Lilly Brown

Posted 10 Jan 17

Lilly Brown is a fierce Gumbaynggirr woman who completed her Masters at Cambridge and lectures in Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. We have worked with Lilly on a number of projects, she wrote the Research report on coverage of Aboriginal family violence for a project we are working on to improve reporting styles and was a panelist at the our first Knowledge Week Event, 60,000+ Years of Innovation.

What makes you proud to be an Aboriginal woman?

For centuries now, settler colonial Australia has put in a lot of effort in an attempt to disconnect us from one another, from our nation’s customs, law, sovereignty and essentially the land. The assimilation and segregation policies of last century were an assertion of absence in the future. A hope that we would be absent, or wouldn’t exist, one day. That’s one of the reasons children were often the target of policies of removal.

Every one of us who carries pride in who we are challenges these attempts to erase us. That’s one of the reasons I’m a proud Aboriginal woman. Another reason is that I see myself as the legacy of my foremothers. So when I’m proud in who I am, I’m doing the right thing by them.

But it can be difficult sometimes, and the journey to put ourselves back together can be tough. I grew up off country on Whadjuk Noongar land. Although, I’m lucky that I have been guided and supported particularly by really strong women: Gumbaynggirr and other family, friends and mentors along the way, in re-building relationships, to country and family. A lot of people have not yet had the chance or same privilege of undertaking that journey. I really work to honour that.

You have studied and worked at some of the most elite schools in the world, tell us about your journey?

I’ve had both good and bad experiences with formal education. High school was really difficult—as it is for many young people. My sister was encouraged to leave school in Year 9 to do an apprenticeship in hairdressing, and from what I remember, there wasn’t much encouragement for me to continue on either. But my sister is a lot sturdier than me, and at the time going through to Year 12 seemed like the easy option!

Three months before undertaking my year 12 exams (well over a decade ago, now!) I had a heated confrontation with my history teacher after calling her out for making a racist remark. I ended up leaving the class and didn’t go back for the rest of the year. History was my favourite subject throughout high school and I actually did relatively well at it up until that point. But I didn’t do so well at it in the exams to get me into university. I scraped into Accounting at university via a provisional entry course, which I dropped out of before finishing. At the time, I was really disheartened with and fatigued by the education system, and the payoff didn’t seem worth it. Which again, in my experience working with Aboriginal young people, is one of the main reasons students make the conscious decision to disengage with school or university.

But my Mum grew my sister, brothers and myself up on stories and reading. Everywhere I go I always carry a book with me. So, after a few years I decided to give university and formal learning another go, this time in a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History (of all things!) at the University of Western Australia (UWA). I received a lot of pastoral and academic support from the School of Indigenous Studies at UWA. I encountered Aboriginal intellectuals and mentors who showed me that existing at university is possible without forgoing who you are. They also showed me that the capital you gain and what you learn can strategically be used to benefit others.

These are the things that have been really important in grounding and motivating me as I’ve continued in education. Since finishing my undergraduate studies, I’ve completed an honours degree at the University of Melbourne, a Masters in education at the University of Cambridge on a Charlie Perkins scholarship, and am currently in my second year of a PhD.

And to finish – my sister has just completed her second year of social work as a mature age student.

These places are not always easy for students of colour, can you give any advice / reflections on the dreaded “imposter syndrome” or other unique challenges we face?

Fake it until you make it! But even once you’ve made it, I suspect you’ll always feel like an imposter. At the end of the day, formal educational spaces in this country were not made for us. In fact, often they were built on Aboriginal exclusion and dispossession. So, I never get too comfortable.

Having said that, there are moments and spaces where it doesn’t feel like that. I’m really active in fighting for, creating and supporting others to create spaces which are ‘Indigenous’ spaces. That’s not to say that non-Aboriginal advocates can’t exist there, it’s just that these spaces are regulated by Indigenous students and staff, and the protocols we see fit. This is when magic happens, in terms of teaching and learning and the creation of new knowledge.

As more Aboriginal people make the strategic decision to engage in higher education, and are supported in their decision, the better things will get. In the meantime, what has been really important for me has been building and maintaining relationships with other Aboriginal people on campus and non-Indigenous students and staff who have ‘done the work’ in terms of decolonising their practice. We really support each other and keep one another intellectually stimulated and accountable to the work we do.

You are interested in the intersection of knowledge and power, can you tell us more about this? 

What we know and how we know has real consequences for the world we live in and what is valued. That’s why Aboriginal people were not allowed to speak language on missions and reserves, and children were taken away from their parents to stop the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and culture. This is also arguably why it is so difficult to get any meaningful or critical content relating to Aboriginal people and Australia’s role as a settler colonial nation within mainstream school curriculum.

Another good example of the relationship between knowledge and power can be seen in the way Western formal education is valued in Australia. The kids of well-off primarily white families often begin school with the social capital, resources and expectation that they will continue onto university to become lawyers, journalists, doctors, politicians, educators and policy makers etc. In doing so they grow up to have significant influence and power in shaping the kind of society we live in. Including the power to either reinforce or challenge many of the taken for granted structures and institutions that regulate the way we live. I find this really interesting, particularly as many people are hindered in their participation in formal education as a knowledge economy which confers real power.

What subjects do you teach and why have you chosen these areas? 

In 2012 I started teaching at the university. Since then I’ve coordinated a whole bunch of subjects, at all year levels for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in Australian Indigenous Studies. In my teaching and research I sit in what could be called critical Indigenous studies.  I never seek to teach Indigenous culture, or even ‘about’ Aboriginal people or culture necessarily. Rather I support students, both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous, to critically engage with the way Aboriginal people have been positioned historically and what this has justified, and to challenge some of the taken for granted assumptions we all get taught in school, from the news, television and social media.

A lot of my role has also been about facilitating the involvement of Aboriginal people, particularly Victorian, in the Indigenous studies subjects. Some of the lecturers that have come to share as part of these courses have included the Director of Kalinya herself Jirra Lulla Harvey, Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Di Kerr, artist and curator Paola Balla, author Bruce Pascoe, artist Dianne Jones and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann just to name a few. These are people that have all been active in healing, regeneration and challenging colonial representations of Aboriginality. Subjects like these are important in terms of building on the very limited understanding many non-Indigenous students leave school with, but also in breaking down the barriers between the university and ‘the community’. The number of Indigenous students sitting in these lecture theatres is growing steadily.

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching a subject with only Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal students. We thought deeply about how to negotiate dominant ways of knowing, doing and being within the academy. This included engaging with ideas and concepts like whiteness, race, sovereignty, gender, imperialism, Indigeneity and the politics of citation. Together we got to take things really far intellectually, more than in any other subject I’ve taught.

Photo: Rush Photography