Damien Djerrkura gave his all in a brave bid to become an Olympic athlete.
But when he accepted that it wasn’t going to happen he packed his bags at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and happily returned home to Arnhem Land proud that he had done his best.
“I used to dream of competing in the Olympics,” he says. “But I also wanted to go home. I wanted to be with my family, my friends, my people.”
Damien, whose brother Nathan played for Geelong and the Western Bulldogs in the Australian Football League, was a good all-round sportsman.
He began as a cross country runner before dropping back to middle distance and then the 400 metres.
His time of under 48 seconds was not far off the Australian record at the time.
Damien now devotes his life to empowering Yolngu people.
He has driven many job-creating, wealth-creating business initiatives since being appointed chief executive of the North East Arnhem Land Aboriginal Corporation.
His mission is to combat generations of dispossession, disempowerment and low self-esteem by creating jobs – and training local Indigenous people to fill those jobs.
“I want to collaborate with all other businesses and Aboriginal organisations to create work. The key is building partnerships.
“We’ve got a great workforce in Arnhem Land just waiting for training and employment.”
The latest collaboration is the partnership with the Traditional Owner groups in signing a labour supply and training agreement with global resources company Rio Tinto.
Damien has developed a successful training program called Djama Mirri Mala, which will be used to train workers to fulfill the Rio contract.
“I’m excited about this agreement. It shows what can be done when we all work together, Yolngu and Balanda and clan to clan. We should never forget that we are all in this together, we’re all family.”
Damien was born in Nhulunbuy and belongs to the Wangurri Clan group. He went to the local state primary school and first year of high school. He had a happy childhood, playing sports, fishing and hunting.
His late father Gatjil was chairman of the Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and a senior ceremony man in the Wangurri clan and highly respected community leader, and his mother Jenny a schoolteacher.
Damien started work at a young age, often riding on the back of trucks and collecting rubbish during his school holidays.
He later moved to Darwin to live with an aunt in Malak and went to Sanderson High and Casuarina Secondary College before winning a sports scholarship to Kooralbyn International School in Queensland.
The boy from the bush was happy at the small, multicultural school where he trained under Cathy Freeman’s coach, Mike Danila.
Damien later moved to the Australian Institute of Sport where he trained alongside Patrick Johnson, the only Australian to break the 10-second barrier for 100 metres.
When the second of his five children was born he accepted that he wouldn’t achieve his ambition of representing Australia at the Olympics. He returned to Nhulunbuy with few regrets and went to work for an Indigenous-owned business, YBE, a move that kickstarted his dedication to training Yolngu people.
“I want to help my people gain the training so that they can become empowered.
“Our mob wants economic development and the only way we can do that is by creating business and jobs.”
That triple ambition – training, jobs, wealth – will become even more important after Rio closes the giant bauxite mine just outside of Nhulunbuy in 2030.
The shutdown will mean the end of royalties, which pay for many of the social services in North East Arnhem Land.
“We have to prepare for that time,” says Damien. “Too many of our people are sitting at home doing nothing, bored and vulnerable to being led down the wrong path. I want to help them gain the skills for work.
“In my father’s own words, ‘We must walk together – hand in hand and side by side – as a truly reconciled nation’.
“We all want something better.”