On Saturday 6 June, when thousands of Australians rallied for Black Lives Matter protests, the key issue for protestors, according to Charles Sturt University’s new Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement, Professor Juanita Sherwood, was recognising the continuation of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia.
Professor Sherwood, says all Australians need to explore the role of the Black Lives Matter protests and what they can do to educate themselves about the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
For Professor Sherwood, the experiences of death in custody victims David Dungay Jr, Tanya Day and Ms Dhu highlight the pressing and continuing need to shine a light on Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“Aboriginal people die in custody, and just last week an Aboriginal child died because the child’s mother was put in custody overnight,” Professor Sherwood said.
“I’ve been working with Aboriginal mothers in prison for the past 10 years and I’ve seen our people go to prison for the most ridiculous reasons.
“I think we have to be aware that when you put an Aboriginal mother in prison, you destroy a whole extended family, and there are repercussions that reverberate through the community.
“The fact is that racism continues unabated, and many of us have experience with police oppression and harassment and the pretty cruel over-surveillance in our communities.”
Professor Sherwood said that despite government warnings to stay away from protests due to COVID-19 regulations, people turned out in their thousands to send a powerful message.
“People are concerned, and there is community outrage,” she said.
“People were very brave taking to the streets and there’s an understanding that black lives do matter.
“I think we needed this instance to feel we are finally being heard.”
Professor Sherwood said everybody needs to know their history, and that’s probably the biggest problem in this country.
“It’s been the colonial agenda that has whitewashed the last 250 years and so most Australians are unaware of the horrible circumstances First Nations peoples in this country have experienced,” she said.
“There is deep, unfinished business around. There’s shame.
“All universities have a role in building their Indigenous education curriculum focus, and Charles Sturt University has an Aboriginal curriculum focus in every course it runs.
“It’s the University’s acknowledgement that it is important.
“It’s been a partnership with First Nations people working at the University, and Elders in respective campuses, who have pushed it forward.
“Charles Sturt University also has a cultural competence program that’s designed around getting people to appreciate that they don’t know it all, and how they deal with issues of racism and their unconscious bias is important.”
Professor Sherwood ran the first national Centre for Cultural Competence at Sydney University, and is strongly linked to the cultural competence and cultural safety agenda.
“It’s vital, because generations have been treated very poorly through discriminatory practices,” she said.
“It’s the reason why we’ve got to have Closing the Gap; our people are dying from, and are impacted significantly from, ongoing racism and this causes harm to our physical, social and emotional wellbeing.
“I remember when I was working in the far west area of NSW, the mean age of Aboriginal men’s death was 31 in Wilcannia; this stuff has a massive impact on the wellbeing of the entire community.
“So, I’m pleased to be in a university that cares enough to really want to make a difference in this space.”
While she thinks protests are essential in giving a platform to people who do not ordinarily have a voice, Professor Sherwood said more must be done.
“I want to set up an Anti-Racism Committee here at the University to target racism across the board, and the idea is getting traction,” she said.
“And for alumni, I think it’s about connecting with us at University.
“I think there are great opportunities to run programs for people who would like an update, because over the last 20 or 30 years, Indigenous academics have really changed what has been taught, how we’re doing research, how we approach each other.
“We’ve brought the cultural competence agenda to this space, so what your experience at uni was 10 or 20 years ago is very different to what it’s going to be now.
“So, be open to growth, reach out and connect with us here; we want you to coming knocking on the door.”