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Alumni Stories

Black, loud and proud: how education laid the foundation for Dion Devow’s future

Watching his parents work hard to make ends meet, and provide a better life for him and his sister, left a lasting impression on Dion Devow – one that would define his approach towards life.

Dion’s parents didn’t have much. They moved to Darwin to seek better opportunities, in the hopes of giving their children the life that they didn’t have.

“My mother worked as a cleaner while studying part-time to become a teacher,” Dion says.

“She worked hard and completed her degree in four years – and seemingly overnight, so many more opportunities opened for her. At that young age, I saw and understood the power of education and how it could change lives.”

Inspired by the power of education, Dion moved all the way down south, leaving the warm confines of the Northern Territory for quiet, chilly Canberra. He enrolled at the University of Canberra to pursue a Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in Health Education.

The change necessitated some adjustments – Dion noted the stark contrast in the multicultural community of Darwin, compared to 1990s Canberra.

“It was a culture shock at first – I was used to seeing a lot of black people, a lot of Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Greeks, Italians then all of a sudden, I was in a predominantly white city. It was kind of scary for me,” Dion recalls.

“But I had a plan, and I was determined to get my degree because I knew from seeing what it did for my mother, that it was going to give me my start in life. Nothing was going to deter me.”

After graduating, Dion stayed in Canberra and worked for the ACT Government in Aboriginal Health Services. He did this for over a decade before transitioning to Indigenous justice under the ACT Magistrates Courts to do policy work, while also working with the Tjabal Centre at the Australian National University as an advisor to Aboriginal students.

During a trip promoting a national Indigenous health program, the people in the Aboriginal communities that they were visiting were drawn to the shirts that Dion and his colleague were wearing.

“We had this apparel that had Aboriginal designs, colours and slogans on it, and the people in those communities really liked them,” Dion says.

“When I got back home, I got curious and went online to check for Indigenous clothing brands and designs and was disappointed because at the time, there were less than five brands that came up.”

It was at that moment in 2011 that Dion’s transition into lifestyle and fashion – and ultimately entrepreneurship – started, and DDesigns was born.

“I’m not an artist myself, but I had some cool ideas, so I spoke to a friend who was a graphic artist. We came up with about 20 designs and I had them printed locally,” Dion says.

“I started wearing them and I got some really positive feedback and people asking where I got them from – so I decided to start selling them.”

Dion started off selling at local markets around Canberra, and then at the Multicultural Festival and at the Survival Day Concert in Sydney. He did this for a few years and built a following, eventually deciding it was what he was meant to do fulltime.

“It really made me understand that I had a platform, that I could carry a message and promote the Aboriginal culture through design and art,” he says.

Among Dion’s supporters is UC’s Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Lucy Johnston, who was spotted wearing multiple pairs of DDesigns shoes during the March 2024 UC graduation ceremonies.

“Lucy’s been a big supporter of mine throughout the years, and we’ve been actually talking more about me potentially doing some work with UC in terms of engaging with alumni and the broader community,” Dion says.

“It’s work I’m looking forward to do because UC opened up so many doors for me and helped me build a network that I still rely on in my career and business endeavours to this day.”

DDesigns sneakers worn by UC Interim VC Lucy Johnston

Alongside DDesigns, Dion also founded Yerra, a Canberra-based consultancy that provides an array of business and IT solutions in an industry that does not have high levels of Indigenous representation.

“When I was younger, I was dissuaded from choosing IT as a career path as it was deemed ‘too challenging’ for an Indigenous student,” he says.

“I started Yerra because I wanted to change the narrative and encourage more Indigenous Australians to know that IT is a viable career option.”

Beyond the world of business, Dion is also passionate about sport. In 2014, he founded the Warriors Basketball Club, a Canberra-based basketball club aimed at providing an outlet for kids and promoting awareness and appreciation of Indigenous cultures as well.

The club has grown since then and now features teams in different divisions and age groups, all the way to Basketball ACT’s Premier League. It is open to people from all backgrounds, and has produced several representative players and players who play for the Canberra Gunners and Canberra Nationals.

“There used to be an Aboriginal basketball club in the ACT but for a number of reasons, it fizzled out, so we recognised that there was a huge gap,” Dion says.

“We managed to get the necessary support and sponsors to get the Warriors up and running and it’s now become a beautiful mix of kids, players, coaches, and supporters from different backgrounds, all coming together because of sport.”

To celebrate NAIDOC week, the club is running its annual Warriors NAIDOC Tournament in partnership with Basketball ACT, with this year’s edition bringing over 120 teams from around the country to the Capital for a weekend of basketball.

“One of the main things we wanted to achieve when we started the club was to bring people together and promote Reconciliation through sport – I want to keep doing that, and keep the club and this tournament growing,” he says.

“And I want to keep inspiring my people and my community – whether it’s through sport or through my businesses. I’ve always been black, loud, and proud, and I want to keep showing Australia, and the world, what we as a people can bring to the table, and what we are capable of.”

“I’ll always be a champion of that.”

Words by Mike Verzosa. Images by Liam Budge.

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