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Decolonising institutions through Indigenous fellowship

4 July 2019

News and media


Image of people holding Aboriginal flag outside Australia house

By Jacynta Krakouer and Aurora Milroy

The Poche Leadership Fellows Program is based out of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, founded by philanthropists Greg and Kay Van Norton Poche. The Leadership Fellows Program has been running for three years with the aim of developing the leadership potential of Indigenous early career professionals in the health sector, as part of a greater mission to advance Indigenous health and wellbeing. The program consists of three modules which take place over 12 months: two modules in Melbourne and one in London.

Jacynta Krakouer is a Noongar woman from Western Australia who lives and works on Wurundjeri country. She is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne. Jacynta is one of the 2019 Poche Leadership Fellows.

Aurora Milroy is a Palyku woman from Western Australia who lives and works on Wurundjeri country. She is the Advisor, First Peoples Programs and Strategy, at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Aurora was a support staff member on the Poche London module.

For many of the 2019 Poche Leadership Fellows, the London module, which took place in May, was fraught with anxiety and apprehension. London symbolises colonisation and everything negative that has occurred on the invasion frontier following first contact with the British. Why then, would an Indigenous specific leadership program be undertaken in London, at the heart of the British empire and a site of immense trauma? If the program aims to recognise Indigenous excellence, what could the Fellows possibly learn from the coloniser?

The London module was certainly challenging but provided several key insights for the Fellows. It particularly enabled three reflections:

London has an Indigenous history that must be redressed.
Australian institutions of power need to decolonise.
Indigenous fellowship is unique and powerful.

London has an Indigenous history that must be redressed

Indigenous Australians have been travelling to London since Bennelong travelled there shortly after the British arrived in Botany Bay in 1788. The 2019 Poche Fellows were part of this legacy, albeit entering British soil on a voluntary basis unlike some before them. The London module’s itinerary was packed with activities deliberately designed to invoke deep reflection, which often came with apprehension and distress. Some of the colonial structures encountered were museums, large in stature and size – like the British museum – and smaller (but no less intimidating), like Pitt Rivers at Oxford. Then there were universities steeped in wealth and murky histories — Oxford University, King’s College on the Strand, and the School of African and Oriental Studies. The itinerary was capped off with a visit to the Fellows’ supposed ‘home away from home’ in the marble-decked halls of Australia House (where strangely enough, a sachet of vegemite could not be found).

The buildings themselves were not confronting, but their legacy and what they symbolise was. In modern, multicultural London, whiteness, privilege and exclusion stood out as a feature of many of the colonial institutions encountered. Some uncomfortable legacies are acknowledged and challenged (take for example, the Rhodes Must Fall movement by students at Oxford University), some go unnoticed.

One by one, every Fellow experienced displacement, distress and discomfort as a result of being in overtly colonial places that ignored, derided or romanticised Indigenous realities. The London module was a reminder that the history of colonialism in Australia does not just take place in Australia: it is inextricably linked to the United Kingdom (UK), not just as the place from which the coloniser came, but also as the place where they brought back Indigenous peoples, human remains, and sacred objects.

However, while for the most part distressing, the London Module also exposed Fellows to the Indigenous-led work already underway in the UK to address and redress its Indigenous and colonial histories.

Fellows met several Indigenous peoples excelling in British institutions, working to decolonise them, reshaping colonial narratives, creating new narratives of Indigenous peoples in the UK, and demonstrating the strength of Indigenous knowledges and cultures. This included Evie O’Brien at Rhodes House, Gaye Sculthorpe at the British Museum, and the Charles Perkins scholars at Oxford University, as well as the Ngangkari traditional healers Rene Kulitja and Pantjiti Lewis who gave an incredibly well-received guest lecture at King’s College London as part of the launch of the Art of Healing exhibition. These positive examples of Indigenous peoples working and studying in the UK reminded Fellows that Indigenous peoples are in control of their own stories, and if you want to change things, you often have to confront the sites, locations, and institutions that scare you most.

Australian institutions of power need to decolonise

Thousands of kilometres from Australia, the heart of an empire that invaded Australian soil more than 200 years ago, London provoked such a torrid response for one main reason:

London, as a site of colonial empire, almost mirrors the institutions that continue to oppress Indigenous Australians in modern day Australia.

Everything about the various institutions encountered in the London module reflected a mantra of exclusion that speaks to the heart of colonisation – difference. Yet only through being in colonial institutions in London can the continuing practices of exclusion and difference within Australian colonial institutions be acknowledged as a contemporary reality for Indigenous Australians. Indeed, there is a wealth of literature about the need to decolonise Australian institutions – such as universities and the public service – while being cognisant of how these institutions continue to exclude Indigenous peoples, their knowledges and their ways of being and doing.

