Behind First Nations’ scholarships

Hope for deeper change

A quick scan of the Balnaves Foundation’s history of supporting First Nations people reveals a long-standing commitment to help shape positive outcomes: 12 years ago, it started funding Indigenous Medicine Scholarships at the University of NSW, recognising that financial disadvantage was a challenge for some Indigenous students.

Image: Trustees from The Balnaves Foundation
with Professor Megan Davis holding the Uluru Statement from the Heart

Now, the Foundation is supporting the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with a scholarship for First Nations students: from medicine to the arts, all through the prism of supporting talented First Nations students to find and build a career.

And the experience at UNSW has helped inform how the Foundation and NIDA have devised these news scholarships – to build in student support, through an Elder in Residence, a mentoring scheme and to provide a paid internship to help start a network that can nourish further opportunities.

Foundation Chief Executive Officer Hamish Balnaves acknowledged some of the lessons of the UNSW experience had helped to shape the thinking about the NIDA program. “Through the Indigenous scholarships at UNSW, we realised that quite often if the students weren’t from the city, they had trouble adjusting as anyone does from out of the city,’’ Hamish explained. “But often their connection to land and community is geographical and their extended family is often stronger than in traditional western families and that was really hard thing for some students to be away from.’’

So, the NIDA students will be able to engage with an Elder in Residence, who will help provide the kind of support that will ease some of the challenges of moving to the city and starting a university course. There will also be paid trips home if required.

The goal is to help keep the student connected to the course and to stay until the end. “We wanted a program with all the other things wrapped into it,’’ Hamish said.

Under the NIDA agreement, the Balnaves Foundation becomes the Principal Patron of the Institute’s First Nations Program. It includes three $90,000 Bachelor of Fine Arts scholarships for First Nations student – with the scholarship providing $30,000 for each year of the three-year course - the three-six month paid internships and the Elder In Residence for six years.

In the 12 years between the initial commitment to UNSW and this most recent announcement, the Balnaves Foundation has shown an enduring commitment to First Nations, including funding the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law at UNSW (a position held by Professor Megan Davis), helping to build Nura Gili, the Centre for Indigenous Programs at the UNSW, and supporting Guardian Australia’s reporting of Indigenous Affairs for three years. The result of that collaboration was a series of award-winning stories and investigations, plus the Indigenous Award at the 2020 Australian Philanthropy Awards.

Hamish said philanthropy has an opportunity, if it so desires, to make change and influence the discussion, about First Nations’ people.

“We’re supporting Megan Davis and the Uluru Statement from the Heart and her push for a referendum,’’ he said. “And corporate Australia is starting to line up with that, and I think unfortunately that’s got to happen before the politicians follow.’’

“So, there is a lack of political desire – they’ll say the right words, but no one is saying: ‘Hey, this is of national importance, this is a stain on our history that is unresolved.’ If we’re going to mature as a country we’re going to have to deal with our past and the politicians aren’t seeing that,’’ Hamish said.

But he is optimistic that the time is coming when the groundswell will drive change.

“I just think with the Uluru Statement and the Indigenous Voice to Parliament that momentum is building, and the population is becoming more aware of the injustice and what’s happened: they’re learning about it,’’ Hamish said.  “All these things - including the arts telling Indigenous stories - every little thing helps people’s understanding and their desire for change: kids who are now leaving school have a much better understanding of the issues.’’

And part of building that broad based support is listening to and engaging with the arts.

“The arts do play that role of not just giving people knowledge but also giving them empathy, changing their hearts and minds – the arts does that so much better than a book with knowledge in it,’’ Hamish said. “It can move you and change your view on those issues. So, we really believe telling those Indigenous stories is fundamentally important.’’

Rhoda Roberts AO, a Widjubul woman who was part of the establishment of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust more than three decades ago and was the inaugural head of the Sydney Opera House’s First Nations programming, told the ABC last year that more could be done to bring First Nations’ stories to the stage.

“There's a lot of capacity building we can do in the arts sector ... but there needs to be a commitment in the sector for people to step aside and let our First Nations young people have a voice,’’ she said at the time.

NIDA CEO Liz Hughes said when the Balnaves Foundation partnership was announced that the Foundation’s support and collaboration would enable “…more creative First Nations artists to undertake intensive learning, creative productions, be networked with industry partners [and] commence their employment…’’

For Hamish, his hoped-for outcomes from the NIDA collaboration are simple but significant.

“On a micro level, it’s these individuals finding a place in the arts industry, whatever it is, and that really is just seeing them have a career’’ he said. “On a macro level, I hope to see it duplicated as a model – everyone is talking about pathways being the key thing for arts professionals anyway…I hope to see that holistic way of providing a scholarship and making it much more than the money is something that will become more normal.’’

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