“Keep the Fire Burning!”: UNSW’s NAIDOC Fire Panel

With the theme “Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud,” the University of New South Wales was transformed into a lively centre of celebration and reflection on July 8th for NAIDOC. The day was a monument to the rich tapestry of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture, and accomplishments, and it was curated by committed students from UNSW’s Little Sister Big Sister initiative, First Nations Business Society, and First Nations Engineering Society. This unique occasion served as a potent declaration of the First Nations’ continuing spirit, togetherness, and resilience. 

The Fire Panel discussion was hosted by Little Sister, Big Sister executives Paula-Rose Bassett and Emily Thomson. It featured three notable First Nations leaders and was one of the headliner events for NAIDOC 2024. Renee Wootton is a trailblazer in the male-dominated field of aerospace engineering and a UNSW alumni. Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts is a legal powerhouse dedicated to social justice and reform and is another UNSW alumni. Adam Goodes is an Australian sports legend and a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights. Each speaker had a distinct voice to share on stage, and they all provided the audience with deep insights into the culture and experiences of First Nations Australians. 

When asked how their younger selves would have connected with this year’s NAIDOC theme, and how they relate to it now, Adam Goodes reflected on how his younger self would not have been able to connect at all. As a child, Goodes knew that he was Aboriginal, however his connection to his heritage was obscured by his mother being taken from her family and culture when she was five years old. The resulting disconnect from his community made it difficult for Goodes to engage with Indigenous events and ideas in his youth. 

Today, Goodes says the theme resonates strongly with him, especially in the context of the recent Voice referendum. Goodes emphasised that the fire of his culture has never gone out; instead, it has become a source of motivation and strength. He spoke passionately about the cultural symbolism of fire, used to signal to ancestors that their community is still present.  

“For me, it’s about keeping the fire burning so that our ancestors can stay alive,” said Goodes. 

Similarly, Renee Wootton shared her journey of grappling with her Aboriginal identity. Growing up, she did not feel a strong connection to her culture and often felt like she didn’t belong. While her mother remained connected to their cultural practices through painting and starting a bush tucker café, Wootton faced constant questioning from her community due to her ‘non-Indigenous’ appearance. This led to a period of silence about her identity. Moving to Sydney for university, she finally found her community among “white black fellas”, where she was able to find a sense of belonging.  

Wootton expressed her pride in her culture, stating, “I am a proud Tharawal woman. I love my culture, my family, and my community. We bring value not only within our community but also in business, in Australia, and globally.”  

Wootton also highlighted the importance of sustainability in her community. She noted that they have long known how to live sustainably, and that the world is eager to learn from them. 

“Everyone around the world wants to know how we maintain a sustainable way of life,” said Wootton. 

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts began by acknowledging the land. She talked about her family’s loud pride in their culture and identity, before recounting being forcibly removed from them at the age of ten and a half due to her Aboriginal identity. For Turnbull-Roberts, this year’s theme underscores the importance of instilling a sense of belonging in young people. She believes that “keeping the fire burning” means ensuring that their place and belonging are never taken away.  

“Every time we share our culture, we are keeping our culture. To keep our culture, we must share our culture,” Turnbull-Roberts said. 

The powerful narratives of these incredible First Nations figures illuminate the ongoing journey of cultural pride and identity, reminding us of the enduring strength and resilience of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

Adam Goodes on Business and Policies 

When asked about the impact of businesses and policies on Indigenous entrepreneurs, Goodes highlighted the significant positive influence they have had on First Nations communities. He pointed out the transformative role of the Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP), calling it a “real game changer” for Indigenous businesses. Goodes saw opportunities to start businesses aimed at helping Indigenous enterprises as engaging more effectively with the community. His own business, Indigenous Defence, where 80% of the staff are Indigenous and 50% are female, collaborates with around 140 Indigenous businesses across the country while maintaining a selective client list of just 16. 

