Power generation: emerging Indigenous leaders on overcoming adversity – and their next steps

On a spring afternoon in Brisbane’s south-west, Chelsea Bond and dozens of relatives spill onto a suburban street in Inala to give her nephew a grand send-off for his high school formal. The beaming 17-year-old, donning an electric-blue suit jacket and black tie, poses patiently as tearful family members snap countless photos. He cradles a framed image of loved ones who didn’t live to see the occasion: his father, uncle and grandmother.

Bond, who is 41 and a prolific tweeter, shared the moment in October with her 17,600 followers: “This time of year reminds us of the pride Blackfullas have in our kids having made it through against all odds.” She invited the Indigenous Twittersphere – an informal collective affectionately known as “Blackfulla Twitter” – to share their own proud moments using the hashtag #BlackfullaGradPics.

Photos poured in from across Australia. There were children in miniature caps and gowns graduating from preschool. Honours graduates. PhD graduates. Oxford scholars. Men and women of all ages set to become architects, doctors, nurses, journalists, lawyers, teachers, psychologists. More often than not, the joyful images were accompanied by tales of hardship: a maths scholar whose mother was diagnosed with cancer in his first week at university; a nurse’s racist encounters during hospital placements; the all-too-regular trips home for sorry business to mourn loved ones gone too soon. Nearly all said they wouldn’t have made it that far without the support of their family and community.

“You saw in the stories the adversity people had to overcome to make it across that graduation stage, and you saw the beauty and the power and the strength of black families who walked alongside them or who were there even in spirit with them,” says Bond. “That’s the power of Blackfulla Twitter, is that we get to reclaim the narrative about ourselves.”

What began as a hashtag became a broader conversation about what it means to be Indigenous and successful in a country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are so often viewed through a lens of deficit and disadvantage.

The inequalities between Indigenous people and the wider population are well documented. First Nations people die about eight years younger on average than other Australians, and are vastly over-represented in the prison and child protection systems.

The Closing the Gap strategy, revamped in July, has failed to eliminate Indigenous disadvantage in all but two target areas of seven since its launch in 2008. As such, the dominant narrative around Indigenous affairs is often centred on disadvantage. But that narrative obscures another story – less talked about, but equally compelling – of success.

Across Australia, more Indigenous people than ever are enrolling in university, finishing high school, starting businesses and carving out their own space in industries and institutions that historically excluded them. In the decade to 2018, year 12 attainment rates for Indigenous students jumped from 45 per cent to 66 per cent nationally, while the number of Indigenous people enrolling at university has more than doubled over the same period.

According to a 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the Indigenous population is under 30. The figures point to a new generation which is breaking barriers and changing what it means to be Indigenous.

In June, actor Meyne Wyatt delivered a scathing monologue about racism in Australia on ABC TV’s Q&A program, staring down the barrel of the camera at the height of the Black Lives Matter resurgence and telling the nation: “I don’t want to be quiet. I don’t want to be humble. I don’t want to sit down.”

The moment encapsulated a broader sentiment among First Nations young people who have grown up hearing stories about the discrimination their parents and grandparents faced and have made it their mission to call it out. They’re outspoken, educated and they see their Indigeneity as a point of pride – not a deficit.

Good Weekend spoke to Wyatt and a handful of young Indigenous people who are making waves early in their careers about their defining moments, their hopes for the future and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.

Meyne Wyatt: “The attitude Mum and Dad instilled in me: you’ve got to burst through the door and act like you’re equal or better … ‘If you’re not going to give the role to me, I’m going to write it.’ I’m going to force my way through.”

Meyne Wyatt: “The attitude Mum and Dad instilled in me: you’ve got to burst through the door and act like you’re equal or better … ‘If you’re not going to give the role to me, I’m going to write it.’ I’m going to force my way through.”Credit:Rhett Wyman


Age: 31. Mob: Wongutha/Yamatji.
Lives in: Sydney.
Works as: Actor/playwright.

I grew up on my mum’s country in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. It’s a beautiful place, but there’s also this mixture of mining and racism. On my first day of primary school, my cousin came and picked me up at recess. We walked around the corner and a couple of bigger kids beat him up. You’re exposed to a certain sort of violence when you’re living there.


