In May this year, Richie Fejo was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Flinders University to acknowledge his work in cross-cultural education and improving outcomes for Aboriginal people.
A doctorate is the highest tertiary achievement possible, and Honorary Doctorates are given to an outstanding person who provides significant contribution to their community and to the university.
“Mum told me that education is knowledge and knowledge is power. I believe through knowledge we have the power to find who we are meant to be and when a person finds their destiny, they are a success” said Richie who is very proud of his doctorate.
A lifetime of service to Aboriginal people
When Richie was eight, he visited Tenant Creek and was permanently changed. “I saw sickness and poverty and I wanted to make a change for better lives for Aboriginal people”. The fire in Richie’s belly was lit back then and continues to burn today as he works hard to overcome racism and negative stereotypes by being a role model for his people.
“I grew up around a lot of negative stereotypes that Aboriginal were lazy and dole bludgers. I even had a teacher say to me I was just going to be another homeless guy. Those comments are hurtful, and I carry them with me for life, but at the same time, it drives me to do better.”
Richie specialises in cross-cultural education and has spent his career bridging the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. More recently, he’s focussed on health because health professionals need help to learn the cultural skills to meet the health needs of Aboriginal patients.
The power of positivity
Richie believes storytelling and saying positive things about Aboriginal people changes the narrative which changes negative stereotypes.
“We have to deflect the hate with positivity. Any minority group will tell you that. Its survival, and the more we do it, the better we get at it. If we can survive and become thick skinned enough there is no stopping what any one person can achieve.”
Being awarded the Honorary Doctorate signifies a shift from survive to thrive for Richie who believes everyone has a role in being instigators of change. “We change perception through numbers. When we get through to the majority and we change the way they think, then we shift the dynamic. I believe all my years of challenging the stereotypes is starting to pay off.”
Be the example for others
Sometimes being a role model can happen accidently. Richie’s first Welcome to Country was back in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t planned. “We were doing the NAIDOC march; everyone was happy walking along but when we got to Raintree Park people were asking who is going to do the Welcome to Country. They pointed to me and said, ‘here Richie Fejo, get him to do the Welcome to Country’. I was so scared, but I just got up.”
These days Richie is far more comfortable being a role model, and believes the training he got from his father, uncles and aunties has contributed to his success. “When I was young my dad told me I had to look, listen and learn. He taught me the importance of watching how leaders conduct themselves around people. My Uncle Wally Fejo was a direct influence on me and my style of leadership.”
The magic of leadership
Positively influencing a person into finding their own calling is the ultimate goal for Richie. “I believe my successes give other Aboriginal people the strength to carry through. That is the magic of leadership. If you are successful you become like a battery and you give out that positive energy.
“If I can influence people in a positive state, then I’ve achieved. This is my destiny, and I’m happy where I am. I encourage all people to find their own destiny so they can move from survive to thrive. Know what you want and go after it. Believe in yourself, back yourself and never give in.”