Stories to challenge the system

By Seth Robinson

Rona Glynn-McDonald is a Kaytetye woman from Alice Springs, the founder of Common Ground, Director at YLab, and Bachelor of Commerce alumna. It’s an impressive resume, with a purpose.

“I remember a crazy experience I had in year six. We had a school camp, where we went to the Old Telegraph Station, where Alice Springs was founded. It was also called ‘The Bungalow’, and it was a home for Stolen Generation kids. We went to this place and dressed up in 19th century garb and played the roles of kids living at the telegraph station, and it was wild, because at the same time there were at least 10 kids there whose grandmothers and grandfathers had lived in that spot as part of the Stolen Generation. That was never even acknowledged, we were just there pretending to be white colonists.”

Growing up in Central Australia, Rona estimates that roughly half her class were First Nations Peoples, and yet, the school curriculum didn’t cover any of their history. From an early age, she found the disconnect stark, and began thinking about what it would take to challenge that system. While studying at the University of Melbourne, she developed the idea for ‘Common Ground’, an online platform that shares the stories, cultures, histories, and lived experiences of First Nations Peoples. Common Ground’s most recent campaign, the First Nations Bedtime Stories Challenge, was focused on building content for an online curriculum, sharing five First Nations stories on film, a medium that runs in Rona’s family.

Rona Glynn-McDonald Headshot
Rona Glynn-McDonald.

“I’m not a filmmaker by trade. This was my first time directing anything, and I didn’t intend to do that, but we couldn’t find an Indigenous director from Central Australia who had the time to do it, so it was a last-minute inclusion. I come from a long line of filmmakers, my family are all filmmakers, so I thought I would be a bit different by studying Business and Economics. Expect the unexpected,” says Rona. “These stories have been told for eighty thousand years, and the medium of film captures what a powerful thing that is and makes these stories accessible to everyone.”

The project not only serves to share First Nations content to a wider audience, but to create a legacy for the storytellers themselves.

“We’ve just printed a run of a hundred USBs with the stories on them, to send out bush, and they’ll just go like wildfire. It’s something special for the communities, for the young people to have, and for the storytellers to see themselves on screen. It’s amazing, it allows them to be confident in who they are, in the knowledge that they have something special that they can capture and share with other people.”

Now that the first iteration of Bedtime Stories has wrapped, Rona has been able to expand her portfolio, beginning a new role with YLab, a youth consulting firm and digital learning enterprise. It’s a position that allows her to capitalise on her experience and business acumen, and put her interest in economic and social change into practice.

“YLab is all about service delivery and design for youth engagement, but a lot of the work right now is about how the systems that exist right now are rapidly changing and the world is not really equipped for that change. We’ll speak with young people who have a diversity of experience and work to get them a seat at the table to design solutions for complex social problems. For example, if the government wants to design policy on youth homelessness, we’ll get young people with experience of youth homelessness, and train them to be able to create policy alongside the government. We try to equip young people with the enterprise skills they need to navigate an uncertain future. I think my background in economics and understanding the current system has been – and will continue to be – really powerful in shaping that.”

Rona working on Common Ground
Rona working in the field.

Rona’s role is to “build the capabilities of young First Nations Associates, and then to work in spaces where the voices of young Aboriginal people need to be heard”. It’s a role that draws heavily on the experience she gained from her undergraduate studies, but also speaks strongly to the reason she was first drawn to economics.

“I studied economics because I wanted to understand why the current economic system doesn’t work for all people, especially marginalised Australians. In 2015, I wrote a paper about the role of cultural capital and the economic development of remote communities that I presented at the UN Economic and Social Council. I wanted to challenge my thinking and consider solutions for the future. That’s very much run into the work I do now.”

For students and alumni who are entering the field of economics, Rona poses a challenge, one that considers the equality of the current system, and what it will take to build a better future.

“I think that people who have studied commerce are in a unique position to challenge the system. It might be the financial or economic systems, or even the systems of knowledge and the way we educate the next generation. We need to question and consider whether we want to be the people who are maintaining the status quo, or actually be the people who are able to build a bridge to a new kind of support paradigm. I think we’re starting to see this new system emerge, and I’d like to challenge people to think about what their role is.”