Our stories, our future

Photo of Lynette Riley

Senior Lecturer and Academic Coordinator Lynette Riley, a Wiradjuri/Gamilaroi woman from NSW, engages students in determining new solutions for lasting change in Aboriginal education.

The University of Sydney was Australia’s first university and is among the best in the worldwide tradition of universities. The tradition and history of European institutions has a strong presence in the University of Sydney’s heritage. However, our university is more than a specula reflection of the European institution. The environment, history and human landscape of Sydney and Australia have created a unique and diffuse interpretation of the European image, changing it forever.

The many campuses of our University stand on the land of many Aboriginal peoples. The Camperdown Campus stands on the land of the Cadigal people of the Eora nation, the first Aboriginal people to confront colonisation. Our city was the site of the declaration of the Commonwealth of Australia and was where Aboriginal self-determination took shape in the first Aboriginal community–controlled organisation. Sydney was the first university to admit students on merit and the first to admit women to all areas of the University on an equal basis to men. It was also the first to present a testamur to an Aboriginal graduate. These events, and many others stretching in all directions from them, have created a unique, divergent landscape off which any refection of the European institution is altered, made different, made uniquely Australian.

This image is, however, not just a representation of our past but a starting point for our future. How we interpret, talk about and engage with, take to our core, our story, our image of ourselves, is important to our distinctiveness as uniquely Australian.

Australia has been unclear about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and peoples contribute to the Australian identity and narrative, and about what the future holds. At times in Australia’s history some Aboriginal people found it necessary to identify as Maori or Italian rather than Aboriginal. Reconciling a climate of racism and the need to survive left Aboriginal people conflicted, angry, puzzled or all of these.

Where Aboriginal people fought this government separation policy and marginalised public perceptions, individuals, families and whole communities were discriminated against or quarantined. In this climate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were ridiculed, ignored or patronised. Aboriginal and Australian stories and identities were kept separate. Aboriginal people were taught the Australian story but not included in it.

This environment has been changed in many ways in recent decades. There have been notable occasions when the national story and identity has grown richer, deeper, and more uniquely Australian by embracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture and story; the 1967 referendum, NAIDOC, Mabo, the bridges walk, reconciliation, and the Australian government’s 2008 national apology.

On these occasions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were part of a shared narrative that said something proudly about who we are and what we want to be as a nation. We know that nations are defined by their shared stories; by the narrative its peoples take into their homes, work, social engagements, family functions, political debates, academic enquiry, education and public life. The stories we tell are the things that bring to life what it is to be uniquely Australian.

Interacting, reflecting and engaging with others about both shared and different experiences helps build a shared narrative and identity. Sharing works to define and reinforce our ideas of who we are and how we relate to each other and provides better knowledge about each other. Quality identity resources and the frequency of interaction between peoples of difference increase the potential contribution to the store of Australian human, social and identity capital1. The implementation of the strategy will position the University in a leadership role in Australian higher education in this domain.

The importance of the narrative to building a shared identity and society is not however confined to the University alone. How the public, media and other institutions in our society critically analyse the discourse about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will shape political, social, personal and collective cohesiveness and outcomes. More practical reasoning from a better informed public able to access and assess critically information about our society will form an essential foundation to the process of eliminating injustice at both an individual and institutional level.

Injustice occurs in many forms. The tendency of late has been to only see injustice as manifest in the significant differences in socioeconomic outcomes. It has been suggested that an approach that reduces Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the national debate to a “range of indicators of deficit, to be monitored and rectified towards government-set targets” is an exercise in control of the agenda by the dominant society, which does not hold much promise2. Injustice is present also when the capability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to formulate and address challenges is hampered or when the credibility of the solutions Aboriginal communities offer are discounted because of stereotypical views3. Education, research and engagement clearly have a central role in remedying these and other injustices.

This strategy will do more than address the statistical inequalities confronted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; it does not simply locate Aboriginal peoples in a discourse of disadvantage.

This strategy will contribute to the building of a just and cohesive University community and nation by providing opportunity and equipping our students, staff, and our community to engage in practical, purposeful reasoning, to think, analyse and to transform knowledge as a positive contribution to local, national and international outcomes. This strategy will create the interpersonal and institutional environment; all this in an environment where diversity is promoted, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are active, proud and engaged participants in the enterprise.

The University of Sydney will be a community in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians, as students, staff, alumni and visitors, are willing and able to invest in each other. The character of this experience will be honest, respectful, engaged and competent.

In doing so, the University contributes to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ “place in the national identity and national story”4.

Success will make a real and important contribution to the strength and quality of Australia’s social fabric, to our economic capacity and development, and to the functioning of our communities and institutions.


1. Gurin P et al. (2004), ‘The benefits of diversity in education’, Journal of Social Sciences, 60(1).
2. Pholi K et al. (2009), Is ‘Close the gap’ a useful approach to improving the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians? Australian Review of Public Affairs 9(2).
3. Flicker M. (2007), Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing, Oxford University Press.
4. Australia 2020 Summit – Final Report, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, 2008