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Commission announces 2021 Human Rights Awards finalists

Commission – General

Every year the Commission holds the Human Rights Awards to celebrate human rights achievements. It is a chance to acknowledge, congratulate and share the important work of organisations, businesses, and individuals across the nation.

Each and every one of these human rights advocates have contributed greatly to their communities and the advancement of human rights in Australia. The winners of each award will be announced online on Human Rights Day, Friday 10 December.

Our finalists for the 2021 Human Rights Medal are:

  • Professor Helen Milroy

    Helen is an Aboriginal doctor, child psychiatrist, professor, commissioner, storyteller, artist, and advocate. Helen has worked for decades to improve the mental health and wellbeing of our First Nations communities as well as the rights of all our children to have safe and nurturing childhoods.

    Helen has developed extensive clinical training and education in cross-cultural models of care, healing from trauma and currently supervises a large research team. Helen has been on numerous state and national mental health advisory committees including the National Mental Health Commission.

    From 2013 to 2017 Helen was a Commissioner for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Helen is currently on the Ministerial Taskforce examining infant, child, and adolescent mental health services in Western Australia.

  • Brittany Higgins

    Born and raised in Queensland, Brittany Higgins worked as a trusted adviser for numerous Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers in state and federal governments. This year Brittany became a fierce advocate for workplace and women’s safety after she spoke publicly about her experiences at Parliament House in Canberra. By sharing her story, Brittany sparked a wave of discussions over the toxic workplace culture, systemic misogyny and the victim-blaming women face in both politics and the wider community.

    A month after Brittany came forward to share her story, protests occurred in 40 cities across Australia. Organisers estimated more than 100,000 people came together to rally against the sexual abuse and harassment of women in Australia. Since then, Brittany has continued to lobby for change, meeting with the Prime Minister, the federal opposition, and other advocates to demand better.

    Recently Brittany was appointed the inaugural visiting fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University where she works with researchers, academics, and key stakeholders to improve workplaces for women.

    Brittany is undertaking a Business and Communications degree at Griffith University. She was the 2021 recipient of the Edna Ryan award for Grand Stirrer.

  • Professor Kevin Bell AM

    Professor Kevin Bell AM has worked in human rights for over forty years, beginning with the Tenants Union and community legal centres in Melbourne.  Then as a barrister Kevin focussed on human rights, native title, and public-constitutional law until he became a justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.  There Kevin helped develop the new Victorian Charter jurisprudence and its foundations in international human rights law. 

    Now at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, Kevin’s work covers establishing state and federal charters of human rights and achieving Voice, Treaty and Truth for the First Peoples of Australia.

  • Associate Professor Yasmin Jayasinghe

    Associate Professor Yasmin Jayashinghe pioneered Australia’s first governed oncofertility program (fertility care for children with cancer) at The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in partnership with the Royal Women’s Hospital, The University of Melbourne, and The Victorian and Tasmanian Youth Cancer Action Board. She Chairs the ANZ Consortium in Paediatric Oncofertility and is on the Best Practice Committee of the global Oncofertility Consortium. 

    She was a recipient of the Strategic Grant for Outstanding Women (Melbourne Medical School), a Telstra Women’s Business Awards Finalist, and VicHealth awards finalist for Transforming Fertility Care for Children with Cancer, a program supported by the RCH Foundation.

  • Professor Jennifer Burn

    Jennifer is committed to the abolition of slavery and human trafficking and priorities the human rights of survivors. Since 2003 she has provided legal representation to hundreds of survivors and this led to the establishment of Anti-Slavery Australia as a law and research centre at the University of Technology Sydney in 2011.  Jennifer was appointed to the inaugural Australian Government National Roundtable on Human Trafficking in 2008.

    Jennifer also served as the Interim Anti-Slavery Commissioner for NSW from 2018 to 2020. Recent priorities include Justice for All. Establishing a national compensation scheme for survivors of modern slavery which recognises the vital importance of an effective remedy.

  • Professor Larissa Behrendt AO

    Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO is a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman and the Director of Research at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Professor Behrendt holds the UTS inaugural Chair in Indigenous Research. In 2018 she was made Distinguished Professor.  Her contribution to Indigenous education and research has been widely recognised.  

    In 2009 she was named NAIDOC Person of the Year for her advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2011 she was the NSW State recipient Australian of the Year. This Award noted that Professor Behrendt would “continue to be at the forefront of national discussion for many years”. That prediction has demonstrably come to fruition – whether it be in the fields of Indigenous justice and the law, advocacy, or the visual and performing arts. Her leadership and work have continued to be recognised through many awards. In 2020 Professor Behrendt was awarded Officer of the Order of Australia.  

    Professor Behrendt has had a distinguished academic career. She graduated from UNSW with an LLB and B.Juris, qualified to practise, and graduated from Harvard Law School with LLM and doctoral degrees. By all traditional measures Professor Behrendt’s academic contribution to Indigenous research has been outstanding. She has held 36 grants of which half have been awarded by the Australia Research Council (ARC) – the most prestigious and competitive funding body. She has over 136 research outputs covering monographs, government reports, government submissions, and non-traditional outputs.  

    Her expertise has also been recognised as evidenced by public roles such as Chair of the Australian Government’s National Review of Indigenous Higher Education (2011-2012), former Chair of Humanities and Creative Arts Panel, College of Experts, ARC, and Land Commissioner, NSW Land and Environment Court. 

Our finalists for the 2021 Young People’s Medal:

  • Hayden & Stephanie Rujak

    Hayden’s Helping Hands has been helping the homeless, women and children fleeing domestic violence, and providing food relief to the broader community. Wanting to help others, but not being old enough to volunteer with other organisations, Hayden (14) and Stephanie (12) founded Hayden's Helping Hands in December 2014 to enable youth under the age of 16 to volunteer. The relief, based purely on donations from their local community, totals more than $200,000 to date.

