From ancient dreaming stories to Indigenous youth of today, Kirli Saunders is giving back to community through Indigenous storytelling.
Kirli Saunders doesn't like stereotypes, and refuses to be typecast.
She is a proud Yuin woman, with ties to the Gundungarra, Gadigal and Biripi people. She is a teacher, a poet, a children's author and a fierce advocate for public education. She is a daughter and sister, proud of her mum's work in Aboriginal health and the achievements of her siblings.
She rides a motorbike, loves living between the mountains and the sea, and was recently named the Illawarra Aboriginal worker of the year at the local government NAIDOC awards.
She is only 26.
Growing up in the Southern Highlands, Kirli's sense of cultural identity was stunted by stereotypes of what it meant to be Aboriginal.
"In school, I was taught about the noble savage and hunter-gatherers and all of those misguided notions of what Aboriginal culture is," she says. "So, my idea of Aboriginal identity was very much built on this very poorly-projected image of a stereotypical − and wrong − Aboriginal culture."
"In school, I was taught about the noble savage and hunter-gatherers and all of those misguided notions of what Aboriginal culture is." - Kirli Saunders
As a child, Kirli was aware her own family had a history of dispossession, relocation, intervention and cultural displacement. As an adult, and with the help of her mum and the community, Kirli has reconnected to her culture.
Her passion to help others make those connections through Indigenous storytelling is a strong thread running through all of her work, with an enthusiasm that is almost palpable. She is brimming with perfectly articulated ideas, all with equal measure of passion and practicality.
Kirli acknowledges her ambitious nature and admits to occasionally feeling daunted by the goals she sets herself; but these moments are fleeting and tempered by the reminder that her work is not for herself, but for others.
Kirli Saunders. Photo: Paul Jones
Connecting with community
Take her latest project at Red Room Poetry, where she took on the role of Manager of Poetic Learning earlier this year, working with students, Aboriginal Elders and poets across Australia to create 600 poems in first languages.
She plans to bring together, Elders, contemporary Aboriginal poets and groups of school children to create poetry on country. The project builds on work Kirli is already doing, managing and leading poetry workshops with schoolchildren across Australia.
"I hope it will engage students in Aboriginal languages, help them feel pride in their own cultural identity and connect them with community on a really meaningful level," she explains. "I think some of our kids in communities might identify as being Aboriginal but they don't know where they come from, and that can feel really daunting.
"I think some of our kids in communities might identify as being Aboriginal but they don’t know where they come from, and that can feel really daunting." - Kirli Saunders
"For students to work with elders on the country that they live in, even if it is not the country that is theirs inherently, that at least is a connection for them and an empowering way for them to feel strong in their own identity."
Transforming shame into pride
"Our Aboriginal students feel so much shame in not knowing who they are, but feel they have to fit into a stereotypical identity of what has been depicted of Aboriginal people. I really want to celebrate pride in cultural identity.
"I am really excited to see what that looks like and sounds like and hope this project might pave the way for other poetic language programs," she says.
Kirli's dream is to launch the project next year in the Wollongong community that she has a great affection for.
"Now that I've lived between the mountains and the sea, I don't think I could live anywhere else. It's so beautiful. And I have found this community is a really giving, generous community.
"I've had the opportunity to work with the refugee community and the Indigenous community here and people have been really open to collaborating and being creative," she says.'
Building on education
Five years after graduating from the University of Wollongong with Honours in Primary Education, the Red Room Poetry role provides the perfect expression of Kirli's passion for education, creativity and culture. It is a dream come true.
"To teach creatively, to talk about Aboriginal culture in a way that is meaningful and to create with students, has brought all of my worlds together," she enthuses.
Kirli credits her teachers at Mittagong Public School and Bowral High School for igniting her own love of learning and inspiring her to become a teacher. She recalls the "magic" of a couple of teachers in particular who were generous to her, providing her with encouragement and opportunities.
"A great teacher is somebody who makes you think that you can, when you think you can't," she says.
Kirli was awarded a Teacher Education Scholarship, which supported her study at UOW and guaranteed a placement afterwards, leading to her taking up a teaching position at Fairy Meadow Demonstration School. It also connected Kirli with a wide network of Aboriginal academics and teachers.
When she was seconded to the Department of Education as a Senior Education Officer, in 2015, Kirli found herself promoting teaching and public education to undergraduates with genuine passion.
"A great teacher is somebody who makes you think that you can, when you think you can't." - Kirli Saunders
Her work also focussed on encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to finish school and consider a career in teaching - further sowing the seeds for combining education and connecting to culture.
"I met different teachers and highly-educated researchers who were working in the space of revitalisation or strengthening of cultural identity. Being around people who are really proud about it and really curious about it, encourages you to do the same," she says.
With some studies suggesting that up to half of newly qualified teachers quit within their first five years, Kirli admits the transition can be tough, but rewarding.
"There is a lot of pressure on teachers at the moment around accreditation and accountability. You go into teaching wanting to be the teacher that someone was to you, or wanting to make a safe place in the world for a little person to chase their dreams, and it can be a hard realisation that there is so much more in the world of teaching.
"When you are brand new and young as a teacher, you can doubt yourself. My advice for new teachers is find a good mentor, surround yourself with resources and know that you don't have to re-invent the wheel," she says.
Since joining Red Room Poetry earlier this year, after taking leave without pay from the Department of Education, Kirli has relished working with schools running poetry workshops.
Connecting to country
"Most of my workshops are with a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Connecting back to country is one way that I feel that most people can understand the Aboriginal perspective of taking care of Mother Earth.
"Feeling the earth and her vibrations and the importance of nature in our day-to-day is important. We are always so busy. Stopping and sitting at a waterfall or a tree cures a multitude of ills," she says.
As part of NAIDOC week, she ran workshops with students at Berkeley West Public School, alongside local Elders and language holders Aunty Gwen Brown and Uncle Rueben Brown. She also visited her old high school in Bowral.
"We need to put time and effort into maintaining our cultural identities and finding ways that we can strengthen our communities with the knowledge and wisdom from stories that have been shared with us." - Kirli Saunders
Kirli has also worked with the Illawarra Multicultural Services and refugee communities, including newly arrived families. She ran workshops in primary and high schools in the Wollongong area, focused on creating poetry about an object that was dear to the children for Red Room Poetry's, Poetry Object competition.
"It meant that we got to hear stories about really sacred times in these students' lives," Kirli says. She recognises an affinity between refugee and Indigenous communities.
Stories of displacement
"The link is displacement. It's feeling as though the culture that is rightfully yours has no place in the society that you are melting into. We need to put time and effort into maintaining our cultural identities and finding ways that we can strengthen our communities with the knowledge and wisdom from stories that have been shared with us," she explains.
Kirli's first children's picture book, illustrated by Matt Ottley, will be published next year by Scholastic. Called The Incredible Freedom Machines, it was inspired by Kirli's love of her own metaphoric freedom machine - her motorbike.
Her second picture book 'Our Dreaming' is in the process of being illustrated. Conceived on the banks of the Shoalhaven during a writer's residence at the Bundanon Trust, it is aimed at helping kids better understand dreaming and Indigenous storytelling.
"The dreaming, as told to me, has three parts: to nourish yourself and the earth, to take care of mother and to give back to your community," Kirli says.
"For me, working for a not-for-profit, being a teacher, writing creatively, being a storyteller - they are ways that I stay true to my dreaming and give back to community."