Indigenous Women in Leadership & Education


Words || Sara Zarriello

In conversation with the current President of the Indigenous Students Association of Macquarie University, Natasha Balsdon

The ISA is a cultural group on campus that aims to carry on important conversations around Indigenous culture and history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The process of reconciliation and reparation has a long way to go, but through sharing and understanding the group hopes to encourage this process of growth within our university and wider community.

What does your role as President of the ISA involve? 

As the president of the ISA I am ultimately responsible for the ISA as a whole. This means that I am responsible for running meetings, the correspondence between ourselves and the University or other parties we may be dealing with.  

Would you be able to explain the importance of having your voice heard within the University community? 

Since becoming President at the beginning of this year, it has been quite difficult for us as a student group to have a physical presence because of COVID-19. But in the future, I hope for the ISA to have a stronger voice within the student body. Indigenous students of Macquarie University are extremely lucky to have such an amazing Indigenous centre in Walanga Muru which has such an amazing presence on (and off) campus! 

Has your perception of yourself, as a young Indigenous woman in a perceived position of power, altered? 

Not particularly, I have definitely become more aware of what I share on Facebook and Instagram. I think because of COVID-19 it has made this a lot different. As all of our ISA meetings and events have been done online for most of this year, I haven’t really felt like I was, ‘in charge,’ as such. I am sure that when we are able to hold and go to events as well as have meetings face-to-face again this will change, but for now I’m just Natasha who can’t seem to use Zoom! 

What has your journey to becoming the President of the ISA looked like? 

My journey to President was quite sudden and unexpected. I have been a member of the ISA since 2018, and stepped into the role of Media and Communications Manager halfway through 2019. I applied for the position of Vice President for 2020 and started this year in the position. Unfortunately, in an unforeseen turn of events, the then President had to step away from the Executive Team which meant I had to step up into the role of President very quickly. There were no struggles per se, but I did doubt myself and how well I would do as the President. But since stepping up, I have loved every moment and am so grateful to have such an amazing Management Committee supporting me personally and in the position of President. 

Has leadership always been something you have aspired to? 

Yes! Ever since I understood what a Prime Minister was, that’s who I’ve wanted to be. Working my way through the ranks to the leader of Australia has always been an ambition of mine. For as long as I can remember, I have always been someone to take control of situations and boss everyone about (but in a nice way, I promise). Leadership to me is something that can be achieved at so many levels, whether those be as extreme as becoming the Prime Minister or just ushering someone to move registers at the supermarket. Little acts of directing people to do better is something that I have seemed to do my whole life and I don’t think that it will stop anytime soon. 

Who are your role models? 

I have so many people in my life that have inspired me or guided me throughout. I am so grateful for everyone who has guided, taught or helped me along the way. But two of my main inspirations would be:

My Mum, Sue. She is an amazingly strong woman with such passion and drive for everything that she does. My Mum and I are so alike on so many levels and I could go on about how terrific she is forever. If I can be half as brilliant as she is, I think I will turn out okay.

And my favourite high school teacher, Ms D. She was such a down to earth educator who taught in such a comforting and supportive way, she encourages her students to do their best in such a kind, heartfelt and sincere way. I learnt so much from her but in such a unique and memorable way. We would learn creatively and in such an unconventional way which made it so much more enjoyable as a student in high school. She taught me for different subjects throughout high school and made every single one so much fun and I thank her for all her support and guidance throughout my high schooling years. She really has shaped the way I wish to teach students and I am so grateful for our paths crossing! 

You are studying a degree in primary education. In what ways do you see education playing a role in cross-cultural communication? [For example, in bridging the gap in White Australian education and Indigenous education.]

I feel as if bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education is simple. Engage Indigenous scholars, teachers, and Elders, in the creation of resources, syllabus and curriculum that will allow everyone to learn about Indigenous culture, history and everything in between. Cross-cultural education plays a large part in the education that children have of other cultures, not only First Nations culture, but the history and customs of so many others. This is an eye-opening moment for students and allows them to learn about their peers and the history of where their families may come from. It is so important for cross-cultural education in Australia as we are such a multicultural nation which makes us so unique, so our education system should be able to accompany that. 

Can you comment on the levels of power that currently pervade our education system in Australia? Whether they be negative or positive? 

I feel as if the people who are making decisions for Australia’s youth are quite out of touch with what actually goes on in their everyday lives. There are a lot of people in positions of power who have been there for ages, and haven’t spent a lot of time in a classroom setting to see how students are interacting with the set curriculum and syllabus. There are definite positives of the current education system, but unfortunately there are also some major negatives which need correcting.

In your opinion, how should primary schools teach their students about Indigenous culture and history? 

Indigenous culture and history are two very important things that Australian students unfortunately don’t get taught to the greatest potential. Firstly, there should be a part of the curriculum that explicitly addresses Indigenous culture and history. In this topic, educators could call in local Elders, members of the local Land Council or the school’s [if they have one] Aboriginal Education Officer for some insight into the topic and give the students a more personal experience with Indigenous culture and history. If educators are nervous about teaching their students First Nations history, there are so many resources available to assist you and so many people you can seek assistance from and in my experience so many people are willing to share their knowledge, especially to children. 

What is your advice to Indigenous women looking to become leaders in their communities and work? 

Just do it! If you’re nervous, that’s normal – feeling a little bit anxious, that’s normal too! Look for opportunities such as internships or volunteering to put yourself out there. There will always be someone willing to assist you in your journey, you just need to keep an eye out for them. The best way to climb the leadership ladder is to make as many connections and relationships as you can through networking. The best advice I could give someone is, be the person you wish your younger self could have looked up to!