'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.'
Dr Simon Young has the boundless energy of a young lawyer. Yet, UniSQ’s Professor of Law and Justice carries a deep humility that can only come from a myriad of experiences. At 24, a road trip around Australia begged Simon to doubt his understanding of this land. He would then embark on a lifetime of discovery, collaborating with Indigenous colleagues, friends and communities to explore and address some of society’s most pressing questions. We’re pleased to share his story.
A year of reflection
Born into a family of lawyers, Simon walked a well-trodden path. He graduated from law school in 1993, and practiced in a top Brisbane firm for the next five years. With the landmark cases of Mabo (1992) and Wik (1996) in his periphery, Simon found himself drawn to Indigenous legal issues. Realising that his work in a large law firm couldn’t provide the opportunity to pursue this newfound interest at that time, he took some time to reconsider his options. Simon packed his old campervan and embarked on a year-long adventure around Australia. He was deep in the Australian outback, when he had an epiphany.
‘I stopped for the day at a small town when I realised two hours had passed since I last heard English spoken. That was a turning point for me. It was suddenly clear that in my schooling, I had been misled about the history of this land; about the cultural survival and resilience of First Nations peoples. At that point I questioned my future as a lawyer. Instead, a whole new direction opened up for me.’
Putting ideas into action
Simon returned to Brisbane with an entirely new perspective on law. He dived into a Master’s degree with a focus on Indigenous law and policy and taught part-time. With a growing passion for teaching and academia, he undertook a PhD in Comparative Native Title at the University of Western Australia (UWA). There, Indigenous colleagues and Native Title academics took Simon under their wing and showed him the way for the next ten years.
‘My colleagues at UWA were inspirational. They taught me new ways to think about the law and how to consult with and make space for Indigenous voices. They broadened my mind in so many ways. In the south of Western Australia, the Noongar voice is strong and the Indigenous community is very engaged with the University. The closer I became to my Indigenous colleagues, the more I understood the sophistication of their culture and the challenges around engaging with contemporary Australia. It’s a never-ending learning curve for me; I’ll never know enough. But the most important thing I learned in WA is that it’s always first about listening - and building something together from the ground up.’
In 2014, Simon returned to Queensland to be closer to his family, and was excited to join UniSQ as Professor of Law and Justice.
‘The UniSQ School of Law was only ten years old at the time, so I was optimistic about working with a young school in university focused on social-justice, and forging new collaborations. The ability of a young law school to be agile and respond to progressive ideas about cultural competency really appealed to me. The first thing I did when I arrived at UniSQ was connect with Indigenous scholars to find ways to work together.’
The first collaboration between Simon and UniSQ’s College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research (CISER) (now known as the College for First Nations) marked the beginning of a deeply formative partnership. Together, they hosted a one-day colloquium on Constitutional Recognition of First Peoples in Australia, including a public lecture by the Mick Gooda - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. The public lecture resulted in the publication of a book by the same name with contributions from various First Nation scholars and academics from around the world.
‘The folks at CISER and I got on like a house on fire. I have so much appreciated their insight and patience – and I always took something away from every conversation and collaboration. We realised of course that we had friends and interests in common, and from there, we headed off on projects in all directions, looking to contribute to real change on issues in our region.’
Simon reflects on the journey: ‘I’ve made every mistake in the book over my years but once again the key reason I’ve worked and achieved things in this field is the wonderful and patient friends I’ve made at the College. We’ve spent hours together, talking on many issues and projects, and my mind is always buzzing with new ideas when I leave.’
A particularly significant project that the College and Simon collaborated on (with others from the BELA faculty and local NGOs) was a Reconciliation Week conference on child removal in South East Queensland. A number of people working in this field, government officers and First Nations community leaders and members were invited to the sessions - called The Hard Truth - to discuss the particular challenges in this field in our region.
‘It was harrowing; but it was truth-telling. It became clear that the government officers hadn’t heard these perspectives so clearly articulated before - but they were wonderfully receptive to the honest stories, told in the safe space we had opened. It seems to have had some real impact on the ground. The team are planning future similar days, and are now collaborating with more academics from the newly formed UniSQ Centre for Heritage and Culture.’
Reflecting further on his time so far at UniSQ, Simon shares another initiative he’s been working on with his peers at the College - the Indigenous Cultural Competency in Legal Academics program (ICCLAP). Simon and the law school have been increasingly involved with the nation-wide initiative which aims to equip law schools with the knowledge and skills to deliver culturally-appropriate curriculum and better engage with and support First Nations students.
‘The UniSQ law school has been working closely with CISER and our new Advisory board of key Indigenous lawyers and academics to determine the best program for our law school and our region. It’s a slow and steady process - which is the best approach. We have many wonderful voices contributing to the development of the program, which we hope will ultimately have a significant impact on the success of our First Nation students, and on the quality of lawyering in our region,’ shares Simon.
So far, initiatives being pursued in the school include cultural competency training for staff, curriculum reform and building resources for Indigenous students such as information regarding internships, competitions and prizes. The program also aims to promote tutoring programs to Indigenous students, increase the focus on First Nation speakers in the school’s public lectures, and add Indigenous art to the school’s public spaces.
Gratitude and drive
Looking back on his time so far at UniSQ, Simon is clearly humbled by the opportunity he’s had to collaborate with First Nation colleagues and communities.
‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have such a gift to offer when we consider our place in the world. Their history and cultures hold lessons on how we could better interact with the world and each other.’
When we ask Simon what drives him to continue bringing his best at UniSQ, his answer is simple yet full of meaning.
‘As a young person, I was acutely aware that I knew little about the history and experience of Indigenous peoples in this country. The reality is, I will never know enough. But what I do know is that this work feels so much more important than anything else. When it comes to Indigenous policy and law, communities and lives are at stake. That’s something worth fighting for, and something to work together on.’