Winnie Dunn - Sweatshop, Diverse Women’s group

Winnie Dunn – Sweatshop

Literacy is largely equated with simple reading and writing skills, however it goes far beyond that. Literacy is not just about reading stories, it is learning to write our own and express our experiences through words. It also develops critical thinking – a vitally important skill in helping us examine our environment and place in it.

Sweatshop is leading the way in providing opportunities to enhance and develop literacy in Western Sydney, providing skills, training and support for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, empowering them to find their own story and express it, enabling individuals and groups to have a say in their own stories – instead of being spoken about.   

Sweatshop has just announced a new project launching next month, the first ever Western Sydney Literacy Initiative for Diverse Women. Ahead of its launch we spoke with program manager Winnie Dunn about the program and the role literacy has played in her life, growing up in Western Sydney as a woman of colour.

The Westies: What is your role at Sweatshop?

Winnie: I am the manager and editor. I get to edit the books that we publish with Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmad and I attend monthly, fortnightly workshops with the group, and now I am curating my own Diverse Women’s group, which will be once a month.


The Westies: We will get to the Diverse Women’s group in  a little bit more in detail soon. Let’s start  with your background. How did you come to be working with Sweatshop?

Winnie: I am Tongan-Australian, and I live in Mt Druitt. I am the first person in my family to receive a higher education in university, so I really made sure that  I was putting myself out there, try to make connections, and I’ve always had a passion for writing, but I didn’t actually know how to write. So I went to a writing workshop that my university’s student newspaper put on, and Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmad – The Director of Sweatshop – was the workshop facilitator. That’s how we met, he invited me to Sweatshop, then eventually things just happened!  


The Westies: What does it mean to your family to be the first person to go to Uni?

Winnie: Oh, they were ecstatic, they were putting Leis on me, they had a big party – it was very Fob [Immigrant slang for Fresh off The Boat]. It means a lot to me, because my parents had to work nightshift my whole life, they have had to change jobs constantly to try and find pay that was appropriate for the eight kids that were in our house. I really have a lot of respect for my parents who worked really hard to get me where I am today.


 I really have a lot of respect for my parents who worked really hard to get me where I am today.


The Westies: What was it like growing up in Mt Druitt? What was your experience of the place?

Winnie: My childhood is actually in Miller, in Liverpool.  I grew up in housing commission. It was interesting, because I lived with my Dad and my siblings in one house, and right next door was my Nana, my Grandpa and my aunties. We lived in housing commissions right next door and that was kind of a really beautiful experience, because although we grew up very poor, and it was very difficult, we lived together, so everything just felt right. When my Dad remarried we moved to Mt Druitt.


The Westies: What is the importance for literacy in your life?

Winnie: I think literacy is the idea that you can create critical consciousness in lower socio-economic diverse communities that don’t necessarily have the agency or the opportunity to gain that critical consciousness. When I write literature, I am producing new literature about Pacifica’s in Australia that goes against a lot of racist stereotypes produced by white supremacy, which is, for example, Fobs are fat, or they’re all poor, or in a very real sense that every Fob is like Chris Lilley’s character – Jonah from Tonga, created by a white guy in brown-face  to make a lot of money from vilifying ethnic communities.


When I write literature, I am producing new literature about Pacifica’s in Australia that goes against a lot of racist stereotypes produced by white supremacy


The Westies: How did it make you feel, when Chris Lilley created Jonah? What was your reaction to it?

Winnie: Interestingly, when it came out, I was in high school,  I was in year nine to twelve when Chris Lilley was all the hype. I was not critically conscious when I was growing up and in high school so at the time it was funny, I didn’t care. For a while, Tongans were really cool. Then when I started learning about what racism meant, and what stereotypes meant, how that actually impacted my life, I realised Chris Lilley is just some white devil who can put brown makeup on, and make money. My work is trying to undo a lot of that.


The Westies: When did the change come in your thinking?

