Tessa Pollack

Tessa Pollack

Tessa Pollack (BA (Hons) 1994; Master of Urban Studies 2000) has spent 14 years living and working with Aboriginal communities. So much was her involvement, that she has been given a skin name by the Jawoyn people to indicate her acceptance into the community. This is an honour reserved for only a few trusted and respected non-Indigenous people.

Tessa began her research interest whilst in her Honours year where she investigated how primary school education in South Australia impacted on an Indigenous child's aboriginality. She then turned her focus towards Mobility and how Indigenous people use Transport to enable themselves to move and live within their cultural needs.

We sat down with Tessa to find out about her journey from research morphed into quite a hands-on career in the Northern Territory.

Who was your favourite Professor while you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?
That's difficult as there were several! A few of my strong mentors include Professor Francesca Merlan (whose critic of my work came back to haunt me over the years) and Professor Helen Beh who also guided me to think rationally rather than only with my heart.

However one person who has stood out as a long time advisor has been Professor Peter Phibbs. Peter who works within the Department of Architecture continues to offer support and advice, even to this very day. He and his family donated thousands of dollars to help the Indigenous company I worked for buy appropriate housing for their Indigenous staff members. Katherine desperately needed more social housing. This enabled many to leave their communities and come and work in Katherine for their own tourist company.

How have you ultimately got to be where you are today? Were there any major turning points where you realised what you needed to do?
I've lived in several countries after having been brought up in a poor suburb of London. Travel was my greatest educator but you have to give yourself time to stop and think. One of my 'light-bulb' moments was when I was living in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, I saw a double decker bus stopped at the traffic lights which were heading to where I lived, so I ran and jumped on. Having come from London I was used to travelling with West Indian and Trinidadians so it came as a surprise when the bus conductor stopped the bus and told me that it was a blacks only bus. I responded that it was ok, I didn't mind only to be told by the conductor, 'well we do mind, get off!'

It was in that moment that I realised how I had assumed they would see me as someone kind or whatever but in fact I had been making assumptions based on my English background, a different perspective and one that began the change in the way I saw the world.

There are many occasions when something would happen or someone would say something that altered the way I saw the world. I have been very blessed in so many ways despite some very difficult events in my life but then without the hard side of life we wouldn't appreciate the good side when it comes

What has been the most memorable success you have had?
When I arrived in Katherine I worked as a lecturer for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE). During this time I came to realise that it was as much about me learning from my trainees as it was about any knowledge I could give them.
Because of this work I was invited to become the Training and Career Officer for a 100% owned Indigenous tourism company run by the Jawoyn people and called Nitmiluk Tours. It was a learning process for all of us and we had our successes and failures but by working together we triumphed.
The company's interaction with all its outlying communities ensured that young people were given training and career opportunities that didn't otherwise exist. By working together we were able to break down many of the 'brick walls' we faced.
Through hard work and determination they now run their own luxury hotel overlooking the Katherine Gorge. Nitmiluk Tours continues to run successfully with Indigenous middle and upper management. They employ seasonal workers for the short tourist season but maintain approximately 25 % of the staff as local Indigenous people.

What is the mantra you live by and what drives you?
Family, friends, the sun and the rain, just life in general. When you see or read an article about an ordinary person doing an extraordinary act you know life is worth living.

What are your plans for the future?
Sharing my knowledge to ensure it isn't wasted, as I owe all the wonderful people who accepted me into their lives in the NT so much for the trust and respect they have shown me over the years.

What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?
Make your choices wisely; life isn't all about money but about people. If you can make a difference to someone's life through the education you have been privileged to receive at university then that is the greatest reward.