Ambassador for change
One of Jeff McMullen’s earliest memories of Indigenous Australians is being tossed a pair of gloves and given "a quick intro" from the grandchildren of arguably this country’s finest boxing family, the Sands.
But the decorated journalist, filmmaker and former 60 Minutes reporter also vividly recalls the stories his mother told about her childhood in the Hunter Valley. She told of the terrible discrimination shown to young Aborigines - how they were denied the same education as white children or permission to speak their native language in school.
"That was the first lesson I had on the unfairness and injustice of Australian life," he recalled.
For McMullen, who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2009 by the University in recognition of his outstanding achievements in journalism and humanitarian work, it is a lesson he has carried throughout his life – and one he has tried to pass onto his own children in the hope, one day, it might be learned as a nation.
With his boxing gloves still on, McMullen has spent more than 40 years fighting to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous people, whether it has been covering their struggles here and abroad as a globetrotting journalist or, in more recent decades, through tireless involvement with significant humanitarian projects.
His most notable contributions to helping Indigenous Australians have been through his association with Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth (of which he is honorary CEO), the Jimmy Little Foundation, the Closing the Gaps campaign for improved Aboriginal health, and Indigenous engineering summer schools at the Universities of Newcastle and New South Wales.
"The only way we are going to address the disadvantage in education and health is by valuing Indigenous knowledge," McMullen said.
"Then we have to convince the individual Aboriginal student that learning is not a white thing, a ‘gubba’ thing. Education is the only way we are going to help Indigenous children escape the maze of poverty and inequity."
McMullen singles out Literacy Backpack (which is coordinated by Fountain for Youth and provides reading material to Aboriginal children and their families) and Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience among the many recent projects he is involved in that are making crucial headway.
McMullen applauds the University’s commitment to Indigenous education, saying it has "the finest record of any university in Australia in ensuring Aboriginal undergraduates succeed". He has witnessed the results first-hand, working for many years in remote communities alongside some of the country’s first Aboriginal doctors, who had all graduated from Newcastle.
He considers the work of prominent Indigenous figures - such as Professor John Maynard of The Wollotuka Institute, and Dr Chris Sarra who heads the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, inspiring communities to take responsibility for the education of their children - as truly groundbreaking.
"A powerful movement of Aboriginal parents insisting their children learn is starting to grow, which contradicts the media stereotype of hopelessness that has come with decades of welfare dependency," McMullen said.
He also sees young Aboriginal Australians grasping new ways of learning through digital media and combining them with traditional knowledge and stories. McMullen believes this knowledge, too, has a prominent place in our own learning with the rise of global climate and population issues.
"Aboriginal knowledge and earth science are companion pieces that fit together perfectly."
If McMullen has one message in all that he does, it is this: listen to Indigenous Australians and, most importantly, trust them.