An Indigenous Journalist Opens Up About How Her Heritage Has Influenced Her Work

Nicole Singh

If you’ve seen the hashtag #BecauseOfHerWeCan floating around, it’s because that is this years theme for NAIDOC Week, where celebrations are held across Australia to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. When reading about the theme and its significance, one woman instantly popped into the front of my mind: Rae Johnston.

Working in the media industry for over 10 years, Johnston has lent her presenting, journalistic and producing skills to many projects and publications including: Gizmodo Australia, REwired, Static Podcast SBS, The Start Up Show, ABC radio, ABC News 24 and The Project—just to name a few. And while I’m yet to figure out how she has time to sleep, Johnston also uses her platform to push gender and racial boundaries on a daily basis. 

What’s perhaps so impacting about Johnston’s resume is that she has become an authoritative voice within the STEM fields, an industry known for skewing predominately male, and using her platform to make Australians more aware of Indigenous culture. To celebrate NAIDOC Week, I interviewed Jonhston about her career so far and how we can help promote the Indigenous culture further. 

Can you tell us about your Indigenous heritage and how it has played a role in shaping who you are?

I'm a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in Western NSW, and I grew up on Dharug country in Western Sydney. As an Aboriginal woman, I have a responsibility to learn about and practice my culture, protect the country and keep our language alive—and to teach my son the same.

My family was a part of the recognised Stolen Generation, so this means I didn't grow up on country, like many others I didn't learn my culture in that way. I was taught some language as a child, but picked it back up again as an adult—thanks to the work of Stan Grant Snr who created the Wiradjuri language dictionary, which is now a mobile app, too.

The fact that technology can keep mob connected with who they are and where they are from, no matter where they are now, is such an incredible and important thing. I am constantly connecting with family on Twitter or Facebook, Wiradjuri are everywhere!

This year, the theme for NAIDOC Week is celebrating the essential role that women play as role models within the community. What are some ways you promote equality and an understanding for the Indigenous community within the media sphere?

Providing a platform for people to tell their own stories is of vital importance. For too long, the media has spoken on our behalf—and it is rarely in a good light. Australia needs to have a pride in First Nations people, and there is so much to be proud of. Indigenous-led media organisations are imperative, but cracking the mainstream audiences—having our voices heard there —is where the real change can happen.

This is one of the things I love about Gizmodo Australia. It's a tech site, and it hits a mainstream crowd, too. I can offer a platform for Indigenous women in STEM to talk about the brilliant work they are doing, in their own words.

You write and work in STEM, which has historically been underrepresented. What has this journey been like for you, and are you starting to see changes?

When I started working and writing in STEM—almost a decade ago now—there was a pervasive feeling of loneliness. My area of focus is the beginning was video games, and there were only three other women working in games media at the time—each of us subjected to accusations of faking our interest in games for attention.

I felt a constant need to prove myself. I was being tested on a daily basis. You work harder, fact check everything, make sure all of your words are perfect. Anything less means you're instantly discredited.

Over time, as I became more established, this went away. And what I saw rising in its place was a groundswell of women pushing for gender equality in the industry. This has suffered a huge amount of backlash which continues today, but thanks to the efforts of those driving these initiatives I can now attend an event like the MCV Women In Games Awards and be surrounded by literally hundreds of women working in the local industry. It is a powerful feeling, and I have a lot of hope for the future generations.

What are some key guidelines companies can put in place to encourage diversity in terms of gender, but also ethnic representation?

Diversity isn't just about gender! This is something a lot of companies are yet to catch up on, but the diversity of your teams, that diversity of experiences and thought processes and culture and backgrounds simply means a better end product. It is an advantage.

There needs to be a huge attitude shift for hiring managers to recognise unconscious bias towards "white" sounding names on resumes, for starters. The question needs to be asked: Why? It's a difficult one though, since no one wants to think that they are racist. But favouring the "easy" option, the familiar option, isn't helping anyone in the long run.

Within the media industry in particular, what are some things we can do to represent and support the Indigenous community effectively?

I know it sounds simple, but I say it because it doesn't happen: The media need to talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"Nothing about us, without us" is the best motto. Whatever the topic is, there is an Indigenous expert out there that can add truth, perspective and context to your story. They have been shouting to be heard for centuries. Consult them. Pay them for their time. Hire them to write op-eds.

Look at Indigenous media outlets like NITV, ABC Indigenous, The Koori Mail and Koori Radio—the talent there is incredible. Importantly: Get a range of voices. Just as no one woman can be expected to speak on behalf of all women, don't expect a Wiradjuri woman to speak on behalf of the 400 other language groups in this country.

For any woman wanting to get into the STEM fields, where’s a good place to start?

Seek out a short course to see if your passion will be a good fit with your skill set and learning style. With the surge of initiatives to address the STEM gender disparity, there is bound to be a short course, workshop, mentorship program or open day at a TAFE, Uni or specialised college where you can get a taster.

Social media is a fantastic tool, too. There are groups and communities bursting with women to give you the advice and support you need, every step of the way. Having that sisterhood can make a big difference.

What are some of the biggest career lessons you’ve learnt so far?

I have two mottos I live by: "Never hope harder than you work" and "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are". You can't wait for someone to throw an opportunity your way, or for the conditions to be perfect. You have to work and push for the life you want, every single day.

There are many events taking place in celebration of NAIDOC Week until July 15. Here's how you can participate. You can also show your support by purchasing a NAIDOC Week Tote Bag from the Cotton On Foundation with all proceeds going towards their outreach projects. 

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