    They also speak at kindergartens, school, and community events to help raise awareness and inspire others, in the hope of realising their dream that one day there will be no homeless.

  • Keeley Johnson

    Keeley Johnson founded Keeley’s Cause at aged 13 after her own personal journey with the inability to learn the curriculum without the use of technology due to her own Autism / Intellectual disability diagnosis. Keeley feels so fortunate that Keeley’s Cause has grown with the support of so many organisations and businesses that contribute to assist in her endeavours.

    Keeley believes it’s truly an amazing feeling to be able to support children like herself with disabilities knowing that their world will now be their oyster to establish greater opportunities for their futures.

  • Kupakwashe Matangira

    Kupakwashe is a human rights advocate who works to empower children and young people to know the power of their voice and access their right to participation without discrimination. Driven by her passion for child rights and social justice, Kupakwashe believes that young people are not just the leaders of tomorrow but are today’s catalysts of change.

    Knowing what it’s like to feel unheard by those in power, Kupakwashe dedicates her advocacy to lobbying on behalf of children and young people and helps to create avenues for them to exercise their right to participation through engaging with decision-makers.

  • Chanel Contos

    Human rights are unknowingly being violated at scale in teen years. Chanel believes this type of sexual violence to be preventable with adequate consent education centred on equality. Chanel knew it wasn't just her who experienced this, and when she called for testimonies of similar experiences, over 6,000 emerged within weeks.

    This gained the attention of policy makers and politicians Australia wide. With the support and voices of thousands of Australians, Chanel campaigned for early and holistic consent education to be mandated in our schools, in a hope that sexual assault is no longer a norm for first sexual encounters.

  • Assala Sayara

    Assala is a social worker, social justice activist, public speaker and storyteller. Assala currently works as a Primary and Secondary school counsellor. She has completed her Bachelor of Social Work Graduating with First Class Honours from the University of Sydney. Assala’s connection to her homeland and Palestinian identity fuel her human rights activism.

    Assala utilises a range of methods in her activism, such as writing, spoken word, campaigning, educating and fundraising to advocate for Palestinian, refugee and Indigenous communities human rights.

    Her experiences vary from working directly with youth and families, in various settings including the refugee sector, child protection and community development across different settings In Jordan, Palestine, Indonesia and Australia. 

    She is also the founder and director of Haweyate. Haweyate is a digital grassroots platform that shares the Palestinian experience through multiple mediums.Haweyate connects people seeking the shared experiences and stories of Palestinians in the diaspora. It is to build on the personal and communal power of being Palestinian and identifying with the Palestinian narrative.

    Assala dreams to create change on an individual level and perpetuate this change on a broader structural level.

Our finalists for the 2021 Community Human Rights Champion are:

  • Carly Stanley & Keenan Mundine, Deadly Connections

    Deadly Connections is an Aboriginal Community-led, not for profit organisation that breaks the cycles of disadvantage and trauma to directly address the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the child protection and justice system/s. Their community centred, culturally responsible, holistic programs develop stronger, safer communities, creating deadly connections and more positive futures for communities, families, individuals and kids.

    Carly Stanley is the CEO and founder of Deadly Connections and is a Wiradjuri Woman, born and raised on Gadigal Land. Keenan Mundine is the Deputy CEO and Co-Founder.  He is a First Nations man with connections to the Biripi Nation of NSW and Wakka Wakka Nation in QLD. Both Carly and Keenan faced difficulties in their early lives and have gone on to create an organisation which strives to change the outcomes for others.

  • PlateitForward

    PlateitForward launched in July 2020 as an immediate solution during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has evolved into long-term programs to support marginalised communities, and have proudly donated 120,000+ meals, delivered 6,500+ hours of training and employed 25 community members, provided 1,000+ donated Uber trips for newly arrived refugees to attend medical and vaccination appointments and seek housing, and rescued 15 tonnes of food destined for landfill.

    PlateItForward use the power of this hospitality to create a long-term connection that allows people to be connected with the wraparound services they need to have a more equal opportunity.

  • Working Women’s Centres

    The Working Women’s Centers have established a holistic model of service, combining industrial case work that supports and empowers marginalized workers, advocacy and education work that promotes broader social changes for working women. We are deeply connected to union and feminist movements.

  • Tye Gerrard

    Tye is a human rights advocate who is particularly passionate about creating an inclusive and safe environment for migrants and refugees. A senior leader at Regional Opportunities Australia (ROA), where he sits on the Board Steering Committee and works with ROA’s refugee and migrant mentoring program, Tye has had a role in successfully assisting many migrants and refugees to secure meaningful, long-term employment in Australia, predominantly from Syria, Sudan and the Philippines. His approach to supporting new arrivals is driven by his belief that all migrants and refugees have a right to feel welcome and safe in Australia. 

    In addition to his work with migrants and refugees across Australia, he serves as an advisor to a number of Australian not-for-profit organisations in the mental health sector as well as working day-to-day in the finance sector in mergers and acquisitions.

  • Sister Diana Santleben

    Sister Diana Santleben is a fixture of the Wallsend community. She has become such a recognisable part of our community that many were surprised when she revealed, "I wasn't born in Newcastle... I came here 12 years ago to retire."

    A Catholic nun and refugee advocate, Sister Di has given her life in service to others, and on Australia Day in 2017 her service was recognised when she was named Newcastle's Citizen of the Year.

    When asked by the Newcastle Herald how she would make use of her Citizen of the Year award, Sister Di encouraged all women in Newcastle to drop in and meet with female refugees at Zara's House, a support centre she helped to establish in Jesmond in 2016.