Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 2 – Dr Marnee Shay

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, UQ's Dr Marnee Shay discusses the challenges she's faced in academia, her work with disengaged youth, and her mission to close the gap in Indigenous education and improve Indigenous education policy.

About this week's guest

Dr Marnee Shay Dr Marnee Shay is an Aboriginal educator and researcher with maternal connections to Wagiman country in the Northern Territory. She was born and raised in South East Queensland, and has strong connections to Aboriginal communities there. Before training as a researcher, Dr Shay worked as a youth worker, a secondary and tertiary classroom teacher, and in project and student support roles in higher education. Dr Shay is nationally recognised for her leadership in education research. She is currently conducting an ARC Linkage Project investigating the significance of stories to shaping life after school for Aboriginal young people from remote communities. Dr Shay also works as a Senior Lecturer in the Education faculty at The University of Queensland.


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Episode transcript

[Dr Elena Danilova - 00:04] Welcome to the Scholarly Soup podcast, brought to you by The University of Queensland Library. In this podcast series we're going to meet with amazing women who found their success in academic and professional roles at The University of Queensland. They are resilient, smart, proactive, and more importantly, they're now working together to implement systemic changes that could make your career progression that little bit easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best. In this episode, I'm talking with Dr Marnee Shay, an Aboriginal educator and researcher. Marnee is senior lecturer and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education and Center for Policy Futures at The University of Queensland. Her teaching, research and publishing are in the fields of Indigenous education, wellbeing creative research methodologies, and alternative education, like flexi schools that offer flexible curriculum for marginalised students. Marnee has the passion to make a real difference. Dr Marnee Shay, good morning and welcome.

