2020 She Leads College – Get to know Vanessa Turnbull Roberts

19 February 2020

Phi Phi Nguyen

Phi Phi is the Communications Officer at YWCA Canberra

The She Leads College Conference taking place on Thursday 12 March, is a one-day event aimed at young-woman, non-binary and female students in years 11 and 12. It is designed to equip participants with the practical skills and knowledge they need to become confident leaders. Today, we chat with Vanessa Turnbull Roberts, one of our panellists at the upcoming She Leads College Conference.

Vanessa is a 23-year-old proud Bundjalung woman, activist, writer, law/social work student and recipient of the 2019 Young People’s Human Rights Medal. At the age of 11, she was forcibly removed from her father and placed in out-of-home care and has used her personal experience as a driver for her motivation to study law and social work. Vanessa is an active member of her community, advocating against forced adoptions legalisations and its process of being a continued stolen generation, and the over-representation of Indigenous incarceration and black deaths in custody. We caught up with Vanessa to chat with her about her motivations, her passions, and her leadership journey in becoming an indigenous activist.


Can you tell us a bit about why you are studying law and social work and the significance of those qualifications to you?

My mother has always pushed the power of education on me. Every day she reminded me of the significance of obtaining something that cannot ever be taken (that being the knowledge and learning in this world, that is not just limited to the university world either). I am the first to go to university in my family. Before this I was told by teachers I would not make it past year nine. That made my mother furious. My parents were never granted the opportunity to study further education, and even being in this space is an opportunity I never really saw available either.

When I reflect on why I chose to study, I remember the fights and protests of my ancestors. The fight they took to make sure we could have a little more choice in this country that still today harms blak [sic] people . I think of my great grandmother being a domestic slave. I think of my dad not being considered human before the 1967 referendum. I think of the struggle, then I think of where I am going, but I never forget where I came from and the love I had along the way.

I am studying Law and social work as a vehicle to really drive change and see a shift in the power that is abusing the people. Growing up in my community we were constantly and disproportionately impacted by the law, targeted by police and only ever seeing the negative implications of the Law. I feel as a proud blak [sic] woman I am growing into a position to utilise the Law. From my own personal experience with the system, through to my professional growth, I value what this means towards liberating people in society. I recognise the duty I have in freeing others whilst I am too, heading towards freedom.

The Law that I study will never be my Lore that has existed for over 65,000 years, but I will utilise the core values and foundations that exist in the spirit of being a First Nations woman through the system to support the people’s power and the people’s love . If recognising and understanding the legal and social process that exists assists one young person, child or soul for the better, then it is worth it. I chose this degree in order to place myself in a position that may free another. The way the law did not free my parents in giving them the justice and support they deserved. The law has not been on our side for a very long time and it’s time we come from an approach of healing and strength-based support, rather than targeting and punitive responses.

You’ve written for publications such as Indigenous X Junkee, and The Guardian. You’re an activist and you’ve recently been awarded the Young People’s Human Rights Medal, how did you begin your leadership journey as an activist?

When you are born growing up strong and blak [sic], knowing your identity and being connected to the longest, living, still existing culture in the world, you do not have a choice to be a bystander. I did not begin this journey. This path was set already before me by my parents, nan, pop and all the ancestors who have been demanding, love, justice, and truth for the bodies, lives and lands being stripped away by colonisation.
One thing I value the most is the different forms of activism and the leadership within that. It’s in our media where blak [sic] people are both in front and behind the cameras capturing the truth.

It’s in the arts. It’s in the academic world. It’s in the screenwriter who has so perfectly articulated the struggle in their writing to share with the world. It’s in the aunty opening her door for the children in the community. It’s in the mother and father battling the state system. It’s in the action of taking it to the streets and demanding our rights and justice. It’s in our kinship. My activism began because I was that kid that was targeted including, my community, my family, my kinship, and my deepest loves whose voices were silenced. This journey started when I realised my voice could no longer be silent.

Humanity, love, and leadership are only real when shared. I am a pillar to the fight that began long before my time, and I will continue this for the liberation and love of the next generations to come. I am so proud to be surrounded by leaders of truth, justice, and the continued fight against the crimes committed by the colony.
If you could get one message out to all of Australia, what would it be?

My one, but long yarn short, would be to acknowledge that you are your own soul placed onto this earth with the core spirit of love and familiar deep connection. Remember that it is within your deepest humanity that you have a responsibility to show up. Show up for blak [sic] lands, blak [sic] lives, blak [sic] bodies. Remember that you are currently situated on the lands and waters of the longest, living and still existing culture in the world. That white Australia has a blak [sic] history, and we are still here. That you have a choice to be on the side that includes, the side of the oppressor, or the side to stand with the oppressed.

This country is built on stolen land, prior to invasion my people have been living with love, humanity, and transferring the lore of the land through our stories and continued creation. We now live in a world that prioritises capitalism and greed. Show up with your full soul, full heart and action with humanity to achieve justice. If you lead with love and choose actively not to be a bystander to the crucial injustices this country subjects Indigenous and marginalised people to, you are choosing to step with the right side of justice.

What advice would you give to yourself when you were in College (years 11 and 12)?

I would tell myself that the time with our people is the most crucial and important thing in the world. That every minute of every day is crucial. That you hug those who mean something to you on every entry and exit and value every inch of the moment. That venerability is one of the most sacred things in the world and the constructs society helps your mind create is far from being authentic.

I would encourage the importance to articulate both your pain and blessing and remind all those around me they are not alone. I’d sit with more strangers to yarn with. I would begin to teach myself deeper stillness and being grounded with the ancestors that are so close. I would tell myself that every struggle endured is the strength and fire in your fight to come and that your duty is to liberate with love and support towards your sisters and brothers rising. I would affirm that my decisions even as a young person mattered, that everything I advocated for even in year 11 and 12 was crucial and even though people may not believe you at the time, or they may not agree, or will do anything to belittle your voice and truth, you turn to them and kindly say “watch me do my thing”.

Don’t ever let another person dictate your movement if your movement is done with humility, love, justice, and fight. Every minute counts, and there’s no time to give power to those being oppressive. Remember it’s all about the collective care and love, the village raises us, and nothing can be done one out. It takes a community, good love and good people.

Are you a young woman, female-identifying or non-binary person in years 11 or 12 and would like to hear more from Vanessa? Register to attend the She Leads College Conference on Thursday 12 March – Visit the event page for more information.

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