Decoloyarning: thinking decolonisation together as peers, with Director Saul Cunningham

Humility means 
acknowledging mistakes 
not in a way 
that burdens Indigenous peoples 
with making you feel better 
but in a way 
that demands nothing of Indigenous peoples 
only of yourself 

- Ambelin Kwaymullina, Living on Stolen Land, 2021

"I think people throw the word ‘leader’ around now too much. I adhere to an approach that I learnt when I was in my twenties, which was summed up in the saying, ‘The world is run by those who show up’."  

- Prof Marcia Langton, The Change Makers, 2019 

Leaders help to shape the culture of a place, attitudes toward change and the way progress is conducted. So what does it mean to lead a community toward new thinking or practices, when you’re also learning about where to go yourself? To find out, Fenner School PhD Scholars Jenna Ridley and Rachael Gross sat down on Ngunnawal/Ngunawal and Ngambri country with the key leader here at The Fenner School: Director Saul Cunningham, and talked about leading into decolonisation, in a colonial institution, when you’re not Indigenous. Their conversation was led by first reading Decolonization is not a Metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. 

Together, the three discussed Saul’s perspectives on decolonising academia, and what he thinks of the need to engage with differing perspectives and ways of being, and how to progress this within a colonial institution. 

Unlike a traditional interview, Saul, Jenna and Rachael sat down as peers who are learning from each other, and it led to a powerful conversation, difficult questions, and exciting reflections and conclusions. Saul was incredibly honest throughout this conversation and his answers in this conversational style article highlight major decolonial themes: relatability and accountability. Afterwards Saul, Jenna and Rachael went to their desktops and reflected on their yarn in writing. 

With both interviewers’ and interviewee coming from a non-Indigenous perspective, the three aimed to untangle their bias in this chat, and pull-out threads that were the most relatable to a non-Indigenous audience (i.e. those who need to instigate change and catalyse reparations).  


Rachael: Hi Saul! Thanks for sitting down with us to have a chat about decoloniality in the Fenner School. I’m actively trying to work decolonial research techniques into my research as a pillar. I personally think that it comes from a sense of duty coming from a family of refugees but living a reasonably privileged life because of their sacrifices. I am in a position to make change and it is my own relational accountability that has encouraged and supported me in this direction. Plus, being a conservationist working in climate change, I can’t see much of a future for us as a species without the empowerment of Indigenous peoples and knowledges. Similarly, in the past, you have said who you are and where you came from shapes you, so how does that play into the role of decolonising academia and research?   

Saul: Like anybody, my understanding of the world is shaped by my life experiences. Although I can try to get out of my own bubble, and try to put myself in other people’s shoes (and I think it is necessary to try), it would be hubris to think I can really see the world in some kind of pure unbiased way. If I look back on my own past I can see that I was shaped by being a member of the social group that dominates power in Australia (i.e. Anglo-Celtic and male too!) and my education (formal and otherwise) reflected a shameful blindness toward First Nations peoples , past and present, along with all sorts of other biases that help to reinforce who gets to have power. I would credit my early academic experiences (undergrad at Monash Uni) as exposing me to some new and important Indigenous perspectives about the honest history of “Australia”. . Outside of my studies, social movements at the university were broadening my mind too (Rock Against Racism at Northcote town hall was good!). Looking back, I am quite struck by how out of date that 1980’s education seems now, though in some other respects the lack of progress since that time is also shocking. 

Jenna: 100%, I think the first thing we all have to do is sit down and feel comfortable with our privilege. It isn’t easy to realise all the ways in which your skin colour (mine white), gender (mine cis-female), education (mine formal), class (mine middle), financial situation (mine low) and age (mine relatively young) has in shaping our lifestyle, our views and then be able to understand how others are not given the same treatment nor opportunities in life. But you’re right, we all have blindness, and that is what we are attempting to combat! How does the uni fit into this? 

