Graham Akhurst is on a path of self- leadership, empowered by the transformational skills and techniques learnt through the Australia Council’s Future Leaders Program. Brisbane born Graham is now on his way to Manhattan New York, to share the stories of his people through his literary craft.
Graham Akhurst: IMAGE CREDIT: Condy Canuto, ATSIS Unit, (UQ)
What type of artist are you? What are the themes/stories you like to explore within your chosen field?
I write poetry and fiction. My debut book Borderland is a young adult fiction novel that renders Indigenous youth identity, discusses eco-politics and Indigenous connection to land, and also Indigenous cosmologies.
When growing up in Brisbane (QLD), did you ever think you would venture to New York City for further study?
My father is a pilot, so I actually grew up in many places. Western Samoa and Singapore, mainly. I came back to Australia in 1995 and started high school in Brisbane. To be honest, I never expected to study overseas, let alone New York City. I failed a bunch of attempts at university before I became sick with cancer in 2011 and decided to go to The University of Queensland after my treatment.
As a Kokominni person, what parts of your cultural development have helped you become a leader for your people?
I would never call myself a leader. I am active in creating stronger Indigenous representation within higher education and the arts. I hope that my achievements can be something that young people come to understand as an achievable norm.
In a ‘First Nations’ context, what do you think 'Leadership' is and its meaning to First Nations people globally?
Leadership is about understanding the strengths of community and working with like-minded individuals and community centres to create meaningful change. I will be engaging with the First Nation’s mob in New York and Arizona and hope to write my second novel provisionally titled, The Water Carrier set in Australia and on Navaho land. I will work closely with the Navaho nation in writing the book to make sure they are happy with my work.
On the journey so far, what leaders have inspired you and why? Did they share particular qualities that are similar to your leadership qualities today?
I have had amazing opportunities at The University of Queensland (UQ) and have been incredibly fortunate to work alongside people such as Sid Domic, Jim Walker, Dr Chelsea Bond and Professors Cindy Shannon, and Bronwyn Fredricks, in my former role as an Associate Lecturer in Indigenous Studies at UQ. They taught me how to navigate the predominantly white space of a sandstone university. Two key mentors in my journey have been Associate Professor Jon Willis, who mentored me in my studies and writing, and Dr Carlos Rivera who was able to introduce me to Peter Carey. Carey currently works at Hunter College, where I hope to continue my studies abroad.
What made you apply for the Australia Council for the Arts ‘Future Leaders Program’?
The arts are an integral tool for Indigenous peoples to undermine misrepresentations of mob, give voice, and subvert colonial power structures. I chose to apply to the Future Leaders Program to give me the skills and networks to continue that work.
Were there unexpected skills you learnt from the ‘Future Leaders Program’?
While the program was well run and thoughtful. It was all about the relationships for me. Learning what my peers are doing and how they handle strategic leadership positions was insightful. I learned more from the other participants than I ever could from the structured sessions.
After graduating from the ‘Future Leaders Program’ what capacity skills did you walk away with and how did you apply those skills to your international pursuits?
Being an emerging writer and academic I learnt so much about the other arts sectors and the running and development of arts related projects and festivals. Having that knowledge helps me think differently about collaboration and offers new avenues for my creative work and practice.
How would the introduction of a ‘First Nations Leadership Program’ address gaps in representation in the current program?
I think the development of a First Nations Program will fill the one gapping issue that I noticed, that of Indigenous and First Nations representation in the program. I was the only Indigenous Australian participant in the 2018 Future Leader Program.
How did it feel when you found out that you had received a scholarship to study in the U.S?
I was over the moon! I have worked so hard on my writing and studies. I have this dream of developing my creative practice with masters of the writing craft in America, which is considered the epicenter of global publishing. This dream was dependent on securing funding. To have that funding and support was a great relief after a very stressful application and interview process.
Why choose tertiary education in the U.S over Australia and why an interest in Hunter College?
I am not necessarily choosing one over the other. I will leave Australia with a first class honours degree and a Master of Philosophy both in creative writing from The University of Queensland. I am consolidating or enhancing the skills I have already learned in Australia with a different style of program in America. Also, I relish the opportunity to work with First Nation American’s and having that connection is important to my personal and professional development.
When Australian writer Peter Carey read my work on my last visit to New York, he suggested I apply to Hunter College where he teaches. Hunter is considered one of the most well respected and exclusive fiction writing MFA programs in the world. I hope to learn as much as possible from those masters of craft and the talented small cohort of students.
What do you think spending time in the U.S and away from Australia will offer?
They have a similar yet vastly different experience of colonisation in America and I look to learn from the First Nations people there and bring back that knowledge.
It is a personal goal of mine to enhance the profile and distribution of Indigenous creative works to the rest of the world and I see my time in America as an opportunity to start that process.
What advice would you give to the Kokominni leaders of tomorrow?
I struggle with the terminology of leadership. I don’t pretend to lead anyone. What I would say to any Indigenous person is to follow what you are passionate about and the rest will come with dedication and perseverance.
What does the next five years of your leadership journey look like and how do you hope to be a Kokominni leader in the future?
I want to write, teach, and push Indigenous Australian literature to the world in a way that hasn’t yet been achieved.