First Nations advocate and lawyer an inspiration to a generation

24/01/2023. By Carmelle Wilkinson.

Emma Garlett.

Growing up in Geraldton in a low socioeconomic suburb, Curtin Business and Law graduate Emma Garlett recalls a community rife with crime, drug use and violence.

Living in a neighbourhood populated with government housing, wasn’t a pleasant place to call home, with the 28-year-old Nyungar-Nyiyaparli-Yamatji woman witnessing first-hand the struggles and downfall of her people daily.

A young Emma Garlett

A young Emma growing up in Geraldton.

“From Elder abuse to deaths in custody, it became the norm seeing families fight and having children taken away from their homes because their parents weren’t able to care for them,’’ she said.

“Up until the age of about 12, that was my life. But I always knew I wanted a better lifestyle, for myself and for other First Nations people.”

Emma said watching family members lose their sense of importance and belonging as they fronted court for simple offences, became her motivation for change.

“They had no hope, and there was no hope for them. Back then there weren’t adequate services in place to provide the right care or trauma therapy and many would end up back in court. It was a sad cycle.”

“Many of the issues from our community stemmed from historical traumas – with many being part of the Stolen Generation. It was common for your mum, dad, or grandparents to have a traumatic past and this in turn affected us kids because they had attachment issues and didn’t know how to raise us.”

Curtin graduate Emma Garlett with her grandmother

Emma with her cousins and Grandmother.

Emma said a decision by her parents to send her to an elite boarding school in Perth changed the trajectory and purpose of her life.

“At first, I didn’t see the benefit in sending me miles away from home. I was only 12 years old at the time and I found it horrible, I remember crying a lot,’’ she said.

“I had friends at school whose parents had $10 million homes and I thought to myself ‘my family are so poor?’ I really struggled with the culture shock.

“But this change in lifestyle opened my eyes to what was possible if you worked hard and what opportunities there were with a good education.

“Before long I started to think that maybe I too could go to university one day and get a degree so I could help my people.”

Emma became the first in her family to graduate with a degree and the first Aboriginal person to graduate from both the Curtin Law School and the Curtin Business School with both a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of Commerce.

Emma Garlett at her Curtin Graduation

Emma at her graduation ceremony.

A proud advocate and ambassador for Indigenous culture and rights Emma is passionate about changing the narrative and fighting for social justice.

In her capacity as a lawyer, casual lecturer at Curtin where she teaches Administrative Law and columnist for The West Australian, Emma is on a mission to crush systemically racist laws and ensure First Nations people are involved in decisions that affect them.

One of the only Aboriginal people in the mainstream media, Emma uses her online platform and presence to educate others and bring them on a journey of reconciliation.

Her popular YouTube series Paint it Blak is an opportunity for Emma to add an Indigenous lens to current affairs and bridge the gap between First nations people.

Her online series Paint it Blak provides an Indigenous lens on topical events and issues.

“It’s not an easy place to be, but it’s an important place to be,’’ she said.

“Helping the next generation and educating and influencing others about Indigenous culture and ways of living is so important.”

In Emma’s latest newspaper column, she invites Western Australians to use the New Year as a time to reflect and reacquaint ourselves with Australian history.

“It’s the time of year we all start crash dieting, buy a gym membership, tell ourselves we will save money, make some big life changes or study that course that has been on our list. But is this really what we need to be doing?’’ she asks.

“It seems like every year we make the same resolutions, only to never really follow through with them.

“But this year it should be different.

“This year, I’d like one of your new year’s resolutions to educate yourself about our Indigenous peoples in Australia.

“At face value, this might seem like a huge task. But the easiest way to start is by reading books by Indigenous authors.”

As a child, Emma remembers the sheer joy she felt flicking through the pages of picture books in the school library at lunchtime – becoming engrossed in the tales and adventures was her favourite pastime.

“I’d like to see more children read Indigenous books from a young age and experience and celebrate Australia’s rich culture and history,’’ she said.

Emma said inspiring the next generation was an important step towards reconciliation.

Curtin graduate Emma Garlett at Curtin

Emma is on a mission to educate and influence the next generation about Indigenous culture.

“The reality is the way we previously operated is no longer acceptable today. We need to change,’’ she said.

“I know this is easier said than done, but we need to start somewhere.”

Emma is also encouraging young lawyers entering the profession to understand Australia’s legal history and educate themselves when dealing with Indigenous issues and clients.

“I know we still have a way to go, but it all starts with a little hope,’’ she said.

“It was that hope and belief that I had in myself that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in law.

“When I said I wanted to become a lawyer so many people laughed in my face and told me straight, that’s never going to happen.

“But that only made me work harder to prove them wrong.”

Emma said while she wasn’t surrounded by the most influential or positive role models growing up, she did have wonderful parents who showed her the importance of compassion and justice.

“Dad worked in these centres called sobering up clinics, where he would take heavily intoxicated people off the streets at night and find them a safe place to sleep,’’ she said.

“When he passed in 2018 it was such a difficult time for me, and if it weren’t for my incredible teachers and lecturers at Curtin, I could easily have lost my way and dropped out of uni.

“If you are struggling with your studies don’t give up, please ask for help. I know without the support I received from Curtin I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“You’d be surprised how many people are willing to support you on your education journey and watch you succeed.”

___

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