Saul: Universities are in an interesting position. They play a role in that conservative reinforcement of who gets to have power and a voice, but at the very same time they can broaden people’s perspectives and encourage social change. They do both because they are big and complex and not of one voice. In my role I think it is important to keep learning (which is a personal thing) and at the same time use my position to encourage positive change in the school and the university broadly. This includes reflecting on the ways that our teaching and research break away from the colonial mindset. Given my background, I have to do this in a way that is consistent with my own limitations – and honours the expertise and cultural knowledge that lies beyond that which I know and understand. And like almost anything at university, we make progress by sharing ideas rather than by mandates. 

Jenna: For sure, they always said in school we never stop learning. And really we never do. We need people in power, like yourself to have these revelations, to acknowledge where they don’t know enough and be willing to say that out loud. That’s where so much strength in leadership comes from. But you also mention your background – which is as a researcher as much as a structural leader. Saul, you mentioned that every day you do research, you have to think about positionality in Fenner – can you expand on that?

Saul: Most research in the school involves interacting with other humans, and whenever you interact with other humans your own position influences how the interaction plays out, whether you like it or not. On some level we all know this even if we don’t use the term ‘positionality’. This is a huge issue to consider for anyone doing social research. But even for me, as someone who normally collects data on plants and animals, those human interactions still guide where and when I might work, who I collaborate with, what questions I ask, and so on. Although I think most researchers are aware of the problem, it is not a simple problem to solve, so we all need to work on it. 

Jenna: Yep, it is something that often gets missed in the quantitative science field. With strict deadlines, declining species, and unhealthy eco-systems, it is easy for ecologists and fellow scientists alike to say we are under pressure and we don’t have the time to make for engagement. It makes it sound like it is all work to engage, when really there are benefits and also a morality about it too. I would like to see all researchers helping their students to make time for this aspect of their research. 

Rachael: I think it’s important to consider that, as someone who also mostly collects information on wildlife, I have an obligation to do that respectfully. For many Indigenous cultures, the places that we work have a life of their own and function as such, they are often more than human. It is not just our positionality with people that matters. I don’t think we take that with us into fieldwork automatically, it is learned and something that often we must be taught. In Australia, it doesn’t matter where we are – we are on Country. We can be standing on the tallest skyscraper in the most gentrified city and still be on Country. This influences our positionality as people who have not been invited on Country, whether we are collaborating with humans or wildlife, we are always collaborating with Country and owe the same respect and autonomy. I think this positionality is something that can be passed down from teacher and supervisor to student, especially with the introduction of the Working on Country protocols. You pointed out that many people, including academics, will side step problems that seem too complex to solve, and that this might lead people to put decolonisation on a backburner. How do you see academia, particularly as a person in power, tackling this in the future?   

Saul: That is a really tough question, but an important one. I think about it as a problem with at least two elements. First people need to be willing to act, and second people need to have the knowledge and skills that will guide how to tackle the problem. We should celebrate that more and more people are getting to the first bit. But we should not underestimate the challenge of the second bit. As Tuck and Yang identify early in their paper Decolonization is not a Metaphor - it becomes easy as settlers to co-opt or ‘domesticate’ terms like ‘decolonisation’ in education because that’s much speedier than taking the time to truly learn what decolonisation means, and stop and listen to the needs and priorities of Indigenous peoples as experts. Meanwhile, we have institutions, laws, religion, language, and more that have all evolved as part of a system that enables colonialism. Ultimately decolonisation requires change to many different parts of that system. That level of cultural change doesn’t come easily and there will always be tension between people who argue for rapid change and those who argue that things must change slowly (evolution versus revolution).  

Rachael: Using complexity as a shield is something we tackle as a research school a lot. We study and research complex and controversial things – climate change, feral horse management, geopolitical conflict just to name a few. In those areas, academics stand their ground and tolerate the repercussions in defence of their science. I think that is a glimmer of hope for the school in being able to incorporate decoloniality in a meaningful way going forward, we know that we are willing to stand up for a better future. But you’re right, it is not a silver bullet solution and it will take time, patience and a safe place to make mistakes to make that change.  

Saul: Yes – and at the same time, as individuals working in the university system, ANU students and academics will be balancing the pursuit of difficult but important change, with boring things like completing studies on time and developing CVs that increase their employability. 