The Wongi mob’s cultural belief is that if someone rubs you when you’re a baby, their personality rubs off on you. When I was born, my uncle, Gary Cooper, who’s an actor, was the first person to actually rub me. When I was 10, he directed me in a domestic-violence radio ad. I think I stressed him out a bit because he was trying to give me a note and I was like, “I don’t think the character would say it like that.” That was my first acting gig.

In my first week at NIDA, we were talking about Australian theatre and television and the teacher said, “David Gulpilil is a fantastic actor but he’s a f…ing alcoholic. Meyne, I don’t want you to be like that.” Every place I’d ever been to, the casual racism was always there. I think people assume it isn’t at places like NIDA because it’s a leftie, progressive school, but it’s everywhere.

I joined the cast of Neighbours in 2014. The show had been on air for 29 years and I was the first Indigenous actor to be in the main cast. I thought, “This is opening a door for other people to go down this path.” That was a positive thing, but at the same time, 29 years is too late.

My dad died in 2015. After that I went through a big depression. There was a period when I stopped caring about acting. The industry was only offering run-of-the-mill roles – it was always the tracker, the angry young man. I was like, “I’ve done that, man. Boring.” I was disenfranchised with the industry and I was just upset with the world, really.

Not long after Dad passed, Elijah was killed [Kalgoorlie teen Elijah Doughty died after being chased by a man in a ute who believed the 14-year-old was riding his stolen motorbike]. That could’ve been me. There was a flash protest in Sydney. There was a feeling in the air. I went up to the stage and I said, “Maybe I should talk?” I opened up about growing up in Kalgoorlie, being related to Elijah, knowing that life.

In the ’70s, Dad was a bus driver outside of Laverton. Some cops from out of town started beating up blackfullas. Dad took all these Wongi men out bush and told them to hide. When he came back, the cops threw him to the ground and six officers beat him to a pulp and threw him in a cell. He was released without charge.

As kids, we’d be watching a police press conference on the news and Mum would say casually, “Oh, there’s the bloke who kicked your dad.” It’s a real blackfulla thing to do – you deal with traumatic things through humour.

When I was 11, my cousins and I were stopped on the street and police asked to search our pockets. It was scary. We were going to the skate park. That was my first experience in Kalgoorlie, but it happened all the time. I was arrested when I was 18. I was drunk and I told a police officer to f… off and he chucked me in the back of the police car. I thought, “Okay, I don’t want that to happen again, you’ve got to watch yourself.”

I wrote the play [City of Gold] as a response to my dad dying, my frustration with the industry and racism. The speech that everyone saw on Q&A is an excerpt from a 15-minute monologue. I knew I was saying some things that would be confrontational and provocative.

I found that exciting, I suppose. Sometimes my emotion gets the better of me, too – more times than not it comes out of frustration and anger, but that’s from my pain.

I think if you’re an Indigenous person who has a platform, you have a responsibility to talk about our experiences. If you don’t, you’re doing a disservice. I made the calculated move that I wouldn’t talk about anything political until I’d made a foundation for my career. I feel like it’s okay now. You know who I am. When I speak, people listen.

My parents were dirt poor growing up. They had to work their arses off to get to the positions they were in. I’ve got to benefit from the privileges I’ve gained from them and I’ve got to take those opportunities. That was the attitude that Mum and Dad instilled in me: you’ve got to burst through the door and act like you’re an equal or better.

There’s always a ceiling that I have to break through. I’m always pigeonholed because of my race. It has to be a certain storyline for me to be a lead actor in a show.

I don’t take no for an answer. “If you’re not going to give the role to me, I’m going to write it.” I’m going to force my way through. I think the younger generation now has a voice that is inspiring in the way they promote inclusivity, the way they’re breaking norms. I’m optimistic about that. But that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a fight. There’s always going to be a fight.

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts: “You took me, but I’m coming home and I’m going to make sure you’re not touching any other children.”

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts: “You took me, but I’m coming home and I’m going to make sure you’re not touching any other children.”Credit:Rhett Wyman


Age: 24. Mob: Bundjalung (Widjabul).
Lives in: Sydney.
Works as: Law/social work student and paralegal.

