Independence to advocate for change
Challenging the status quo is often at odds with the need to secure competitive research funding. But Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt says she has never felt compromised at UTS.
Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research
“There have been positions we've taken that have been really critical of government — vocally and aggressively so,” she says. “UTS has always backed our academic freedom and that is a really unique thing in our space.”
Both at UTS and in her work beyond its walls, the proud Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman is working for real change for Indigenous Australians. As Director of Research and Academic Programs for the UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, Larissa has merged her research skills and legal background to provide a clear and persuasive voice on issues of critical importance.
There have been positions we've taken that have been really critical of government — vocally and aggressively so. UTS has always backed our academic freedom and that is a really unique thing in our space.
Her work on re-opening the infamous Bowraville case to seek justice for the families of three Aboriginal children murdered in the early 1990s highlighted the failure of the criminal justice system, sparking a Parliamentary Inquiry — the first of its kind in New South Wales. Together with her documentary film, Innocence Betrayed, it gave the local community ownership and direction in their advocacy.
“Giving a voice to people is a really important part of what I love about the work I do. That’s why I like film — it’s a way of allowing somebody a forum to say what they want to say, rather than us as researchers or lawyers translating for them.”
Larissa also holds the inaugural Chair in Indigenous Research, a cross-university leadership position that advises the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) on Indigenous strategy. Alongside that of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement), the role is part of UTS’s commitment to advancing Indigenous achievement.
“Every university says they care about Aboriginal people, every university has a reconciliation statement, but very few put their money where their mouth is; I felt from the start there was something very genuine about UTS,” she recalls.
“In other institutions there might be one Indigenous person in leadership, whereas we will soon have nine Indigenous professors across UTS. This not only means greater involvement in leadership but also that you’re not the one Indigenous person that has to solve every Indigenous problem.”
Among all this, she is also an award-winning author and filmmaker who finds time to contribute to the arts through her work with the Australia Council for the Arts’ Major Performing Arts Panel and the Sydney Festival, and her long association with Bangarra Dance Theatre. She was named 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year, is currently working on her third novel and recently won an Australian Director Guild award for her new film, After the Apology, looking at increased rates of Indigenous child removal since the Australian Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. Policy change is firmly on her agenda.
Larissa has seen first-hand the power of education to reshape futures. With 26 Indigenous Higher Degree Research students — and around 300 Indigenous students in total — currently studying at UTS, she says there is a significant ripple effect into communities.
“We struggle with broader policy questions around Indigenous issues and the Close the Gap data, but every time we graduate an Indigenous person from university, we're changing the socio-economic life of their family and their community.”
Photography: Andy Roberts