Almost two decades ago, I embarked on a Churchill Fellowship which enabled me to visit museums around the world. It was a life changing experience. From humble beginnings in the back rooms of a museum in the United Kingdom, this amazing journey has culminated in a 2019 Australia Day Public Service Medal – the highest accolade for a public servant. This is my story. A story of determination, passion to keep culture strong and a drive to empower others.
As the then-Curator for the Torres Strait Gallery at the National Museum of Australia, I was extremely fortunate to escort a group of Torres Strait Islander Elders in 1999 to visit the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (CUMAA) in the United Kingdom. CUMAA houses the most historical collection of Torres Strait Islander artefacts held overseas, including material collected by AC Haddon during his visits to the Torres Strait in 1888 and 1898.The group of Elders was tasked to select artefacts that would be exhibited at the new National Museum in Canberra. Construction of a new National Museum was part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 2001.During the visit at Cambridge, it became clear not many young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders were engaged in museum content development or employed in museums. Previously, my working career focused on primary industries and crime prevention, therefore the arts and cultural industry was a new domain.While observing the historical artefacts, one of the Elders (the late Uncle Ephraim Bani) shared a pearl of wisdom with me. He noted the importance of maintaining culture, but cautioned ‘with privilege comes responsibility’. He meant that it was a privilege to work in a museum with our historical material and therefore, there was a responsibility to ensure inclusiveness of Indigenous people in maintaining our heritage and the way in which our heritage would be interpreted.I was unsettled by the Elders’ concern and what future laid ahead to keep our culture strong. As a young 24-year-old, I reflected deeply on this. Through my early research, I discovered only a handful of Indigenous Australians worked as arts managers or curators, and even fewer younger people were engaged in the industry. This imbalance and curiosity drove me to find ways to address the gap. Keeping our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cultures alive depends on the next generation. The Churchill Fellowship gave rise to a journey which changed my life and subsequently, that of many others.
In 2000, I was awarded the Peter Mitchell Churchill Fellowship. The Fellowship enabled me to investigate strategies museums had implemented to engage Indigenous people in exhibition development with a particular focus on youth. The research was conducted in New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Hawaii. My report outlined key recommendations and a forward approach which drew heavily from the international models. A copy of the full report can be found on my profile page on the Churchill Trust Website.
Following the Churchill experience, due to the opening of the new National Museum, it was not until 2002 when I was engaged by the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) as its Arts and Culture Manager that the recommendations were implemented. In the TSRA role, I established the first Torres Strait Cultural Centre (Gab Titui) on Thursday Island and managed a team of local staff. Leveraging my national and international work experiences and networks, the Centre was built to a high standard. This included the introduction of a trademark logo to safeguard artists’ artwork and merchandise.Subsequently, in 2005, the Australia Council for the Arts sought my participation for a pilot project, entitled Emerging Indigenous Young Curators Program, at the Venice Biennale in Italy. During the Biennale, the Australian delegation (led by the then-National Gallery of Australia’s Senior Curator for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program, Ms Brenda Croft) promoted exchange opportunities for Indigenous curators. The exchange fostered further creative solutions with an education focus.
My family instilled in me the importance of education as a pathway to independence and ending poverty. Throughout my working career, I have worked full-time and studied part-time. I have always found time to ‘give back’ to the community. Given the obligation of responsibility, since the Churchill experience, I have actively created opportunities to foster and champion Indigenous arts and culture nationally and internationally.During 2005 to 2008, I developed curriculum and presented a module on Arts Management for the inaugural Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Art management at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. This followed my recommendations from the 2000 Churchill report.Leveraging the partnership at the VCA, I then initiated the inaugural Indigenous Australian Creative Leaders 2009 program (now known as Accelerate) which targeted mid-career arts workers/managers to undertake an international exchange with cultural institutions. The program focused on leadership and capacity building for those working in the creative industries. Originally sponsored by the Wilin Centre, British Council, Virgin Atlantic and the Australia Council for the Arts, today, the program continues as a partnership between the Australia Council for the Arts, the British Council (Australia) and state arts agencies.The program has created a pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, art workers and managers to further their professional career development, but also drew on a key recommendation from the 2007 Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous visual arts and craft sector to increase efforts to showcase Indigenous visual arts and craft internationally.
On return from a work assignment as the Manager of the Australian Cultural Program at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, the then-Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs engaged me as a keynote speaker at their Indigenous Women’s Leadership Forum. At the Forum, I delivered key messages to promote capacity building, women in leadership and international career pathways.
Further, as a keynote speaker at the Department of Human Services’ National Indigenous Coalition Forum in 2012, I championed international opportunities and career pathways for staff. In 2011, as a Panel member for the National Gallery of Australia Wesfarmers Arts Indigenous Fellowship, I advocated international opportunities and leadership qualities. During 2016 and 2017, as a Guest Speaker at the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation Torres Strait Women’s Leadership Program on Thursday Island, I shared my leadership journey with other amazing local women. All roads have stemmed from the Churchill experience with an extensive reach to enhance other people’s lives.
In February 2019, I was invited as a Guest Presenter for the Australia-New Zealand School of Government’s (ANZSOG) Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms, in Melbourne. With funding support from Churchill, ANZSOG and my employer (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), I delivered opening and closing remarks in front of 450 delegates. The forum targeted Senior Executives in the Australian Public Service and helped to inform and shape Indigenous public policy. In particular, I championed the inclusion of Indigenous peoples’ voice and partnerships in policy development and highlighted the ongoing challenges faced by rural and remote communities.
Since moving back to the Torres Strait in 2016, I have been privileged to mentor five young Torres Strait Islanders, otherwise known as my ‘fantastic five’. Over the years, I have witnessed their professional growth and development of their leadership qualities. While I have shared my leadership journey with them, they have taught me to be patient, balanced and to remain focused. Credit is also given to my close-knit community of champions, mentors and Elders including the late Aunty Flo Kennedy, who once said to me, ‘Leilani, you not only belong to us [the Torres Strait], but you belong to the world’. All of these people have helped me become a better person and to strive for excellence.
The constant reminder that ‘with privilege comes responsibility’ is evermore present. As a recipient of a Public Service Medal for outstanding public service in promoting the inclusion of Indigenous heritage in Australia's cultural and foreign policies, my continued efforts to engage young Indigenous people and inclusion of the Indigenous narrative remains strong.My story began in the backrooms of Cambridge and ended up on an international stage. I hope my legacy adds value to the cultural industry but most importantly, empowers other Indigenous people to achieve their dreams. Thank you, Churchill and the Churchill Trust, for the extraordinary opportunity. It changed my life and that of many others.
Leilani Bin-Juda is of Torres Strait Islander heritage. With an extensive career in the Australian Public Service, Ms Bin-Juda has policy and program experience across international relations, health, fisheries, crime prevention and the arts and cultural industry. She is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and has previously served overseas as First Secretary (Political/Gender/Sports Diplomacy), Papua New Guinea; Adviser (Economic Governance) to the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands; and Manager of Australia’s Cultural Program at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. She is currently the Treaty Liaison Officer on Thursday Island and is responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the Australia-Papua New Guinea Torres Strait Treaty. Ms Bin-Juda holds degrees in Business, Cultural Heritage and International Relations.
Applications are still open for the Churchill Fellowship as well as the ANZSOG-Churchill Fellowship for Indigenous Public Servants, and the Community Sector Banking Fellowship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People working in and with the not-for-profit sector. Applications close: Tuesday 30 April 2019
This article originally appeared on Churchill Trust's website.