Episode 5: Strong in culture: backing Indigenous kids

First Nations children in Australia are some of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society. But they’re also on a journey of discovery, healing and strength through culture in response to the devastating impact of colonisation. Our guest host for this episode is Leila Smith, the CEO of the Aurora Education Foundation, which works to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students. Leila sits down with two other change-makers – lawyer, mum and former care-kid, Kirsten Gray, and barrister and campaigner Tim Goodwin. What’s working and what’s not to improve the odds for Indigenous kids? How does a deeper understanding of culture, language, truth-telling and reconciliation benefit us all, but most importantly our future generations?

We also hear from the Ngaalang Moort: Lullabies from Home initiative. Since 2017 Community Arts Network has worked alongside Noongar artists, Elders and their families to shape the Lullabies program across Noongar Boodja, the south west of Western Australia. Over the past 6 years, more than 50 original songs have been written and recorded in Noongar language by Noongar families.

The Lullabies project imagines a future where all Noongar children grow up being lulled to sleep with songs sung in their traditional language. We hear from Noongar musicians Phil Bartlett and Charmaine Councillor, along with Charmaine’s niece, Mika Bennell about the songs that celebrate moort (family), koort (heart), woonya (love) and a legacy for all. The lullabies project is supported through the Australian Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts program and the Australia Council for the Arts. 

With thanks to: Leila Smith, Kirsten Gray, Tim Goodwin, Charmaine Councillor, Phil Barlett, Mika Bennell, Elly Jones and the Community Arts Network. 

Music Credits: 
Ruby’s Lullaby: Written and performed by Phyllis Bennell.
Kaya Maaman Hello Daddy: By Phyllis Bennell and Mika Bennell.
Kwobidak Koolang Beautiful Child: Written by Sharyn Egan, Phil Bartlett and Charmaine Councillor. Performed by Sharyn Egan.
Wargada To Search: Written by Megan Ugle and Charmaine Councillor. Performed by Megan Ugle and Trevor Ryan.
Rock-a-bye Lullaby: Written by: Cherie Slater, Ilija Jacobs, Lola McDowell, Megan Ugle, Tammy Prior, Charmaine Councillor and Phil Bartlett.  Performed by Phil Bartlett and the Ngaalang Moort Singers.

Guest: Leila Smith: CEO, Aurora Education Foundation

Leila Smith is a Wiradjuri woman who holds a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Cambridge and has experience in Aboriginal health and education sectors. Prior to Aurora, she was the Knowledge Translation Manager at the Lowitja Institute and held senior roles in consulting, policy and program delivery, data analysis and research at Nous Group, the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Guest: Kirsten Gray, lawyer and advocate

Kirsten Gray is a Muruwari/Yuwaalaraay woman, mother and lawyer. She started her career representing parents in child protection matters and has gone on to work extensively in Indigenous policy and human rights.

Read more

Kirsten has served numerous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners at the Australian Human Rights Commission and has contributed to Indigenous human rights advocacy both nationally and internationally. Kirsten served as a senior policy officer on the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory and supported the Queensland Treaty Working Group in the development of the Path to Treaty report.

Guest: Tim Goodwin, lawyer and advocate

Tim Goodwin practices primarily in commercial and public law. His experience includes competition law, migration law, government advice work, commissions and inquiries, class actions, commercial transactions and bankruptcy. In 2016 and 2017, Tim was Junior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Read more

Prior to joining the Bar, Tim worked at Allens as a solicitor for three years in commercial litigation, and in banking and finance. His practice included commercial arbitration, class actions, securities litigation, constitutional law and disability discrimination. Before joining Allens, Tim served as Associate to Justice North and Justice Bromberg of the Federal Court of Australia. He also served as Foreign Law Clerk to Justice Skweyiya of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Tim has a Bachelor of Arts and Laws (with Honours) from the Australian National University and a Master of Laws from Harvard Law School. 

Tim is a member of the Yuin people of the South East Coast of New South Wales. He serves on a number of boards, including as a Board Member of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Guest: Charmaine Councillor – Noongar language facilitator, musician and children’s author

Charmaine Councillor is a highly talented Noongar language facilitator from Bunbury. She is an exceptional musician and is the singer and guitarist of her band WARANGKA. Charmaine is also an author and artist of five children’s books written in both Noongar and English and was a consultant and writer for children’s NITV program Waabiny Time. Her aspirations are to empower her community to continue to revive Noongar language for future generations.