Jenna: Haha yes we do need to survive ourselves, but that’s where this conversation is so valuable: it isn’t one or the other. It isn’t clean the house over learn about whose Country you live on or finish your PhD at the cost of others. We can do both, people have and we need to follow that example. 

I liked how you mentioned in our chat that new ways of seeing is exciting and enriching. I think that by focusing on this, traditionally non-Indigenous institutions and leadership can validate and become excited about Indigenous perspectives and ways of learning, and step aside in spaces where non-Indigenous expertise poses a limitation to Indigenous expressions of knowledge. How you talked about the layering of information, and the value-add diversity has to projects, particularly one you were involved in that assisted your journey in this field. 

Saul: Thanks for recalling that Jenna - it brings me to considering how to retain a commitment to that excitement. Yang and Tuck also write a lot about foreclosure – they spend time reflecting on how jumping the gun and not listening to Indigenous people while claiming to be decolonising as a settler, is a way of closing off how actually-exciting listening can be. With this in mind I think academics like myself can help by supporting our students and each other to learn and develop the knowledge and skills to contribute to decolonisation in the way they work. As Director I am keen to encourage and cajole people in this direction, but without suggesting that I am particularly expert myself. One of the great things for us at Fenner is that most people can see that there is a huge upside. There is real excitement at the prospect for much better outcomes from our research and our teaching. For that reason I think one of the really positive things we can do in Fenner is showcase examples of how new approaches to teaching and research, which reflect efforts to decolonise, have led to great results. I won’t single out examples here, but we do have such examples in the school. These examples should inspire others in the school and across the university, to do similarly. A great place to start, that isn’t Fenner-affiliated, but did prompt this conversation, is reading work like Decolonization is not a Metaphor!

Rachael: I think this is a great way to look to the future, and is maybe the catalyst needed for some to make the move into a decolonial research mindset. A major component of the drive for this is ethics - I.e. reparations for Indigenous peoples which has been unjustly politicised and remains “controversial”. But from an academic perspective, the opportunity to cause a paradigmatic shift in research by combining two worlds of science is invaluable. This is less of a political statement and more of an opening door to new frontiers in environmental and societal research. Is that not what we all went into science and research to find?

The Fenner School of Environment and Society can just as easily be called the School of Country. We all study some varying aspect of Country – water, wildlife, people, soil, air, climate. To name just a few. We are always, regardless of where we are, on Country. As such, we (as academics, students, professionals and researchers) are in a unique position to pave the way for academia in amplifying the voice and power of Indigenous peoples, whose Country we are on. With the help of our leaders, like Saul, we can work out together how to navigate the complex and uncomfortable territory that is decolonisation. Change comes from all angles, not just top down. The opportunity to expand the frontiers of research is invaluable and can lie in the exciting and respectful integration and acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledges and sciences. Maybe it’s time for all of us to consider our positionality and how we want to be part of this movement, how it can improve research and how it can ethically shift science as we know it. For us, that is our relational accountability as participants in academia and the world.

In preparation for this interview, Rachael and Jenna sent Saul several resources to read up on and digest. We recommend that you do the same, especially if you’re not too sure where to start! To get the ball rolling:

Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, by Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, (2012) in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-40

Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina is a prose-styled look at our colonial-settler ‘present’. Ambelin Kwaymullina belongs to the Palyku people of the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia. You can buy her book, and read more, in the hyperlink.
Decoloyarning at Fenner is a series of articles about understanding how the disciplines we love thrive in a forum where respecting Indigenous knowledges and thinking sits at the core of what we do. We would like to thank The Decolonial Research and Teaching Circle (Fenner Circle) for helping create a space where the Fenner community can enrich our passion for the environment and society by learning with societies built through the environment’s principles and lore. This is a series for everyone, and that anyone can contribute to, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous, just started your degree or the School Director.  So, if you’ve got an idea for a topic for a yarn, would like to be part of a yarn, or share something you’ve learnt from a yarn, contact The Fenner School Communications Team. 

Updated:  22 June 2022/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School