View over Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, with mountains and Black Mountain Tower in background
Case study /
Representing Australia

Sheena: negotiation

Nathan Fulton/DFAT

From Norseman and Esperance, in southern Western Australia, to the United Nations in Geneva, Sheena Graham is taking community know-how to the world stage.

Sheena Graham, headshot, trees and pink blossom in background

Sheena Graham. Image credit: Nathan Fulton/DFAT

A Ngadju woman, Sheena’s philosophy of ‘not accepting limitations’ led her to undertake remote studies as a single parent, through the Institute of Koori Education at Deakin University. This program brings together Indigenous students from across Australia to undertake intensive studies, with comprehensive support for study back home. ‘There are so many students around Australia who are in remote communities right around, and it’s thousands of kilometres to the next capital city. I met a lot of inspiring people’, Sheena says.

Once her degree in political science was completed at the University of Western Australia, Sheena put it to use in the centre of politics, Canberra. Starting out at AusAID and working on overseas development programs in the Pacific, she soon realised that her experience as an Indigenous woman––combined with her study––was incredibly valuable: ‘You’ve got a lot of other people who have to study it, study development at university to understand those type of nuances and concepts, whereas we grew up with that view…’.

At the end of the day, indigenous peoples, no matter what country we’re from, there’s common linkages between us...

Sheena developed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s first Indigenous People’s Strategy over a seven year period. This embeds Indigenous issues across Australia's foreign policy, economic diplomacy and the overseas aid program. Once Sheena and her team had the strategy up and running, she started looking at where Australia could push the global agenda on indigenous policy. ‘It started as just me and a work friend sitting down with a whiteboard mapping out where Australia could add value to global policy’, she says.

This led Sheena to Switzerland in July 2016, and to the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. This is one of the most important ways the UN supports indigenous peoples. It studies issues for indigenous peoples around the world and advises the UN Human Rights Council.

In Geneva, Sheena wanted to highlight Australia’s strengths, observed first-hand in her own community. ‘It was pretty clear that economic development is one of our greatest stories to tell, because domestically the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was really energising and building the Indigenous business sector in Australia,' Sheena says. 'At the end of the day, indigenous peoples, no matter what country we're from, there's common linkages between us...'

Sheena Graham wearing translator headset at bank of desks, seated behind a sign reading Australia

Sheena speaking at the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. Image credit: Alexander Chapman/DFAT

Sheena and the Australian Government delegation hosted a panel about the connection between economic empowerment and poverty reduction for indigenous peoples ‘to convince other states that it was worth investigating what the UN can do to help enable indigenous peoples to set their own economic development priorities’. The UN Expert Mechanism for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples accepted Australia’s proposal for a study on indigenous economic empowerment with a focus on indigenous women and indigenous persons living with a disability. Sheena and other Australian Government delegates went on to advance the economic policy interests of indigenous peoples in other fora, including the World Indigenous Business Forum, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. 

‘The study’s now been adopted…we’ve gone and built a coalition with global indigenous business leaders… to map out what can we do together to drive this forward’, Sheena says.

A pretty pleasing result for something that started out as a scribble on a whiteboard, based on knowledge drawn from her community, and mixed with the hard work and determination of a young woman from remote Western Australia.