"My vision for Australia is that I'd like to get to a point where all Australians see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as a key part of Australian cultural life. In that vision, it's about making sure that Aboriginal culture, people and issues, aren't kept to the side and always seen as a problem that needs to be solved but brought to the forefront. That more Australians feel like the story and the culture of the Aboriginal community is a national story and something that everyone in some way could feel engaged with and proud of."
Larissa Behrendt (Grad. Dip. Legal Practice, 1993) has an incredible list of titles: Professor of Law, Director of research at UTS's Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, Harvard graduate, Land Commissioner at the Land and environment Court, founding member of the Australian Academy of Law, Board Member of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chair of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, award-winning author, and InStyle Women of Style finalist. Foremost, and at the heart of all her achievements and accolades, she is a tireless Indigenous rights campaigner.
A Kamilaroi and Eualeyai woman, Behrendt's resolution to improve the world for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders happened when she was a child. The pivotal moment was at age eleven when her father found out his mother had been 'removed' as part of what would become known as the Stolen Generation. Behrendt remembers vividly her shock and disbelief, and she felt compelled to ensure it could never happen again.
Growing up in a working-class suburb in Sydney's south before moving to Norfolk Island, the Behrendt children were exposed "to a lot of thinkers and real activists" through their father's activities in the Aboriginal community.
The steady stream of political debate that featured in their childhood resulted in Behrendt and her brother being very aware of the issues in their community, and instilled in them a strong social conscience. Behrendt says her parents taught their children that if you were in a position to help someone, then you should.
They had a really good sense of right and wrong. My parents were very good at reminding us that there are people worse off than us... They had strong opinions about the need to be more inclusive. We grew up in an environment where the idea of prejudice was seen as something really wrong – not just in relation to Aboriginal people. Neither of them was tolerant of homophobia, for example. They had a real live-and-let- live attitude."
Being so aware of the injustices in their community and their own family, it is unsurprising that both Behrendt children ended up in the legal profession. While her brother is a practising native rights lawyer and is "interested in the same things but does it in a different way", Behrendt says he is her most-valued source of support and guidance.
In turn, Behrendt also mentors younger Indigenous women. She is an inspirational figure for a younger generation – from all cultures. Reaching the level of Professor at the age of 31, Behrendt has also been named NAIDOC's Indigenous Person of the Year. Her involvement in different projects and organisations has become so sought-after, one of her biggest challenges has been having to learn how to say no.
There is a touch of glamour about Behrendt that makes it easy to see why many young people would want to emulate her. However, she says her best piece of advice is "not to think about what awards you want to win or the accolades. You've got to make your decisions about what you want to do based on what your passion is. If you work on what your passion is, everything will fall into place.
"I've been very lucky that I've got to work on the issues that I love the most. I'm lucky because I had an education and got my law degree at a time when not a lot of people in my community had that. I get lots of opportunities to do really interesting things, challenging things, fun things, but I am able to choose things that I think will be rewarding."
UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Ross Milbourne says that Behrendt has a rare level of dedication, and the University is proud of being in a position to foster and support her work over nearly a decade. "As Director of research within the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning she is both a shining example and a leading agent in promoting higher levels of Indigenous engagement in tertiary education and research."
Jumbunna was originally set up in 1987 to support Aboriginal students at UTS. Back then there were just two Indigenous students at the University, now there more than 350. Similarly, Jumbunna has developed into a hub for Indigenous students as well as academic research. Jumbunna is something Behrendt is immensely proud of. She says the work is exceptional because of Jumbunna's ability to critique existing policies independent of government funding, allowing a higher level of objectivity.
"UTS has been incredibly supportive and staunch about our speaking out on things that aren't working when that's what our research says – even if it is unpopular with government. The commitment to academic independence is really strong here." Behrendt says this has garnered a lot of respect from the Aboriginal community. "We will go out where maybe the funding isn't but where the need is. We don't just research and write up academic articles, we make sure that research is implemented back into the community."
One of the most recent research projects undertaken by Behrendt and Jumbunna looked at crime and governance in Aboriginal communities; comparing communities, which are geographically very close, but have markedly different crime rates among the Indigenous population. The research reveals that Aboriginal communities with a strong sense of ownership and involvement are empowered to manage social problems themselves. This corresponds to lower rates of crime.
Across a lot of research we do, one of the key things that comes up over and over again is the need to have Aboriginal people centrally involved in the policies and programs that are affecting them. And although that sounds like common sense, it's so rarely done by government."
Behrendt sees the NSW Australian of the Year title as something she can share with the UTS community.
"I hope what the award will do is put a little spotlight on the sort of work we are doing in Jumbunna, the findings in the research about what's not working and what is working in Indigenous policy and highlight that there is some really innovative work being done here. Work that can make a difference."
Click here to find more information about the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning.
Words: Vanessa Marks
Images: © Fiora Sacco