Admittedly, rates of Indigenous peoples working and studying within institutions such as universities and the public service have grown substantially during the most recent decades. Yet, institutional racism is a continuing reality. Munanjahli and South Sea Islander academic Chelsea Bond sums it up perfectly when she asserts that while there’s no better time than now to be a Black academic, every day is like fighting a war against an academy which persistently seeks to advance the colonial project through racialised, exclusionary knowledge production. The week-long module in London enabled one key realisation – empire doesn’t exist thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the world, it’s there every day we encounter institutions in Australia.

The fact is that British colonial institutions are the foundation of Australian institutions like health systems, public services and universities, which are uncomfortable institutions for Indigenous Australians due to their colonial histories of exclusion, segregation and assimilation. Examples include the forcible removal of Indigenous babies from their mothers’ arms throughout the twentieth century Stolen Generations.

While uncomfortable, we are also expected to achieve change for the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples within these institutions – improvements in overall health and wellbeing through Aboriginal Health Liaison officer initiatives in hospitals, improvements in educational attainment with Aboriginal support units at universities, identified positions in the public service. But, for any of these initiatives to be truly effective, the institutions themselves must first be decolonised and Indigenised. The structure cannot accommodate change if it is built upon a colonial foundation of whiteness and exclusion.

Indigenous fellowship is unique and powerful

In addition to the need to decolonise Australian institutions, the Poche London module demonstrated why Indigenous peoples are best placed to lead the way. It’s no accident that Poche is a leadership and a fellowship program. Fellowship reflects a trend away from traditional notions of leadership towards a more relational and truly Indigenous model for social change.

As Jason Glanville, Wirudjuri man and Executive Director of another Indigenous-centred Fellowship program, the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity, explains: “The usual forms of individualistic, ego-driven and entitled leadership… are failing. [We have an opportunity to create a] new approach driven by the power of respectful and respectfully contested relationships”. Core to this new approach to leadership is, in Glanville’s view, “harnessing Indigenous knowledges, creativity and resilience to drive change”.

The Poche program is an incredibly successful demonstration of Fellowship in action. The cohort of 12 Indigenous Fellows hail from a range of cultural and professional backgrounds in the public sector, academia and health services. In London, all 12 demonstrated different approaches to leadership. Some were frank and fearless, like the Fellow who asked High Commissioner George Brandis QC whether he would support a Treaty process in Australia. Others were quieter and used individual relationships to change mindsets, like the Fellow who took time to explain one-on-one why “reconciliation” was a fraught concept for many Indigenous peoples.

This quieter model of leadership echoed the way Adam Goodes described his own leadership style at ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration conference earlier this year, saying, “you don’t need to lead loudly… you can lead by being a good mentor, building strong relationships and delivering on what you promise”.

There were Fellows who challenged, some who protested, some who negotiated, and some who lead through action. Others, perhaps particularly evident on the Poche trip given the health focus of the program, led through healing, mending relationships and tending to the spirit.

But what was most evident from the London module was not the diversity of ways in which Indigenous peoples lead, but that leadership was exercised primarily as a group – as a system of individuals – not as individuals alone. All the different styles of leadership demonstrated by the Poche Fellows had their place and their moments in the system, and the best way to achieve change was through the dynamics of the system. Indigenous ways of doing have always been collaborative and relational, and the Fellowship model reflects the power of an Indigenous system, built on relationships and capable of adapting to different contexts. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are often the lone Indigenous voice in their institutions, the notion of “fellowship” across institutions provides strength. More can be achieved for communities when leadership is exercised as a system of relationships and styles, and when Indigenous peoples have opportunities to support each other.

While facing the legacies of colonisation abroad and at home is a confronting and often traumatic task, and while the project of decolonising and Indigenising institutions is an overwhelming struggle, we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are not alone in the task. With or without the support of non-Indigenous allies who understand the importance of decolonisation, together we are strong.

ANZSOG is committed to developing Indigenous leadership in the public sector and has recently released the report from its 2019 Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms conference in Melbourne. Public services need to employ Indigenous people at all levels, and involve Indigenous communities in all stages of policy development and implementation. Initiatives like the Poche Leadership Fellows Program are vital to help build the Indigenous leadership capability that will make this possible. Download the report via the ANZSOG website.

Further resources

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Search APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, bringing together diverse, policy-relevant resources from the existing APO repository as well as new materials