After speaking passionately about the issue of girls’ education at a special Sydney Ideas event last week, the Federal Member for Barton, Linda Burney sat down with Media and Communications student, Angela Wilcox to talk more about the issue and what students can do to make a difference.
Before Linda Burney was a politician, she was a young girl sitting in a makeshift schoolroom, playing schools with her cousins for weeks on end on the front verandah of her family’s house in rural NSW.
“I was always the teacher,” she grinned. “Even though we were very poor, there was somehow still that inbuilt understanding that education was important. There are many things in life that you can lose, or can have taken off you, but education is yours and you just move mountains to try and get it, because it will be the most valuable thing you ever have.”
It’s a belief that’s stayed with her throughout an impressive career, spanning from teaching in Western Sydney to making headlines as the first Aboriginal person to serve in the NSW Parliament, and recently the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.
Just over a month into the job, with her predecessor’s name still on her office door, Ms Burney hasn’t paused for breath. With remnants of a previous meeting lingering in her office, and our interview punctuated with text messages, Ms Burney was clearly having a busy day, yet she gave us her full attention and spoke with genuine thoughtfulness.
I met with her to continue a conversation she’d started the previous night, when she took the stage in the Great Hall for a Sydney Ideas event which tackled the challenging issue of educating girls in developing countries and parts of Australia. Moderated by Annabel Crabb, “the first journalist to run a home-invasion style cooking show,” the event brought together leaders in research, business, industry and government to the University to discuss before a public audience. Along with Ms Burney the panel featured Dame Marie Bashir, the first female Governor of NSW and former Sydney Uni chancellor, Kim McKay, the first woman to be appointed Director and CEO of the Australian Museum, and Associate Professor Timothy Allender and Dr Alexandra McCormick from the Faculty of Education and Social Work. They answered questions from a passionate crowd of students, staff, alumni and young girls in school uniforms.
“Obviously one of the great or powerful tools for a university is research, it’s a university’s lifeblood. I think there is enormous scope for universities and governments to work more closely together in the research area, but also for governments to look more closely to universities for policy answers, that doesn’t happen very often,” said Ms Burney, whose career is steeped in education experience.
With 62 million girls worldwide being deprived of an education, it was a daunting topic to broach. The panelists drew on their unique areas of expertise to bring to light the troubling intersections between education and issues like health, poverty and domestic violence.
“Obviously one of the great or powerful tools for a university is research, it’s a university’s lifeblood.
As Ms Burney pointed out, by unpacking the issue through the Sydney Ideas discussion, we could begin to identify achievable ways to take action. “With such huge global issues like this, often I think you feel overwhelmed about whether or not you as an individual can actually have any impact,” said Ms Burney. “What’s important about events like this is that it actually empowers you to make a difference, through small humble acts and individual grassroots actions.”
She was adamant that university students are uniquely positioned to advocate education for girls, a persuasion that prompted her to take the time from her relentless schedule to talk with me.
“When you’re studying at university, you’re starting to think ‘well, these are the sorts of things I’d like to do in life’,” Ms Burney said. “Universities have thousands and thousands of bright students, so it’s fantastic when they’re giving those students the confidence and opportunity to work in areas like girls’ education in central Australia or India.”
For students doubting their ability to create change, Ms Burney offered the piece of advice which persuaded her to contest the federal seat of Barton. “We as women often make lists of why we can’t do things – I’m not qualified enough, I’m not experienced enough, I don’t know enough about that subject to put my hand up and have a crack at that job,” she said. “Stop apologising and grasp every opportunity, because the worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, and that’s what I did.”
Joan Hume (DipEd '69, BA '69, MA '84) has spent a lifetime advocating for people with disabilities.
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