Progress on pause: the potential of the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities initiative

A landmark innovation of Indigenous staff members faces an uncertain future at the University.

Participating in SLIC is the most useful and important thing I’ve done in my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s been a recurring thought since I set foot on Country.

The University’s Service Learning in Indigenous Communities (SLIC) program is pitched as being unlike any other unit of study on offer. Before going on Country, students are told to prepare for an experience that will transform hearts and minds; that they will meet people who will challenge their worldview, test their understanding of culture and confront their perception of history.

Dozens of students have journeyed to remote Aboriginal communities over the past year — whether by three-day drive over arid red earth or by boat to the tropics that span Australia’s top end —  and found this to be true.

But since students arrived on Country at the beginning of this semester, the two Indigenous staff members who created the program have been dismissed from their roles by the University. The Service Learning in Indigenous Communities program is now steered by a non-Indigenous member of staff, and essential elements have been recently dismantled without consulting students or communities.

The thing that makes this program so special is that it works for and with Aboriginal communities.

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SLIC stands out against a historical background of paternalistic and unethical intrusions by academia into the life and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were locked out of tertiary education until just a few decades ago — Charles Perkins was the University of Sydney’s first Aboriginal graduate in 1966 — but they had been the research subjects of so-called ‘parachute academics’ for long before then; always data points in articles of academic journals, but never in control of how they were represented. Invasive methodologies and culturally incompetent processes were custom, as were racial biases that pathologised communities.

In 1983, an article by Aboriginal academic Rosalind Langford, titled ‘Our heritage — your playground’, took aim at this practice. “We are angry,” Langford wrote. “The Issue is control. You seek to say that as scientists you have a right to obtain and study information of our culture … From our point of view we say you have come as invaders, you have tried to destroy our culture, you have built your fortunes upon the lands and bodies of our people and now, having said sorry, want a share in picking out the bones of what you regard as a dead past.

“We say that it is our past, our culture and heritage, and forms part of our present life. As such it is ours to control and it is ours to share on our terms.”

This experience has been consistent for Indigenous people worldwide. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Māori academic, writes: “The term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful.”

Australia’s first conference to establish guidelines for ethical research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities wasn’t held until 1986. In Alice Springs, a group of leaders and researchers from the health sector gathered to advocate for community control and involvement in research and its findings, culturally appropriate methods, and practical benefits for communities.

Shane Houston, a Gangulu man from Central Queensland, was present in that meeting. In 1987, Houston wrote a set of ethical guidelines for health research in remote communities. Just under thirty years later, he was appointed by a panel of 18 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff members and 15 senior academics to be Australia’s first Deputy Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services at the University of Sydney. The creation of the role was driven by a 2009 review that recommended the University do more to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues in its educational practice. It came off the back of decades of distrust and disillusionment.

People in Aboriginal communities know what they need. They just need people to listen to them, and to act based on what the communities say.

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The SLIC program was created to forge new relationships between a tertiary institution and Aboriginal communities in Australia.

An innovation of Houston and Shane Perdue, a Native American man from the Cherokee people, the SLIC program was built by entering into equal partnerships with remote communities around Australia. “Partnerships have always been the thing that have driven success,” Houston has said in the University’s own promotional material. “Discipline-based efforts have always been able to marry the goals of higher education and the desire of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, to change the circumstances of our peoples.”

The program established learning hubs in Aboriginal communities around Australia. Groups of students drawn from a range of faculties visit each semester, and under the guidance of an Aboriginal partner organisation, work on a cumulative long-term project in exchange for university credit before passing the project onto the next group to continue.

Crucially, the program takes research out of the equation entirely. Communities have signed five year memorandums of understanding with the University on their own terms, dictating their priorities, the ethical considerations and values they wanted participants to adhere to, and setting parameters for projects.

The range of projects established is broad, but each is tailored to meet the specific needs communities have identified. In one community, a group of students is working with the council to creatively devise ways of incorporating culture into structures of local governance. In another, they are designing an extension of an art gallery. In the Northern Territory, students are working with local organisations on projects dedicated to environmental sustainability.

The program’s philosophy is forward-thinking, seeking to instil its graduates with cultural competence and an acute awareness of issues facing Aboriginal communities in Australia. “We know that if we expose university students to a culturally diverse experience while they’re here, they actually take that lesson with them into their efforts to improve our society after,” Houston has said. “That’s the thing that drives us. We’re equipping leaders for the future that will produce a society that is better than the one we’ve had.”

But equally as important as the educational capacity of the program is its emphasis on the needs of community. The projects are deliberately small in scale — remote communities have been sceptical of the ability of external efforts to generate real outcomes, and their small populations mean they could easily be overwhelmed by too many students.

This is an opportunity for academia to serve Aboriginal communities, rather than the other way around; a historical change in dynamic. Other universities have seen this as a reformative approach to Indigenous affairs — Harvard and Toronto, for example, have reportedly been looking into building analogous programs.

