Aboriginal women speak

Life, passion and purpose

We spoke with three influential Aboriginal women with strong ties to UOW: an Elder, an alumna and a student.

Marlee Silva, Dr Virginia Marshall and Aunty Barbara Nicholson have, in their own way, scaled the heights in their chosen directions in life – but all equally have found time to undertake a cause close to their hearts in mentoring.

Aunty Barbara Nicholson

An Aboriginal Elder, leader, teacher, poet and advocate with a strong thirst for knowledge and learning.


I was born on the Aboriginal reserve at Kemblawarra, and my mother instilled in me the importance of education.

My mother won a scholarship to teacher’s college, but her father would not allow her to go – a reflection of the times. She was a brilliant woman with a brilliant mind, and she was frustrated about not being able to pursue her aspirations. Rather than saying she was a 'role model', it was her frustration that inspired me.

The day I received my bachelor’s degree I dedicated it to my mother.


I would simply like to be remembered as somebody who took on challenges with a passion. When doing my arts degree, for instance, I wanted to learn everything I could – I was sorry I could not undertake all the arts subjects! I read way beyond the prescribed texts given to me. My foray into higher education began as a mature age student with the Open Foundation Mature Age Entry Course at the University of Newcastle, where I went on to complete an arts degree with a triple major in English Literature and a Diploma of Education. Following graduation, I began teaching Aboriginal Studies at UNSW and stayed for five years.

My relationship with UOW began more than two decades ago. I lectured in Aboriginal studies, history, law and literature. I have been an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Law since 1999 and a member of UOW’s Human Research Ethics Committee since 2006.

Over the years I have mentored numerous students in one-on-one sessions, particularly in the School of Law, guiding them through the complexities of cultural competency and sensitivity as it applied to their particular field of study. Although I spent many hours mentoring, I’ve always considered it a great joy to spend that time with such avid learners.

I would like to think my contribution to university education has had a positive effect on students and that they gained a fuller understanding of the fundamental issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that have a positive impact on their career choices.

The power of creative writing

A long-serving member of the South Coast Writers Centre (SCWC), I love writing and have been writing poetry for a long time. I head up the Aboriginal literary program of the SCWC and formed the Black Wallaby Writers Group, which is dedicated to encouraging and showcasing new Aboriginal writing.

One of my most important mentoring roles has been providing a series of creative writing workshops to Koori prison inmates. Over the last six years I have, with the wonderful assistance of the Black Wallaby Writers Group, conducted these workshops with Aboriginal inmates at Junee Correctional Centre, encouraging them to express their feelings through writing prose and poetry. I am proud to say these workshops have culminated in the publication of four volumes of their creative output named Dreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre. Volume five is a work in progress, to be launched in 2017. This has come about with the full collaboration of the South Coast Writers Centre and management and staff of Junee Correctional Centre.

Staff at the Correctional Centre have indicated that this is the only external program that has lasted more than five years within the prison system. The value and importance of this project as a tool for self-expression, for behavioural self-regulation and spiritual healing is recognised by both the Commissioner for Corrective Services and the GEO Group Australia, and is expressed in the GEO’s commissioning of a national promotion of the project to be covered in all media. Naturally, I am thrilled to bits to get such recognition for the program. Further information on this project can be found in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (JASAL).

Social justice

For many years I have been a grass-roots campaigner, seeking justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have always had a deep commitment to social justice. I was a long-serving active member of Link-Up, which is an organisation committed to reuniting and supporting families and individuals affected by Aboriginal child removal policies. I also have a strong commitment to tackling the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, and devoted many years’ service with the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee.

I have taught and mentored numerous Aboriginal students at Goulburn Correctional Centre, guiding them through their course work in very difficult surroundings and circumstances, yet mostly with admirable outcomes.