Winnie: The change came honestly with Sweatshop. It was when I met Mohammed. He was the first person of colour who was an educator in the university that I ever met. When I was studying, I’d only read two women of colour, for my entire three years degree. And they were black women from America, which is completely fine, and I loved reading those books, but I was also like, “Where’s the indigenous women? Where’s the Asian-Australian women? Where’s the Arab men?” It was interesting to realise that although my education really helped me, it also limited me in a sense of feeling confident in my own culture and my own sense of self. When I met the Sweatshop community, I learned what it really meant to have solidarity and to be a person of colour in Australia.



It was interesting to realise that although my education really helped me, it also limited me in a sense of feeling confident in my own culture and my own sense of self.


The Westies: Sweatshop has just announced a new program for Diverse Women, can tell me about that?

Winnie: Create NSW gave us [Sweatshop] $25,000, which is amazing. We are trying to have a safe space for women of colour to come together and to produce writing in that space, to gain intrinsic knowledge and connections.  I’ve got together authors like Roanna Gonsalves, Michelle Cahill, Michelle de Kretser, Julie Koh and Beth Yahp who will came together to give advice and inspiration to Western Sydney women of colour. We are working towards a publication that will come out in 2019, and it will be launched at the Sydney Writers Festival.

Sweatshop has never gotten this amount of attention or publicity about a project before. We are all really excited and nervous about what’s going to happen. In the culture of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, and a lot of women who are coming forward about their oppressions, I think now is the perfect time to have this book.

What we are producing is really exciting and really new, and it’s really sensitive and I think appropriate. If you find that other people are telling your story, like Chris Lilley tried to tell mine, you lose a lot of agency and a lot of power, and a lot of leadership, even economic benefits and social benefits, because those other people just want to simply make money off you, or make a name for themselves off of your culture.

For people from their own cultural backgrounds to produce stories about their culture is really empowering. That’s what we are trying to do with this group as well. To have generations of leaders coming in through Australian literature who are all women of colour is really exciting.


The Westies: What do you think the importance is of restricting a program is? So saying this is only for women of colour.

Winnie: I think the point of restriction is not to say we are keeping this person and that person out, it’s just to say that we recognise that certain intersections have experienced a lot more violence, a lot more disadvantage within their social life and their economic life, and they don’t have a lot of agency in terms of becoming critically consciousness, or of even being able to find time to write.

There are many solutions to this issue,  this one will create a space in which women of colour feel like they have a voice,  time,  support, and they have mobility to move past the restrictions that are placed on them.


The Westies: Is there any example that you can think of, where writing has helped you – personally in a significant way?

Winnie: I wrote an essay for Sydney Review of Books, called “From Pacific to Pacifica”, and to have an intellectual discussion about my community and about the struggles that the Pacifica community faces in Australia, and ways that we can start engaging with our intellectualism.To put all that in an essay, and to have it put out on such a big platform was really exciting, because – there is really isn’t anything out there about Tongan Australians, or even Pacifica’s who live in Australia, that’s written from, us about us. To be at the forefront of that is really nerve-wracking, but also really exciting.

My dream one day is to produce a Pacifica anthology, to be able and say, “Yes, Pacific communities exist in Australia”, and we’re not all poor, we are not all disadvantaged. We have our voice, and we can come together and produce a really exciting literature and writing.

To be able to say that this story is being painted by oppressors about Mt Druitt is not correct at all. That’s why I stay in Mt Druitt. Because I think Mt Druitt needs people like me as much as I need Mt Druitt.


The Westies: Are you are still living in Mt Druitt?


Winnie: Yes, I still live in Mt Druitt. Mt Druitt really gets a lot of flak for being a suburb of crime, and poor people, and violent ethnics. So, to be able to produce literature, and always constantly remind people that I am from Mt Druitt, that this is my suburb,  it’s a really great opportunity.


The Westies: Why do you choose to stay there?

Winnie: Now that I’m with Sweatshop, I feel there is so much work to do in Western Sydney, and what better place to do that for me, than in Mt Druitt, because Parramatta, Bankstown,  and Liverpool have a lot of stuff going on. Mt Druitt kind of is forgotten, tucked away under Blacktown.


Interview: Katrina James

Photos: Katrina James