The Long Walk: walking the talk of reconciliation 

20 May 2024

Twenty years ago, Michael Long set out on a walk from Melbourne to Canberra to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. 

Along the way, he won hearts and rallied a nation who now walk alongside him each year as part of the Long Walk in the hopes of a better, fairer future for all Australians. 

Last year, the former Essendon AFL legend and his Long Walk team were honoured for their education programs, community events and outreach with the City of Melbourne’s prestigious Aboriginal Melbourne ganbu guljin Award at the Melbourne Awards gala. 

Leanne Brooke, Executive General Manager, The Long Walk, was thrilled to be counted among the other nominees in the category. 

“We have great relationships with all of them and think they do amazing work, so it was truly humbling to take home the prize.” 

While the annual Long Walk to the Dreamtime at the ‘G game is their biggest and most iconic event, the small team of three is kept busy with year-round programs and smaller community-led walks to spread their message of respect, equality and inclusion. 

“Our foundation is as much about elevating the voices of First Nations peoples as it is teaching non-Aboriginal people about true history, cultures and the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that has always existed among our people,” Leanne said. 

“There has been a lot of progress in the two decades since Michael first walked to Canberra, but there is still more to do.” 

The Long Walk team accepting their Aboriginal Melbourne ganbu guljin Award at the Melbourne Awards gala in 2023 

Michael – AFL Hall of Famer, and the first Aboriginal player to captain an AFL team – has long been an advocate for Aboriginal rights, but it hasn’t been an easy road. 

After being vilified by another player during an Anzac Day game in 1995, he went home to his partner and seriously considered whether he had a future in the game. 

“At the time, there were very few Aboriginal players in the league, and Michael’s partner encouraged him to do something to make it a more welcoming space,” Leanne said. 

So, he met with his coach, Kevin Sheedy, and Essendon Football Club leaders and together they introduced the landmark racial anti-vilification policy, known today as the Peek Rule

“This was a major systemic change for the AFL – the result of one person taking charge and advocating for better,” Leanne said. 

Michael’s advocacy continued off-field, even after he retired from the game in 2001. 

“Michael was returning from a family funeral one day – it was one of many he’d attended around that time – and he got to reflecting on his people and what was happening to them,” Leanne said. 

“He felt Aboriginal people were being disempowered – they were dying too young, kids weren’t going to uni, or getting jobs.” 

Michael Long at the MCG, as part of the Long Walk 

Michael felt something drastic needed to be done, so he started walking to Canberra to speak to then Prime Minister, John Howard. 

Once word got out, he was joined by family, friends and teammates, as well as fellow Australians. 

“Some walked for hours, some for days, some the whole way, and those original walkers are still part of a core group that leads the Long Walk each year,” Leanne said. 

Along the way, people opened their homes, provided food and water and fellowship. 

It took a lot of effort to arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister, but when Michael finally walked in the door, his agenda was simple. He asked the Prime Minister just one question: “Where is the love for Australia’s First Peoples?” 

Melburnians enjoy the festivities at Fed Square as part of the Long Walk  

His story inspired the nation, and soon Michael was inundated with requests from schools, organisations and individuals who wanted answers to this same question. 

“People were eager to stand alongside Michael and demonstrate their allyship,” Leanne said. 

The Long Walk team now runs Walk the Talk school sessions, Little Long Walks in pre-schools, schools and sporting clubs, as well as cultural competency training and the Ganbu Gulin Program for Aboriginal students. 

“Ganbu Galin is about helping young Aboriginal kids find connection with each other, community and cultures,” Leanne said. 

“It helps them strengthen their voice.”  

The feedback from the program has been glowing, resulting in better attendance and overall engagement at school, as well as increased cultural pride. 

“A lot of the kids feel more connected following the program. When they walk by other Aboriginal kids in the corridor they talk to each other now,” Leanne said. 

“At one school, there were two brothers who thought they were the only Aboriginal kids on campus. Turns out they were two of 20. 

“Ganbu Gulin changed that for them, and opened up a whole new community.” 

Program alumni are now advocating for themselves in their schools, calling for their cultures and heritage to be given more of a platform. 

Michael’s story has inspired the next generation of advocates

“We’re not victims, and we don’t want to be victims,” Leanne said. 

“Our truth-telling in schools and in the community is about celebrating our resilience and survival, teaching our diverse languages and cultures so that they are maintained for years to come.” 

The result of the recent referendum was a blow to the Long Walk team. 

“We were devastated, but Michael took it upon himself to ring and check in with staff.  

“He said: ‘This doesn’t change anything. We keep doing what we’ve done for years, we get up, we keep pushing, because children are our future.’” 

For Leanne, it’s the diversity of the work that inspires her. 

“Each day, with each program, we get to send a powerful message and enable true self-determination. “

“It’s not a one-off thing either. We include everyone in the community. We might start doing one of the school talks, and then a Little Long Walk, and then people get involved in the big walks. 

“We keep going back into these communities because they keep asking. 

“The Melbourne Award recognition is so important for us, but it’s particularly meaningful coming from the City of Melbourne who we really admire. 

“We see the commitment, allyship and respect they show – it’s authentic and meaningful, and that’s what it’s all about.” 

Join Michael, Leanne and tens of thousands of Melburnians at The Long Walk – a free community event – on Saturday 25 May. 

Learn more about the Melbourne Awards, which open for applications 20 May and close 21 June 2024. 

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