[Dr Marnee Shay - 01:26] Good morning.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 01:27] Marnee, I read somewhere that your maternal connections are to Wagiman country but you were born in Brisbane and raised in South East Queensland. You call yourself an Aboriginal educator and researcher. What is your passion? What drives you in research and in education?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 01:46] Thanks for that question. First and foremost, I'd like to introduce myself from a cultural perspective. So, you did mention my maternal connection. So that's through my mum to Wagiman country, which is Daly River, Northern Territory. So that's my traditional country connections. We're the Nanggumiri language group, and my family are Scully's and Cummings. And on my dad's side, I have strong Scottish ancestry with a little bit of English thrown in. And that way of introducing myself is part of our cultural protocols and laws. So as Aboriginal people, we always say who we are and where we're from. I'm also a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Senior Research Fellow at The University of Queensland, as you know. And what drives my passion, absolutely wanting to change the system that lets down so many young people. My work in flexi schools and as a youth worker before I became an academic really sparked that passion and that and the passion hasn't dimmed. For those listening that don't know what flexi schools are, flexi schools are schools for young people who've been pushed out of mainstream settings or disenfranchised in some way, excluded formally or informally. And my background is as a teacher, a classroom teacher in a number of flexi school settings, including around Brisbane, so in Logan and Inala. And I've really stay connected to that work in flexi schools through my current role as an academic.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 03:11] Marnee, you've been working with disengaged youth. What do you remember the most from that experience?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 03:18] What I remember is so many resilient, smart and capable young people who'd been failed by adults and by the systems that were supposed to serve them. It just seems so unjust that those things were completely out of their control, and that would have potentially have an impact on them for the rest of their lives. Young... my work with young people has really taught me so much about the world. I learn from them, I learned how to listen, I see what is possible when you do start things from a strengths based approach. So that's looking at what is working well over what isn't working. And my time working with young people really does continue to inform my research as an academic.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 04:03] Well, on that note, what actually has sparked your research interest?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 04:07] Definitely my work with young people and my work as a practitioner, seeing the gaps in the system, the gaps in the research literature that don't reflect the real lived experiences of young people trying to navigate those systems. My research got sparked when I was working as a classroom teacher across a number of settings. And I just had that feeling of wanting to go back and study. So I commenced a Masters by Coursework and just by chance, I had to move back to the Sunshine Coast for family reasons. And I started work in the Buranga Center, which is the Indigenous Center at the University of the Sunshine Coast. And when I started that role, I talked to my new coordinator about my study and we talked about possibly looking at moving my study to USC. And I got connected with an academic in education who'd done a little bit of research in flexi schools, and they were also coordinating the Masters of Education Research Program. And she really convinced me to have a go at studying research. And I applied for a scholarship. And I was awarded that scholarship, so that allowed me to study full time. And it just sort of took off from there. What really, if I think about what sparked my interest was all of the reading that I did, through my study, through the coursework and the research master's program that has been done by non-Indigenous people with no Indigenous involvement. And I remember thinking how disconnected that is, from my experiences, and from the experiences of my Indigenous family and community.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:45] Thank you. That's very interesting. Research is not an easy journey. So what were your highest highs and lowest lows? And more importantly, how did you deal with that?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 05:55] Absolutely, research is a very challenging journey. I'll start with my highs. And I think I'm very fortunate to... in lots of ways. I get lots of happiness from seeing, you know, small gain, what might be to other people small gains from, you know, some of the work that I've been involved in, but to me, that's everything. So an example is from Murgon High School, which I've done a number of projects with now. In 2019, they had their very first ever in history Aboriginal School Captain. In 2021, so just elected, we have another Aboriginal lad who's now the School Captain. I get lots of phone calls from communities that I'm connected to, either personally or through my work, about things, little progresses like that. And that's, that's what keeps me going and what keeps me positive about the work that I do. Another example of a high is from project that I'm doing in WA with a remote boarding college. So as part of that project, we did some artspace methods with Aboriginal young people from very remote communities, around their identities as Aboriginal young people. And these people were off country, they were far from their homes and from their communities. And so when they were going into town representing the school, you know, visibly Aboriginal, they were wearing these really boring navy shirts around town that had no representation of who they were. And so I worked with the principal to talk about the value in sitting and doing some art space work with these young people around identity and storytelling. And subsequently, that shirt that they designed is now their school shirt. So I see them walking around town when I get to go over and do some field work with these amazing designs and telling their stories as young Aboriginal people. And having that represented through their school shirt that they designed is a really powerful thing.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 07:58] And were there any lows?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 08:00] Yes.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:01] Is it okay to share?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 08:03] Yes. So, I mean, no one wants to share their lowest point in life, whether it's personally or professionally, especially to a broad audience. But I would say there's absolutely been many lows. And one thing that really continues to, I guess be a difficult point for me is just the issue of racism. And, you know, I grew up hearing about how terrible racism was, especially for my mum, my aunties, my uncles. Growing up, mum grew up in the 60s and 70s and she'd tell me about her experiences as a kid or as a teenager. And then for me to grow up, you know, in the 80s, and 90s and to have similar experiences, different but similar experiences, hearing the same racist comments and having, you know, similar experiences at school around not learning about proper Aboriginal history or culture. I think that we're in a place where we know that our people continue to die in custody. We're in a situation in Australia, where 100% of all young people in detention, in prison in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. And that's a real challenge for me to reconcile the fact that, you know, I'm able to be privileged with the education that I've had, and be in a position where I, you know, earn great money and have a wonderful career, and then we also have Aboriginal people in this country who just don't have the same opportunities. So that's a low point, but then it also helps me to continue with the work that I do. And I've just learned to draw from the strength of, you know, our people and our culture and the resilience that is there in our community.