As a child I lived on Gadigal country in Redfern in Sydney, before moving out to social housing near La Perouse. Through a white lens, people would say we were poor. But there was something really powerful in being appreciative of what we did have and that was community, family, kinship and love. We were living with poverty and struggled at times, but we never went without.

The Department of Community Services (DOCS, now the NSW Department of Family and Community Services) removed me from my family in 2008 when I was 10. It was around 10 o’clock at night, and I was in bed. My older brother, thankfully, was at my mum’s place that night. Dad was out on the balcony and he yelled, “Bub I’m so sorry, they’re coming to get you.” I looked out the window and saw all of these red and blue flashing lights.

I heard a knock at the door and it was a caseworker. She said, “Hug your dad one last time, you’ve got to come with us.” I remember hugging my dad so tight that I could feel his tears drop on my shoulder.

When I was in the DOCS car, I vomited because I’d been crying so much. I didn’t know what was going on. I was placed into an emergency foster home that night. I remember the caseworker saying to me, “You can’t go home because your parents neglected you and your parents don’t know how to look after children.” I was really confused, because I remembered my dad raising my nieces and nephews and cousins and playing a prominent role in their lives. I was like, “What do you mean that my dad doesn’t know how to raise children?”

I went to around eight or 10 foster homes in that first couple of years. That’s considered a low number. Behind the scenes, my family was battling the court system. My parents, who had no knowledge of the legal system, were put into a room to advocate why they should be allowed to parent their child. No one ever asked me what I wanted.

I was passed around as if there was no soul in my body. The foster homes that I went to were white – they weren’t my kin, even though my aunties and uncles had put their hand up to take me in. During my third year in out-of-home care, I lost my Pop. He wanted to take me in, but I was robbed of those years with him because of the state system. I went from spending every weekend at Pop’s house, hearing stories, sharing our culture, having a Sunday roast, to seeing him for sorry business after he’d passed away.

My experience in foster care was a driving force for me to make the most of my career. I thought, “I’m going to leave this state system, I’m going to go back to my family and I’m going to get that time back that was robbed from me.”

At 18, I was accepted to study social work and criminology at UNSW. I met with a senior law lecturer to talk about whether I should study law. I remember she said, “It’s been 15 minutes and I’m already wondering why you didn’t originally enrol in law as your first degree.” In that moment I was like, “Shit, someone genuinely believes I’m capable of doing this.”

I’m in the sixth year of a seven-year combined law and social work degree. As an Indigenous student studying law, you’re reminded every day of what you don’t have. In corporations law you’re reminded you don’t have tenure to your land. In criminal law you’re reminded all your people are being locked up, removed from their families and communities and subjected to punitive measures rather than support. I work part-time as a paralegal in the pro bono team with Sydney law firm Gilbert + Tobin. One of the most beautiful things about working there is it’s built on the values of giving back. The team is like family. I’m lucky to have their guidance and support on the right side of the fight for humanity and justice.

The year that Kevin Rudd gave his apology to the stolen generations was the same year I was taken. I remember everyone felt so proud as a nation, but the reality is, the same executive powers are removing our babies. This is still occurring today. [In 2018, First Nations children made up almost 40 per cent of all children in out-of-home care nationally, despite being 5½ per cent of Australia’s child population. About a third were placed with non-Indigenous carers.]

We recognise the fight that our older generations have undertaken, and we recognise the armour that is around us. As a younger generation, we need to keep up that fight and make sure we’re showing up.

I’d like to see a First Nations independent children’s law firm that represents the voices of our children who are being removed. I want to be able to use this law and social work degree to show that you took me, but I’m coming home and I’m going to make sure you’re not touching any other children. Our voices are the ancestors’, and those voices can never be silenced. The ancestors are the land we walk on. We need to honour that, and never forget it.

It’s crucial to be resilient in your heart and mind. To know that love is stronger than anything and to trust that your heart is protected by the ancestors. My parents, my Pop and my culture taught me that every day, and it’s something we can all learn from.