“Sometimes you pause, and think there’s [so] few of us here working on these big issues,” Justin O’Brien, chief executive of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, told ABC Radio. “We’ve got 60-70,000 students sitting at the University of Sydney — many bright young minds that could be brought to bear on these challenges. We’re beginning a great journey, hopefully.”

On our third day, two Elders took us out bush with their granddaughters. The kids taught us to hunt for mangrove worms and long bums (a kind of shellfish), clambering over mangrove roots with ease and confidence. Later, back on the beach, the women painted our faces and sang for the kids while they showed us their dances. Another family who were camping nearby came over to join us. Even their baby sister, who can’t have been more than two, already knew her dance. Culture is so important.

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Students’ immersion in community while on Country — visiting cultural sites, learning the importance of language, sharing stories, engaging with the operation of cultural authority — is instrumental in cultivating intercultural understanding. Building empathy with communities, and sharing the frustration felt when progress is stifled, provides students with a rare opportunity to gauge a mere glimpse of the marginalisation experienced by Aboriginal communities in Australia. Understanding culture is essential to the success of the projects, too. Any initiative seeking to have longevity and utility in Aboriginal communities requires an embedded awareness of a community’s cultural values and traditions, and spending time on Country allows students to grasp what this means. Considering the program’s historical dimension, the invitation to visit Country in the first place is a humbling experience.

“[SLIC] deepened my understanding of culture as a concept,” says Lilli, who worked on a project earlier this year. “It is so much more than the food you eat, clothes you wear, music you listen to, or even the language you speak. It is the lens through which you view the world. Speaking to Elders allowed me to see how many of the things that I take for granted as universal truths are in fact cultural constructions.

“I think understanding culture in this way has value, firstly, because it increases your capacity to relate to all of our fellow humans,” she says, “but also because it teaches you to turn your own assumptions on their head and imagine alternative worlds that are kinder and fairer than this one.”

“It’s everything university education should be,” says Erin, a current SLIC participant. “You’re working within communities, getting out of the classroom and talking to people, and coming up with real-world solutions that will make a difference.

“During the time my group spent on Country, we saw how important it was to build relationships based on trust, respect and continuity.”

A key element enshrined in the program that builds this trust and continuity is students’ return to Country at the end of semester. The SLIC model recommended that students visit communities twice: the first trip at the beginning of semester is a consultative one, introducing students to the project they’ll work on during semester in Sydney, while the second visit at the end of coursework sees them present their reports to the community. Recent changes to the program, made without explanation, include cancelling most groups’ return trips.

“The return trip was hugely important in ensuring that the work we had done during semester was in line with what the community wanted,” says Naomi, who worked on a project in semester one. “The feedback we received allowed us to refine and focus our work. This meant that we could provide a detailed document to the next group of students that outlined the next steps as prioritised by the community, allowing a hand-over that was as smooth as possible for the next group of students to hit the ground running. This is vital for the sustainability of these projects.”

For other groups, such as those implementing technological solutions, there are logistical imperatives in returning to Country. The visits allow groups to receive feedback on proposed models, enabling them to make changes in light of subsequent developments and deliver an optimal solution.

But for all, the return visit is a critical element that cements the reciprocal nature of relationships based on trust and continuity, and honours the University’s commitment to genuinely engage with communities and their needs.

“On a human-to-human level, it felt like coming home for Christmas,” says Lilli. “There was a whole group of people who were happy to see you welcoming you back.

“For the community it is even more important. There are far too many programs which go out to communities, make wild promises, and disappear never to be seen again. There are far too many white-dominated institutions for whom these communities are simply a photo opportunity. Coming back shows the communities that SLIC is different.

“Many that we spoke to in the community felt that this was the first time that they had been listened to, and respected enough to decide for themselves what their communities need.”

As a point of contrast to the top-down approach that often characterises federal and state-level decision-making, SLIC is geared towards a grassroots approach. While it embeds symbolic change in its philosophy, its practices consist of extensive consultations with local stakeholders and conversations with the community. As it evolves, the program’s capacity to communicate progress with policy-makers provides a potential avenue to translate local aspirations to a macro level and redress historical wrongs.

“A large part of [our] project has been dealing with the consequences of the government building a uranium mine on land without [the community’s] consent,” says Hugo, who is in this semester’s SLIC cohort. “These are all long term projects, established on the community’s terms, and designed to be genuinely collaborative spaces of shared learning. They are working to consciously overturn the history of exploitation and unequal exchange that exists between universities, other institutions, and Aboriginal communities.”

Naomi agrees. “If done in the right way, SLIC has huge potential for achieving its aim of ‘mutual benefit’ for communities and students,” she says. “Because the projects are designed by the communities, the work that students do directly addresses issues that are important to the communities.

“Students learn to think in new ways as well as respect and seriously engage with the worldview of others. This is the sort of learning that is truly valuable and I will take it with me for the rest of my life.”

These communities have experienced over a century of colonisation, had children stolen from them, their traditional practices disrespected, and lived under the Northern Territory Intervention. Yet, despite all this, everyone we met was willing to engage with us and share their culture and their stories with us. They put their trust in SLIC and in the University.

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In August this year, Shane Perdue was replaced as Director of Strategic Management (Indigenous Strategy and Services) by a selection panel that did not include anyone from the Indigenous portfolio. His replacement, Kylie Gwynne, is not Indigenous.

Shortly after, on August 24, Shane Houston was dismissed from his role as Deputy Vice Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services. Aside from an email sent to staff on a Thursday afternoon highlighting his achievements, no explanations were given as to why Houston was asked to leave the University so abruptly. Staff and students were shocked by his sudden departure, but the University offered them no explanation. The Aboriginal communities that Houston and Perdue had spent years building partnerships with were similarly not informed.

On September 14, a page advertising the SLIC program was taken down from the University’s website, before there had been any communication to students that the program had changed leadership.

On October 6, students received an email from Gwynne saying most groups would not be returning to Country to present their projects. The email said the department was working collaboratively with stakeholders that included “staff associated with student placements and students, as well as the Aboriginal communities involved, to review and enhance the SLIC Program”, and that, as a result, “the return visit to the community […] will no longer be possible.”

But if staff, student or community feedback was sought in the decision-making process, there is no trace of it. Students are unaware of the reasons for disrupting the program mid-semester, some staff members associated with the program have taken leave while others are no longer able to speak to students, and it is unclear if communities have been informed of the extent of the changes.

The most information students have received to date comes from a statement that appeared in a Sydney Morning Herald article three days later, on October 9, saying that the University had “recently become aware of issues with the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities program, including safety and compliance concerns, which has resulted in some aspects of the program being put on hold while they are resolved”.

When asked what those safety and compliance concerns were, the University declined to comment, and students are still none the wiser.

People are trusting the University to work for the community. If those relationships are broken, USyd will become yet another institution which has passed through without making a positive difference.

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Marion Scrymgour, CEO of the Tiwi Islands Regional Council and the highest-ranked Aboriginal woman to have served in government in Australia’s history, has told Fairfax Media she is concerned the SLIC program is being “watered down”.

As Alexandra, an exchange student from Dublin, remembers, “returning to Country was half the point of our project. Without a return visit to gain feedback on this model and change it in light of subsequent developments, the project is completely undermined and becomes increasingly irrelevant in terms of its implementation.”

Arguably more important is the trust that has been potentially compromised as a result of hasty and haphazard changes. The memorandum of understanding signed between the University and one of the communities recommends that the University:

“Make commitments with utmost caution and utter certainty. Communities have bitter experience of expectations raised and then dashed as well-intentioned service providers have made promises then been unable to deliver. Few things are as corrosive to trust.”

But the abrupt cancellation of return trips this semester seems to have neglected the fact that students left communities in August this year with promises they’d be back again come November. Little heed has been paid to how the severance of such guarantees might affect communities already sceptical of engaging with tertiary institutions.

The same memorandum recommends that:

“Engagement processes should lead to the development of positive long-term relationships. Ensure as far as possible continuity of personnel and consistency of structures. This is essential to building trust within the relationship between University of Sydney staff and students and […] communities. Where change in personnel is unavoidable, make careful provision for handover.”

And yet continuity of both staff and structure has been disrupted in a single sweep. The university has failed to liaise with Aboriginal communities during this process.

“We were concerned that Shane [Houston] was stood down with no discussion or communication,” Scrymgour told Fairfax. “I know it has caused a lot of concern. We’ve worked together quite extensively over many years.”

Rather than reflecting the values the University has committed to on paper, recent weeks have been characterised by uncertainty and a lack of transparency.

“I feel like these two things in particular are completely antithetical to the whole ethos of SLIC,” says Hugo. “The relationships that the University has formed with each of the communities have been founded on trust that has been built up over several years through the work of Shane Houston and others.

“The way the University has behaved over this semester has completely undermined that trust. By sacking Shane out of the blue, the University has effectively severed that relationship that he has built up with the communities, and by continuing to keep communities and students uninformed they have worked to undermine this relationship further.”

For many communities, changing the program without consultation is reminiscent of an all-too-familiar pattern of top-down decision-making and disrespect. “All the commitments the university gave as an exchange for us to open up our organisation is now turning into a one-way street,” Scrymgour said. “We are not happy.”

The University’s role has to be listening to these communities and ensuring that the wealth of knowledge which already exists there is communicated to the people with the ability to enact change. If my group can’t go back at the end of semester and discuss our report and recommendations, we aren’t fulfilling our role in the dialogue between the people and the council. If the staff members who have a connection to the community are removed, so is the trust which is integral to the program. And if our project is discontinued after this semester, we are yet another institution who has exploited Aboriginal communities for good publicity, and then abandoned them.


Words by Natassia Chrysanthos and Rose Hartley | Testimony by Pola Cohen | Photos by Rose Hartley.
The authors have been participants in SLIC. Due to cultural considerations, projects have been de-identified from their respective communities.