The recent exposure of abuse of young Aboriginal inmates at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory is obviously a major social issue, and comes as no surprise to me. I visited this centre many years ago and I don’t hold out great hopes that the present Royal Commission into juvenile detention centres in the Northern Territory will achieve any significant outcomes. Since the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission the number of Indigenous juveniles incarcerated in jails has jumped significantly. The current Royal Commission, should at the very least revisit the ‘Northern Territory Pre-court Juvenile Diversion Program’, which replaced mandatory sentencing for juveniles. This program had a lot to recommend it as an alternative to incarceration.

Dispossession of country

The overriding issue for Aboriginal people, of course, is dispossession. Loss of land in effect pauperises people, as it impacts on all social indicators. We need more than band-aid solutions to overcome the appalling state of neglect so evident in Aboriginal communities across the entire country.

But as I mentioned earlier, life is about challenges and we must tackle such challenges with passion.

Honoris Causa

Blown away – that’s about the best way of describing how I felt that day in July 2014 when UOW believed I deserved an Honorary Doctor of Laws. I am indeed humbled to think that I was the first local Aboriginal person to be awarded such a high honour. It was certainly a very proud day for me, and I hope it brings some form of pride for all Aboriginal people, in particular for the local Wadi Wadi people. 


Dr Virginia Marshall

Principal and sole Legal Practitioner for Triple BL Legal who is passionate about Aboriginal water rights, mentoring and motherhood.

Professional singer and multilingual

I never really imagined as a young Indigenous woman growing up that I would be in the place I am today. The reality when I left school in Year 10 was to work, as I had been working part-time since I was 13. I spent equal time in Sydney and the bush. Thoroughbred horses and riding were my great love and, at first, this was my career focus. Several years later I began singing professionally, and this required a total commitment, day and night. Music was always being played around the family home, including the guitar and piano.

Ahead of my days at UOW and before my four children were born, I became fluent in German, French and Italian while I was studying in Europe and singing professionally. Previously, I had only learnt French in school. I studied under one of the leading professors of opera in Germany, and was singing opera in German, French and Italian. It provided the incentive for me to become fluent in those languages because being fluent in a language makes one much better at singing in that language.

When my fourth child was born with serious health issues, I couldn’t continue as a professional singer. I had to take time out and commit myself to their needs and those of my other children. That’s when I realised that I needed a change of profession.

Affinity for law

A series of events propelled me into university studies and I found that I had a real affinity for the law, which led me to undertake a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at UOW, to a Master of Law at ANU, and then into doing my PhD in Law at Macquarie University.

I am now both a legal academic and a legal practitioner, which gives me a lot of insight into the law. My firm Triple BL Legal has been operating since 2013 out of Bowral, NSW. It has been a very satisfying transition in terms of what it takes to run a legal practice, and accepting pro bono work to help the community and people who require legal assistance. I am a signatory to the National Pro Bono Targets, and volunteer my time for the Law Society of NSW as a Magistrate with their annual Mock Trial Competition and in submissions on behalf of the Law Society with their committees on Indigenous issues, human rights, litigation practice and mediation practice.

As a legal academic I have the analytical skills to research, write succinctly and contribute to law reform. Our company and other partner organisations have just been successful in winning an Australian Research Grant over the next three years to work on a model to facilitate protecting Indigenous intellectual property rights and defend ownership to knowledge resources.

Stanner Award winner

I was extremely proud to have won the National Stanner Award in 2015 from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, which provided national recognition for my thesis research based on Aboriginal water rights.

It’s disappointing that there hasn’t been any positive action by the Federal Government for Aboriginal water rights - in fact, it’s just the opposite. The former Abbott government disbanded the National Water Commission (NWC) and passed its functions over to the Productivity Commission. This decision put an end to the biennial reports produced by the NWC, which reported on progress being made by the states and territories, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, to take Aboriginal interests in water into account.

The current government has given responsibility for the water portfolio to the Minister for Primary Industries, which has served to increase the influence of the irrigation sector and to diminish the opportunities for Aboriginal people to achieve their rights and interests.

