Modest about her achievements, committed to forging and nurturing grassroots connections and above all, listening and learning.
Despite the ageing process and all that that implies, these past thirty years have been the best years of my life because of the learning. I have made a tremendous number of friends through OWN and the Aboriginal Support Circle, and met such strong women.
Pat Zinn is more comfortable operating behind the scenes, but she’s taken a lead role in nurturing OWN’s long standing connections with Aboriginal people in Sydney through the Aboriginal Support Circle.
A member since 1995, she has formed deep friendships along the way, contributing directly to reconciliation efforts.
Her commitment to the cause of reconciliation grew from the first phase of her life, the sixty years she spent in Capetown, experiencing life under the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa from its inception in 1948 to its dying days.
The Group Areas Act brought in racial segregation, so whole populations were moved to areas such as the Cape Flats, with no intermarriage allowed. There was censorship and surveillance.
Pat was born in 1929 and grew up in the windy city of Capetown as an only child. She keenly recalls the years of World War 2 when she was a young teenager, and her relatives were heading off to war, particularly in North Africa.
Her experience as a science student at Capetown University politicised her, although overt action was difficult because of political repression.
Those who protested were singled out and persecuted.
Instead, Pat threw herself into practical help in the black townships.
Initially, she learned the ropes with a black woman from the Red Cross, who drove her around helping her make connections.
Pat helped set up a string of kindergartens through the townships, initially in people’s shacks and later in buildings funded by donations.
“I met all these strong black women. They were incredible, the breadwinners for the family by working as domestics. I saw them become accomplished and the leaders of their communities. They were so resourceful, so resilient amidst terrible poverty and poor housing. Yet their corrugated iron houses and their children’s clothes were immaculate. It was just mind-blowing how they survived.”
Pat helped set up sewing groups, gathering fabric offcuts from factories and delivering them to the communities. This gave women the opportunity to set up cottage industries selling mats and clothes to supplement their meagre incomes.
Later, she brought in plants in her beloved kombi from her family’s garden business. Pat made great friends, and never felt unsafe.
By the late eighties, apartheid was starting to crumble. Following the death of her mother, it was time for Pat and her husband, Jack Zinn, to join their family members in Australia.
Nonetheless, it was a wrench to leave. However, she managed to vote in 1994 for the election that saw the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President.
In the next phase of her life in Sydney, Pat wanted to understand Indigenous Australia, but found it a challenge as so much history was hidden or silenced.
She joined OWN and what was then called the Aboriginal Study Circle in 1995 as a means of learning more about Aboriginal life and culture.
“I had studied science at Capetown University so I was mad about the plants and animals. However, when I came to Australia, I really wanted to find out about the history of this country. Aboriginal knowledge was such a pull for me. I wanted to learn about Aboriginal people.”
Members of the Circle regularly invited Aboriginal women to talk and have lunch with the group so they could share their illuminating and often traumatic life stories, many involving removal from their families.
Yorta Yorta woman, Betty Little, a gifted storyteller and singer and the younger sister of Jimmy Little, became a close friend and the first Indigenous member of OWN.
“She was so talented, so artistic. In another society she would have gone to the top. I learned a very valuable thing from her. Betty had many problems and we would speak on the phone. She’d say to me, ‘Pat I don’t want you to make it better – I just want you to listen’, and that’s what I learned from Betty. You just need to listen to the stories.”
In 1999, the group was renamed the Aboriginal Support Circle (ASC), because of the negative associations for many Aboriginal people of being ‘studied’.
Betty Little led the international Women’s Day March with OWN in the early 2000s. Pat and Betty became good friends but, sadly, Betty died in her 60s.
Pat and the ASC regularly attend the Yabun Festival on Gadigal Land in Glebe each January 26, a gathering of Indigenous art, culture and talks. She’s a member of the Women’s Reconciliation Network and has organised many fundraising raffles especially for Indigenous young people, notably the successful Kool Kids Club in La Perouse.
Pat has connected on a spiritual level with several women she has met and admires the respectful relationship Aboriginal people have with their female elders who play a pivotal role in their communities.
“I don’t know if I am a feminist or not but I just feel very strongly about women gaining their rightful place and I strongly believe that there will never be peace in the world until women are in charge.”
For Pat, it’s been a long quest to listen and learn, bear witness and be counted. She embodies the motto of OWN’S Aboriginal Support Circle – listen – learn – understand.