I often think about the timescale on which human events play out. It’s double that time, or twenty four years that I have been in Australia. Multiply that by 10 and you get the roughly 240 years since my native country, England, claimed the native land of Aboriginal Australians as its own territory without a great deal of thought as to the impact on those already here.
Multiply that by a bit less than five and you get to 1066 when the Normans invaded Britain and multiply by that by two and you get to the invasion of Britain by the Romans. Having watched Brexit play out, one of my observations is that England has not yet recovered from its own history of invasion – these events leave long and deep scars on a people.
We have just seen the latest ‘Closing the Gap’ report on Indigenous disadvantage which suggests that in many areas, we still aren’t.
In my 24 years in this wonderful land I have had the opportunity both to learn from truly inspiring Indigenous Australians and to do what I can to address Indigenous disadvantage in the Higher Education space. I know I have not learned enough, but I have learned deep lessons from each of the Indigenous communities I have worked with. I have gained enormously from the time that Elders have graciously taken to educate me in their stories and their understanding. I also know that most, if not all, Indigenous Australians and their families have been touched by the cascading impacts of colonisation. That is why the gap is still not closed and we must acknowledge the pain and hurt Indigenous people have experienced.
That shared understanding can help heal the rifts between us. At Charles Sturt, we have learned from Indigenous thinking in many ways. We have learned about sustainability and balance with the environment. We have learned about the power of listening, and being listened to, without judgment. We have learned about the critical importance of language to identity.
Working with the Wiradjuri has led to outcomes I couldn’t have envisioned when I first arrived in their country. They have led the way, enabling us to offer a graduate certificate in Wiradjrui language, and to ensure we incorporate elements of Indigenous thinking in every course we have. We’ve worked together on projects that have ensured the Wiradjuri language has been documented in a dictionary, to protect and support the growth of the language into the future and support a growing sense of nationhood.
I know that this ambition is shared by all Australian universities but at Charles Sturt, we want to practice what inclusiveness really is; not a word, but a series of actions and commitments, that mean we truly can step into the future together. We have the opportunity to speak with and learn from the oldest living culture, a culture that flourished for 40 000 years or more on the planet.
At Charles Sturt, we want to know that we have helped make our communities a better place, and our students better people. We have led the country in having the most enrolled Indigenous students of any university. We are only able to do this through the support of our Indigenous elders, the wonderful staff that deliver our access programs and pathways and the commitment of the students themselves.
Charles Sturt adopted as its ethos the phrase “yindyamarra winhanganha” from Wiradjuri language which translates as “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live in a world worth living in”. I believe deeply in this ethos and I believe our staff and students do too. After nine years here, the highlight of this University is the effort we all put into improving our communities.
It’s not all a rosy picture, and there is much work still to do. The Closing the Gap report shows this. We cannot and must not be blind to the past, but we also must not be stuck in it. I know how many talented and passionate Indigenous Australians are working and studying in our universities and through them, I can see a different future and the hope that brings.
When we think about what it means to be Australian, we often talk about mateship, a fair go and egalitarianism. I interpret these as helping each other through hardship, the ability to succeed despite accidents of birth or fate, and a view that we value people for their humanity not their wealth or background. It is up to all of us, and certainly those of us in universities, to demonstrate these values and help to address the disadvantage still lingering from colonisation and helping our fellow – Indigenous – Australians reach the success they are capable of and deserve.