Darwin Elder Uncle Richard Fejo’s decades of leadership have been recognized with an honorary doctorate from Flinders University.
The Larrakia man received the title in May for his leadership in Indigenous health and rights on the university campus.
Uncle Fejo said the title was recognition for his years of struggle to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage.
“Growing up in the 70s, we saw a lot of disadvantages, and my family was pretty strong in fights,” he said.
“I am the last of the seven.
“I am surrounded by equally passionate people – we have teachers, researchers, a great line manager and a great team which includes Adelaide Aunty Pat Miller’s doctor in Alice Springs, Dr Uncle Lewis Yarluburka O’Brien. “
In his role as an Elder on campus, Fejo works within Poche SA+NT which is responsible for Aboriginal health.
In addition to community connections, Fejo provides cultural and wellness support to students.
“Every Friday I’m normally at the Royal Darwin Hospital, taking them for a bush walk, or being there for them whether they’re indigenous or not,” he said.
But Uncle Fejo’s work doesn’t stop there; Kicking off a recent series of interviews, Fejo said it’s important that Indigenous stories are told and the next generation of leaders are being created.
“All indigenous peoples have their own stories, but when we share them there is power, there is generosity, in the exchange there is respect,” he said.
“We engage directly with the community, we engage with schools, (asking) how can we support you.
“We open the definition of leadership – as self-provocation, it is self-determination.”
Uncle Fejo is also a singer, songwriter and comedian, but his main work for the past 25 years has been in urban, rural and remote communities in the Northern Territory.
The story behind Uncle Fejo’s honorary doctorate begins with his own family and early experiences, especially Nanna Nangala Fejo, a tireless advocate for the Stolen Generations.
“Mom always said, education is knowledge, knowledge is power,” Uncle Fejo said.
Her previous experiences continue to inform and shape her work, particularly her stint at Indigenous Legal Services.
“It made me realize very quickly that we are diverse, not only in our backgrounds, but also in our exposure to English and our understanding – law is a language in itself and medicine,” said the uncle Fejo.
“But for me, I’ve always said communication is everything, if you have two people with different worldviews, dive into that space.
“One of the things I experienced working during the intervention period – the negative stereotypes that were being put on Aboriginal men and Aboriginal people in general across Australia became very clear.”
In response to this, Uncle Fejo worked to change the narrative.
“I started sharing positive stories – I started an article called Larrakia Rise,” he said.
“I started to change the way people think about Aboriginal people.
“A lot of people don’t know how to start…engage with Aboriginal people.
“We need to change our attitude to what we can achieve, as we change Australia’s social discourse.”
By challenging Australian social discourse, Uncle Fejo reflects on deeper feelings of reconciliation.
“We have a creek here, Rapid Creek, Gurinbey, it means bend, because it bends,” he said.
“They say it comes from the source of fresh water, it meets the ocean.
“Where the salt meets the fresh water, there are big splashes, there is a big muddy area.
“As there resides its salt water and its fresh water – like two cultures, which meet, quite often a misunderstanding – for me, it is reconciliation.”
When presenting the honour, Chancellor Stephen Gerlach said Uncle Fejo had played a key role in the university’s reconciliation action plan and stood up for Flinders students and partners.
- Story of Rachel Stringfellow