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Audio May O'Brien reflects on becoming an activist, 2008

TLF ID R10100

This is an edited sound recording of an interview with Western Australian Aboriginal educator and author May O'Brien. She recalls beginning secondary school in Perth in 1949 when she was aged 17, and how she went on to become a teacher. She also relates how she campaigned to improve education for all Indigenous children and to transform the representation of Aboriginal people and their histories in textbooks. This recording was made in November 2008.

Educational details

Educational value
  • May O'Brien (1933-) emphasises the importance of education in empowering Indigenous people. When O'Brien was young, most information about Indigenous people was written from a non-Indigenous perspective, and often reflected ignorance of Indigenous cultures and sometimes prejudice. O'Brien suggests that by becoming educated Indigenous people are able to challenge ignorant and prejudiced views and present their own perspectives.
  • In the recording O'Brien talks about her journey to becoming the first female Aboriginal teacher in WA. Her determination and commitment to improving education for Indigenous children reflects a lifelong quest. Later, she held senior positions in the WA Department of Education and on national advisory bodies, focusing on Indigenous programs. She helped to form Aboriginal education committees across WA that addressed issues such as the literacy and numeracy difficulties encountered by Aboriginal children whose first language was not English.
  • O'Brien says that in 1949 she went to Perth Girls' High School with a number of other Aboriginal girls from around WA. The group were among the first Aboriginal students to be sent to a secondary school in WA. O'Brien relates how they initially had to prove that they 'had brains' and were 'teachable'.
  • O'Brien says here that her activism was sparked by anger over the negative way in which Aboriginal people had been depicted in speeches in the WA parliament (as recorded in Hansard) and in history books being used in WA schools. She relates how she wanted changes made quickly and how she had 'a lot of run-ins' with people in senior positions as she campaigned for reform.
  • O'Brien's contribution to improving Indigenous education in WA and other parts of Australia has been recognised with a number of awards, including the British Empire Medal in 1977, the John Curtin Medal in 1998 and the Centenary Medal in 2001. In 1984 O'Brien was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Indigenous education programs in the USA and Canada, and she represented Australia at the Second World Conference on Women, convened by the UN and held in Denmark in 1980.

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: May O'Brien
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Audio
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements.