Driving a dialogue

This is an image from the Black Lives Matter protests in Brisbane.

Image: Patrick Hamilton/Getty Images

Image: Patrick Hamilton/Getty Images

“This will be one of the moments in time when people reflect on why they chose not to make a difference. The generational responsibility is on us now, in this moment, to do that.”
UQ Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks

Watershed moments – where passion and outcry finally boil over into social change – always generate strong debate at the time, but ultimately shape the course of world history.

The death of George Floyd, and the recent Black Lives Matter protests it has led to, is arguably one of these pivotal moments.

The shocking footage of Floyd’s death was a brutal and extremely public demonstration of the systematic injustices that African Americans experience, and has led to a huge outcry of support around the world.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have pointed out the distinct parallels between what is happening in the US and their own experiences in Australia.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Indigenous Australians make up 28 per cent of Australia’s inmates, yet are only 3.3 per cent of the total Australian population.

An image of Black Lives Matter sign in Brisbane.

A sign from the Black Lives Matter protest in Brisbane. Image: SOPA Images/Getty Images

A sign from the Black Lives Matter protest in Brisbane. Image: SOPA Images/Getty Images

ABS data from 2015 shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people faced an imprisonment rate of 2589 individuals per 100,000.

For the rest of Australia, it was 223 per 100,000.

Amnesty International also found that while only one in 15 Australian children are Indigenous, they make up a staggering half of all those in our youth detention centres. In 2019, the Northern Territory Social Policy Scrutiny Committee heard that all of the children in detention in that Territory were Aboriginal.

On a 2017 Q&A panel, Cape York lawyer and advocate Noel Pearson famously stated that Indigenous Australians are “the most incarcerated people on planet Earth”; a claim that, while hotly debated at the time, was true.

Along with UQ Alumnus Professor Megan Davis, Pearson and others explained in the Uluru Statement from the Heart that “we are not an innately criminal people” and they and generations of Indigenous advocates have repeatedly called for systemic and structural changes.

For UQ’s Indigenous leaders, students and staff, there is hope the current global attention might bring some change after these decades of Indigenous calls for justice within Australia.

Challenging the narrative

Master of Public Health student and Torres Strait Islander woman Ami Diop cites the longstanding ‘white saviour’ narrative as the source of many injustices against Indigenous people.

“The reason governments can incarcerate us at alarming rates, ignore deaths in custody, threaten to close rural communities, frack on Aboriginal land and not care about rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, is because they don’t see us as valuable contributors to society,” Diop said.

“That is rooted in racism and related to colonial narratives, and those manifest in the ways that I just described.

“I think there’s a specific intent to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in this paternalistic relationship with the Australian Government: there’s no other ethnic group in Australia where you will see the military just roll up on them, like we think of the Northern Territory intervention and when the racial discrimination act was suspended,” she said.

Associate Professor Sandra Phillips, Associate Dean (Indigenous Engagement) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, said it was also a matter of visibility and cohesion. 

“If you watch television ads in Australia, you would be forgiven for thinking the place is full of only white people,” Associate Professor Phillips said.

“So many people aren’t within the narrative of what Australia tells itself it is through its various cultural expressions, including advertising and other forms of media. And if you sit outside of those, it’s really hard to get the attention of the broader community.

“But I think what we’ve seen now [with the Black Lives Matter protests] is that we’ve got that attention.

“[This moment is] really hard to watch; hard to feel. But I think we’re at a moment where if we choose to look away, we’re choosing the wrong side of history.”

We have the evidence. Where’s the action?

UQ Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, explained it is frustrating knowing the evidence for change exists, but that little is being done about it – an insight confirmed for her as Commissioner in the Queensland Productivity Commission inquiry into imprisonment and recidivism.

“The evidence is there, it just needs to be implemented and done, and people have to have the courage to do it,” she said.

“When you look at how many [inquiries] have been done… there was the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987, and that was a federal inquiry and there’s been lots of other reviews, reports and papers written and documentaries made.

