The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance aims to publish occasional thought pieces to stimulate important conversations on human rights, race, inclusion, belonging and diversity by change-makers and commentators working in the field around Australia. This thought piece is contributed by our CEO, Shaheen Hughes. 

Shaheen Hughes is the CEO of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance,  and a passionate advocate of diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Shaheen was born in Bombay and raised in multiple countries and on a ship in the Indian Ocean. She studied English Literature and Art History at the University of Leeds and has a Master of Arts in International Communications. Shaheen also founded Spice Mama, a multi-dimensional culinary storytelling project.

The views expressed in this thought piece are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance. 


Danjoo Koorliny: Walking together towards 2020 and beyond: voice, treaty, truth was held at the University of Western Australia in July 2019 as a summit of the most inspiring kind.  Not simply walking together but walking the talk, the team at the Centre for Social Impact for the first time ceded the summit’s programming to a powerhouse of wisdom. The event wasdesigned and led by Aboriginal leaders Dr Noel Nannup OAM, Dr Richard Walley OAM, Prof Colleen Hayward AM and Carol Innes, with the purpose of sharing knowledge to help our community co-create a better future for everyone.

The year 2020 will mark 200 years of colonisation in Perth, and the summit is premised on the realisation that we have 10 years to ‘create the actions and outcomes for how we walk together to this future’. Here, in this oldest living city on our planet, in this oldest living culture, we are on a journey of unlearning and detoxing that goes back exponentially further – 2,000 generations and more than 60,000 years.

The summit is an outstanding model for a shared space where power has been ceded but so much more has been gained in the process, and the grace and humility of the Centre for Social Impact team is commendable and hopefully much emulated.  The learning space created by the elders is warm, collegiate and at times very, very funny (dad jokes, it transpires, are universal), and everyone is made to feel like they belong in a room that has only become larger and more inviting for their presence.

The world is in desperate need of new solutions to complex problems and our conversation centres around the need to go back before we can move forward. First Nations knowledge systems, perfected over so many thousand years, offer us a rich, human centred alternative to the colonial systems driving us forward according to a progress narrative leading to increasing social and environmental injustice.

“We urgently need to develop our own environmental, cultural and social literacy.  Listen with our minds, our hearts and our whole beings.  What we will hear today is the best knowledge that we have, a gift for the world. Walking together is one thing, but sometimes you have to step back and let us walk in front of you.” (Dr Richard Walley, OAM)

As Dr Noel Nannup so succinctly describes,  “the ignorance and arrogance of the early settlers missed out on a world of opportunities that we are only just tapping into now.”

Professor Peter Klinken, Chief Scientist of Western Australia emphasised this during his own reflections, saying that “as Chief Scientist I see many things but nothing has blown me away like the Indigenous cultures of Australia. We’re building on a tradition of science that goes back 60,000 years, and includes the first botanists, the first hydrologists, the first astronomers, and the first engineers.”

The summit leaders all agree that it is the duty of those with ancestral lineages more than 60,000 years old to share the wisdom of the old world with the new world.

In a fracturing world, the idea of a new system is one that we all want to see. The idea that this system has always existed, erased by the violence of colonisation but alive in culture, like so many traditional knowledge systems, is heartbreaking, poignant but also incredibly hopeful.

And here it is being shared, the tenets of a better way forward, a pathway built to foreground our humanity, based on strong spiritual foundations and collective interest; built on connectivity, built to reflect the cyclical nature of our lives rather than a linear progress narrative.  It is the polar opposite of the systems imposed by the coloniser for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

This human-centred approach intuitively prioritises the emotions of empathy, care and compassion, the skills of deep listening and deep observation. Decision-making, based on this approach is conducted for collective community good and enables meaningful input by people affected.

A deep understanding of interconnectivity asks us to cross political, disciplinary and institutional boundaries to create change, and a cyclical approach allows us to question temporal space and to access ancient, non-linear narrative traditions.

As Aboriginal culture ‘grows like a spiral into the future’, into a ‘cycle of inclusiveness, advancement and enhancement’ where knowledge is shared in order to grow, Richard Walley emphasises the importance of conversation, language and relationships to the learning process.  “We have to store the knowledge in our relationships. Everything starts with a conversation.”

Other leaders, like Herbert Bropho, spoke to the fundamental dissonance between Western approaches to education and how this impacted (and still impacts) Aboriginal children, and traditional First Nations approaches.

“My education was stolen from me since I was taken out of school, but the best education was sitting round the fire yarning with my elders.”

Yarning might just be the best policy tool we have ever had, sitting together and talking, developing relationships, not just man to man but man to nature.  And amongst the stories of loss and disconnection shared by elders, there are stories of hope and a sense that defeat is not an option.

Much of the summit and many of the stories are concerned with how we move forward, guided by traditional Aboriginal knowledge, over the next 10 years.  What could we have achieved by 2029?

