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Young Canberra Citizen of the Year explains her activism and her optimism

Molly McLaughlin

16-year-old Dhani Gilbert was surprised to be named Young Canberra Citizen of the Year for her advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In her eyes, she’s just an average teenager.

“Winning the award was super amazing because I didn’t actually expect to win it, there was so many great people there who had been nominated for amazing work in the community. It’s a really humbling award, I guess. I’ve always viewed what I do as a day-to-day thing, I don’t even really see it as special. I didn’t quite realise that what I do has an impact, this is just the way I can help and what I should be doing.”

A Wiradjuri woman who grew up in Ngunnawal country, Dhani has a strong connection to both communities and has been involved in activism for as long as she can remember. Attending protests and visiting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy with her family, she learnt the values that she practises today.

“Family has taught me a lot about courage, strength, resilience and showing respect. They taught me about having compassion and being able to understand people, as well as the importance of not being too serious all the time. Because of my family, I understand the Wiradjuri term yindymarra winnangahna, which means the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in.

“Even though it’s cliche, my family is my greatest source of inspiration. My grandfather [writer and activist Kevin Gilbert] left his legacy to me, which is really just to fight for what you believe in and do the best you can to make the unjust just.”

Dhani has been involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community groups and Landcare and participated in the Sorry Day bridge walk and Relay for Life, as well as more grassroots activism and awareness raising.

“I’ve got a whole list of social issues that I care about: social inequality is a really important concept that we need to work on. Climate change and the environmental issues, and identity is a really big one for most people, whether it be sexual, cultural, social, it’s just a really big thing that most young people struggle with… Social inclusion and equity, just making sure everyone has a fair go.”

But rather than wearing her down, all these obstacles push Dhani to work even harder.

“In school, hearing the way people think is really quite inspiring, you get to see inside someone’s mind get an idea of how they would approach an issue. I find past activists and advocates like Gary Foley, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Eddie Mabo amazingly inspiring because they overcame so many things and still had so much hope for what the world could be. I am constantly encouraged by the resilience of my people, because they went through a lot and still have the strength to smile and to work to make things better for the community.”

When she’s not campaigning for equality, Dhani goes to school at Dickson College and spends her time reading, writing, taking photos, and playing with her dog Nara. Sometimes she feels the effects of having so much on her plate, but she’s learning to make it work.

“I have a lot of really good people around me that support me and provide me with balance. I try not to be too strict with myself, I need to have a lot of balance which is something I’m still working on. It’s just sort of thinking, where can my best energy be put, how can I make the most valuable contribution?”

More than anything, Dhani is optimistic about the power of young people and the future she wants to be a part of creating.

“There are so many people working to create positive change. Even just seeing the other nominees for the Young Canberra Citizen of the Year awards was a real confirmation for me of that. There are so many people working really hard to create a better and more inclusive society for everyone to live in.”

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Molly McLaughlin

Molly McLaughlin was less than thrilled to move to Canberra a couple of years ago to study Arts and Economics at ANU, but she can confirm the city has grown on her since then. Along with writing for HerCanberra, she spends her time reading, eating noodles and planning her next adventure. More about the Author