“For me, it’s about seeing how governments, organisations and businesses become more courageous implementing recommendations from reports that they commission through independent processes.”

Associate Professor Phillips calls on Australians to investigate the fundamental beliefs Australia’s systems are built on.

“For everything that is structurally in place now, there is a whole set of alternatives, and clearly the status quo is not serving everyone equally,” she said.

“The light has been shone down the path of imagining prison abolition. I think it can be very hard to talk about things as radical as, for example, prison abolition – but I think we need safe spaces where these ideas can be rigorously debated,” she said.

At UQ, Professor Fredericks is driving change by leading the implementation of the University’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). The plan seeks to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement and boost Indigenous enrolment, success and completion, while also increasing employment in higher education and further study. 

To help achieve this, in 2019, UQ introduced its first Indigenous scholarship endowment fund, which – as an endowed fund – will provide a reliable source of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in perpetuity. People are encouraged to donate to this fund to ensure that even more Indigenous students can access UQ in the future.

An image of Associate Professor Sandra Phillips

Associate Professor Sandra Phillips

Associate Professor Sandra Phillips

An image of Professor Bronwyn Fredericks

Professor Bronwyn Fredericks

Professor Bronwyn Fredericks

What can you do?

While systematic change can feel daunting and distant, Goorie Berimpa Student Collective Officer Zane Higgins said every action – however small – is a step towards making a difference.

“Systematic change is what we need, but the only way we’re going to get that is through campaigning and pressuring the government into following through.

“Identify your friends and people in your circle who are accomplices, or want to be, and bring them along [to protests] too.”

‘Allies’, as non-Indigenous activists are often referred to, stand with Indigenous peoples; ‘accomplices’, conversely, are actively committed to dismantling the systems that bring about oppression.

Quoting anti-racism researcher, Ibram X. Kendi, Associate Professor Phillips said, “History is calling the future from the streets of protest.”

“But if for whatever reason people can’t protest, there is absolutely something everyone can do almost on a daily basis with small decisions to be inclusive of Indigenous perspectives and support Indigenous leadership."
Associate Professor Sandra Phillips

“UQ alumni can form a community, or sense of community, with Indigenous alumni,” she said.

Diop added that we need to support Indigenous alumni who are doing great things in grassroots communities by sponsoring and actively engaging with their research.

“Universities need to validate our knowledge systems, especially in research. We should be using more Indigenous research methods…why not teach those at university as well?” she said.

“Alumni already contribute so much through donating to the University, I think a big way they can help is by donating to Indigenous researchers who are doing that work.”

Professor Fredericks also points to the huge impact donating can have.

An image of demonstrators march in Brisbane during the Black Lives Matter protest in June.

Demonstrators march in Brisbane during the Black Lives Matter protest in June. Image: Jono Searle/Stringer/Getty Images

Demonstrators march in Brisbane during the Black Lives Matter protest in June. Image: Jono Searle/Stringer/Getty Images

“Imagine if every single alumnus gave $5 to an Indigenous endowment fund,” she said.

“Imagine an amazing Indigenous centre that had capacity for research, visiting fellows, postdocs, PhDs, a beautiful place for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduates.

“At the moment, we don’t have anywhere for congregating or a place for ceremony on campus. And in that way, the University is missing out.”

Professor Fredericks said it was also about recognising the unique contributions of Indigenous Australians across all parts of society – in education, social groups, and the workplace.

“A great Australian university must include Indigenous Australians just as equally as everyone else,” she said.

“We have things as Indigenous people to contribute to everything, whether it’s agriculture, engineering, aviation, or robotics.

“Alumni have to influence their circle to try to make that happen.”

If you would like to support Indigenous students, initiatives or research, there are a number of ways you can help. To donate, please visit our giving page, and to learn about Indigenous research, visit our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit.

Contact Professor Bronwyn Fredericks at pvcie@uq.edu.au for more information on how you can be an accomplice.