Debra Bennell, the new Director of the University of New England’s Oorala Aboriginal Centre, sees the Centre as a “culturally safe space” for Aboriginal students, as well as an organisation working to “close the educational gap”.
“Any time they need to come and be surrounded by a safety net, it’s here,” Ms Bennell said, adding that, even in her previous position as a lecturer in social work at Edith Cowan University, she “liked to get away from it all at the Indigenous Centre”.
“Aboriginal students bring a different worldview to a university,” she said. “They bring Australia’s past into the present.” And that can be “a bit of a burden” for them, she explained, when they are continually questioned about their Indigenous perspectives on everything from Captain Cook to the Northern Territory “intervention”.
That “different worldview” has educational implications for Aboriginal students. “Teaching our mob to be critical thinkers is, in some ways, against cultural norms,” Ms Bennell said. “They’re not raised to be critical – and certainly not critical of authority. But I hope they all leave university as critical thinkers.”
In this respect she was atypical from the beginning. “I’ve always been inquisitive,” she said. “My mother would say: ‘You want to know the ins and outs of a lizard’s gizzard. It’s just a lizard.’ But at university you need to know about lizards’ gizzards.”
Going straight to university from high school, however, young Debra Bennell quickly found that – at that stage – it wasn’t for her. Instead she worked, travelled, married and had children. “Later, at a reflective moment in my life, I thought I’d better go back and get that degree I’d promised myself,” she said. She obtained a BA (Indigenous Services) degree from Edith Cowan University and an MA (Indigenous Social Policy) degree from the University of Technology, Sydney, and is working towards a PhD.
“Getting equity of opportunity for Aboriginal students is still important,” she said, “but educators’ key role is in ‘closing the gap’. Universities supply the professions with graduates, and thus create the system. We need to produce doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. who are equipped to go out and change the system.”
“Teaching history is one thing,” she continued; “teaching the impact it has had on today is another. We can feel those emotions about the atrocities – but looking at how such events have an impact on the current situation seems to have become a bit too hard.”
Debra Bennell (pictured here), who grew up in rural Western Australia and whose community-based work has included extensive experience in Aboriginal health, has seen much of that impact. Her father – a Nyoongar man from the south-west of the State who later became the first person in her family to go to university – was at first a railway worker, and she spent her early years moving with her family from country town to country town in Western Australia. Her mother came from the Mirruwong-Gajerrong people of the Kimberley, and her maternal grandmother grew up with the pioneering Durack family in the Kimberley. “I’m from a very large family,” she said, “- probably the largest family in south-west Western Australia.”
She was a member of the working party of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Related Diseases that developed an Indigenous health strategy as part of Australia’s response to HIV – including a possible outbreak in the Aboriginal community. “I travelled extensively around Australia, and worked with HIV-positive people – both black and white,” she said. “I was blessed to meet some wonderful people doing fantastic work for Aboriginal health.”
“I fell into education from working in health promotion and looking at ways of disseminating health messages,” she explained. Her varied career has included a time as Vice-President of the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service in Perth. She has worked for the Western Australian Health Department, Centrelink, and Curtin University in positions such as Aboriginal Liaison Officer, Manager of Aboriginal Programs, Health Promotions Officer, and Senior Policy and Planning Officer. In 2002 she was the recipient of the Edith Cowan University Aboriginal Consultative Committee Prize for academic excellence and contribution to student life.
She has been a Board and Committee member of several organisations serving Aboriginal health and education, and was Chair of the South West Aboriginal Education, Employment and Training Committee.
“As well as serving our Aboriginal students, the Oorala Centre is also about building partnerships within the University, and between the University and the community,” Ms Bennell said. Simply as a “presence” on campus, she added, it could help non-Aboriginal students become more fully engaged with Australia’s historical and social realities.
“Relationships are like a marriage – hard work,” said Debra Bennell, whose career shows that she is no stranger to hard work.