He may still be young, but Tomzarni Dann has already lived an interesting life. As a national presenter for AIME mentoring, an educational program that supports Indigenous students through high school and university, he uses his comedic skills to engage with and influence thousands of Indigenous children around Australia. Although he humbly maintains he’s just a boy from Broome who enjoys spending all day fishing, his professional success has enabled him to have a great impact on the Indigenous community.
Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up in Broome. My Mum and Dad are from the communities up north in Broome, about an hour on the dirt road. My Dad’s side is Nyul Nyul and my mother’s side is Bardi. Primary school was great for me. Broome is a place where you can get up to mischief and no one will notice, it’s a small town of about 10 to 11 thousand people.
In year 10 I went away to boarding school to Darwin because I wanted to meet new people. I went to a private boarding school there and had a great time, met some people from overseas and some other Aboriginal people from different communities. After high school I started doing a Bachelor of Education for two years, but I realised it wasn’t for me. I wanted to work, so I ended up getting a job with Mission Australia working with the language, literacy and numeracy program helping adults get their high school diploma.
Then there were a couple of deaths in my family and my best mate committed suicide, so I opted out of that work. I started to think about the bigger picture, and what the death of my best mate and the death of close relatives meant to me. Fortunately for me, Mum and Dad were living here in Perth. And Mum was lecturing at Curtin University in the Department of Applied Science in Indigenous Community Development. I decided to study and here I am now.
Can you tell me about your heritage?
I’m Aboriginal from five different tribes. My father’s side is Nyul Nyul, Nyikina and Kija, my grandmother was part of the stolen generation. That’s east Kimberley, towards the fresh water. My mother is Bardi and I’m also Japanese, believe it or not.
My mother’s father is Japanese. My name Tomzarni cames from my grandfather, Tom is short for his name Tomatso. My mother went overseas to meet her dad for the first time in year 2000 but he had had two strokes and was lying on his bed. Through a translator mum spoke to him and the first word he said was ‘Onja’. The translator said that wasn’t a Japanese word and mum started ‘tearing up’ because Onja was her mother’s bush name, her Aboriginal name. He remembered all that time. Then he grabbed mum’s hand and his hand and said, “We have the same hand.”
What do you do for work?
I work at Curtin as a national presenter at AIME. I also worked this year as a research assistant in the School of Education, helping Aboriginal students at Curtin University and developing practices that’ll keep them staying at uni. Next year I’ll work with Murdoch University helping Aboriginal couples with pre-natal depression.
What did you study and why?
I studied a bachelor of Applied Science in Indigenous Community Development and Management at Curtin, it’s about empowering communities, getting them to look at their own resources and getting them to take a stand on where they want to go. It was a great degree.
Then I signed up to be a mentor just to hang out with the kids, and the crew at AIME saw potential in me. They said “ you can be a great presenter if you want, and facilitate the class.” So I thought I’d give it a try and I’ve been doing it ever since. I just recently got a job with AIME for next year to be a project manager at Curtin, so I still get to do all the presenting but I also get to do the managerial roles as well.
What’s the hardest thing about being an AIME national presenter?
Trying to be funny. I like being a comedian but it’s hard trying to come up with some fresh jokes. Sometimes I get a good laugh out of the kids and sometimes I don’t. I even forget lines that I’m supposed to say because with AIME they’ve got a script that you follow.
Once we were at a session called mentors for life, which was getting the kids to think about the mentors in their school. I shared a story about myself growing up in Broome, and at the end of every workshop you need to end with a snappy quote or something and I was all deeply serious about what I was saying, and I said, “It all comes to you guys stepping up, you can lead a horse to water but…I don’t know how this saying ends,” they all had a good laugh and they finished off the quote for me. I like to chuck a little bit of humour in my stories, the direction I take might switch sometimes but it’s just to keep them engaged. I take great pride in how I present and how I connect with the kids, and the kids see that.
What’s been the best part of your jobs?
Going around and doing stories with different people, and them getting time to share their experiences with you. It’s great work. You get the chance to address their issues. AIME is really good, working with Aboriginal high school students, getting them to aspire to do better things and letting them know that if they light up, other people will light up as well.
I try to instil in them that they can be great if you step up and do something great, they can lead others to be great as well. If you shine, you let other people shine.
Have you had any particular student that you’ve worked with that was very memorable?
This young fella called Benjamin came on the program last year when I first started and I got to mentor him. I received a letter from the school thanking me for being a mentor and saying that he started to step up at school by getting involved in lot of leadership programs.
What do you wish to accomplish in the next few years?
I always try to connect more with the students and help the AIME program grow by introducing it to new schools around the area. I also want to complete the children’s book that I’ve been working on for the past two years. It’s tall tales of me growing up in Broome. The book is about the mischief I got up to in Broome and it touches on my high school experience too. Have you ever seen the Diary of a Wimpy Kid? It’s like that, but my version, it’s way cooler. I really want to try finishing this off by the end of next year. I’m hoping to get it published in Broome in the local publishers that’s Aboriginally owned.
If you could give one piece of advice to a group of people what would it be?
Anything you do in life you, do it with a smile and mean it, otherwise don’t do it at all. That’s what I do when I do anything in life. When it comes to working or studying, if you find yourself smiling and laughing about it – keep doing it.