Guest: Phil Barlett – Noongar singer songwriter

Phil Barlett is an award winning singer songwriter known for his amazing musicianship, huge vocals and heart-felt, straight-from-the-soul performance style. Phil’s versatility has earned him a reputation across Australia as an all-round entertainer. Phil started working on CAN’s Lullabies in 2019 and has brought with him incredible composing and mentoring skills.

Guest: Mika Bennell – Noongar songwriter

Mika Bennell participated in the Bunbury iteration of Lullabies in 2018. With her Nana, Phyllis Bennell, they recorded Kaya Maaman Hello Daddy together, a song they had written together when Mika was just 4 years old (she is now 15).

Episode 5 Transcript

Leila Smith: Hello. You’re listening to Life’s Lottery, a podcast from the Paul Ramsay Foundation produced on Gadigal Country. My name is Leila Smith and I’m your guest host. For this week’s episode. I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people, the traditional owners of this country, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. 

Our focus this time is on First Nations kids. What do they need to thrive and reach their full potential? 

I’m a woman working to bring better outcomes. My background is in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Education. As the CEO of Aurora Education Foundation, we’ve got exciting plans to foster better education outcomes for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

By many measures, our young people are not doing as well as their non-Indigenous peers and we need to acknowledge that. But I also want to move the conversation along. We need to.  What are our strengths, what’s making a difference, and what’s working for our kids? 

I’m joined by a couple of inspirational colleagues who are also turning up, speaking out and showing the way.  

Kirsten Gray is a Yuwaalaraay and Muruwari woman. She describes herself as a mother, a lawyer and someone who grew up in care. Kirsten has a unique perspective on many of the issues that still dominate the national conversation for indigenous kids. 

Also at the mic is Tim Goodwin, a Yuin man. Tim is a barrister and an Indigenous campaigner who also sits around many tables talking about making change. Welcome to you both. 

We’ve got a lot of stories about what drives us, and the role and importance of education is part of all of our stories, so I thought we’d start there. Kirsten, to you first, how is education part of your story?

Kirsten Gray: Thanks. For me, education was a lifeline, really, as a child that grew up in care. And we know that there are many First Nations children growing up in that system across the country. I come from a line of people in my family who’ve been involved in various types of care systems through my own story and then my mother and her grandmother. So we have an intergenerational line there in terms of our involvement with child welfare systems, and for me, education was a place where I could be myself and challenge myself. And it was really pivotal to me being where I am today. If it wasn’t for school, I definitely would not have had the opportunities that I have and the support system that I now have around myself. It literally was the lifeline. And I remember the week before the HSC starting, I was actually, I had my last move in care and I just thought, I just want to get through these exams. I’ve studied so hard and by some miracle I ended up getting into uni and doing law, but I just knew that I had to hold out for that extra week, even though there was that uncertainty and instability in the background. Because at that point I’d had about ten placements in my last two years of school, which is a common thing, placement breakdown. I just knew education was the way out for me.

Leila Smith: Tim, you had a similar drive to finish school and go on to further study. Where did that come from?

Tim Goodwin: Yeah. Hi, Leila. And hi Kirsten, having my grandparents on both sides, so my father’s a white Australian, my mum is a Yuin Wiradjuri woman, pushing the importance of education for us as children and my parents doing the same was something that was really important, because they didn’t get those opportunities to finish school and left at 12 or 13 or 14. And the education that they got was less than ideal in any event, particularly for the Aboriginal side of my family, in terms of not only a poor education but an education that disrupted and forced them to disassociate from their culture. So it was an education that went backwards. If anything, it was the opposite of an education. And so for them it was really important that I use the opportunities given to me by their fight and their struggle to change the education systems.When I was born my mum was actually participating in a programme to get Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders into the tertiary education system. Mum started her degree, never finished her bachelors but was inspired by that to continue on and have a career working for Aboriginal hostels for a very long time. And being surrounded by those role models who really pushed you to get a good education – that was so important for me.

Leila Smith: Kirsten, you talk about kids and care today and the impacts of low expectations. How do we change that?

Kirsten Gray: I think we are plagued by a lot of the deficit discourse in Indigenous affairs, whether we’re talking about education, health, whatever it is. And those things, as we know, are deeply tied to our colonial past and the trauma that lies in the community. But I was just so stubborn in my own experience, and I wanted to be, I wanted to break that mould. And I think there are so many positive examples and I think our education systems need to see the potential in young people and not just those systems, but I suppose all of the systems that our children interact with. I think there is that prominent belief that you’re not going to amount to anything. And I think that’s the reasoning behind a lot of the successful First Nations education programmes that we see, because we want to counteract that, because our people are fought hard for the right for education. And we know the compounding effect that that culture of low expectation can have, because it then also stops that window of opportunity for young people.

If we just expect that they’re not going to amount to anything or their success has to look particular way, we don’t then give them additional opportunities and we don’t invest in young people. And I think young people then internalise those feelings. We know that our culture is such a protective factor and that when our families and our children have their identity recognised and reflected back to them and invested in, that the outcomes are in fact better. So I think a lot of those systems need that investment and that attitudinal change because I think those systems then carry those narratives out into the media, not just the classroom, but into the media as well. And society then perpetuates a lot of that as well. 

Leila Smith: It was also really clear the link between education and how quickly that flows into policy, history, health, wellbeing, trauma. It’s so inherently linked seeing education as connected to all of those lenses, as you say. Tim, how have you seen the connection between education and health and wellbeing in your work?

Tim Goodwin: I think there’s an important correlation between having a good education and feeling, particularly for First Nations kids, culturally safe in that education and health and wellbeing outcomes. It’s really an important first step in terms of thinking about healthy child development. That’s part of the reason why, for example, pre-school education is so important. And so by participating in an education system that promotes and values their own cultural background, they’re having a holistic education that ensures that they’re not only learning how to read and write, but being invested with a positive sense of identity and culture that’s really important. An organisation I was involved in, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth have a programme called The Nest, which is an evidence based framework for national child and youth wellbeing. And there’s six wellbeing domains around being loved and safe material, having material, basics, being healthy, learning, participating, and a positive sense of identity and culture and all those things really need to work together, we know based on evidence for a child and a young person to be really healthy and to develop really well. The key for First Nations kids is that sense of the positivity of their own culture of growing up in culture, strong in culture. There’s a reason why we survived on this landscape for 60,000 years in scientific terms and since time immemorial in our own scientific terms. There’s a reason why we’ve been able to do that, and that’s because of that intergenerational strength that is passed down. We just need to continue that in new and modern ways.

Music: Ngaalang Moort Lullabies from Home

Leila Smith: You’re listening to the sounds of Ngaalang Moort: Lullabies from Home. It means our family in Noongar, the Indigenous language of the south west of Western Australia. More than 60 original songs have been written and recorded in Noongar language by Noongar families and the Community Arts Network. The Lullabies programme was developed six years ago with the dream of building a future where all Noongar children grow up being lulled to sleep with songs sung in their traditional language. Noongar musicians Phil Bartlett and Charmaine counsellor spoke to us along with Charlene’s niece, Mika Bennell. 

Phil Bartlett: It’s called the Lullabies Project, and it’s Noongar language. A whole group of people come along and they write. They learn language. It’s a part of healing. And I know that from myself, just doing it and being a facilitator in this, it’s actually been a good journey for myself. It’s an opportunity for-  for people that have been through a lot in life, what happens is, is a lot of people keep that stuff inside and it stays inside for the rest of their lives. But this is a platform where you’re actually being able to release this trauma in a way that you get to write about it with other people. It’s very personal, and it’s coming from within your heart, within your soul, and then you get to write it out and record it with professional musicians and then put it out there into the world, and then you get to sing it. And that’s a release. You’ve released that from within yourself, of trauma.

Charmaine Councillor: Yeah, that’s right, Phil, because our people were forbidden to speak their language and there was policies put in place many years ago that prevented our people from practising our culture, our dances, and particularly passing on the language to the next generation. And the language held stories. It held stories on country. It gave us our identity. 

Leila Smith: And thinking about those strengths and the factors that help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids thrive. We know that early exposure to the justice system is a red flag for our kids. And Kirsten, what are your thoughts on how culture can play a role in breaking these kinds of intergenerational cycles?

Kirsten Gray: First Nations people, many of us have family members who have been incarcerated. Myself, my mother spent a lot of time being incarcerated, as did my dad. And I think a lot of children in the care system particularly have that story as a part of their family narrative. And there’s a particular pathway for kids in care who get entangled in the justice system. And that’s because of a lack of investment in those families and in our culture more generally. So we know from all the, you know, the commissions of enquiry that this nation has done since day dot, that incarceration has been a real challenge facing our mob, because fundamentally there is the lack of investment in addressing structural advantage and the resulting trauma. I think, as Tim was saying, you know, culture is a protective factor. Culture can’t be viewed in isolation from families and communities. So for me as a young person, culture was about being with family. It was about spending that time feeling like I was connected, that my, that I felt strong in my place as a First Nations woman. And it took many years, even though I was placed with my non-Indigenous family. I think critically I still did not know who I was as an Aboriginal person. I did not have those basic connections and I think I’ve seen that that could have taken many paths and certainly I know many young people who are caught up who are now either young adults or entering the justice system, having had that care background because they feel really disconnected and they haven’t had those fundamentals being met. And the system has made a call about, for whatever reason, dismantling their family. And that has had a resulting impact on their culture and their sense of cultural identity, but also where they draw their family and cultural connections from. And I think that’s a fundamental part of the equation when we’re talking about our significant interaction with the criminal justice system. Time and time again, we have talked about the investment in First Nation solutions and self-determination and early intervention.

With things like the culture of low expectations and the rite of passage for our people going into jails and detention centres, I feel like this deficit discourse just means that we as a society are so desensitised to these conversations and even the solutions that have been proposed time and time and time again. As former commissioner Andrew Jackomos used to say, particularly about young people, culture is not a perk, it’s a lifeline. And I think that’s how our systems need to view that when we’re trying to tackle issues around why our young people are entering the justice system or why they’re leaving school, and invest in those families, because that means you’re investing in the cultural identity of that young person. And I think that’s going to set them up to be in a much better place when they’re tackling challenges in their lives. It’s not rocket science. I think we’ve been saying the same things for a very long time.

Leila Smith: I think that’s a really good point, Kirsten, if we’re going to be talking about putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids at the centre of policy, that means putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families at the centre of policies and recognising the role that the system currently plays and has played for a long time around dismantling families. 

Music: Ngaalang Moort Lullabies from Home

Charmaine Councillor: I want to talk a little bit about one song that really, really was an inspiration to me with my mum. Her mother was taken away, a member of the Stolen Generation, and she grew up in more of a settlement they call it Magumbe now, when they was taking kids away from the mission. But my mum grew up with her mum singing a song. It was a little lullaby, and we didn’t know that this song existed until she attended these workshops. And I said, “Mum, where you got that song from?” She said, “Oh, your nanna used to sing it to me when I was a little girl”. And she only could remember parts of it. And so what we did was, she wrote a little verse, extra verse, on the end of this song, and now we call it Ruby’s Lullaby. And my grandmother’s called Ruby. So there was some language that was still mulling around in my mum’s head since she was 15. And so it was just a blessing for me to revive that old song. And so that’s, you know, handing down to for three or four generations when you think about it. 

Leila Smith: And Tim, this will be at the front of your mind in Victoria there with the first formal truth and reconciliation process in this country, which is currently underway with the Yoorrook Justice Commission beginning hearings. At its core, it’s about listening to testimonies and stories about the impact of colonisation. Just how important is that to our young people?

Tim Goodwin: Yeah, it’s extremely important for a number of reasons. But I think the two most important reasons are as a matter of history and a matter of healing. So a matter of history to ensure that our young people understand the history of what their ancestors and elders have been through because of colonisation. And there are two ways to frame that. There is the devastating effect of history, of dispossession, of land, of of massacres, of moving people off country, of taking children away, of of undermining gender relationships, of all those types of things that have happened in terms of the power of our culture and the desire to access our resources that we lived in harmony with for so long that needs to be told and understood not only by the wider community, but our own community. But there’s a flipside to that. There’s the power of our survival, the power of our resistance, the power of our capacity to mobilise, to organise, to fight for social justice, to march, to have our voices be heard, to be stubborn. Like Kirsten said, you know, the power of First Nations stubbornness is a wonderful thing. and that provides a platform for healing. It’s one of the one of the people said that we’ve been meeting with this week on country, said really powerfully that we can’t heal the country until we heal our people. And he was not only talking about the country as in the land in terms of what’s happening to our climate, but also our nation until we heal the people in it. And that includes not only First Nations people, but the whole community to reckon with these stories to like Tony McAvoy, the senior counsel, an Aboriginal man, said at the ceremonial opening, to look into the mirror and see the truth reflected back at all of us as Australians, and then to come to terms with not only the beauty but the lines and the cracks and the ageing in that face of the nation. Because then we can move on, truly healed.

