The Stolen Generation isn’t confined to the pages of history. Today, Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be moved into out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children. And in many instances, without enough consideration of all the options. Larissa Behrendt reveals how a love of learning and growing up in a culture of reciprocity helped her become an advocate for social justice.
Larissa Behrendt was just 11 when she decided to become a lawyer.
Throughout her childhood, her father was deeply involved in the Aboriginal community and on Saturday mornings her family used to go to rallies. She describes listening to people like Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon and Roberta Sykes – “all of the great campaigners and orators of the Redfern community” – as the “background radio” of her childhood.
Her mother also had a strong sense of social justice, and left a job in the 80s because a colleague was persecuted for being gay. Larissa says, “I grew up in a household where I was taught that when there is injustice, you stand up to it.”
And so, when she began to understand the scope and impact of the Aboriginal removal policy, she was determined to do something about it.
“It felt like being a lawyer would be the thing to do there. You know,” she chuckles, “To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch.” Larissa went on to graduate from Harvard Law School – the first Indigenous Australian to do so – and has championed change ever since.
From barrister to educator, novelist, author and radio presenter, Indigenous social justice has been the central thread throughout Larissa’s diverse career. But it’s in her role as Distinguished Professor and Director of Research and Academic Programs at UTS’s Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research that Larissa believes she’s really able to make a difference.
“It’s interesting because I don't think people often look at academia as the place to be an agent of change – they see it more as teaching and research. But I think what Jumbunna's been able to show in the Aboriginal community is that, actually, you can use research to really advocate for change.”
She cites the Northern Territory Intervention as an example. “Jumbunna researchers were the most vocal in criticising it as a policy approach, and we weren't told to be quiet. The university continued to support our work and defended our position.
“Now, when Jumbunna and UTS researchers go out into the field, people know of us because we've spoken out on issues like that.”
And it’s these relationships with both Indigenous communities and Indigenous-controlled services that have been instrumental in the creation of Larissa’s latest documentary, After the Apology.
The film was released on 13 February 2018 to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. It centres on a disquieting truth: the removal of Indigenous children from their families is now happening at a far greater rate than ever before. Between 2007 and 2016 the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care rose by 90 per cent.
Larissa says, “We had noticed an increase in the number of community people coming to Jumbunna with cases related to removal of children in circumstances that needed to be challenged. So the documentary came about as a means of raising awareness about this issue in the broader community.”
After the Apology centres on the personal experiences of four Aboriginal grandmothers who started a national movement to place extended families as a key solution to the rising number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
Larissa has been heartened by the public response. Despite “the squeaky noise of inflammatory rhetoric” in some segments of the mainstream media, she says, “Australian audiences come to these issues with interest. They are shocked to hear that the rate is rising and want to know why that is, and what the solutions are.”
Importantly, the film explores not only the issues, but mechanisms for change. “Every expert that's interviewed in the film and all of the drivers in the community are Aboriginal. That is a very strong message.”
Between 2007 and 2016, the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care rose by 90 per cent.
In May, Larissa won the 2018 Australian Directors’ Guild Award for Best Direction of a Documentary Feature Film for After the Apology.
Since the film’s February screening at Parliament House in Canberra, Jumbunna has also been approached by community organisations interested in using the film as a tool for training within the child protection sector and for community discussions about the issue.
Larissa says it’s the institutional and cultural support at UTS that enables such important work. She describes Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement) Michael McDaniel as both “the best thinker in the sector on Indigenous knowledges” and “a really good boss who makes sure we think more deeply about how we keep our spirits strong to do the work.”
She says, “When you work in the social justice space, you often feel like you can't complain about anything in your own life because it doesn't compare to the things other people have experienced. In some ways there’s a truth in that. But the problem it creates is that we don’t look after our own wellbeing.
“For me, it's been a long and hard lesson to learn that I just can't sacrifice my health or the time I take to nurture and still keep the momentum of the work I do.”