Participants have many ideas.  A treaty, fundamentally.  Unquestionably. Greater voice, that represents spirit and heart, the resurgence of language and culture, greater agency and self determination in civic and government processes, truth telling, to enable others to understand the violence of the last 200 years. A change of date for Australia Day.  Dual naming, and the recognition and pride of living on Whadjuk country.

Over the two days, sessions were designed to engage in conversations about how we go forward to address and transform education, health, housing and justice. To improve funding to First Nations communities on First Nations terms. To enable Aboriginal policy leadership. To remove systemic barriers at all levels, and to restore opportunities to regenerate Australia’s agricultural and environmental systems to ensure a culturally sustainable future.

Here, in the oldest living city in the world, we have no shortage of ideas. We have the privilege of being led on a process of system redesign, away from a failing colonial approach and towards First Nations thinking more than 60,000 years old.

And this thinking is being echoed worldwide.  A recent UN report on the state of the environment released in May 2019[1]found that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating”,with almost one million species threatened with extinction.  While these staggering environmental losses are a direct result of human habitation, many Indigenous communities, on whose traditional lands the degradation remains much less severe, realise that the “knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous peoples contribute to this conservation. In fact, Indigenous people could contribute to global sustainability efforts if provided legal and political rights to use and steward the lands they know so well.”[2]

Over the next 10 years, we have a chance to progress the fundamental elements of voice, treaty and truth, to address the complex intergenerational trauma that First Nations communities live with daily, to dismantle unjust systems and replace them with social, economic and environmental systems designed with humanity, spirit and hope.

We have received an invitation to the start of a conversation that needs to keep going, to take place on country, and we are grateful to accept. This invitation however, is firmly prefaced on the grace of stepping back, to ‘let go to let in’. The generative atmosphere of the Social Impact Summit has modelled the idea of ‘let go to let in’ perfectly.

The concept of ceding space to make more space, to lead with empathy and compassion and grace, to let the country and its peoples speak in order that we may heal ourselves, our communities, our cities and our land, carries hope for all of us and must extend beyond our conference rooms and into every aspect of what we do.

As Murri visual artist and activist Lilla Watson famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Leading with our humanity in the context of and respect for the land on which we live, thinking collectively, with common purpose and in the spirit of the connections we all share, is the frontline of resistance against the ‘imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal’ systems that bind us (as Bell Hooks affectionately calls them).  It is the frontline of resistance in every separate cause for which we fight, from social justice to climate change.

Imagine the freedom of living in a world where the binaries of whiteness were suspended, where the hierarchies, ideologies, disciplines and institutions of the dominant order were deprioritised. In their place we might see a more true architecture of inclusion.

This kind of thinking was expressed perfectly in the 2019 Garma Conference’s Youth Forum’s Imagination Declaration.

“We do not want to inherit a world that is in pain. We do not want to stare down huge inequality feeling powerless to our fate. We do not want to be unarmed as we face some of the biggest problems faced by the human race, from rising sea levels, which will lead to huge refugee challenges, to droughts and food shortages, and our own challenges around a cycle of perpetuated disadvantaged. 

It’s time to think differently. 

With 60,000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can be one of the groups of people that transform the future of life on earth, for the good of us all. 

We can design the solutions that lift islands up in the face of rising seas, we can work on creative agricultural solutions that are in sync with our natural habitat, we can re-engineer schooling, we can invent new jobs and technologies, and we can unite around kindness.”

“We urge you to give us the freedom to write a new story. We want to show the world Aboriginal genius.  We want to show Australia Aboriginal leadership and imagination for the whole nation. 

Over the coming months we’ll be sharing the declaration with thousands of Indigenous kids across our nation and together we’ll stand to say, “set an imagination agenda for our classrooms, remove the limited thinking around our disadvantage, stop looking at us as a problem to fix, set us free to be the solution and give us the stage to light up the world.” 

Marcel Proust once wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It is only when we look at the world differently, when we make space for new perspectives, when we commit to listening, and ‘seeing’, that liberation becomes possible.  The act of making space is not about losing ground, but gaining it.

The arts can play a transformative role in bringing people together to see space anew, to create new narratives, which transcend artificial linear, temporal and linguistic boundaries.  The arts can show us what is possible in these new and unconstrained worlds, and create shared spaces to tell stories in order for us to begin to ‘see’ each other in our equivalent humanity.

Think about the way stories were told, and heard, and knowledge passed on, through song and dance and theatre, throughout the global south, for generations upon generation.

Think for a minute about just one of these many stories made new, the otherworldly beauty of Boorna Waanginy (The Trees Speak) in King’s Park, an unforgettable light and sound immersion into the six seasons of Noongar culture projected onto the landscape, an intuitive interdisciplinary collaboration between Noongar artists including Dr Richard Walley and the Perth Festival in 2019.

Think about how beautiful Perth looked on those warm summer nights, the city of lights; here on the edge of the Indian Ocean, the oldest living city in the world showcasing the oldest living culture on this planet.  This is how we will walk towards 2020 and beyond, together.