Five minutes with Isaiah Dawe, Founder and CEO, ID. Know Yourself

Published 29 July 2022

Isaiah Dawe looking at camera smiling

ID. Know Yourself provides support and guidance for Aboriginal young people in Out of Home Care. Their mission is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma through establishing belonging, discovering purpose and empowering positive choices.

We spoke with Isaiah Dawe, Founder and CEO, to learn more about the work they do.

Can you tell us about ID. Know Yourself and the work you do?

ID. Know Yourself is an Aboriginal not-for-profit mentoring organisation. We are based on Gadigal Country and support Aboriginal children, from 7 to 16 years, who are in Out of Home Care in Greater Sydney.

Our purpose is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and disadvantage in our communities, particularly relating to the stolen generations. We want to break the cycle for these kids and prevent their children from being removed in the future. 

We run mentoring sessions twice a week and have different types of workshops and fun and engaging activities that are really safe. The kids learn transferable skills around discipline, routine and teamwork and build their confidence. 

Aboriginal staff from Headspace run programs to address trauma. We offer social activities and events during the school holidays to reward the kids for their efforts during the term. And we take kids on Concrete to Country camps so they can connect with their mob, their culture and potentially their family as well.

A lot of these kids are told they are Aboriginal, but they don’t feel Aboriginal. By taking them on Country and teaching them about Indigenous languages, art, spear fishing, bush food and medicine, we help foster a sense of belonging, connection, meaning and pride.

You went into the foster care system at a very young age. What was your journey like and how did this experience inspire you to create ID. Know Yourself?

I was just two months old when I was put into the foster care system.

As a child and teenager, I had some really challenging experiences and lived in some very abusive homes. My carers would tell me, just inches from my face, that I'd be a nobody and that I deserved to belong in jail. They said it was disgusting to be Aboriginal and told me that my family didn’t want me.

Growing up in country NSW I felt like an outcast, and I copped racial abuse from other kids who would tease and bully me. 

It was challenging to see the light but, in the end, I found purpose in my wounds.

A turning point for me was when I met my younger sister. I was seven and she was six. We grew up together from then on, and it was her and me against the world! I don’t know where I’d be if we hadn’t met; she gave me a sense of purpose and responsibility.

After school I worked for the AFL, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Lendlease. I studied at TAFE and was going to join the police force, but when I started to connect with the community, I knew I needed to help make a change. Through Tribal Warrior Boxing I met other Aboriginal kids in care. Hearing their stories, I knew I needed to go back and work in the system that failed me. 

I was 22 when I came up with the idea to help break the cycle through mentoring, and two years later, in March 2019, ID. Know Yourself became a reality.

There are more than 20,000 Aboriginal kids in Out of Home Care in Australia; this is not just an Aboriginal problem, it’s an Australian problem. My mission is to ensure these kids feel love, hope and belonging – and that no one is left behind.  

How does your mentoring program connect young people to culture and prepare them for life after care?

Our mentoring program has six key components: culture, life skills, education, employment, advocacy and wellbeing.

Connection to culture is so important. When you grow up in care and experience trauma, you think pleasure and gold shiny things will make you happy. But we teach kids that it’s not what you get but who you become that’s important. Things can be taken away, but if you learn about your culture, that can never be taken away. Culture is healing and provides belonging and purpose.

We see kids get peace from culture and they make better decisions. They behave better in the classroom, change their peer group, interact better with their siblings and carers; and as a result, there are less placement breakdowns and these kids do not get caught up in the juvenile justice system.

A special part of our sessions is dinner. We teach the kids to cook and then we sit down and share food and yarns together. Cooking itself has so many elements to it – it teaches kids about budgeting, nutrients, following a recipe, healthy eating – and eating together demonstrates the importance of connection and the gift of presence. 

We do something called ‘fave part of the day’ where we go around the table and everyone says the favourite thing that happened in their day; this helps the kids focus on the positive and makes them feel empowered.

Through all our sessions we teach life skills and the importance of respect, being safe and being ‘game not shame’. We teach kids about positive communication and how to address their emotions. These are valuable skills that they can take into work, life and relationships.

Is discrimination an issue for the young people you mentor? 

Unfortunately, most Aboriginal people have faced racism and discrimination and the kids we mentor are no different. Some kids are told they are too fair skinned to be Aboriginal; others have racial slurs yelled at them. If we know a kid is going through a tough time, a mentor will go and have a yarn with them. They will remind them that there is so much strength in their culture and their ancestry goes back more than 60,000 years. 

Culture can be your armour and a shield. If someone says a racist slur, and you are confident and proud of your culture, it kind of deflects. 

We tell the kids: never let someone’s opinion of you become your reality. What they say is not true. Racial slurs are not a reflection on you, they are a reflection on the person who said them.

NAIDOC Week ran from 3-10 July. Why is NAIDOC Week important and what does the theme ‘Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!’ mean to you? 

NAICOC Week provides an opportunity to connect, yarn and learn.

It’s a busy time with cultural activities for the kids, speaking engagements and working with our partners. But it’s also an important time to reflect and to consider how far we have come and where we need to go.

I loved the theme as it is very action orientated and reminds us that it’s not what we know, it’s what we do that counts.

If you are non-Indigenous, sharing stories and yarns is only half of it. It’s what you do with your knowledge that counts. How are you going to be an ally? How are you going to Get Up! Stand Up! and Show Up! with us? What are you going to do now – not for us, but with us.

A lot of truth telling needs to happen in this country. NAIDOC Week gives a platform for us and our kids to be heard. It’s a great way to share our perspectives.

A number of retailers and corporates have joined as a partner of ID. Know Yourself. What is involved in becoming a partner and what type of support do they provide?

Our partnerships are not transactional. We develop meaningful relationships based on trust and collaboration. We are very selective, and our partners become part of our extended family.

Some partners offer financial support; others offer in-kind support. There may be volunteering opportunities or collaboration on events. Headspace for example runs a session with the kids every Wednesday. Other corporate partners offer opportunities for education, employment and advocacy.

How can individuals support and contribute to the work you do?

Please follow us on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, and share our journey. 

You can also donate via our website and help fund our Concrete to Country camps.

Become a good ally by learning about Aboriginal history, culture and ways of life, and challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. I recommend that everyone reads the 1997 Bringing them Home report and the 2021 Family Matters report. Get to know us, understand who we are, what we are about and where we’re going. There is so much value in that and that’s where reconciliation lies.

Once you’ve got an understanding of the issues, write to your local MP and advocate for kids in care. Demand that more funding go to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to do work like us, because unfortunately there are thousands of kids who go without every single day. But with proper funding and people advocating with us, we can see better results for these kids and our country. Because there is such power and strength in numbers.

Last updated:

10 Aug 2022

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We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations Peoples of NSW and pay our respects to Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the ongoing connection Aboriginal people have to this land and recognise Aboriginal people as the original custodians of this land.

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