Goodes emphasised the power and importance of choosing clients based on shared values, a privilege that Indigenous people have rarely experienced before. This approach is breaking down many barriers and empowering Indigenous business owners to create their own wealth. Goodes identified healthcare, housing, and education as the three key areas that need attention to ensure the success, longevity, and sustainability of Indigenous communities. For Goodes, the focus on business is a clear path to making a lasting, positive impact on his community. 

Renee Wootton on Diversity in STEM and Aeronautics 

Wootton discussed the importance of diversity in the STEM workforce and aeronautics, emphasising the need for more support to bring First Nations women into these fields. She noted that the lack of diversity at decision-making tables is a global issue, not just an Australian one – women occupy only 25% of diverse leadership roles, and it could take another 25 years to achieve parity. 

Wootton shared her own experience of often being the only one who looked like her in a room, and she stressed the importance of representation in fostering a sense of inclusion and advancement. Universities play a crucial role in engaging and motivating more people to pursue careers in STEM, and Wootton emphasised the importance of building strong networks at these institutions, using her own journey as an example. She concluded by saying, “Success never ends; success is a process. To see more women in the room, we need more people helping them get into that room.” 

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts on Closing the Gap and Social Justice 

Turnbull-Roberts spoke passionately about the importance of addressing gaps in social justice, particularly concerning family policing, out-of-home care, child removal, and the pipeline to incarceration. She highlighted the historical and ongoing impact of colonisation, policing, and imprisonment on First Nations children and young people, especially women. 

Turnbull-Roberts expressed deep concern over the increasing number of Indigenous children and women in the criminal justice system. She described her role as a privilege and stressed the need for conversations about these critical issues. 

“The onus sits on our leadership,” she said. 

Turnbull-Roberts emphasised that achievement is meaningless unless the community is right beside you, and that true success will come when children are no longer criminalised and imprisoned. 

Coming from an activist background, Turnbull-Roberts stressed the importance of asking, “what are we doing to free our children and young people?” She argued that imprisoning First Nations children and women, and removing them from their place and country, disrupts their rightful roles within their communities. She called for resources, thinking, and efforts to be directed toward supporting the community and keeping the cultural fire burning. 

Advice to students 

When asked what advice the panellists would offer to students, Goodes emphasised the importance of understanding and utilising the networks within and outside university. He encouraged students to find a space where they can truly be themselves. According to Goodes, support networks are crucial for personal and professional growth, and he believes that identifying and engaging with these networks can help students navigate their academic and future careers more effectively. 

Wootton spoke about the significance of finding one’s passion. She shared that despite the hardships she faced, her intrinsic beliefs and passion drove her forward. Wootton acknowledged that life is inherently challenging, but having a mission and purpose makes it more manageable. She advised students to pursue what they inherently believe in and aim to make a difference. Importantly, she highlighted the necessity of making sacrifices to achieve greatness, sharing her own journey over the years. 

Turnbull-Roberts shared a deeply personal perspective, recounting her own experiences of separation and the importance of community support. She stressed the value of reaching out to trusted individuals and backing each other up. Using the metaphor of a hazmat suit, she illustrated the importance of mutual aid: stepping in to help others while also knowing when to step back and let someone else take over. 

Turnbull-Roberts also reminded students of the profound impact their degrees can have on people’s lives. She urged them to remember their ancestral strength, comparing it to tuning into a radio frequency. Emphasising that humans are not meant to be alone, she critiqued the Western ideology of isolation and reminded students that pain is real but not permanent. She affirmed that community and connectedness are essential, and that every individual has a vital role to play. 

In a heartfelt closing, Wootton reminded students that one day, it will become clear how much value their lives hold. She underscored the importance of the people in the room, affirming their significant role in humanity. 

The NAIDOC Fire Panel, rich with personal stories and practical advice, offered a compelling reminder of the importance of passion, community, and resilience. The words of Adam Goodes, Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts, and Renee Wootton are not just for First Nations students, but for everyone seeking to make a meaningful impact in their lives and communities.