Opinion

Sydney Initiatives Inspiring Groups to Work Together to Heal Country

In NAIDOC Week, Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing Melissa Haswell and SEI Director David Schlosberg reflect on the strategic collaborations happening across the University that are demonstrating the possibilities for healing Country.

Image via Shutterstock, ID- 408265414

Since its announcement in January, and particularly now as NAIDOC week opens, we are reminded of the critical importance of this year’s theme Heal Country! This theme calls attention to the overwhelming responsibility and need for all Australian people and institutions to ‘pull out all stops’ to embrace caring for the environment in all our actions, as if our collective future depends on it, because it truly does. And there is no better guidance for our challenges ahead than the timeless knowledge and profound connection between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the Lands, rivers and oceans that sustain us.

With University-wide support, the One Sydney Many People (OSMP) and Sustainability Strategies were launched in late 2020.  Both strategies grew from extensive independent consultation processes and converged on many themes. DVC ISS established a Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing in June 2020 to facilitate the integration of Indigenous perspectives into the Sustainability Strategy, including the placement of Caring for Country as its foundation, and conversely the inclusion of University-wide actions for sustainability into all four One Sydney Many People pillars.

Careful mapping of the interface between the strategies and work already underway and planned by key stakeholders, including the Sydney Environment Institute, identified many rich opportunities that can be achieved by working together, expanding scope and reach and mutual reinforcement.

What has been achieved so far?

While valuable synergies were evident right across both strategies, three example areas are described of collaborative work of particularly critical importance already well underway.

First, DVC ISS’s successful delivery of its hallmark Service Learning in Indigenous Communities (SLIC) unit of study (Nguragingun Culture and Community Pillar) is a growing contribution to the Sustainability Strategy’s promise to partner with peoples and communities in urban, rural and regional Australia and globally in co-created activities to deliver long-term sustainable benefits (Foundation Caring for Country) and support understandings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ways of living in harmony with the environment and each other (Pillar 1).

Through this work in Semester 1, 15 SLIC students traveled to the Torres Strait Islands to support Community Services Managers within the Torres Strait Island Regional Council in their 2021/22 Operational Planning and to seek ways to enhance climate resilience and sustainability of their services and their Island home. A further eight SLIC students traveled to Palm Island to evaluate the social, economic and wellbeing benefits accruing from their partnership with Tribal Warrior [Sydney] in maritime training, celebrating/retracing ancient cultural sea journeys and reclaiming custodianship of Land and Sea. SEI highlighted this work in curating the opening day of the Reimagining Climate Adaptation event in April, featuring an overview of the capacity of SLIC alumni and their growing voice in sustainability policy, practice and research, including SEI Honours Fellow Phoebe Evans.

By linking into a presentation of SLIC’s work to Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) Torres Strait Sea and Land Council by Academic Lead Professor Melissa Haswell and University of Queensland Lecturer Francis Nona, Phoebe Evans (SLIC Sem 2 2020 alumni and current SEI Honours Fellow) was able to gain approval and recruit participation of Native Title Owners about their views on renewable energy transitions in remote Torres Strait Islands.

Second,  there are multiple ongoing activities contributing to OSMP’s Ngara (Education and Research Pillar) commitment to embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledges, skills, concepts and ways of life in teaching and research and SS’s Pillar 1’s (Enriching lives through education and research) drive to expand our collective imagination… grow opportunities for putting research excellence into practice.

Highlights in teaching include extensive collaborative work by OSMP to encourage, enable and offer seed funding to schools and faculties to undertake concrete and visible steps to indigenise their curriculum across majors and all years of study. Extending this to include Indigenous concepts of living in harmony with the environment is increasing students’ access to new ways to know, understand and take action towards a more just and sustainable world. SEI also enables students to progress further educationally in these areas through our Honours fellowships, and supports Masters and PhD students engaged at the intersection of sustainability and Indigenous knowledges. Two of SEI’s resident postdoctoral fellows, Drs Christine Winter and June Rubis, work at this intersection – and integrate it into both teaching and research.

In addition, colleagues at both SEI and DVC ISS have been collaborating with others across campus on the development of a new undergraduate major in Sustainability, promised by the Sustainability Strategy. One of the proposed Learning Outcomes is for all students to “Develop multicultural competence and gain appreciation of Indigenous approaches to sustainability such as Caring for Country”. This broad major will involve multiple faculties, create learning cohorts to engage and support students across their three years, and culminate in comprehensive and applicable capstone projects.

