Leila Smith is shifting the dial in education for First Nations kids

‘When you see Aboriginal people before you who have walked that path, it’s so powerful’: Leila Smith’s leadership is shifting the dial for First Nations kids

Leila Smith

When CEO of the Aurora Foundation Leila Smith is asked to describe the work she and her organisation do, she doesn’t hesitate: “It’s probably worth describing things through the eyes of Indigenous students themselves”, she tells host Kate Mills on the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast supported by Salesforce.

She talks about the example of an Aboriginal boy, in Year 8 from Western Sydney, who’s never considered the true prospects of his future. He’s never known anyone in his family to go to university, and he’s been downtrodden by an education system that exhibits negative bias toward him.

He’s introduced to a Mentor Enrichment program with the Aurora Education Foundation, which throws him into a whole new world of possibilities. He meets a young man—a role model– who once looked a lot like he did; who had limited self-beliefs and narrow notions of what the world could offer him. The man is now in his second year of university.

The student spends much of his school holidays with this mentor each year throughout years 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and one year beyond school. When he finishes the program, he’s a completely new person. “The power of that contact for that student in what they’re navigating is so important”, says Smith. It’s life-altering.

Smith gives another example of an Indigenous teenage girl who has a vague plan to become a hairdresser once she leaves school. She attends an Aurora outreach session and meets a woman who had similar aspirations at the same age, but now runs a successful business. “Sure, you can be a hairdresser in town, but have you thought about running your own business?” She asks her mentee. “I reckon you can do it too.”

In effect, The Aurora Foundation opens up pathways and possibilities for Indigenous kids who have previously had a hard time believing their worth.

As CEO, Leila Smith’s passion is palpable through her voice. It’s like this because Smith knows firsthand the value and significance that these programs can have on young lives.

She took part in another one of Aurora’s programs—an International Study Tour– in which Indigenous university students are awarded scholarships to attend 6 of the 10 best global universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Stanford.

She met Indigenous scholars who reshaped everything she had been socialised to know about education. “When you see Aboriginal people before you who have walked that path, it’s so powerful”, she says, adding “you got to be extremely proud and celebrate who you were as an Aboriginal person but also be academic.”

It’s this feeling that Leila Smith is determined to make a reality for thousands more Indigenous kids across the country. She wants more of them to recognise their potential and feel supported to explore whatever future takes their interest. She wants to combat the “ingrained narrative and expectations that can sometimes be internalised” for these young people.

“We need that momentum in education because we have such a long way to go,” she says. “We need collaboration and drive.”

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.

The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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