Shane Houston: shaping our path to a more positive future

Professor Shane Houston

Professor Shane Houston in the Quadrangle

"I like to approach the cup as half full," says Professor Shane Houston, the University of Sydney's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) and the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to such a senior role at any Australian university.

The former health administrator brought this unfailingly positive attitude with him when he arrived at Sydney in April 2011, tasked with making the University a central national player in bridging the social divide that confronts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

At a function just after he joined the University, Houston recalls how a young Aboriginal woman approached Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence and told him he had "brought in a real radical" in Shane. The Vice-Chancellor replied, "Yes, that’s what we wanted".

And Houston is, unashamedly, an activist whose outlook was forged during the early years of the struggle for Aboriginal equality. Back in the 1980s, he recalls storming the steps of Parliament House when the Hawke Government tried to retreat from its land rights policy. At the same time, Houston's strategy has changed as Australian society has advanced.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel and we don't need to have the old fights again," he says. "We used to march in the street, but now we've found ways of sitting down and moving forward together."

That spirit of working together runs throughout the Wingara Mura – Bunga Barrabugu strategy, a core part of the University of Sydney's overall strategy. Wingara Mura, driven by Houston and launched in June 2012, represents a marked difference in how the University as a whole works to promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tertiary education, research and engagement.

Houston, a descendant of Queensland's Gangulu people, intends its initiatives to reverberate well beyond the University's campuses.

"Too few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people look at universities and say 'I belong there'," he says.

"Yet, universities play a really important role in shaping Australia's future community, because we know that university graduates are more involved in changing society. And we also know that if we expose all university students to a culturally diverse experience while they are here, they will take that lesson with them into their future efforts to improve our society.

"That's what drives us: we are equipping leaders of the future to produce a society that is better than the one that we've had," says Houston.

He stresses that Wingara Mura is deliberately not framed by a 'discourse of disadvantage' that focuses on the troubles of the past.

"I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to hear that the University is going to approach our tasks and our future on the basis of our rights, the opportunities we are entitled to and building our capability to help shape the future.

"We intend to be a university where all people – as students, staff, alumni and visitors – are able to engage, reflect and grow as part of an honest, respectful and informed University community.

"If we do that, then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be able to look at the University of Sydney and say 'I belong there, I can make a contribution to my people by being part of a community that is educated, informed and allows our mob to be who we are and to do the things important to our culture with pride and respect'."

Inspiring parents

Houston's driving sense of optimism, rather than dwelling on past injustices, comes from the example of his parents – an Aboriginal father and a white Australian mother. When they married, mixed race marriages were frowned upon and his mother had begun dating his father despite the vocal objections of her family.

"They told her, 'You marry that man and don't you ever walk through the gate again'. So she packed up her bags and left for the country, raised a family and had a great life. I don't think you can walk out on a life you've known like that unless you have an enormous well of hope.

"My dad, meanwhile, fought for Australia in two wars in Korea and in World War Two. And he did it at a time when he wasn't counted as a citizen, wasn't counted as a human being, wasn't paid the same as the people he was fighting alongside, because he believed that there was something more important than those injustices."

Houston's home is Mount Morgan in central Queensland. After the family moved to Sydney's western suburbs, he began working for some of the local Aboriginal organisations that were springing up in the heady days of 1970s community activism. A key early achievement was setting up the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation, a community-controlled health and community service organisation that still exists today and serves 12,000 people.

In 1982, he spent time working in Canada for the United Nations-affiliated World Council of Indigenous People, an experience that deepened his views about the interconnected nature of humanity: "I saw the common bonds between the lives of the 400 million indigenous people around the world, and that cultural, spiritual and social values are shared by this international indigenous family."

Equality advocate

On his return to Australia, Houston was elected as head of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO), the peak body for Aboriginal community health services. In 10 years in the role, he oversaw a doubling in the number of Aboriginal health services, not least due to his strident approach to lobbying, and also made an important contribution to what became the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Houston's idea of equality – "it's not about being the same, but about having the right to be different and not suffer any disadvantage" – was accepted by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and eventually made its way into the declaration's preamble.

Eventually, the long-time community activist came round to the idea that he might have a role to play in government. His decision was influenced by his great mentor, Aboriginal activist (and University of Sydney graduate) Charles Perkins: "He said to me: don't forget we need people inside the tent as much as we need people outside it."

Houston worked initially for the Western Australian health department in a senior executive role, in central office and in the central desert region. In 2003 he took on a central executive role with the Northern Territory Department of Health and Families. He gained a reputation for his innovative strategies to strengthen Aboriginal cultural security within the department and in 2009 was awarded the inaugural Chief Minister's Public Service Medal for his efforts. Shane also completed a PhD from Curtin University that explored the way Aboriginal values can be incorporated into health funding decisions.

And now he has stepped more deeply into the university world with his appointment at the University of Sydney – a fitting location for his zeal and determination.

"The University of Sydney sits on the land of the Cadigal people, the first people to confront the colony of NSW," he says. "The first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university studied here. The Freedom Ride started from here in 1965. And we are a stone's throw from Redfern, the cradle of Aboriginal-owned services.

"We are right where all those things occurred, and we have an obligation to take those opportunities and do something with them. This is an iconic institution that has provided Australians with more than 160 years of opportunity – but we are about much more than just historic sandstone buildings and 160 years of history.

"Our job is to imagine how we contribute to the next 160 years of Australian history, by bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, cultures and people into what we do in this place – not as something that we study, but as part of our character, part of our community.

"By doing that, we will build a better future."