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Everyone can play a part in closing the gap

AIEF Scholarship Graduate Unngoorra Harbour gave the following speech at AIEF Corporate Partner KPMG’s National Reconciliation Week event in Brisbane on 30 May 2018.

Unngoorra completed Year 12 at St Joseph’s Nudgee College in 2015 and is now studying Bachelor of Biomedical Science at university.

He spoke about his journey to boarding school, his plans to become a doctor, and the importance of education in Australia’s reconciliation journey. He is pictured with event organisers Miranda Murray-Douglass, Consultant; Tim Herington, co-lead Corporate Citizenship Committee; and Trisha Goubareff, Manager KPMG Gold Coast.

Good morning, my name is Unngoorra Harbour and as a visitor of this land I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Turrbal and Jagera people.

I am Walluwarra, Yirandali, Nyuan and Allawayre. My name, Unngoorra, is from my grandmother’s language of Waluwarra, and was given to me from my old people.

I have lived in a lot of states growing up. I was born in Melbourne and lived between there and Mt Isa for a while. I then moved to the Territory where I lived at Yulara and Alice Springs, before moving to central west Queensland, in Winton, where I would spend the rest of my time growing up before moving away to boarding school at Nudgee College.

I come from a strong cultural family where I am lucky enough to still practise lore and traditions that our old people did out on the river a long time ago. When I was born, my mother and father made the decision to take me home to country to grow up with my nan and granddad and big extended family. I grew up hearing stories from the old people and learning about where I fit within my kinship system, learning about my relationships with people and country, learning about hunting and gathering traditional bush foods and medicine.

My nan passed a lot of her stories onto my mum and dad who were able to share with us her stories of her family growing up under the Aboriginal Protection Act or what my nan called ‘the Dog Act’. Knowing what my nan and granddad could do, and what they couldn’t do, when they were growing up under the Act has inspired me to make most of the educational opportunities presented to me. It has made me realise how fortunate I am today to be able to continue to practise many of my traditions and culture without losing these to Western culture and ideologies.

I started at St Joseph’s Nudgee College in Grade 8 on an AIEF Scholarship with my two brothers, and it was the best decision my family made. The importance of education in my family is paramount. My nan believed the only way for our people to thrive in this new white man’s world was through becoming educated. This was exemplified by my mother who became one of the first Indigenous director teachers of a kindergarten in Queensland, and just this year was awarded her PhD in philosophy, which she’d be working on for nine years. I drew strength from seeing my mum being able to pursue her educational goals as well as raise not only my immediate family, but my large extended family. I recall that up to 14 people have come to live with us throughout my childhood.

Being a small town boy, the thought of coming to a big city and living away from home was terrifying. But I think the worse thing for me at the time was having to go from playing rugby league to rugby union, which after five years I can tell ya I’m still not a big fan of!

My brothers and I made friends really quickly and settled in with ease. For a lot of my good friends and classmates, my brothers and I were the first Indigenous people that they had a conversation with or got to know. My mum always reminded us that we have the power every day to change the perceptions and stereotypes of our people and, whether we liked it or not, people would always be judging. I was able to teach a lot of my friends about my culture and the struggles of our people and give an insight into our lives. This is something that I am very passionate about.

Many non-indigenous Australians’ perceptions are shaped by the media or stereotypes they hear and I aim to change as many peoples as I can daily, just by a small gesture like holding a door open.

The younger grades at Nudgee were a breeze. It was my home and I was free to take up all the opportunities it gave me. But as I got older, and had to start thinking about my future, the people at AIEF were there to help guide me through this overwhelming time. I personally took a lot out of the career sessions that we did with AIEF. I had no idea even where to start and they were a big help in assisting me apply for degrees during Grade 12.

I started my first year of uni in a Bachelors of Clinical Exercise Physiology degree. However, by the middle of that year I felt like it wasn’t the pathway that I wanted to go down anymore. My love of training and sports science was the reason for choosing that degree, and I am still pursuing my rugby league goals today, but I always had a dream that one day I could become a doctor.

While I thought in school that it was so far out of reach, I realised that I would never get there if I didn’t try. So I decided to change courses to a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, and after that I want to undertake postgraduate studies in medicine.

I am really glad I made the switch. It took me a semester and a half to understand how much time and work I must put into it to achieve the marks I need, but I think it has only made me enjoy the course even more. To see myself get the results I am getting and knowing the work I have put in is really satisfying.

However, I do feel that the effort I put in isn’t a choice but an obligation. I do feel obligated to do the best I can because of the struggles my old people faced. They fought for the same rights as their fellow Australians, and to not take what they fought so hard to give us would be a big slap in the face to them.

I just returned from Mt Isa this weekend where I was visiting my sick grandfather, and each time I go home to my family the fire in my belly to become a doctor burns more and more. The theme of this year’s Reconciliation Week is ‘Don’t keep history a mystery’, and you only have to look at communities like these to see that the history isn’t a mystery to our people. They are still harshly affected by the government policies that were enforced on their lives.

Even in a big town like Mt Isa, my people are living in conditions that are almost like a third world country. Every day is a fight for survival. Just this weekend we had Aunties and uncles come to my grandfather’s house asking for a feed because they had been living on 2-minute noodles for the past fortnight. It is obvious that we as a country need to do more in terms of reconciliation. To help close this gap. My grandfather made a comment the other day about how he hasn’t seen the gap close that much throughout his life. He believes that is in fact widening. But we can close this. Everyone can play a part in closing this gap and working towards reconciliation.

I believe if you are a young Indigenous Australian, who has any sort of academic ability or strength, you have a duty to help create change. We owe it to the old people who fought so hard to give us the opportunities that they never had and to help the people today who are struggling. It is also a duty of our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters to support and encourage our young Indigenous men and women to improve the lives of their people.

We need to know that the rest of Australia understand our history and that they genuinely want to assist us and listen to our ideas. As we who experience this hardship daily are the only ones who can fix it, we just need the freedom and resources to do so.

I’d like to finish by saying thank you to KPMG for inviting me to speak at this event and share my story. And I hope you have gotten a good insight into a mind of a young Indigenous Australian and the values and beliefs that we hold.

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At AIEF, we believe that the Indigenous situation is a national crisis; and the reason we get out of bed each day is to do something about it. Our approach is to have a hard head, a soft heart and capable hands with everything we do.

Andrew Penfold AM
Executive Director, AIEF

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The AIEF Scholarship Program and the AIEF Pathways Program are supported by the Australian Government in collaboration with individual, philanthropic and corporate supporters from the private sector.