Wollongong artist names the six Aboriginal women who have changed her life

In honour of NAIDOC Week, Wollongong painter Lani Balzan names the six Aboriginal women who have helped make her the successful artist she is today. 

Wollongong artist Lani Balzan's star is on the rise.

The proud Aboriginal woman, from the Wiradjuri people of the Three Rivers tribe in central NSW, has been selected to design one of the St George Illawarra Dragons' indigenous jerseys for three years running.

This honour came after she won the prestigious national NAIDOC poster competition in 2016.

Her artworks are hung on walls across the country, and this year some of her pieces will be heading overseas. 

In tune with the theme of this year's NAIDOC Week - Because of Her, We Can! - we asked Balzan to contribute the image on the front page of today's Mercury and to tell us about some of the Aboriginal women who have helped her achieve her goals.

Lani Balzan's painting for NAIDOC Week 2018 reflects the theme Because of Her, We Can!

Lani Balzan's painting for NAIDOC Week 2018 reflects the theme Because of Her, We Can!

"I am so touched by this year’s theme - I get to embrace it all with these incredible women around me," the artist, who works as an Aboriginal Education Officer at Warrawong High and is studying social work at the University of Wollongong, says.

"I am so fortunate to have such inspirational women around me and in my life. Each of them has inspired me to succeed, keep a positive outlook on life and learn more about my culture. 

"Their support over the years has given me the opportunity to do some remarkable things."

Of the six women Balzan chose to recognise, one is a respected Illawarra elder, one is a doctor, three are educators and another is helping Aboriginal students thrive at university. All of them are working hard to make our community a better place.


Julie Street-Smith lends her expertise to many Aboriginal organisations, but it's the role she plays in putting together the Northern Illawarra AECG's annual Deadly Awards for primary and high school students that she loves most.

"The awards recognise Aboriginal students who try very hard with their education but may not always get the top marks," Ms Street-Smith says. "Encouraging these students, then watching them grow in confidence has been my greatest joy."

A Noongar Minang/Ngadju woman from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, Ms Street-Smith has been living in Wollongong for 40 years and always knew she wanted to work with children. 

She started out as a Girl Guide leader, before becoming a youth worker, student support officer and an Aboriginal education worker. Today she is the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer for the Aboriginal Education Team with the Department of Education School Services.

"I work to see changes in schools where Aboriginal ways of teaching, learning and knowing are embedded into everyday classroom practice and acknowledgement of the First Nation’s people is genuine," she says.  


Josephine Ball – a descendant from Queen Rosie, who was born near Windang island foreshores – teaches Aboriginal dance, art, Dreamtime stories and first contact to students at four different Catholic schools across the Illawarra.

“I don’t just teach Aboriginal kids, I teach non-Indigenous children as well, because I think everyone needs to learn about our culture,” she says.

The women in Josephine Ball’s life have taught her everything she knows about her Aboriginal culture.

“This year’s NAIDOC theme recognises the importance of all the women who have fought for our rights,” she says.

“It is important to me because of my mum and my nanna, who fought for Aboriginal land rights.’’


As director of the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the UOW, Jaymee Demos-Beveridge is responsible for Indigenous student recruitment, access and support. 

“I came through the university system 17 years ago as a single mum who wanted to make a difference and break the shackles of what my ancestors experienced,” she says.

The mother-of-three graduated with a Masters degree in management and held various executive positions in state and federal government organisations. She jumped at the chance to lead Woolyungah.

“My passion is to help students who are probably going through the same journey that I went through,” she says.

“I want them to be able to follow their dreams and get the best of their capabilities.”


The Aboriginal elder from Primbee has become an important presence at Warrawong High.

The students there know she’s someone they can turn to for both support and a wealth of knowledge.  

Aunty May Button, who has helped on a number of projects designed to ‘’close the gap’’ and unite the community over the years, believes it is important for people to know what the Aboriginal community has been through so that as a country we can move forward together. 

“Unless the community in general knows of some of the hardships we’ve been through, which has made us who we are today, we will never really know each other,” she says.

“Sharing our life shows other people that we care about them as well.”


Lani Balzan, left, and her cousin Kathryn Dalmer are proud Wiradjuri women from the Three Rivers tribe.

Lani Balzan, left, and her cousin Kathryn Dalmer are proud Wiradjuri women from the Three Rivers tribe.

Kathryn Dalmer just completed her Medical Doctorate at UOW and will be beginning an internship at Wollongong Hospital in 2019. 

A member of the Wirradjuri people of the Three Rivers tribe, Ms Dalmer was raised in Sydney and on the South Coast. 

She is in Hawaii this week with the Board of Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association (AIDA) to present her research on GP views on Indigenous Cultural Training at the Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors Oceanic Congress (PRIDOC).

"GPs are the most likely specialists to encounter Indigenous people at non-critical stages of healthcare," Ms Dalmer says. "They are in a position to exert the biggest changes to individual long-term outcomes."


Shellharbour woman Michelle Wilson loves being able to help Indigenous youth get training and job opportunities.

That was what she did when running the employment program for the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation.

Now Mrs Wilson is involved in the NRL School to Work program.

“The program is about helping kids develop a career plan and have a plan for when they finish their HSC,” she says.

“We use the NRL’s positive profile to try and engage kids and use some of the players that have made it and get them to talk about what their second option was and how education is so important.

“We want to try and encourage Aboriginal kids to look at completing their HSC and look at other options when they finish school.”

Balzan would also like to acknowledge Kellee Evens, Lee Anne Setter, Caitlin Stuart, Denkia Thomas, Shiralee Lawson and all Aboriginal women past, present and future.