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Dhunning - Indigenous Impact

Indigenising the education system

Benny Wilson has some simple joys in life – cycling, playing tennis, hanging out with his family, and the odd visit to KFC.

His other passion is teaching – and it’s something that he will continue doing for as long as he can. Benny is a Jagera man, having grown up in Brisbane before moving to Canberra to do his PhD. He then joined UC as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education in 2019 and has contributed to several University-wide projects, including Indigenising the curriculum.

And while it’s teaching that he loves, Benny is currently running the Indigenous education units, and working on several research projects – including one assisting non-Indigenous unit convenors to embed Indigenous ways of knowing into their units.

“I was a high school teacher before I was an academic, so teaching has always been a big part of my life and I love it – I love working with students,” Benny says.

“I never want to lose that. One of my favourite things is sitting in yarning circles with students talking to them about black fella ways of knowing.

“What I really love is teaching, and at the end of the day that is what brought me to UC in the first place.”

As Benny’s academic career progresses, he’s adamant he wants to stay involved in the teaching side of things – even if in a more informal sense.

As generations have done before him, he wants to pass on his knowledge as an Aboriginal man.

“Our ways have value and utility in modern education systems. For me, the endgame has never been about getting more Indigenous people into Western universities, or retaining Indigenous academics,” Benny says.

“If we can do that – that’s great – if we can grow the number of Aboriginal people in the higher education system, that’s excellent – and might help in progressing some of the economic hardship our people have experienced for hundreds of years.

“But for me, more importantly, is that we have a way of knowing and a system of education that created the most sustainable society the world has ever seen – to a magnitude older than the pyramids. So you would think we have something to offer education systems in general … but particularly in the country that we built our civilisation in.”

For Benny, it’s all about ensuring the next generation are more educated in Aboriginal ways of knowing and being than the one before, and he’s starting with the profession he knows best – teaching.

“If I can come and share those ways of being and get students – particularly pre-service teachers – to look at teaching with an Aboriginal lens and start thinking about what Aboriginal people can contribute to the education realm, big things could happen,” Benny says.

“It’s not just about educating Indigenous kids, but rather using our knowledge to improve upon education systems. That’s a real passion for me.”

Shortly after Benny’s move to the ACT, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and state borders within Australia were closed indefinitely.

It presented several challenges for him as an Aboriginal man not on country and made missing home all the more painful.

“During COVID, when the borders shut, I couldn’t return to country,” Benny says.

“I couldn’t do those really important things that I needed to do to keep that culture alive, I couldn’t see my brothers, family, or parents – that was a real challenge.

“I think people don’t really understand for an Aboriginal man who is trying to live his cultural lore and obligation, being separated from country is an incredibly painful process.”

It’s thanks to the lessons from his elders and his love for Canberra that Benny was able to make it through that time as best as he could.

“A very important lesson that was taught to me by my old grandfather, Damu Paul Gordon, is that if you pine too much for home and the places you can’t be, you forget you have an obligation to the place that you’re currently inhabiting,” he says.

Benny has also had to use lessons from his mob in other aspects of his life – including on the sporting field, within the workplace, and out in public – where he has, like so many others, experienced racial discrimination.

Unlike many others though, his experience hasn’t always been obvious – or overt – racism.

“Having a PhD in education, and having been a consultant for 10 years – my experience of racism is mainly that people think that me being articulate or educated makes me less Aboriginal, and that’s the real tragedy of how racism can take place,” Benny says.

“Being Aboriginal looks radically different on everyone – we can do a whole lot of different things. But if you’re bookish and academic in nature, many people want to tell you that you’re not really Aboriginal, and for me that’s bullshit.”

He’s also experienced being categorised as a ‘white person’, due to his credentials.

“I’ve had people criticise Aboriginal people broadly in my presence, and then say ‘oh but I’m not talking about you Benny – you’re not like them’, and that’s highly problematic,” he says.

Some of Benny’s proudest achievements come from the work he’s done to ensure the value and beauty of his culture is recognised in education spaces.

His consultancy work has taken him across Australia – where he has shared his knowledge, and learned from other communities along the way.

“I am privileged to have strong relationships with Indigenous communities all over Australia – and I belong to a community who have loved me and taught me,” he says.

“Getting feedback from them that I’m doing them proud and that I’m doing the right thing is probably the best feeling you can get.”

Words by Elly Mackay, photos by Tyler Cherry

Benny is participating in a Close the Gap panel hosted by the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership.

The panel discussion will screen at 12:00pm AEDT on 17 March 2022. It can be viewed on YouTube.

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