Water a key social issue

Achieving Aboriginal water rights is absolutely a key social issue because it has a nexus to Aboriginal health and wealth generation. There are so many Aboriginal communities across remote and regional Australia that have a substandard water supply, both in quality and quantity, and that has a big impact on the health of people living in those communities. We live in a developed nation where Aboriginal communities are living in conditions you would find in a developing nation.

And despite the poverty that is endemic in many of those communities, government agencies are seeking to achieve cost recovery from them for the provision of water supplies. It is madness.

The opportunity for wealth creation is another major factor that makes Aboriginal water rights so vital. Economic water rights have underpinned wealth generation throughout rural Australia since European colonisation. Just as the doctrine of terra nullius was used to rob Aboriginal people of their land rights, so today the legal fiction of aqua nullius is being used to rob Aboriginal people of their legitimate water rights and interests. It has to change.

Part of the Stanner Award is mentoring and editorial support from Aboriginal Studies Press to turn the manuscript into a publication, which in my case is a textbook on Aboriginal Water Law. The Hon. Michael Kirby has written the foreword for my book and it means a great deal because Mr Kirby has dedicated his professional life to the law and human rights.

My book Overturning Aqua Nullius is scheduled for launch in February 2017, and will be the only comprehensive examination of Aboriginal water rights and interests in Australia, so it will be of immense interest to a lot of legal academics, lawyers and general readership.

And in 2017 I am also preparing to take my barrister exams. I am enrolled in a UOW course for the Graduate Certificate of Law (Criminal Practice), which is directed towards legal practitioners, either prosecutors or defence lawyers, and I have so far completed Advanced Evidence Law and Expert Witness Evidence. The preparation for the exam entails significant time and sacrifice, but we have mentors within our profession who are able to assist when we need guidance.


Mentoring is a cause close to my heart. Because of my studies in education, and because my mother and my grandparents always dedicated themselves to serving others – helping families that had migrated to Australia from war-torn Europe, fundraising for charities such as the Red Cross and for people with disabilities, or looking after children who had lost their parents – the role of mentoring was a natural one.

I have mentored Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, usually those at the crossroads of whether they should start university, and others questioning whether they should drop out. The NSW Law Society Mock Trial Competition is one of those amazing opportunities for Years 11 and 12 secondary students to participate in a mock civil or criminal trial, usually over three hours.

I have volunteered in that role for over a decade and enjoyed being a judge at the Grand Final for the last two years. I am looking forward to the final in December.

And in November I will be giving the keynote address to the Colonial and Settler Studies Network (CASS) and to the Forum for Indigenous Research Excellence (FIRE). The FIRE address is titled 'Healing a Fractured society: Moving Beyond a Flawed Justice System' and my presentation will focus on Aboriginal community-driven solutions to employment, diversionary programs reconnecting culture and strengthening language for positive change.

The CASS address will draw on some of my doctoral research and themes to examine the ongoing effects of colonisation in the national water reform paradigm, and the disconnect of Indigenous Australians in water rights and interests. Essentially it continues on from the legal fiction of terra nullius to what I frame as aqua nullius, and the necessary policy and law reform required to ‘sweep away’ this legal fiction.

I have also worked in Long Bay Correctional Centre with Aboriginal inmates and there is much they taught me about how they want information to be provided, in what form, and why the recognition of formal education is important.

Winding down for me is the enjoyment I derive from my family home in Bowral. My husband and I love gardening, and all the family are keen cooks drawing food from our garden. And I particularly like to walk, which is my way of keeping fit.


Marlee Silva: illustration by Claire Foxton, Bachelor of Creative Arts (Visual Arts & Graphic Design), UOW 2009.

Marlee Silva

An outstanding student who has taken on the rare opportunity to be Co-CEO of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME).