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 09:50] I've read somewhere just recently that you are now leading $750,000 project to provide an evidence base and framework for the new Co-design approach across State and Commonwealth Indigenous policy domains. What improvements do you anticipate will take place as a result of your project?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 10:12] The idea from the project stemmed from an absence of Indigenous voice and leadership in policy development and enactment. So when the Commonwealth and State Governments announced Co-design as their framework for Indigenous policy development, it prompted us to ask deeper questions around this in terms of education. How do Indigenous people, first and foremost, conceptualize Co-design? And what does that look like in practice? How do policymakers and those tasked with enacting policies such as school principals, teachers and education practitioners conceptualise Co-design? What we hope to achieve through this project is to unlock the complex interactions between communities, schools and policymakers, with a focus on this concept called Co-design. Through the development of foundational research, we hope to develop a large data set followed by the creation of a practice framework for Co-design and education to address complex problems in education that we haven't been able to solve. So problems such as improving literacy and numeracy outcomes for Indigenous young people, understanding what quality education and engagement looks like to achieve Year 12 completions, and reducing suspension and expulsion rates of Indigenous young people are some examples of the sorts of things we hope to contribute to addressing.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:34] How long have you been in academia?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 11:36] Well, I was on a scholarship and doing sessional academic work from 2012. But I moved into a full time role in 2014. I did complete my PhD full-time when I commenced in 2014 whilst working as an academic full-time. That's definitely not something I recommend. I look back and those years are rather blurry. I think this is a complex question in many ways, because there are so many layers to being a woman, but also to being an Aboriginal woman. So factors such as race, socioeconomic background, ableism, sexuality, skin colour, age, whether English is your first or second language. These are all factors that I think are often homogenised when we think about barriers for women and, and also for Aboriginal women. In all honesty, there were times when I considered leaving academic academia, when I have experienced things like bullying, or I've realised that I don't want to embody aspects of academia that when you start, are starting out you think you need to be such as, you know, a self-promoter or being competitive or cutthroat. But there are ways of being where you can stay true to who you are, and what your values are. And I've done this by being mentored by women, particularly Aboriginal women, inside but outside the academia as well.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 12:58] And have you ever mentored someone who you felt was like you?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 13:06] I felt like that was an interesting question. I put, I invest a lot of time into mentoring my own mob. So Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that come, you know, come to me looking for advice or, or particular things around, you know, their communities or their careers. I do actually have a little cohort now of five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students, so MPhil and Doctoral students, which is really exciting. They're our future research leaders and I do invest a lot of time in mentoring that cohort.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:46] That is an extremely valuable, isn't it, mentorship? And so you mentioned that there were a number of women who actually influenced your career, they were mentoring you through, you know, showing you the pathway or, you know, giving you direction. So how helpful were they? And in what ways?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 14:05] Oh, they were instrumental. I would go so far as to say I wouldn't be sitting in the position that I'm sitting in without their support and their mentorship. There's far too many to mention, but there's Aunties, Aunties in a cultural sense, in a community sense in the family sense for me that I go to for different things. There's, you know, my mum, I always talked to mum. So when I got the grant, I, you know, obviously phoned her to talk to her about it. And one of the first things mum said to me was, you know, 'don't get a big head about it. Stay connected to your community, stay connected to your culture. And you you know, don't forget the people in community and that knowledge and community'. So I've got lots of people in my life who keep me grounded and focused on the work that I do, and I get different things from different people. Professor Grace Sarra has been a great mentor for me. So Grace is also on the new project that we were just awarded. And you know, yeah, there's just this, I'm really, really lucky to have had so many brilliant women that have mentored me in different ways.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 15:15] And Marnee, do you think gender equality could be engineered?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 15:20] Of course it can, as can race equality, but it requires an upheaval of power structures and how power is distributed, and that's not an easy task. We need men to play a central role in this as with race, we need white people who hold the balance of power to redistribute this power within institutions that reproduce these inequalities. One of my mentors, Auntie Judy always quotes the famous Dr. Phil, when he asks people, 'how's that working for you?' When a system rewards and benefits you personally for staying with the status quo, there's not much incentive to change. There is too much personal reward for people in power to not change, I believe. Our political system is a good example of this, politicians won't make changes they possibly know a moral and ethical, as well as supported by the majority of the population, because they think that it will mean they won't get reelected. Right now, I believe we're in a historical moment of change. Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and I think those in leadership positions need to ask themselves which side of history they want to be on.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 16:24] So if you were to start your career all over again, would you have done anything differently?

[Dr Marnee Shay - 16:29] Honestly, no. I'm glad that I have worked, as well as study. So I'm really grateful for the choices that I've made around, you know, doing some study but also doing the work with it. Because my practice, in a whole range of different settings has really helped me as an academic to understand, you know, what the lived realities are in those sectors and, and for the people that I work with. And that's all part of that staying grounded message that has come from mum, particularly, but also from Auntie's and other mentors that I've got. It's a... to me, it's about staying connected to what you're doing and what you're talking about.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:11] Well, thank you very much for your time today, where you've, you've given us a lot of food for thought, and a lot of hope.

[Dr Marnee Shay - 17:19] Thank you very much.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:23] That's it for this episode of Women Finding Success. The podcast series was initiated by the SAGE Athena SWAN team at The University of Queensland. Thanks to Workplace Diversity and Inclusion team and Gender Steering committee for their support and coordination. The series is produced by Dr Elena Danilova with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoy this podcast, please like, subscribe or write a review on the platform you get your podcast from. Thank you for listening.


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