Dr Shirley Bennell’s doctoral thesis is both a finely honed piece of academic research and a moving personal story of the effects of racism and discrimination on generations of her family.
One of the first two students to complete a PhD exclusively through Deakin University’s Institute for Koorie Education (The Institute) in 11 years, Dr Bennell graduated in February along with Dr Deonne Basaraba.
The pair are now among the 400 Indigenous Australians who hold a PhD.
Dr Bennell’s achievement comes 53 years after she left school in 1964, aged 15.
A proud Nyungar woman from south Western Australia and married mother of four, Dr Bennell returned to study through the TAFE Aboriginal Access program in 1982 before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Edith Cowan University in 1988.
She went on to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science in Community Health at Curtin University in 1996, a Master of Arts by Research through Curtin University in 2005, and a Graduate Diploma in Cultural Resource Management at The Institute in 2010.
Dr Bennell was also the 2002 Department for Community Development (WA) Churchill Fellowship recipient, travelling to the US and Canada to investigate ways of overcoming barriers to culturally appropriate aged care.
Retiring after a long a career in senior positions in health and aged care, Dr Bennell began her PhD in 2012, choosing to document her family’s lived experience through the generations as it endured past government policies of discrimination and injustice in Western Australia.
Her thesis, “How did Nyungar people create nourishing terrains in the face of past government policies of injustice?” describes, through the lens of Dr Bennell’s family’s stories, how Nyungar people survived attempts to force them to assimilate into European culture.
This research approach, known as auto-ethnography, is combined with a traditional Aboriginal way of knowledge sharing, drawing on memory retention and storytelling.
“I told the story of myself and my people, to share my identity and my existence living in two worlds as a Nyungar person,” Dr Bennell said.
“I see it as record for the generations to come; a way for us to look at what our ancestors have done and achieved and where we are now.”
Dr Bennell explained that the only way of telling her story was through merging her Western education with her Indigenous knowledge and storytelling skills.
She hopes her work will reinforce the validity of Indigenous research methods.
“My thesis used models that are a mix of old and new ideas,” she said.
“I combined methods from the Indigenous researcher’s cultural knowledge systems with Western paradigms which, on their own, are not adequate to address Indigenous knowledge and experience.
“I wanted to challenge the view that Indigenous knowledge, worldview and research methods lack scholarly merit and demonstrate that an Indigenous auto-ethnographic approach represents a viable methodological option for research that combines the tradition of storytelling with the practice of academic research.”
Dr Bennell said her parents and grandparents had protected her, and her younger siblings, from much of their history and worked hard to give their children a better life and educational opportunities.
“My parents taught us how to live in two worlds so we could make our own journeys through life.”
This made the discoveries she made while researching government documents for her thesis all the more shattering.
“I initially thought our families weren’t affected by the government policies as we grew up but the more I discovered, the more I realised how wrong I was.
“When I looked up the official files about my loving parents, they were filled with such cruel, hurtful words that it was like a wave crashing over me. I was devastated by what was said about them.
“My father made choices, as the opportunities arose, to make the policies work for him and his family,” she added.
“For example, he chose to apply for the citizenship rights to be recognised as a citizen in his own country (Australia) that would give him some of the same equalities as European people.”
Like her father, Dr Bennell chose to make the most of whatever opportunities came her way, continuing her various studies, including her PhD, despite enormous challenges.
“My determination was always there and if there were barriers I worked around, over and through them to make things work,” she said.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been determined to be treated equally and known that I’m just as intelligent as anyone sitting in my high school classroom, despite what others said or thought.
“I remember saying I would prove to them all what I could do, and now here I am, a highly academic Nyungar woman who is not afraid to talk or challenge, who knows her stuff and knows her people.
“I hope the next step is to share my Indigenous knowledge and storytelling nationally and internationally, alongside the Western academic knowledge of storytelling. I mixed old and new in an academic document and I want to encourage other people to do the same and keep telling their stories.”
Deakin established the Institute for Koori Education in 2000, with the aim of supporting access to Higher Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Another two Institute PhD students are set to graduate in Deakin’s May/June ceremonies.
This article was published by Deakin Research on 7 March 2017.