Unique experience

Being involved in the lives of young Indigenous students and helping them realise their full potential undeniably makes up most of my fond university memories so far. I have taken a year off from my studies as I am the first appointed Co-CEO of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME). Sure, I love what I have been studying and I’ve enjoyed my classes, but the extracurricular elements of my tertiary studies have been amazing, and made for a unique experience.

Giving back

I actually first heard about AIME when I was in school, from friends and family who were involved in the organisation. I unfortunately never got to be a mentee, but on my orientation day back in 2014, the first thing I did was sign up to be a volunteer mentor. And, instantly, I fell in love with the program. I began working with AIME because for most of my adolescence I was looking for a way to be more involved with my culture, and specifically wanted to give back. I had so many awesome opportunities offered to me growing up, which helped me become a more confident young Indigenous leader, and I wanted to give that to someone else so AIME was the perfect pathway to do that. I’m so passionate about education and the success and betterment of my people, so knowing what those who’ve come before me have been through, and what those who will come after me are already capable of doing, has been what drives me to work as hard as I do, and ultimately has seen me get to this position.

A CEO in training

When I first heard I was appointed as the first Co-CEO for AIME, I couldn’t believe it in all honesty. I’d given the four rounds of application for the position all I had, but you can never be sure what the outcome will be with these things, so I was just ecstatic and proud and so glad that I could represent my family and our story in this way. I shadow the work of our CEO and work directly across all of our internal teams, so I’ve been getting a very genuine taste of what it’s like to work in an executive position. Yes, I’m very much in training! I’ve had to overcome some massive learning curves and I’ve been pushed to my very limits, so I already feel like a completely different person than what I was at the beginning of the year.

Some international training is involved with the position. I recently came home from a four-week summer short course at the Summer Institute of General Management at Stanford University in California. Because Jack Manning-Bancroft (our Founder/CEO) had an experience at Stanford a few years back, he was keen for me to get the same, so through his relationship with their alumni association, he helped me identify a suitable program to apply for.

Working in big numbers

It's definitely not out of the question that my leadership role will one day see me starting up my own company. But for the moment and in terms of the near future, I think it’s more important that I continue striving towards further enriching the company I’m already involved in because if we start to splinter off too much, we lose strength and dilute the Indigenous education space. We’ll always have more impact working together in big numbers.


A dream would be to reach out to all Indigenous students over the next decade and have them finish school at the same rate as every Australian child. But we can’t do it alone. As I said before, we’re stronger in numbers, so if all of those educationally driven institutions walk with us as we reach out to children, we will definitely be able to change the perceived face of Indigenous Australia.

Various social issues

Meanwhile, we have to take into account the various social issues facing Indigenous children today. This varies from place to place. The students who come to our program in Wollongong have completely different obstacles to those up in Rockhampton in Queensland, different to Ballarat in Victoria and Bunbury in Western Australia. All of those issues are equally valid and need to be combatted, but I guess the common one that resonates with me most, and that I’ve heard most often, is a total lack of self-belief. For whatever reason, whether it be that nobody in their family has finished school or gone to university, or they’ve been disheartened by racism and discrimination, or they simply have never even imagined anything otherwise, a large majority of our children come to AIME without having the slightest belief in the depths of their own potential.

Personally, I’ve previously done some work with Oxfam Australia in an Indigenous community development program called ChangeCourse, but otherwise, AIME has been the majority of my non-profit, Aboriginal-focused work.


Aunty Barbara Nicholson
Honorary Doctor of Laws, UOW 2014
Bachelor of Arts, UON
Diploma of Education, UON

Dr Virginia Marshall
Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) and Bachelor of Laws, UOW 2002
Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (Communication Studies), UOW 2002
Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, UOW 2002
Bachelor of Vocational Training and Education, CSU
Master of Laws, ANU
Doctor of Philosophy (Law), Macquarie University
Currently completing a Graduate Certificate in Laws (Criminal Practice), UOW

Marlee Silva
Currently completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts and Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing and Politics), UOW