Inaugural First Peoples Social Justice Initiative helps community in time of need

Media assembled outside the Northern Territory Supreme Court. Image: Mary Spiers Williams.

As the trial of police officer Zachary Rolfe over the killing of Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker unfolded earlier this year, students from The Australian National University were on the ground providing support to the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory.

The students were there as interns, part of the First Peoples Social Justice Initiative that includes a new internship program led by Mary Spiers Williams, Sub Dean of Australian Indigenous Studies, and Head of Anthropology Dr Yasmine Musharbash, in collaboration with the Director of the Australian National Internships Program (ANIP), Dr Laurence Brown.

“We’re creating unique opportunities for our students to have in-place experiences across Australia working with and for First Peoples, experiences that also allow them to work with our researchers,” says Mary.

For the inaugural initiative, three students were selected who were studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Languages, a final year student currently studying languages and public policy, and Law and International Security student.

One student was based in Darwin with Mary, where they spent most of their time in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. Another student was there as well for the first two weeks of their internship, before joining the third student and Yasmine in Alice Springs.

In Darwin, two students observed the trial in court. During breaks, they assisted Ms Spiers Williams with organising materials related to the case and provided support to community members.

Mary said she was moved by the impact of the support that the interns offered, an impact about which the students may not have been aware at the time. Mr Hargreaves – one of the community leaders the community selected to travel to Darwin - shared with her about the students there: ‘Those girls are really good ones, those girls. They've got to come out and learn culture. We want them to come out and sit down with us at Yuendumu. We want to them see more than just what is happening in this trial.’

Two students also attended to community members at the court lawns in Alice Springs –being the park opposite the Alice Springs Local Court, where over the course of the trial, members of the Yuendumu community gathered to support each other.

The trial was deeply upsetting for Warlpiri people, but the activity on the court lawns offered comfort, community and respite.

“This was certainly something that Warlpiri Elder Robin Granites who was in charge of the lawns wanted. With our student who was his offsider, they certainly made that happen,” says Yasmine. “That is exactly what people asked for. And that's what they created. It was amazing.”

Dr Brown stated that one of the aspects that makes projects like these special has to do with how the ANU is engaging with First Nations people and their knowledges.

“[There’s a] strategic importance of that in giving our students the opportunity to actually go out to Country, engage with people, listen, learn, and translate that back to the University,” he says. “So not having it as a kind of top-down relationship.”

Key to what made the internship project a success, added Dr Brown, were the long-term relationships and connections Dr Musharbash and Ms Spiers Williams have established with the community, which are an important contribution to the ANU.

“That enables the students to come in at a certain level to add value to these sorts of projects,” he says. “And [to be able to] leverage that at particular key moments [such as with this] trial, [which is a really a key reckoning moment for Australia], and having the students come in and do so well... it's really been great.”

Ms Spiers Williams signalled that this internship project was just the start of the First Peoples Social Justice Initiative.

“This experience has challenged our students and given them a unique perspective on and insight into the impact that legal processes can have on First Nations and other Indigenous people,” she said. “It’s also given them some insight into the possibilities of recognising First Laws.”

“I am hopeful this inaugural internship will be ongoing, giving our students opportunities to be involved in different projects and in different places, in response to what our communities tell us they need. I hope we can create more opportunities to build relationships as strong as those involved in this internship have.”