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Future Shapers Civic Teela Reid
Photograph: Supplied

Time Out Civics Future Shaper: Teela Reid

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross
Divya Venkataraman

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Teela Reid is a true polymath – a lawyer, activist, columnist, storyteller, and a proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman with a commitment to eliminating systemic racism in our society. Now living in Sydney, she was born and raised in Gilgandra between the Wiradjuri and Wailwan nations (Western NSW). She comes from a family of advocates in the NSW Land rights movement. 

Teela played an active role in developing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which culminated in the most historic call to date for a First Nations voice to be uplifted through its presence in the Australian Constitution, as well as playing a significant role in the Makarrata Commission to enable a process of treaty and truth-telling. She was awarded the 2020 UNSW Young Alumni of the Year for her advocacy as a working group leader on s 51(xxvi), the Race Power, in the Constitutional Dialogue process. She can claim many firsts, including being the first Aboriginal person to be elected on the UNSW Law Society as Vice-President (Social Justice) where she was the founding director of the UNSW Law First Peoples Moot. She was also the inaugural recipient of the NSW Indigenous Barristers Trust Award and the Law Spirit Award. 

And if all that isn't impressive enough, she is also the co-founder of Blackfulla Bookclub, a platform that celebrates and uplifts First Nations storytelling. 

You can find Teela under the handle @teelareid on Instagram and Twitter, and follow @blackfulla_bookclub on Instagram.

You were a teacher before you were a lawyer and advocate. What drove you to make the switch? 

The catalyst to change careers was the passing of my grandfather. I saw him take his last breaths, and as he held my hand he told me to never give up the fight for land rights. My grandfather was born under a traditional birthing tree, a sacred women’s site, and his whole life was controlled by Western law. But he made an effort to pass down to me oral stories that have instilled a sense of pride in being Aboriginal. From that moment I was determined to become a lawyer, which was reinforced by my experience at the United Nations in New York. 

What inspires you in your work, and motivates you when you are met with hurdles? 

I think knowing and remembering my ancestors and honouring their stories. The battle ahead of me and this generation of First Nations advocates is easier because of our warriors who held the frontline against invasion and colonisation. When I am tired or feeling overwhelmed, I try to remind myself of my obligations as a First Nations woman and the privilege I have knowing I am also a lawyer to empower my people. 

What was it like being a part of the historic process of the Uluru Statement from the Heart? 

I am humbled to have been part of the historic process that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation issued to the Australian people to walk with us on a journey to enshrine a First Nations voice in the constitution and to establish a Makarrata Commission to enable processes for treaties and truth-telling. The Uluru Statement changed the course of history. We are living in the reckoning and we must leave a legacy by ensuring our nation gets to a referendum. In the process, I was a working group leader on s 51(xxvi), the Race Power of the Australian Constitution, and it was during this time a lot of elders like Uncle Sol Bellear took me under their wings to fight this battle. I have a cultural obligation to ensure we see these changes in our lifetimes and we all have a to make our nation a better place, based on truth and justice. 

A lot has been written about how nothing has changed since the Royal Commission on Deaths in Custody 30 years ago, but you've spoken about the need to look further into our history to address the fundamental problem of colonialism and Australia's history of genocide. Can you talk a bit about the importance of history, and how it can shape our future? 

I don’t think we can separate Indigenous deaths in custody from our long and brutal history of genocide that has been committed on this soil. Australia was built on the erasure of First Nations people’s law, languages, and land. This legacy lives on in systemic racism in our society, and we need to come to terms with this violent past if we are honest about healing our history. The roadmap to reckoning with these issues is written in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, it is a call for systemic change and healing but it is also a call for peace and Makarrata: the coming together after a struggle. 

You co-run an account called @blackfulla_bookclub, which honours Aboriginal people as the original storytellers.  What is the power of storytelling, for you? 

Blackfulla Bookclub is an online platform that honours First Nations ancestors as the original storytellers. It is a community that has grown rapidly to over 35K in just a year, and it is a sign that Australians are embracing the sacred stories of First Nations cultures. This is not your typical book club. Blackfulla Bookclub is not just about books, it’s about honouring stories in all their forms, and it’s about placing value on oral storytelling that has been part of First Nations culture since time immemorial. Our stories and our languages are written into the landscape, they are our laws and customs. 

What does the future of Sydney look like to you? 

I always think about this when I run around the harbour or where I live in the eastern suburbs and imagine what Sydney was like before the buildings and people. To me, the future of Sydney cannot be separated from remembering how ancient this beautiful city really is. I’ve wandered around and there are engravings of whales and other stories along the eastern beaches, people are walking past them every day. I look to the sunset and think “Wow, my ancestors looked at the same sunset for thousands of years”. I love the ocean and I often wonder how resourceful it must have been for the ancestors. So to me, the future of Sydney is about remembering the past and that this city always was, always will be Aboriginal land, sky, and sea.

Meet the Future Shapers

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