how I run,” she laughs.

One thought on “Rhonda Ansiewicz – a journey with people”

Comments are closed.