Teela Reid takes on the law as she advocates for constitutional recognition
From the dusty banks of the Castlereagh River in central west New South Wales to the shining, silver skyscrapers of Sydney CBD, Teela Reid, defence lawyer and activist, through discipline, stories, support and love has become one of the leading and loudest voices for Constitutional recognition in the nation.
A Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman from Gilgandra, NSW, Ms Reid was raised on the stories of her family.
“I grew up with stories from my grandparents and great grandparents growing up on the mission and being excluded from mainstream society – they didn’t have control over their own lives,” Ms Reid said.
“I grew up questioning, eventually that era got dismantled but there was still an undercurrent of racism.”
Raised by her mother, Ms Reid recalls authorities constantly visiting her home to monitor her health when she was unwell, and the fear she would be taken.
Ms Reid very early on noted the absence of stories of First Australians in her education.
“I didn’t experience upfront racism at school but I did question the structure of the education system. Why am I going to school and being taught about white ANZACs but not the history of my own people?”
After graduating, she studied Physical Education teaching at the University of Newcastle and gained a permanent position.
“I found difficultly in the bureaucracy. I did experience racism as a teacher in the system, which comes back to that bigger systemic issue, as a teacher racism was in my face.”
“The feeling of having to work ten times harder to prove yourself in these institutions is relentless and it was something with teaching I found at the end of the day I was ticking the box for someone else, I wasn’t having the systemic impact I wanted to have for future generations.”
Ms Reid was elected Australia’s Female Indigenous Youth Delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum in New York City in 2010 where she connected with Professor Megan Davis who introduced her to the idea of law.
Ms Reid then decided to change from a career in teaching to law.
Supported by her partner, she was accepted into law school at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
“I initially found it hard socially, I felt excluded, not because of my capacity but because you’re competing against students from the highest private schools, many already with parents and family members that are lawyers or judges,” Ms Reid said.
However, through mentoring from now District Court Judge Sophia Beckett, Ms Reid found her own.
“This realisation was that moment when I decided to make law school and the law fit for my people. If the system won’t change for us, why not build our own institutions within the law?”
She was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the UNSW Law Society and created the UNSW Law First Peoples Moot.
Completing her postgraduate Juris Doctor at UNSW Law Sydney, Ms Reid was named on the UNSW Law Dean’s Women of Excellence List and was appointed tipstaff to her Honour Justice Lucy McCallum in the NSW Supreme Court.
Ms Reid was invited to sit in on leadership meetings in Melbourne that began the foundation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart and became a working group leader on Section 51(xxvi) in the Constitutional dialogue process.
“Prior to the Uluru Statement there had never been a process that directly asked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people how they ought to be recognised, so that is what is so profound.”
“Each dialogue had 100 people, 60 percent were Traditional Owners, 20 percent were key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and 20 percent were key individuals. The dialogues were hosted by the cultural authorities of that place.”
With five models debated in the dialogues and a day added to conversations for truth-telling, voice emerged as the most endorsed model of representation.
Due to her commitment at Harvard University which recognised her as an emerging global leader, she was unable to attend the delivering of the statement at Uluru.
“When the Uluru Statement invited the Australian people on this journey, it was monumental, it was profound.”
“When you are in the process you don’t know how it will pan out. It was hard for the Elders, the leaders and those designing it. It had been, at the time, 247 years without the truth or justice.”
“Having witnessed that, there was a real sense of this is really the final chance for our Elders to see truth and justice in our lifetime.”
Returning to Australia, Ms Reid sat in on a Q&A audience taking on then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the dismissal of the Statement.
“We cannot let politicians dictate and dismiss the hard work of our old people, this is an issue that will be unresolved until we are brave enough, as a nation, to address the rightful place of First Nations.”
“Enshrining a Voice means a representative body for First Nations, it should be the foundation of this country, to establish a powerful institution that gives mob a voice. It should be that children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, can go to school and learn about the truth of history – which was something denied from me.”
Ms Reid pressed the concern that the voice might not be enshrined, only legislated.
“The line in the sand has been drawn and the mob will not settle for anything less and we know if it is legislated, there is a threat it could be abolished.”
She acknowledged that the co-design process, which the Federal Government dedicated $7.3 million to in the budget, whilst adding detail to the voice has the potential to stall progression.
Ms Reid called for a movement beyond Reconciliation, an era of reckoning.
“It suggests there is a fair and equal relationship between First Nations and the Government and there’s not one. There’s not one that can oblige the government to listen to us, or where we can sit at the table and talk as equals. There is a power imbalance. Australia still operates on this assumption that it was settled, but it was invaded.”
“That is the real reckoning issue we must grapple with, lots of people don’t want to confront the truth that this nation is not settled.”
Driving forward with the support of her family, her partner and her stories, Ms Reid feels a responsibility to use her knowledge for her people.
“I understand how the law can oppress my people because I grew up with those stories. But if the law can oppress then surely it can empower us. Enshrining a Voice just the beginning of a fairer relationship between mob and the Australian Government.”
Ms Reid reflected on her time since growing up in Gilgandra, western NSW.
“I remember as a child my Mum bringing me and my younger sister down on the XPT. We’d get off at Central and look up at the buildings and think, ‘Oh my god what kind of people work up there?’ Now I’m one of those people that works in these high-rise buildings – it doesn’t mean things have changed for my family.”
“People should believe they have the power to change the system, we shouldn’t get so complacent about our role in the world and creating change.”
“We shouldn’t also shy away from these difficult challenges, what is the legacy we are going to leave? That is what that motivates me and empowers me because of the stories I was told as a young girl growing up – I want the world to be better for my people.”
By Rachael Knowles
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