Nathan Martin: “I’ve come up with the idea of what I want to do and who I want to be, and I make it happen every single day that I wake up.”

Nathan Martin: “I’ve come up with the idea of what I want to do and who I want to be, and I make it happen every single day that I wake up.”Credit:Rhett Wyman


Age: 34. Mob: Yuin.
Lives in: Sydney.
Works a
s: Founder And CEO, Yalagan Group.

I grew up on the NSW South Coast in a small Aboriginal community called Wreck Bay. The only thing around us was an airforce base and a navy base – there was nothing else but bush, sand and beach. I grew up surfing, diving, fishing, playing every single sport you can imagine. I still cherish those memories.

When I was 15 I moved to Sydney to finish my schooling at Matraville Sports High. I lived by myself and I loved it. As soon as I finished my HSC, I worked in the construction industry as a window fixer on high-rise buildings. I was lucky enough to have two beautiful kids. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I got myself into a lot of trouble.

I pleaded guilty to charges for supply of ecstasy and conspiracy to supply firearms. Growing up in an Aboriginal community, the crime was just everywhere. You see it every day and in the end you become numb to it. I never really thought of the impact my actions would have on the community until I was getting sentenced by the judge.

I spent almost two weeks in the underground holding cells of Surry Hill police station. I was in the same clothes all that time. They stuck a couple of guys in the cell with me that were coming down off ice. One guy was head-butting the wall, the other guy was licking the wall at one stage. That was my first experience of prison.I was in jail for nearly four years and most of that time was at Long Bay prison. I grew up in a community of 130 people; five of us from that community all landed in Long Bay at the same time.

In prison you can go two ways: either you become a better criminal, or you decide that this isn’t what you want to do with your life. On my daughter’s sixth birthday, in my fourth year in prison, I just thought, “This isn’t where I want to be.” I stayed awake for almost a week thinking about what I wanted to do when I was released. I looked at some of the people who were in jail with me and thought there weren’t many construction bosses who would give any of these boys a go. So I thought, “How do I create something that will?”

While I was in prison, I joined the Never Going Back boxing program, which helps reintegrate prisoners by taking them out of Long Bay three times a week to box with the community in Redfern and meet potential mentors. People from all walks of life were there to box with us – all levels of government, business owners.

A lot of people in jail have never had access to people like that in their lives. That’s where I met my business partner and mentor, Sean Wilson – a businessman with 20 years’ experience working with private national and multinational organisations.

As soon as I walked out of prison in 2016, it absolutely poured rain. I thought, “This is going to wash it all away and we’ll just start off fresh and get into it.”

My first step was to create Yalagan in 2017. The word is from the Yuin nation – it means “hard-working” or “smart fellow”. It’s an Indigenous recruitment and labour hire business aimed at the tier ones [the largest construction companies in Australia]. We recruit people from all backgrounds, but we have a focus on young Indigenous people and former prisoners. Imagine how hard I thought it was going to be, and it’s three times harder. The tier one companies are happy to say they want to work with Indigenous people, but unlikely to hire them. A site supervisor who we were working with called a worker “black c…” in front of the other workers in a rail yard. We don’t work with that company any more.

I plan on taking my businesses inside prisons to train inmates to become qualified as labourers in the construction industry. The first guy I recruited had done 14 years’ jail. Four years later, he’s still out and it’s the longest he’s been out for a very long time.

He’s just started his own fitness business. They’re the stories I want. In any given month we’ve got between 30 to 50 recruits working on construction projects across Australia.

For a long time Indigenous people couldn’t own businesses in this country. My great-grandfather was one of a handful of families that started the first Aboriginal-run newspaper, Abo Call, in 1938. The government stole every single child whose family was involved in that newspaper, my grandmother being one of them. They used that as an example: if you want to stand up against us, we’ll steal your children.

My paternal great-grandmother would pull out a double-barrel shotgun in the 1950s when people tried to steal her kids. My dad’s mother fought the NSW education department because they wouldn’t let her children go to school at the same time her eldest son was overseas fighting to defend the country. That’s the sort of family I come from: fighters.