Music: Ngaalang Moort Lullabies from Home

Charmaine Councillor: My niece, Mika Bennell. 

Mika Bennell: Hi, I’m Mika. I’m 15.

Charmaine Councillor: Mika recorded a song in 2018 with her nana, Nana Phyllis. I was just talking to Nana Phyllis today, and she just told me to remind me you that when she first wrote that little song about her dad, she was four years old.

Mika Bennell: And whenever, um, nana, nana Phyllis – she sings like a variety of songs in language for me and everything like that- It feels a little bit overwhelming a lot, but it also feels really like I don’t know how to describe it, but really nice inside and everything. And it makes me feel like I. I do have something to be proud about. I do have something that is me and that I own and everything like that.

Leila Smith: Kirsten, what’s your view? Can something like a truth telling process influence some of the realities that First Nations kids face?

Kirsten Gray: Yeah, I think truth telling is a really important process and I’m so excited that the Yoorrook Justice Commission has been starting. I think our country really does need a reckoning. And I think, you know, I think we’ve understood in the broader context of treaties, in other national points of discussion that our people have been fighting about for a long time or advocating for. We realised that we sort of have to take a state by state approach to that. But in terms of truth telling for young people, I assume that that commission will ensure that First Nations or poorer young people have a particular seat at that table to ensure that their voices are heard. We do have examples of young people stepping up and talking truth to power and speaking about their experiences and sometimes to their detriment. So people like Dylan Voller, you know, he did that in the context of the Don Dale enquiry and, you know, shone a light on the horrible experiences that he and his fellow young people were experiencing within that system. But I think with these truth telling processes, whilst they’re important, they also need to come with the political will to actually address the underlying issues.

Part of the challenge with those enquiries is people give so much of themselves and then and it’s not the fault of the enquiries themselves because they’re important processes to expose those fault lines. But they don’t control the means of responding to them. And I think our people are one of the most consulted groups of people on the planet and have that fatigue. There’s that real tiredness even amongst our young people about the ongoing processes of enquiry without change. But having said that, there needs to probably be more effort for the voices of our First Nations young people to be elevated. 

I think, unfortunately, we see a lot of the experiences of young people through the prism of media or social media or through, you know, really tragic interactions with our justice systems. And we’ve got too many recent examples to name and that can be quite triggering.  I think there definitely needs to be more opportunities for young people to share their stories. There’s a lot of fire in the belly, they’re really clever, they’re really savvy, and they want to see change and they want to be at the table. But I think they understand that it needs to be a double pronged approach. It can’t just be sharing their insights for the sake of it, with rehashing trauma and exposing old wounds without necessarily having a way to address what they’re fundamentally hoping to achieve changing. 

Music: Ngaalang Moort Lullabies from Home

Charmaine Councillor: We’re actually allowing the little ones now to be able to embrace those languages. I know that my niece will never experience a loss of language. So we’ve changed the story that a little kid will not go without not knowing another word. And what’s happening down in the Southwest in particular, we’ve – I’ve been approached to work with doctors and nurses of the local hospital here to actually create a little language song to sing to children when they go to hospital, you know, just to settle them down and get them to hear the language. And it’s just another way of allowing a child to be safe in that type of an environment.

Phil Bartlett: And believe it or not, the schools over here are actually speaking Noongar language better than the adults. Like literally, you know how some kids, they know they’re great at technology and then the adults aren’t? Well, the kids are – it’s kind of a bit the same – kids are actually really good with Noongar language and the adults are sort of just still trying to get their-

Charmaine Councillor: It is a joy to see little ones embrace the language and to sing it. And it’s no effort. They just don’t question. They’re just like little sponges, suck it up. And these songs can last forever. So it can be a real legacy for our families.

Phil Bartlett: It’s one of the best feelings, knowing that when you do something and when you give something – sometimes we might look for a bit of fame or the money and all those kind of things – but none of that really means nothing. To watch something grow into something really beautiful is – there’s no better feeling than that, I reckon. And that’s where language and the lullabies and what we’re doing here is, it’s really groundbreaking.

Leila Smith: Let’s talk about good policy and good policy development and processes. I want to ask you both for a good example of policy development and change that’s flowed from it. Tim, I’m going to go to you first.

