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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellows launch academic careers

23 March 2016
New program nurtures next generation of Indigenous leaders

A unique accelerator program aimed at kick-starting the careers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics at the University of Sydney is now underway, with five inaugural fellows embarking on cutting-edge research.

Wingara Mura Fellows 2016

Two of the 2016 Wingara Mura Fellows, Mariko Smith and Percy Knight.

Former NRL star Percy Knight is among the first recruits to the Wingara Mura Leadership Program, a five-year scheme which supports early career academics with a tailored career development plan, mentorship and teaching opportunities as they complete their PhD studies.

From growing up on an Aboriginal mission in Condobolin to playing professional rugby for Balmain and the Canberra Raiders, Knight has now become the first Indigenous PhD candidate in the Business School.

He is investigating the factors that underpin successful Indigenous businesses, using case studies from the Wiradjuri nation in NSW in the hopes of developing a model to guide other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run enterprises.

"Mainstream business models don't actually work for us," said Mr Knight. "Indigenous Australians go into business for different reasons than mainstream business owners, particularly in social or community enterprises. It's not really based on the commercial world of profits and loss; it's about other factors like the wider community and supporting family.

"We need a business structure that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to educate themselves about the financial literacy of businesses from an Indigenous worldview."

Yuin woman and Fellow Mariko Smith is completing a PhD about the cultural resurgence of Aboriginal tied-bark canoe-making practices in several Southeast Australian Indigenous communities.

"Many people think that Aboriginal culture is dead or weakened in this region due to early contact, when in fact it's still continuing strong," she said. "It's obvious that communities are not making these canoes for just transport anymore; they instead represent connections to Indigenous culture and knowledge. Yet there are anthropologists and other researchers who believe that the only examples of Indigenous watercraft that are of validity or academic value are historical ones held in museums.

"It all feeds into perceptions about 'traditional' and 'contemporary' Aboriginal culture and the binary around which of those is more valid than the other. We really need to rethink how Aboriginality and Aboriginal culture is considered today."

These appointments will benefit the University as a whole, enriching our knowledge base and setting new benchmarks for culturally appropriate teaching and research
Professor Shane Houston

Other Fellows include: Carmen Parter, who is undertaking PhD research into Indigenous health policy and services through the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health; visual artist and filmmaker Janelle Evans, who will complete a PhD at Sydney College of the Arts into the exchange of knowledge and gifts at First Fleet settlement; and Kalinda Griffiths, who is exploring the disparities in lung cancer care and outcomes amongst at-risk communities in NSW.

"The depth of research pursued by our inaugural Wingara Mura Leadership Program Fellows points to the vast amount of untapped knowledge and talent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," said Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston.

"This is about more than raising the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics at the University of Sydney. It's also about providing opportunities to nurture the next generation of Indigenous leaders within the higher education sector and encouraging more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to aspire to academic careers.

"We envisage these appointments will benefit the University as a whole, enriching our knowledge base and setting new benchmarks for culturally appropriate teaching and research which situates Indigenous people front and centre, in keeping with a first class 21st Century, uniquely Australian university."

The Wingara Mura Leadership Program offers two streams, academic and professional, to allow participants to pursue careers across the full higher education spectrum.

Expressions of interest for the 2016 Wingara Mura Leadership Program (Academic Stream) close on Sunday 24 April 2016.

Emily Cook

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