I’ve lived a very interesting life. I’ve had my father commit suicide when I was 24. I’ve had four mates commit suicide as a kid growing up. I spent four years in jail. Now I look back at all of it and I’ve put it all in a blender and I’ve come up with the idea of what I want to do and who I want to be, and I make it happen every single day that I wake up.

I’m proud to be an Aboriginal man – I always have been and I always will be. I see it as a leg up, not a leg down. I’ve never seen it as a deficit towards me. I’m proud every day of my culture and who I am and where I’ve come from. I don’t regret one thing. Everything I’ve ever done has led me to where I am now.

Rachael Hocking: “There’s been some excuses bandied around that you don’t have to be from a diverse background to tell diverse stories. Sure. But you’ll tell a better story if you come from that background.”

Rachael Hocking: “There’s been some excuses bandied around that you don’t have to be from a diverse background to tell diverse stories. Sure. But you’ll tell a better story if you come from that background.”Credit:Rhett Wyman


Age: 27. Mob: Warlpiri.
Lives in: Sydney.
Works as: Host, The Point (NITV).

I was born in Melbourne, but spent my early years in the Northern Territory and Queensland, travelling in beat-up Toyotas through the Tanami Desert. My grandmother was from a place called Lajamanu, a small community about 500 kilometres south-west of Katherine, and I was lucky enough to live there for a little while.

We came back down to Melbourne when I was 12. The schools I went to in the inner-north were multicultural, but they didn’t have many blackfullas. I was always writing, I had notepads full of stories. As a kid I had imaginary friends – I created worlds in my head. It was a bit of a coping mechanism for being on the road so much.

RMIT’s journalism course was among the most prestigious in the country. I was able to get in on a pathway for Indigenous students who struggled financially, where you didn’t have to get the 96 ATAR – you just had to get really good scores in English or literature. You have a lot of imposter syndrome the minute you’re a blackfulla who gets into university on a pathway, even though I knew I’d worked really hard and I was a good writer.

In 2015, I did a cadetship with SBS and NITV (National Indigenous Television), which included stints with The Feed, Dateline and Insight. At the end, I really wanted to work with NITV and I was able to get a spot on the team. It was really cool going into a workplace where there were a lot of blackfullas who approached stories the way you did.

It was a Saturday night and I remember distinctly, I was on a tram in Melbourne coming home from a comedy gig when a community member who I know really well called me from Alice Springs and said, “Hey, can you find out what’s going on in Yuendumu? Something’s happened, there’s been a shooting.”

In Yuendumu, a phone was passed among a bunch of people giving me eyewitness accounts of what was happening on the ground. I have family who live in Yuendumu, so at the same time I was messaging family to make sure they were okay, because at this point I wasn’t sure if we were related to the person who was shot.

We didn’t know if the man who’d been shot was alive or not, because the police weren’t giving us anything. The next morning, the ABC reported that Kumanjayi Walker had died [Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe was charged with his murder in November 2019 and committed to stand trial last month]. I was in shock. I rang [Yuendumu elder] Uncle Ned Hargraves and asked if he’d heard anything. He said no, and I broke the news to him.

Reporting on this has been probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most important. It is so important to have black teams leading black media, because we know our communities better than anyone. The difference in being accountable to a community that you belong to, as opposed to just being accountable because you should have integrity in what you write, is huge.

In response to Black Lives Matter we’re seeing reckonings in industries everywhere, and the media is no different. We’re seeing people wake up to the fact that our media in Australia is not representative of the country it’s meant to reflect.

The photo that went almost viral on Twitter in June of the executive team at SBS being all white was a surprise – not to people at SBS and NITV – but to people who expected more from the multicultural broadcaster. And they should, and SBS has admitted that. There’s been some excuses bandied around that you don’t have to be from a diverse background to tell diverse stories. Sure. But you’ll tell a better story if you come from that background and you’ll avoid the inaccuracies we so often see when white newsrooms don’t seek cultural guidance.


My career path has been shaped by the hard work of black men and women before me who really fought to smash down barriers and to wake up the media industry to the fact that we need pathways for young, aspiring Indigenous reporters.

