Doing good begins with respect and acknowledgement

This NAIDOC Week we reflect on how we can help Heal Country

Acknowledgement of First Nations peoples must be embedded into how we work, learn and share

At Torrens University, one of our major guiding principles is ‘Be Good’. These two words represent our pledge to lead with care, respect and purpose in all our pursuits – and there is no better time to reflect on the meaning of this principle than NAIDOC Week.

Originating amid the Aboriginal rights movement of the 1920s and 1930s, NAIDOC Week is grounded in the history of the courageous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who fought for civil rights at a time when the topic was anything but mainstream. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities continue to face immense challenges as a direct result of colonisation in this country – and it is indisputable that our efforts to close the gap must continue stronger than ever before.

Since its beginnings nearly a century ago, NAIDOC Week has grown into a national celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It is a great time to acknowledge the spirit of endurance, of innovation, community and leadership that propels and inspires our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the nation.

So, at Torrens University and Think Education, NAIDOC Week is a time for both celebration and reflection, in which we ask: how can we honour these important contributions not only during NAIDOC Week, but every day of the year?

Our Reconciliation Action Plan

In 2020, we took an important step towards answering this question with the development of our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). There are four RAP types – Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate – and with the guidance and endorsement of Reconciliation Australia we are proud to have developed our Reflect RAP, which lays the foundation for future reconciliation initiatives at Torrens University.

The RAP is our practical and formal commitment to participation in the reconciliation movement, with the specific goal of ensuring educational equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at our university. It is a reflection on the university and an opportunity to ask ourselves: are we doing enough? The RAP keeps us a university accountable in terms of how we engage with Aboriginal communities and the work we do in this space.

Our Reflect plan begins with acknowledgement and guides us into the more strategic action plan that we have committed to developing over the next few years.

At its core, the RAP is about that middle letter: Action. It’s about championing the perspectives, knowledge and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures – and proactively carving pathways, creating opportunities and making space.

A global university grounded in local context

At Torrens University, Think Education and the Media Design School, we pride ourselves on our global mindset, welcoming students and staff from all around the world. But this mindset hinges on a deep respect for, and acknowledgement of, the unique cultural context of each of our campuses.

On the land now known as Australia, this means we acknowledge the diversity, history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples – and proactively pay our respects to the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we live, study and work.

We also acknowledge our community in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and the continued efforts of the Media Design School in developing the Māori and Pasifika Matawhānui, a four-year strategic vision aimed at elevating the voices and knowledge of Māori and Pasifika students and staff. Beyond the Australasian region, we pay our continued respects to First Nations communities across the globe.

This is a mindset we aim to embed in everything we do as a relatively new university, as a B Corp and as part of an international community. We want our students and staff to feel united in this approach and to recognise how it enriches the education we deliver at Torrens University.

It’s also a mindset we want to imbue in our physical campuses. At the Media Design School’s new Wynyard Quarter campus in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), a unique wayfinding design embeds Māori and Pasifika storytelling into the architecture of the building.

At our soon-to-be-opened Central Sydney campus, on Gadigal land in Surry Hills, I have been working with Interior Design and Communications students to embed First Nations cultures within the new building’s design.

One reason we need to get this right is that our new campus is located in a really culturally significant part of Sydney, and so it’s important for us to acknowledge this aspect in its design.

We have briefed a group of students to come up with some concepts to embed history, culture and identity in the new campus. It’s really about putting into action a lot of the principles we talk about in the RAP.

An opportunity for deeper reflection

With so many of our staff and students currently in lockdown, we’ve shifted our NAIDOC Week plans for the second year in a row, to prioritise deeper, broader reflection across the organisation.

Last year, we merged ancestral traditions and modern technology to present a live-streamed smoking ceremony in Wollongong, on the land of the Wodi Wodi people of the Dharawal Nation, in collaboration with Illawarra Elder Gerald Brown OAM and the Illawarra Koori Men’s Support Group. We also presented a special NAIDOC edition of The Racket, where an esteemed panel discussed cultural respect, cultural connection and cultural safety.

This year, in the midst of lockdown across part of the country once more, we’ve shifted our NAIDOC Week plans to prioritise deeper, large-scale reflection across the organisation. It’s a time for us to celebrate and interrogate the ongoing efforts of the university, like the Public Health Information Development Unit’s research around the Closing the Gap strategy; the incorporation of First Nations knowledge and practices in our Health curricula; our ongoing partnership with the Simon Black Academy; and the 40+ scholarships we’ve awarded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students since 2019, including one student who went on to win a New Colombo Plan Scholarship.

We’ll also continue the work of the university’s Indigenous Working Group through Yarning Circles and dedicated discussions and dialogue around our mission to become a university of choice, an employer of choice, and a trusted partner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and businesses.

Listen and hear the voices of our First Nations people

As we reflect more deeply on the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week: Heal Country, the most important thing we can do, as a university and as individuals, is to listen and really hear the voices of our First Nations people.  Their voices are the key to true healing and reconciliation. By listening and hearing what our First Nations people think, feel or need, we can continue our journey towards real change.

We have opened this dialogue through our Indigenous Working Group and Yarning Circles, but we must keep the conversation going.

As education providers, we can and should be instrumental in forging a path towards a just, equitable and reconciled Australia. Ultimately, this journey must result in action. In our university, we have to practice what we preach both at an institutional level and in our day-to-day operations.

This NAIDOC Week, we pledge to honour this commitment.

*Rochelle Morris, a Gumbaynggirr woman from the North Coast of New South Wales and Torrens University’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Liaison Officer

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