Published on June 21, 2024

“Now more than ever” is the 2023 Reconciliation Week Theme. But what does it mean for us as a community? What does it mean to create that sense of urgency that now, more than ever, reconciliation is what Australia needs? Likewise, what can we do as a school to fulfil this promise: to work harder towards reconciliation than we may have done before? 

The most recent Mapping Social Cohesion Report (2023) provides a summary of survey data that measures the sense of connectedness and belonging within Australian society. The conclusion to this report states: 


“We have emerged from the Voice referendum somewhat divided and uncertain as to where to next for reconciliation. The political divide over the Voice also appears to reflect and may be helping to amplify polarisation around attitudes to government and society.” (97) 


Polarisation occurs when we get locked into one way of thinking in opposition to another way of thinking. It is when we struggle to open our hearts and minds to alternative perspectives. We are locked, and when we can’t find a middle ground, we often become combative in defence of our own positions.   

By contrast, reconciliation is about finding the middle way – bringing voices and hearts together – to hear each other, to grapple with our differences and to find a way to walk together towards shared understanding, peace, greater unity and belonging.  

Svi Shapiro in Educating Youth for a world beyond violence: A Pedagogy for Peace states that what is at stake in the pursuit of peace is “the question of whether we recognise the very humanity of those different from ourselves, or whether we continue to depersonalise and demean them.” (107).  Shapiro states that “The violence against bodies is preceded by the violence that makes the real human presence of the other invisible.” (109). That is quite a powerful statement: what comes before physical violence is a dehumanising of others. Shapiro believes that engaging in violence requires us to forget that the person in front of us is a human being just like ourselves. Instead, Shapiro invites us to “look into the eyes of another person”. By doing this we “witness the mystery of the inexpressible and incomparable other.” To look into their eyes is to “bear witness to the infinite complexity of each and every individual that stands before us.” (111) 

Reconciliation begins with this: a willingness to really Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and see their history, trauma and stories that are uniquely different to our own. It is to see the value of these stories, and their importance in building understanding and belonging for all.  

Reconciliation is also about compassion. Paul Gilbert wrote a wonderful book about compassion called The Compassionate Mind. In this book he provides a clear guide for how we can develop self-compassion and then extend this beyond ourselves to cultivate ways of thinking and being that lead to compassionate action. Gilbert says: “A compassionate mind actually takes you on a journey deep into your evolved being – down into the building blocks of your brain and the genes that built it.” (473) He goes on to say that by understanding how we think and behave, we can then know what to anticipate in ourselves, recognise these impulses and behaviours in ourselves, and act with compassion and care while deliberately feeding and nourishing our compassionate minds. 

Gilbert believes that cultivating compassion is an essential ingredient to creating a more sustainable and peaceful world. The attributes and skills needed to be compassionate involve a motivation to care, the ability to think compassionately about others and to reflect on the impact of our thoughts, words and actions. He says we can engage in compassionate thought and action “by learning to be appreciative and valuing forgiving and understanding.” (496) 

Compassionate action involves listening deeply and knowing ourselves well enough to recognise when our own prejudices and biases are impacting our capacity to genuinely listen and hear voices different to our own. Cultivating a compassionate mind involves recognising our shared humanity and connection and the need to intentionally build compassionate communities. Compassionate action involves putting aside judgement and acting with kindness and courage.  Compassionate communities are ones in which reconciliation can thrive – where it can become part of the way we do things. Here at HVGS compassion is one of our values and so we all have a mandate to engage in compassionate action. 

Last year I read The Last Daughter, Brenda Mathew’s superb book. While we are similar in age and both have many siblings, my life journey has been very, very different. I was able to stay and grow up with my family – all my siblings and my parents – unlike Brenda who was taken away from two families. Listening to Brenda’s story is important for all of us as Brenda invites us into her healing process with such generosity. Brenda’s story involves sharing grief and joy and is an invitation to learn from the mistakes of the past and to work together to build a better, brighter future for everyone. Her story is not one of anger and rage. Listening to Brenda’s story is humbling as she speaks with hope and love despite living through incredible adversity. 

By opening our hearts and listening to Brenda’s story, we are cultivating compassion and peace. Brenda through her words encourages us to see and embrace our shared humanity and the importance of caring for each other. Brenda’s story is full of wisdom, compassion and healing. It is a story of coming together and of finding the ways in which we are connected to each other and can care for each other. It is also about doing this while embracing and celebrating what makes us different. 

At the heart of her story is the importance of embracing wisdom, compassion and healing through listening and storytelling.  As we look to our future as a school community, we also look to embrace our shared humanity and to care for each other no matter who we are, or how different we are from each other. Brenda invites us to take a first step which is to tell our own stories and then create space to hear those of others. 

Reconciliation and healing are on the horizon, but it is a work in progress and perhaps a never-ending one. Now more than ever we need to cultivate peace and compassion – we need to stay open to hearing and walking with those who are different to ourselves so we can grow together, heal together, laugh together and embrace our own stories as well as those of others. 


Works cited

Gilbert, Paul. The Compassionate Mind. Robinson. 2013 

Matthews, B. The Last Daughter. Text Publishing, 2023 

O’Donnnell, Dr J. Mapping Social Cohesion 2023 Scanlon Foundation Research Institute. 2023. 

Shapiro, H S. Educating Youth for a World Beyond Violence: A Pedagogy for Peace. Palgrave Macmillian. 2010. 

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.