University of Wollongong academics reflect on National Reconciliation Week

How institutions and individuals can Be Brave, Make Change

Held annually from 27 May to 3 June, Reconciliation Week is a time for Australians to learn about and embrace our shared history and culture, and commit to ongoing reconciliation.

The dates commemorate two significant moments in Australian history: the 1967 Referendum to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the population, and the High Court Mabo decision, respectively.  

We spoke to UOW staff who are committed to actioning reconciliation year-round.   

Joel Keen is an Associate Lecturer at Woolyungah Indigenous Centre (WIC) at the University of Wollongong (UOW). A Gomeroi man, Joel provides tailored academic support to First Nations students at WIC.  

Since 2018, he has co-chaired the Working Group on Strategies to Support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Law Students alongside Head of Students (Law) Dr Kylie Lingard. The working group aims to help break systemic barriers that prevent First Nations students from pursuing a career in law. 

“Within all of Australia’s institutions, there’s a kind of intrinsic discrimination that exists, that’s basically founded in white supremacy and can operate quite invisibly in those institutions,” Mr Keen says.  

“The way law interacts with individuals and communities; it protects certain groups and victimises others. There is a way the law has outlawed our traditional behaviours and undermined our cultural longevity in an attempt to disconnect us from our Countries.” 

An man in a blue shirt and black cap sitting at a desk in a coference, smiling Joel Keen at the UOW WATTLE Enabling Students Forum

While programs were in place to improve the cultural safety of the law school at UOW, Dr Lingard thought more could be done to address individual students’ needs.  

“Colonial law schools can be unsafe spaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Joel and I wanted to create a partnership capable of responding to a range of needs. We wanted to create a sustainable partnership, one that would continue if we left UOW,” Dr Lingard says.  

The first step was surveying the needs of First Nations law students at UOW, which found students had a range of needs connected to academic, social, professional, and financial support. The Working Group implemented changes through tutoring and mentorship programs, and secured funding to provide free access to expensive law textbooks.  

Student survey responses also emphasised the need for cultural support, especially in the classroom and curriculum,” says Dr Lingard.  

“We’ve recommenced the law elective ‘Indigenous Peoples and Legal Systems’, taught in 2021 by an Awabakal lawyer. We also established a school-level sub-committee of the Working Group in July 2020. Its primary task is to plan activities that foster reflection on our teaching practices and curriculum, and respectful change in the way we teach and what we teach,”says Dr Lingard.  

A woman with brown hair sitting with her hands clasped on a desk, wearig a dark green shirt Dr Kylie Lingard, Head of Students (School of Law)

Joel says the working group is a tangible example of reconciliation and actioning change for First Nations students.  

“I’ve seen students’ experiences improve over the life of the working group. Some students have a bit of a tough time in first year, being able to enact change internally and see it impact those students immediately is why I love being a part of the group,” he says.  

The group has boosted participation among First Nations students studying law, according to Dr Lingard.  

“We’ve seen increase in student enrolments in our law degrees, an increase in student participation in peer and professional mentorship opportunities, and an increase in student access to employment and scholarship opportunities.” 

The Working Group is just one commitment to reconciliation within the University.  

Three University of Wollongong Law students sit at an outdoor bench smiling, surrounded by law textbooks Working Group members Gabrielle Webster, Sophie Wright, Thomeissa Mason

Earlier this year, UOW launched the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) which aims to provide learning, teaching and working environments free from racism and discrimination and build stronger relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.  

Joel is grateful for the response to the RAP and proud of the direct effect of the Working Group. 

“I see people instigating change through their daily teaching practices. I work with different people across the University to revise the content in a way that’s going to help students. It’s really more about how the content is taught than what the content is.” 

“Despite our large vision, our plans are often small, each moving us a just that little bit closer to our bigger goal. We enthusiastically share our plans and outcomes with colleagues, hoping our vision is contagious,” adds Dr Lingard.  

“What began as a Working Group journey and vision is now a Law School journey and vision.” 

Reflecting on this year’s theme of ‘Be Brave, Make Change, Joel says it’s up to non-Indigenous people to raise their awareness and incorporate what they learn into practice. 

“To me it’s about looking forward by understanding the value of old knowledge and where that can take us. When I say old, I don’t mean a hundred years ago, I mean actually old,” he says. 

“It’s old knowledge that is going to teach and progress us.”