I know that I’m in a privileged position to have been given a national platform to tell stories from our communities and I should not let that go to waste. My community, I know, are immensely proud of what I do – as much as I’m immensely proud of what they do. It’s a community, we give back to each other. So I’m giving as much as I can.

Amelia Telford: “The power we have to expose corruption always excites me. To be able to know that people power can win against money.”

Amelia Telford: “The power we have to expose corruption always excites me. To be able to know that people power can win against money.” Credit:Josh Robenstone


Age: 26 Mob: Bundjalung, South Sea Islander.
Lives in: Melbourne.
Works as: National director, Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network.

Growing up around Evans Head on the North Coast of NSW was really special, because you’re surrounded by incredible country – rainforests, the beaches, the bush, the mountain ranges. As kids we were really lucky to spend a lot of time out on country in Tweed Heads, learning about who we are and the responsibility we have as Indigenous people. When we’d go to places, Dad would always say, “Leave only footsteps.” We were brought up to think about the world and the impact we could have to make it a better place.

At school, you’d hear the national anthem and everyone would stand up and sing along. I remember for the first time really comprehending what the words meant and thinking to myself, “Hang on, this is not right. Our country’s not new and not everyone is free – this is not an accurate representation of who we are as a nation.”

In year 3 I wrote to John Howard, who was prime minister at the time, saying I thought we should change the anthem to We Are One. He wrote back: “Thanks for your concern, but nine out of 10 Australians still prefer Advance Australia Fair.” I started a petition and took it to school. Unfortunately it didn’t go much beyond that – I started to realise just how hard activism is.

I was accepted to study medicine, but at the same time I was becoming more involved in climate action. The places we loved were being impacted by sand mining, increases in king tides and cyclones. When I saw those changes I thought, “What are the changes that my parents, grandparents and their parents have seen?” It’s heartbreaking seeing places that are really special being washed away in front of your eyes.

I remember being at an event called Power Shift, hosted by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) in Brisbane, and being one of the only Indigenous young people in a room of around 1000. In that moment I felt an overwhelming responsibility. I realised I could go and study medicine for six years, but the way I saw it, it was a band-aid solution to a much bigger issue. Climate change can make everything else worse. Our health, our identity, our connection to who we are and our country – all of that is interconnected.

In 2012, when I was 18, I indefinitely postponed my studies and moved to Melbourne to join the AYCC, with a mission to support more Indigenous young people to lead action on climate change. That year, AYCC hosted another Power Shift event, but this time we managed to provide scholarships for 30 young mob to attend. That was where the seed was planted to build an Indigenous youth climate network.

We often come up with ideas to play a line of being cheeky but also putting forth the arguments. During the 2013 election, we were using the symbol of Nemo to highlight the impact on the Great Barrier Reef of building coal ports. I managed to track down the then prime minister Kevin Rudd. The media were swarmed around him, but once they saw this bright little orange fish they were like, Quick, get in! I said, “My name’s Nemo, I’m from the Great Barrier Reef. I’m here to ask you how you’re going to protect my home.”

Ultimately the success of that action was seeing the story make headlines and seeing the issues of climate change and coal ports on the reef being front and
centre. The power that we have to expose corruption always excites me. To be able to know that people power can win against money.

In 2014, the Pacific Climate Warriors (a youth climate justice group from the Pacific Islands) led a flotilla of traditional canoes and kayaks out into the port of Newcastle. Seeing Indigenous people in traditional canoes against the backdrop of a massive coal ship was a visual image of what we’re up against.

Our mob were the first scientists. We have lived sustainably on this country for thousands and thousands of years. It makes complete sense that in Australia and around the world, Indigenous people hold solutions to climate issues. When it comes to preventing bushfires, we know there are Indigenous methods of looking after country, like cool burns. That’s just one example – there is so much knowledge that’s not being utilised. We need to be empowered to manage our own land.

I think this is one of the issues that’s going to define our generation. When you look at the population of our young people, it’s those under 25 who are going to be leading in 30 years. I want to empower our Indigenous young people to step into that leadership.

An earlier version of this story said Zachary Rolfe was charged with the murder of Kumanjayi Walker last month. He was charged in November 2019 and committed to trial last month.

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