The Sir Robert Menzies Indigenous Mentoring Fellowship is a partnership between the Menzies Foundation and the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School (MITS), a residential transition school for Indigenous students from remote and regional communities.
Edwina Green was awarded the 2019 Sir Robert Menzies Indigenous Mentoring Fellowship, to spend 12 months as a mentor to Year 7 students at MITS. Students from remote and regional communities come to MITS to study for a year in Melbourne while living in a home-style, safe environment. Their year at MITS is designed to enable a supported transition to city life and high school the following year.
Edwina shares her story...
As I come into the final week as the 2019 Sir Robert Menzies Mentoring Fellow, I am able to look back on the year as an incredibly rewarding time of dedication, challenges and an extraordinary enhancement to my life as a university student, artist and Aboriginal person. Creating relationships with the dynamic cohort of 22 Aboriginal young people, and providing them with the support and love that is necessary to succeed within a completely new environment, pushed my abilities to new limits, while simultaneously being one of the most comfortable environments I have been surrounded with within the education sector in Melbourne. I am insanely proud of my achievements this year, but facilitating a safe, nurturing and loving space for these mob to flourish within, is an achievement that I am most proud of.
Within my role, from the get-go, I was able to create relationships that enable MITS students to respect my position as a mentor, but also as a big sister; Being an aunty and filling in the role as a sister within my own personal life to both relatives, and other young people within our community, I had a good sense of what was to come, but the amplification of what I was expecting, compared to reality, was immense. Teenage antics, boarding school dynamics and relationships between students and their peers was a challenge that with the support of my mentor and MITS staff, navigating this soon became seamless; the feelings of homesickness, sometimes just needing a good cry and loving arms for a long hug, and general feelings of anxiety and the challenges of immersing themselves entirely into a place that they have had little to no experience within; where I was able to have long yarns and dismantle these ideas that fostered their fears, and encourage them to continually challenge themselves, and reminding them why they are here.
One of the biggest challenges that I struggled with initially was juggling the needs of 22 students, and the crucial parts to growing these relationships. I wasted no time creating bonds with the kids, which I am incredibly grateful to have been able to do; the importance of spending one-on-one time with them, while trying to ensure that every single student felt equally loved, cared for and an important part of my life; some relationships took a bit more time, and a bit more persistence, which is to be expected with so many different personalities all in one space!
A few things that I continually prioritised with the kids was to be unapologetically themselves; they have no reason to be shame, and have every reason to beam with pride, while remembering that they are representing their communities, and hold a big part in how the kids from their communities, follow in their footsteps. While I reminded them of this, they reminded me that my cultural integrity is the single most important thing to my being, and ensuring that I am safe, and uncompromising within myself.
An incredible opportunity that I was able to incorporate within the mentoring was with the Away from Home program, with the Arts Centre. This allowed the students to see myself and other young Indigenous leaders mentor in a creative capacity alongside building relationships within the arts industry. A key moment that saw some of the MITS students engaging with art was an exhibition opening at Blak Dot Gallery, called ‘Code Switch’ curated by first nations artists. The MITS kids that wanted to come picked up the exhibition catalogue, linked the artist statements to the art, and asked questions, in a culturally safe space. The kids were able to meet some of the artists, speak to the curators, and when asked about the night on our drive home, they had a clear understanding about how important code switching is within our being as blakfulla’s. A real sense of community was present, and I was beaming with pride when we arrived home.
Alongside this, I was asked to speak at the MITS Gala Dinner in front of 450 people, which was incredibly daunting, but I received feedback that my speech created a sense of family and even brought tears to people (good tears!) It was definitely out of my comfort zone, but reminded me that with a support network who love what you do and everything MITS is about, you literally can do anything.
Throughout my mentoring, I was also incredibly lucky to have Annie Caruthers as my own mentor. As I invested a lot of time and energy into the students’ lives, sometimes I would forget how important it was that I was focused on my own growth as well, and allowed time for self care. I have just completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts, and The University of Melbourne, and with the support of Annie, this was possible this year. As I had many hurdles throughout the year, especially towards the end, which saw me in hospital and having surgery, followed almost immediately with Sorry Business. I was convinced I wasn’t going to complete my final assessments for my degree, but was constantly reminded by Annie that it was okay to put myself first, and focus on my own health before anyone else’s for a bit! Alongside a quick recovery post-surgery and having a little time off to ensure I could focus on finishing my coursework, Annie was the first to express how relieved and excited she was that I was in fact going to be able to complete my degree. On multiple occasions, she has shown me unconditional love, direction with how I’m navigating things around MITS, and support that is inspiring and what I hope to bring back to the students.
With the guidance of Annie, and the financial backing of the Menzies foundation, a long dreamt of trip to Hawaii and San Francisco to engage with other first nations people, and to create a new video work became reality. I chose Hawaii (Oahu) due to the thriving first nations culture; to build a relationship with Ho’Olu Aina as an artist and cultural collective in order to challenge my own understanding of indigenous epistemologies outside of Australia. During my time in Hawaii, I had the privilege of working, making, learning, sharing and creating with native Hawaiian mob; we did a range of cultural sharing such as an ‘aloha’ and ‘mahalo’ circles where we speak about our lives, our ancestors, their influence, and what we are grateful for. It was extremely humbling to be in a space where Hawaiian language was being used to speak, pray, and acknowledge each other. I also learnt how to do traditional fabric printing; where Polynesian stamping method was used, and we were taught how to create our own stamps (carved out of bamboo, and more recently with foam) to which we stamped on linen.
As a collective, we spent time doing agro-farming and more domesticated farming, and how these can intertwine and work as a way of food source while not destroying the environment. This sees food sources such as yams/taro, planted in between native Hawaiian forest, where the non-native plants were planted separately more in garden beds. We learnt and made our own traditional Hawaiian food and then we began our own farming process. Ho’Oulu Aina spend a lot of time removing invasive species, which saw us cutting down entire plantations of bamboo, reutilising the leaves as mulch for other plants, and placing the bamboo trunks into piles to dry, and to be used for cooking/fires. The entire time spent in Hawaii was extremely rewarding and an overall incredible experience.
I continued my trip by heading to San Francisco, where I was able to film a new conceptual video work that speaks about eucalyptus as an invasive species. Tasmanian blue gum was introduced to the bay area (San Francisco and its surrounds) in the 1850’s in an attempt to create a new source of income, an energy source, but has actually meant that the fires that California have become almost uncontrollable due to the eucalyptus – I created a work that hopefully begins the conversation between eucalyptus as a symbol for aboriginality and our connection with land, a reminder of home, but as something that is actually harming the ecosystem of this North America - and almost romanticised without knowledge of where it comes from, and the realities of Aboriginal people within Australia.
Throughout this year I have been challenged, grown into a person that I didn’t know I was capable of becoming, and have created relationships that I will cherish for a lifetime. I’m extremely grateful to the Menzies Foundation for supporting me this year, and enabling intergenerational empowerment, influence and a culturally supportive environment that is necessary for growth as Indigenous people.
Thank you for an incredible year,