Lilly Brown

Lilly Brown

Pardon the worn out adage reflected in the title above, but somehow it seemed suitable in this case.

Lilly Brown won a scholarship to the highly competitive Trinity College in England, where she completed an Masters of Philosophy in Education.  She was also offered a place at Oxford University.

“I feel absolutely blessed by this opportunity as I did not expect that one day I may undertake study at one of the most prestigious learning environments in the world,” she noted at the time.

It sounds terrific, until we read the next line in that statement: “It’s about telling my story, and the struggle I went through in getting to where I am and then making it that little bit easier for others to follow in my path.”

That “struggle” places a context to the story that makes her academic accomplishments truly inspirational.  She was brought up in the foothills of Australia, an Aboriginal girl exposed to “mindblowing racism” (her words).  Her grandmother taught her about their tribe’s history and the discrimination they faced.  Her grandmother was taken away and, like many Aboriginal people during that time, made a ward of the state.  The intent of the Australian government of the day was to assimilate and absorb the Aboriginal people into mainstream communities.  In a history eerily familiar to many Canadians, it backfired, and her grandmother’s group was later called the “Stolen Generations”.

When Lilly Brown eventually went to school, she was outraged to see that the entire history of her culture was given just a single page at the back of her history textbook.  She then went on to discover that, in Western Australia, just 15 Aboriginal students who are eligible for university graduate from high school each year.  As difficult as that lesson was, it was the catalyst that propelled her to her remarkable accomplishment at Cambridge.

“One of the primary motivations behind my aspirations to attend Cambridge was so that my perspective would be respected and my voice would be more readily listened to.”

And then she throws out this challenge to conventional thought: “I also felt it would be useful to learn more about the theory and philosophy that underpin the education system within much of the Western world, and that perhaps this would also contribute to furthering my understanding of why the exclusion of Aboriginal people continues to occur within this space.”

Her is a remarkable journey, culminating in her being awarded the Charlie Perkins scholarship, named after Australia’s first Aboriginal university graduate who finished his degree in 1966.  But admittedly, graduating from Cambridge and offered at scholarship at Oxford is a brilliant accomplishment for someone, especially a woman, coming from such a challenging childhood.

I attempted to track down Lilly Brown in Australia by phone just to let her know how inspiring a figure she was to me, only to discover that she now teaches at the University of Melbourne – another milestone.  Each attempt was met with the kind reply that she was off speaking at numerous places about her story.  It was my loss.

I have written repeatedly in these blog posts about the status of women and girls around the world and how much there is to yet do to provide them equal opportunities to seek their own respective destinies.  All this is true and we continue to under perform in this regard in our numerous policies and development programs globally.  But there has to be one other element, effectively explained by Sharat Chattopadhyay:

Women’s liberty’, ‘women’s independence’ are words on everybody’s lips these days, but they stay on the lips and don’t go any further. Do you know why? I’ve found out that liberty can be obtained neither by theoretical arguments, nor by pleading justice and morality, nor by staging a concerted quarrel with men at a meeting. It’s something that no one can give to another – not something to be owed or paid as a due. can easily understand that it comes of its own accord – through one’s own fulfillment, by the enlargement of one’s own soul.”

This dynamic of soul runs through half of this world’s population who, when given the opportunity to excel, continue to prove themselves over and over again as capable of not only success but leadership.  Lilly Brown knows.  Like so many before her, she’s proved it.