On Tuesday 19 September, the University of Sydney held the 23rd anniversary of the Dr Charles Perkins Oration and Memorial Prize in the Great Hall, in celebration of the life and work of one of our most impactful alumni, Charles Perkins.
Charles graduated from the University of Sydney in 1966, and dedicated his life to achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The annual Oration provides an opportunity to continue to build an understanding of race relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and to empower individuals and the wider community to contribute to this crucial conversation.
This year featured an important keynote address from Rachel Perkins, a proud Arrente and Kalkadoon woman and film and television director, producer, and screenwriter. Rachel is a passionate advocate for the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum and Co-Chair of the Yes campaign. She has dedicated her time to enlightening individuals about Indigenous history and culture, and the positive transformations the Voice promises for First Nations people.
The Voice will be a symbolic step on the path to reconciliation... But it will also be a practical step – one that sets in motion a new dynamic, that triggers concrete action.
"The Voice will be a symbolic step on the path to reconciliation – which is to say, one signifying that the will exists to come to grips with the past," Rachel said.
"But it will also be a practical step – one that sets in motions a new dynamic, that triggers concrete action."
Celebrating the University’s deep history and connection to First Nations people, the Oration includes recognition of academically gifted students through the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize. Based on the highest academic results, the top-performing Indigenous students at the University are awarded $4000.
We spoke with Rachal and Aneika about what the Memorial Prize and the legacy of Dr Charles Perkins means to them.
Rachal: When I attended my graduation earlier this year, I posted a photo to social media with the caption: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. Dr Charles Perkins is one of those giants, being one of the first Aboriginal people to graduate from a university, and to go on to have such a lasting impact on the lives of so many. I am truly honoured to receive the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize award.
Aneika: I have never counted myself as academically smart. I have always just been passionate to do what is right and what is good for community. To get this award, this year, the year of the referendum, I am hopeful we can see continuous progress in the right direction for our people.
Rachal: Through the Freedom Rides and later roles in Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Charles Perkins drew attention to issues of inequality Aboriginal people face, and did his best to make sure those issues could not go on being ignored.
Using the tools and resources I have been given through my studies, I feel inspired and motivated to do my part in shining a light on the issues affecting Aboriginal communities, and bringing them to the forefront of program and policy development to drive positive change for our people.
Aneika: The drive and the passion for his people and the follow through with actions, will always be the bar that we all need to raise to. I hold his experiences, and those that were with him, as powerful movements that changed a nation.
Aneika: We each have our own stories in life, battle scars and reasons for being the people who we are. We often forget to breathe and empathise with those around us. To the next generation, I would say spend time with our Elders now, as we are losing them every day, and with that we are losing our oral histories, and we need these captured.
Learning from our Elders while on our own academic journey reinforces our identity, strengthens our culture, and creates a knowledgeable community for a lifetime, from which we can create necessary and appropriate change to our society.
Rachal: For many Aboriginal people, the thought of going to university can seem daunting, especially if you’re the first in your family to attend, or you have to move off Country to attend.
Aboriginal people have always found strength from our communities. My advice to future students is to lean on the community of other Aboriginal students, teachers, support staff and tutors, and your family, who are all there to support you.
When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples find the courage to embrace university and higher education, whether that's straight out of school, or after gaining real life experience, we are always inspiring the next generation of students, just as Charles Perkins has inspired us.
The Charles Perkins Memorial Prize is made possible through the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust and the University’s Indigenous Strategy and Services portfolio.
The University of Sydney is proud to acknowledge the ABC as the host broadcaster for the Dr Charles Perkins Oration event, helping share this important conversation with Australians. The 2023 Charles Perkins Oration will air on ABC TV and social media channels from Saturday 23 September.