Tim Goodwin: I might cheat and have say two one, that one that’s really kicked off recently in another that needs to kick off but has some local wins. The first one is really about Indigenous language in schools and it’s just really impressive to see around the country the revitalisation of Indigenous language and the teaching of Indigenous language in preschools and primary schools in particular, so that both First Nations and non first nations children are being exposed to the power and the power of language, the power of of culture, the power of an ancient ness that inhabits this land and gives them access to tools by which they can describe the land in its in its true form. And you see that having such a flow on effect in various other areas, you’ve got kids proud of their own culture and being able to speak language. You’ve got the revitalisation of language itself. I’ve got on my phone the app that for Wiradjuri that Dr. Stan Grant has been working on with university allies for so long that I can now access my, my mother’s language, my mother’s mother’s language in a way that that is really heartening and powerful. And just hearing the stories of so many friends, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, whose kids are just going to primary school and bringing home language to their parents in a way that their parents never had access to that. That there are books in language that there and everywhere, not only in the stereotypical areas that people think real and authentic Aboriginality comes from. 

So I think that that’s really inspiring and I think is contributing to the change of place names that we’re seeing in this country And the second one that I think is showing promise that I hope really gets picked up, and this goes back to Kirsten’s discussions around the justice system, is really about justice reinvestment and there have been some really good programmes in Bourke, in Cowra showing really great promise to divert resources from locking kids and adults up to actually investing in programmes that ensure that those people are safe and feeling on track so that they can participate in life to their full potential. And  I think that that’s really important because it’s community led and driven as well. And I think that that’s something that’s really important because locking people up is not only, not only does it not work in terms of rehabilitating young people or adults – it’s actually really expensive. And so why wouldn’t it be better to reinvest that money into programmes that ensure that the reasons why people are exhibiting antisocial behaviour are actually dealt with in a way that means that those people reach their full potential? Because you do better as a society and you save a lot of money.

Leila Smith: Kirsten, you spoke before about consultation fatigue. People are tired of giving their views if they’re not really being heard. Where do you see good consultation and processes delivering a better way of doing things?

Kirsten Gray: Good consultation. Look,  I think it’s an age-old question, and I think it gets thrown around a lot by government policymakers, bureaucrats, and NGOs and everyone in between when they’re interacting with First Nations people and when they have an interest in working with us, whether through funding or programmes or what have you. I mean, I think there’s a distinction between consultation and self determination and a lot of the time we see those things conflated to the detriment of First Nations people. So we tend to water down what that right means and minimise it to things such as tick box consultation or participation. And I think good consultation really is about recognising our inherent rights, but it’s also about ensuring that we lead processes, that our processes are adequately resourced and for the long term in terms of our own objectives and that we’re involved in every step of the process. So not not asked to come and give our two cents, you know, the week of NAIDOC week or the minute before some kind of policy that’s going to affect our land or cultural resources is going to hit the ground, but actually happens well before that time.

And in fact, we’re also involved in the aftermath in terms of evaluating the success or otherwise of those policies. And I think rarely do we see good consultation. We often find that First Nations peoples are just slotted into whatever external timeframes that meet the needs of the non often non-Indigenous provider or government and often not around our own time frames and community priorities. And so I think it needs to be a whole of community conversation if it’s concerning a particular location or group of peoples, and it needs to be done in good faith as well and in a way that’s not trying to cherry pick particular views to get a particular outcome and also adhered to. You know, I think we get scared in this country in terms of a right of veto. And if we actually consult with people and they actually don’t give you the answer that you want. And I think we see that a bit, too. And I think we don’t have enough time here to address that. But before, during and well after, I think is sort of the core tenets of that.

Leila Smith: Finally, can I ask you both, what does success look like? Tim, to you first.

Tim Goodwin: Success looks like for First Nations people being able to meet their aspirations free from arbitrary barriers put around them, whether that be racism, a lack of respect for culture and identity, or for systems being in place that have held down First Nations people for hundreds of years. And for our communities, it’s the capacity to properly self determine and step into our own ancient power in order to run those communities in a way that meets their communal aspirations, tied both to a culture of having done so for tens of thousands of years, but also finds life in a modern day expression that understands the reality of our national circumstances and the history of colonisation, but brings those two things together in a way that means that it’s Aboriginal people deciding issues for their own community in the futures of their own community. And that’s really what I ultimately see success about. It’s not any one one picture. It’s multiple pictures that have been painted by communities themselves.

Leila Smith: And Kirsten, your thoughts?

