Supporting Indigenous-led social change through the Atlantic Fellowship

Across cities and regions across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, working in healthcare, education, local government and finance are a range of exceptional people who will leave a legacy of Indigenous-led positive social change.

They are the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity – one of seven interconnected global programs dedicated to making the world a more equitable and inclusive place for Indigenous peoples. They are CEOs, health workers, educators, government workers, carers for the land and oceans that sustain us. Most are Indigenous peoples.

“Our Fellows are from all walks of life, all looking to make social change within their context,” says the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity program’s executive director, Professor Elizabeth McKinley.

Beginning with a year-long program at the University of Melbourne, Fellows develop a social change project, while completing a postgraduate qualification. After graduation, they join a lifelong, global network of Fellows (in 2021 there are 550 Fellows from 63 countries).

“We’re building the capacity of these individuals,” says Professor McKinley. “We’re trying to enhance their leadership, become people who can lead their people and who are well prepared to do so.”

AFSE Group 2019
Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity 2018-2019 cohort on campus - taken by James Henry

The powerful initiative, established five years ago, was made possible by Chuck Feeney, a philanthropist and proponent of the ‘giving while living’ movement, using his accumulated wealth to help make happen today what might easily have been put off until tomorrow.

Through his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, the quiet American made a $65 million grant to the University of Melbourne on his “big bet” – investing in people to change the world. For twenty years this ground-breaking program will train 500 people as influential agents of social change in the region. It is the single biggest donation in the University’s history and remains one of the most generous philanthropic gifts ever in Australia. In 2021, Chuck Feeney was honoured as a Fellow of the University of Melbourne in recognition of his extraordinary generosity and leadership in establishing and supporting social change initiatives.

The generous gift gives Fellows the opportunity to access education to build their practice, providing tuition-free enrolment to a Master or Graduate Certificate in Social Change Leadership, and supporting the development of the Fellows’ social change projects for two years after graduation.

Globally, equity is the unifying theme of the seven programs: health, economic, social and racial equity. Each is distinct, grounded in its local context, they share a common purpose: to advance fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies.

One of the legacies of colonisation, says Professor McKinley, is that many Indigenous people have had little say in affairs that affect them, yet are best placed to make the changes needed after the disruption of colonisation. The aim here is to support Indigenous-led social change.

We are changing the narrative about Indigenous peoples, not just in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand but right across the globe.

The hope is that through the innovative thinking and activities of the Atlantic Fellows, the issues of persistent inequality and social exclusion can be addressed for Indigenous peoples.

Prof Elizabeth McKinley - taken by James Henry
Prof Elizabeth McKinley

“In terms of impact, the program is focused on the long-term,” says Professor McKinley.

“We already see some small changes. But the impact we’re looking for is a long game. One of our strategies is to build the capacity of these Fellows to go out and work with people, and each other, to have impact in whatever field they’re in.”

Language, for example, shapes the relationship people have with their world. So, there’s value in Indigenous children learning in their own language. There are now teachers who can deliver this dual way of learning, she notes.

Two Fellows in the 2021 intake are embracing projects centred on resurrecting the Indigenous place names – and the history behind them – with the objective of re-establishing Indigenous identity. There is another Fellow working in a bilingual school in NSW.

“All these little things count towards something bigger. Every Fellow will walk away with a postgraduate qualification and a project they can take into their own setting… What we try to do is to build their confidence and support them to build the future they want.”

The program also nurtures relationships, and instils values of respect and reciprocity in its Fellows.

“These are the values that are consistent with Indigenous peoples,” Professor McKinley says. “It’s about valuing what each brings to the table.”

In taking up a leadership mantle you sometimes need to be bold to take your place at the table. As Indigenous peoples we deserve a place at the decision-making table for our peoples and furthermore, to take leadership to the global community.

Collaboration is central to the program as well – nurturing collaborative change makers. “They come in with an idea for a project and leave with a project that has been altered and influenced by other Fellows and staff,” says Professor McKinley.

“They have to dream big. Part of our responsibility is to not only support that, but to help them find the pathways to achieve that dream, with others.”

Since its launch, the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity program has grown in reputation, with application numbers doubling in 2020. “It’s a very good program. It has a lot of resources. The Fellows get a lot of assistance. It’s a high-touch program.”

And that’s thanks both to an especially generous gift and recognition that positive social change for Indigenous people must harness Indigenous knowledge itself and nurture values-driven leaders. Overall, the Atlantic Philanthropies has provided close to $75 million in funding to the program including support to expand the program’s remit and establish a new hub in the Student Precinct.

Keep an eye out for the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity. There is every chance over the next 20 years they will be in positions of influence in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand or the Pacific, will be active on the global stage, or will collaborate with Fellows to create a new future where Indigenous knowledges are valued and embedded.

Learn more about some of the Fellows below:

Giving voice to social progress
Investing in the potential of people
The transformative power of healthy disruption