• Dean Duncan, Kamilaroi man, is the NAIDOC 2019 Person of the Year (NITV)
From rugby union to midwifery, and even the military, Dean Duncan has forged pathways for First Peoples in numerous areas.
By
Sophie Verass

8 Jul 2019 - 6:10 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2019 - 6:14 PM

A specialist in Aboriginal Education, Dean Duncan, the 2019 NAIDOC Person of the Year, is a champion of diversity, social justice and equality.

Growing up in Moree, northern NSW, Dean says that education was always an important factor in the Duncan household. However, it’s something he describes as “tough”, given that he —a young Kamilaroi lad— had to attend ‘the mission school’ (racialised education institutions for Aboriginal children run by the State) during a time when public education was not appropriately afforded to First Nations students.

Now at age 51, Dean has demonstrated exceptional resilience of this societal adversity and boasts an extensive repertoire of qualifications. He has attended three different universities, holds Masters of Education, a Bachelor of Aboriginal Education and is currently undertaking a PhD of Indigenous Philosophy, exploring the effects of scholarships and grants for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

After a “life-changing” stint in the military, Dean has had a 17-year long career as an educator, driven by his aim to increase the number of qualifications held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Dean has worked in many different schools both, here and abroad. He has taught in the USA to Japan to Fiji. But also, he has experienced different systems and styles of education. In 2008, Dean worked with detainees at a correctional facility on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Here, he saw alternative ways that young people access learning, as well as a common thread in best practice teaching. Dean reflects on this, saying that “trust” of students to educators is cross-cultural and cross-institutional.  

“That changed my whole view of the education system again,” Dean said in an interview with NITV. “Gaining trust with young students or young people in life, in general, was no more evident than when I was in Nerima Higashi Junior High School in Japan.”

One of Dean’s most uniquely significant achievements is his contributions to culturally competent maternal health. In the early 2000s, he spearheaded the very first Indigenous-specific Bachelor of Midwifery program, which is currently in its fifth year. The program was a strategy toward Closing the Gap in maternal health outcomes, as well as addressing the workforce shortage of Indigenous midwives.

When Dean left the classroom and moved into the human services sector, he brought his passion for Indigenous advocacy with him.

He has been able to draw attention to, and educate others on, what he calls “the hidden history of Australia”. He is highlighting the correlation between colonisation, dispossession and the current status of Indigenous kids in out-of-home care. Dean says that connecting young people back to culture is not only professionally rewarding, but also a personal achievement for him.

“A lot of our young people in care do become disconnected from their culture,” he told NITV “Seeing a young person go from not having much knowledge about his cultural background, his heritage and even his own people.

“[And then] having that changed in the space of one cultural camp, makes me more proud of the fact that I’ve done something that’s changed his life.”

For the last two years, Dean has undertaken the role of the National Diversity Manager at Lifestyle Solutions, a not-for-profit which provides services to vulnerable people and marginalised groups. Here, he contributes to the growth of the business by creating a culturally safe and diverse workplace, as well as leading the implementation of the Reconciliation Action Plan.

“I get to work with so many fantastic people across the organisation employees across cultural competency, cultural governance,” he says. “But most importantly, the organisation allows me to keep connected to our communities.”   

While Dean has worked in various advocacy roles over the decades, the Rugby Union supporter has always held a special place for youth and sport. Over the last 22 years, Dean has pioneered many Indigenous youth sports programs, as well as coached and sat on the advisory board of local and state clubs. Impressively, Dean managed the National Indigenous Schoolboys Rugby Team tour to New Zealand and Argentina, ensuring young talented players are getting the most out of their relationship with sport.

In a personal statement, Dean says that while he may not have “a lot”, he loves giving whatever he does have, to those who can benefit from his assistance.

With this year’s NAIDOC theme calling attention to Voice, Treaty, Truth: Let’s Walk Together for a Shared Future, this self-proclaimed “boy from the bush” has not only demonstrated excellence in his field, but a commitment to improving the lives of First Peoples.

For decades, Dean has raised awareness of Indigenous issues to other Australian communities, and at the heart of his work, he pushes for truth, for self-determination and for a better shared future.

 

The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) as the official NAIDOC media partner.

For programs, movies, articles and info, go here.

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