Kirsten Gray: I really like what Tim was just sharing there about the power of the collective and First Nations peoples being in control of their own, their own lives and their own futures. And I think for too long the story of this country has been the opposite, has been government and other bodies interfering in the lives of First Nations peoples often not for their own benefit. And I think success in a collective sense is about the breadth and diversity of our beautiful cultures determining our own futures, determining our own priorities with minimal interference, but with acknowledgement of the investment that is required to address some of those past stains on the record of this country, but also in the potential of  First Nations futures. And I think from an individual perspective, and we’re not really individualistic in that sense, we are really a peoples that are community minded. But I think if we’re talking about education, I often have this thought as well, just drawing on my own story that’s going to look different for every person. And I know from my own siblings, you know, success for them isn’t going to university. It’s about being happy and feeling strong in their identity and having access to the right supports for them that are going to work for their own needs. Being outside looking in, I’d love for non-Indigenous Australians to see the wealth of resilience and strength that lies in our communities. We are such an incredibly talented group of people and not only have we survived, but we thrive. And there’s so much of that happening every day and it looks different for everyone. And I hope that we can start to celebrate those differences and the power of that excellence a little bit more.

Leila Smith: You’ve been listening to Life’s Lottery: Backing Kids from the Paul Ramsay Foundation and UTS Impact Studios. I’m Leila Smith from the Aurora Education Foundation. 

Thanks to my fellow guests Kirsten Gray and Tim Goodwin for their ideas and their passion for change. 

You can find out more about all of us at Life’s Lottery dot com dot au.  Please keep your feedback and comments coming. 

Next week, regular hosts Jeni Whalan and Glyn Davis will be back at the mic to ask how children are faring internationally. After decades of cooperation, why are powerful and wealthy international bodies still failing to deliver for all children? They’ll also explore the glimmers of hope with guest Kevin Watkins, who’s been part of and observed these debates for decades.

I’ll leave you now with more of the sounds of Ngaalang Moort: Lullabies from home.

Discover more about the issues in this episode

In 2020, a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was signed between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The agreement aims to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – particularly children at the start of their journey through life.

Among the targets is ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children thrive in their early years, are engaged in high quality, culturally appropriate early childhood education and go on to achieve their full learning potential.

Evidence shows that the first five years are critical for building a child’s foundation for future learning and well-being. High quality early childhood education, and support for a child’s health, family stability and community are paramount to giving any child the best start.

In this episode, our guest host is Leila Smith, CEO of Aurora Education Foundation which supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to realise their full education and employment potential. The Aurora Foundation’s RISE program is one of six projects which the Paul Ramsay Foundation proudly supports through the Learning Lives program, seeking to elevate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice, leadership and agency in education to improve outcomes for students. Taking a holistic approach, the program aims to support Indigenous-led education projects from early childhood through to high school and pathways into tertiary study, within and beyond the school gate.

Our guests in this episode discuss the importance of education in their lives, the growing attention to Indigenous language and its power in establishing identity, and the significance of truth and reconciliation processes such as the Yoorrook Justice Commission. They give their thoughts on what success looks like for First Nations people – a taste here from Kirsten Gray:

“I’d love for non-Indigenous Australians to see the wealth of resilience and strength that lies in our communities. We are such an incredibly talented group of people and not only have we survived, but we thrive.”

Season 2 Overview

Backing Kids, the second season of Life’s Lottery, explores how Australian society values children and childhood. Kids are our future, but they’re rarely at the centre when it comes to the decisions that really matter. What would it take to truly put kids at the heart of policy, of budgets, and broader public work? 

We’ll hear the voices of advocates, experts, children and their parents and caregivers with bright and practical ideas about how we can improve kids’ health and wellbeing. We’ll dive deep into the Federal Budget and explore how it does, and doesn’t, reflect the realisation of children’s rights. We’ll hear about how young First Nations voices have informed policy development to improve the lives of First Nations kids. We’ll consider how place-based, universally accessible services could better reach vulnerable families and improve the wellbeing of all children. 

Two years of the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children’s education as well as physical and mental health and exacerbated the challenges faced by the most vulnerable. There has never been a better time to talk about how we could better back our kids and improve their odds in Life’s Lottery.  


We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for future episodes.


Life’s Lottery is produced in collaboration with UTS Impact Studios

Executive Producer: Olivia Rosenman

Audio Producer: Nicole Curby

Researcher/writer: Jackie May

Theme Music and Sound Design: James Milsom

Production Music: Blue Dot Sessions

Graphic Design: Celia Neilson