We caught up with Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt to talk about the impact of Jumbunna’s research on and for the community. Over two podcasts, this being the first one, she gives us the importance of why Jumbunna has become one of the leading Indigenous Research Units in Australia.
Transcript of Podcast with Larissa Behrendt
I’m Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt and I am the Director of Research and Academic Programs at the Jumbunna Institute. I think for me, I grew up in a house that was highly politicized, and protesting was a way of expressing your self-determination and your viewpoint. And it wasn’t just about being negative about things, but it was about asserting your rights and about asserting your identity. So, I think it’s a really big part of who we are. And it’s actually a really big part of our intellectual movement. I think you can’t disassociate our great thinkers, our Gary Foleys, our William Coopers, our Pat Turners, the people who really, the Muriel Bambletts, you can’t separate them from the protest movement. And in a way, the way that our advocates are labelled firebrands, and protest is seen as aggressive, is a way of really diminishing the intellectualism behind it. I kind of feel if you really are in the Indigenous intellectual space, you are taking the history of that protest movement with you as you go. And I think it’s in our dna.
Bowraville, the Grandmothers Against Removal, these are all people who are working within the court system, seeking to change legislation, trying to lobby politicians, so doing all that sophisticated work inside, and at the same time are outside protesting, to raise awareness. And it’s all part of a strategy, and it’s also a form of expression, so it feels very natural to me to value the connection between what we call protest, but I think of as advocacy, community advocacy, and the other work we do, because they’re all tied.
Most of us are attracted to do law because we want to change the system. And it’s frustrating working as a lawyer, because you often find yourself just working in the system and churning cases through. So, an academic base does allow you a position to come and start to advocate for law reform. Most units like ours were focused on education or on health, which are obviously really important areas, but there isn’t really the work done around the legal area and how law and policy work together. I think that was the first thing that made us really distinctive. But I think too, it was probably around the Northern Territory intervention we found a really strong voice. And from that time, I think we became, not even just unapologetic, but we really embraced the idea that we were advocates before we were researchers. That we don’t pretend to sit here and neutrally from an objective position analyse things and then pontificate about what they mean. We respond to community need and community request and community issues, and we try and do our best to represent that voice, whether it’s us advocating it, or us using new media, video et cetera to provide a platform for that voice.
The idea of using new media for us with research, again was a really long journey for us, the complexity with which we use it now, and the reflection we have about how it works with our research and the other elements of our work is something we came to really slowly. And our first engagement really, with using any kind of new media was really just a desire to first of all, translate our research outputs back to the communities that we were working with, and finding ways other than academic writing to do that. So, film, using multimedia, structures to provide community with archives of their own documents, things that we collected from them or developed with them, in forms that they could use and were accessible to them. And then also, wanting to collect the stories, and knowing that when we interviewed somebody for a project that might be on ideas around a treaty or self-determination, that we were actually recording perspectives of really valuable community members, which outside of just discussing that point would be really important.
So, finding a way that we weren’t just using that for our own research but thinking about the longer-term importance of interviewing a Pat Turner, or an Aunty Elaine Walker or all of these amazing people that we get to talk to during our work. So we started to engage with that, really as a way of trying to grapple with the challenge of making our research relevant to the communities we were working with, and trying to be as respectful as we could be about their voice, and knowing we came from universities that had traditionally really exploited their relationships with Aboriginal communities, and wanting to really work with the communities we were working with to change that dialogue, from us saying, “This is what we can do to help you,” to them saying, “This is what we need. This is what we need you to do for us.” And for them to think of us, not as people who come in and research them, but as people who are a resource for them.
So, all of those kinds of things that we were just trying to work through, new media had to become a bigger and bigger thing with that. And again, it was really, for me, on my personal journey with that, the Bowraville mob, it was their observation that the few times that they’d had movement in the cases were when current affairs shows had highlighted their issue. And suddenly there had been movement.So, it was their intuition around that, that when they first asked us to come and talk to them, and we were saying, “What sorts of things do you think we can do to help? What do you think …” One of the things they said was, “A documentary.” It was a very important lesson for us too, in understanding the power of the voice of the community members, and the importance of us stepping back and allowing that voice through. That being an advocate isn’t always speaking for somebody. It’s about creating the space, and ensuring their stories have come through.
The intervention too was a really important moment for us, where we knew from all our connections across the Territory that the mainstream media was not covering what people really felt. And being able to capture that on a website that people could then, the community could then use, was another element to that. But there’s no doubt that what we learned through our engagement with the community, what they taught us, meant that our understanding of how to integrate that into our advocacy work and our research was heightened by that.
Excerpt (Larissa Behrendt speaks at Stop the Intervention 2009)
People often within the academy, think of bringing in an Indigenous person, all the training they have to do around thinking about research ethics, like they would with any other researcher. Or about, impact. But we think about that even before we think about the research. It’s always our first thought. Why would I do this research if it’s not helping my community? If you answer that question, you’ve got your impact sorted from the start, before you do the first bit of it. And you think about how am I going to protect this community I’m working with? There’s the first question in your ethics. It feels to me, as universities have started to, rightly, think more deeply in this space about ethics, intellectual property, impact, doing no harm with research, they can come to Indigenous researchers and see what we’ve been doing all along, before these were the things that were being dictated to. It is that difference between … Almost everyone I know who’s come to university, whatever their area, as an Aboriginal person is interested in what their qualifications will do for their community. It’s a rare Indigenous person who doesn’t think about that, who doesn’t think, how will my work help where I’ve come from? It’s a part of why we’re here in the first place.