On the research side, colleagues in DVCISS and SEI have contributed to a number of collaborative grant opportunities, including the Sydney hub of a major proposal to the National Health and Medical Research Council Special Initiative on Human Health and Environmental Change, which, if funded, would include DVC ISS Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver AM leading a team of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in creating an Indigenous Knowledges Pillar. Researchers in SEI’s world-leading multispecies justice collective have been developing another project proposal at the interface of cultural and ecological conservation. Postdoctoral Fellow Dr June Rubis was a co-author on a crucial report, Territories of Life, conceived to assist the UN biodiversity and climate change conferences this year engage with the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities worldwide.  And Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Christine Winter is hosting the new Heal Country podcast series for SEI, highlighting Indigenous research and researchers contributing to this crucial discussion.

Finally, both the OSMP and Sustainability Strategies are dedicated to changing the very practices of the campuses of the University. The many commitments made by the Sustainability Strategy’s Pillar 2 (Enabling resilient places and a responsible footprint) help to meet the core vision of OSMP, Through our shared responsibilities to the Aboriginal Lands upon which the university stands, we create a genuine sense of belonging among all students and staff and each item of its Pemulian (Environment) Pillar. In turn, building a strong appreciation of the timeless custodianship of Aboriginal people of our campuses reciprocally boosts a sense of belonging and therefore responsibility to contribute to its protection and sustainability.

For example, colleagues from both DVC ISS and SEI have been involved in the University’s new Biodiversity Management Plan, to be released at a National Tree Day Event on 30 July, demonstrates multiple ways in which Indigenous knowledges dovetail with sustainability. This is evident through a long standing close partnership in the design and planting of a new Curriculum Garden with local Aboriginal business IndigiGrow with Landscape and Grounds in Central Operations Services and Faculty of Science academics with awareness of language and cultural connections to plants, to create signage and a video capturing the day’s highlights by the DVC ISS production team.

In addition, both DVC ISS and SEI have been involved in the development of the University’s new Sustainable Investment Strategy. With the wave of grief and loss still fresh from the recent deliberate destruction of a 46,000 year old sacred site at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto, the DVC ISS has pushed for inclusion of the Protection of Indigenous Rights and Heritage in the strategy. Heralded as a major step forward in the University’s commitment to ensuring its assets do not progress climate change and modern slavery, DVC ISS and SEI will help the University break new ground in identifying, pressuring and eliminating investments that enable Indigenous heritage destruction.

In closing, it is important to recognise the gravity and urgency of the challenge posed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through NAIDOC Week to Heal Country! At present Australians are increasingly singled out for being one of the world’s highest per capita consumers of single use plastics, emitters of greenhouse gases and enthusiastic exporters of coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) obtained through roads, wells, fracking operations and industrialisation across vast landscapes. Land clearing rates remain extremely high, even as threatened plants and animals are pushed toward extinction. With our nation’s severe lack of coherent and effective government policy and laws on environment and heritage protection, sustainability and climate change, it is up to Australia’s people and non-government forces to form broad collective leadership of change to protect our future.

Listening to and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and joining Caring for Country actions to Heal Country! not only helps reduce our ecological footprints, taking action can also boost our wellbeing and energy to participate in change. SEI and the Office of DVC ISS are proud to collaborate where we can to teach, research, and demonstrate the possibilities for healing Country.

Expressions of interest are now invited from interested and motivated students in their third year and above (including post-grads) to enrol in SLIC and take part in exciting Semester 2 SLIC projects. Contact slic.info@sydney.edu.au for more information.


Melissa Haswell is Professor of Practice (Environmental Wellbeing) in the Office of the DVC (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at University of Sydney. Melissa works at the interface between the One Sydney Many People and Sustainability Strategies, including Academic Leadership of Service Learning in Indigenous Communities (SLIC), working alongside Coordinator, Suzanne Kenney. Since 1996, Melissa has taught Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, ecological and planetary health. Her research on the measurement of empowerment, social and emotional wellbeing, transformative learning and advocacy on local and global impacts of gas mining and climate change, especially in the Torres Strait and Northern Territory, is recognised internationally.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, Payne-Scott Professor, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental and climate justice. His other theoretical interests are in food justice and multispecies justice, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental movements and the practices of everyday life – what he terms sustainable materialism.