Inala Cooper

inducted 2021 Service

Growing up in Port Fairy, Inala Cooper (nee Dodson) first heard the word reconciliation – with a small r – when a teacher at St Patrick’s Primary School described confession. That private act of reconciliation, however, was very different to Reconciliation - with a capital R – between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that is now central to Inala’s life and work as a First Nations woman.

As the daughter of highly respected activist Mick Dodson and the niece of Senator Pat Dodson, it was perhaps inevitable that Inala would follow a path in social justice. Mick is a former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and Uncle Pat is known as the “Father of Reconciliation”, while Inala’s mother, Alecia - also instilled strong ethics in both of her children.

It was through Mick that Inala had the extraordinary experience of travelling to the United Nations in Geneva while a year 10 student at Emmanuel College. Mick was part of a team of experts from Australia working on the draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. For the teenage Inala, it was an awakening.

“It was on that trip,” she says, “that I began to understand the concept of self-determination when it comes to Indigenous people who live in colonised countries. That was a real eye opener and it instilled in me the importance of social justice and human rights.”

But despite this early entrée to the global stage, Inala didn’t pursue a career in human rights straight from Year 12. Instead, a love of dancing – fuelled by some memorable Rock Eisteddfods with Emmanuel – saw Inala complete a Bachelor of Arts in Drama and Contemporary Dance, followed by a period in the performing arts.

Destiny, however, has a way of finding us. For Inala, it came with a chance to work in the (former) Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development. Inala was a project officer with the Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs, during which she convened state-wide forums between the government and local Aboriginal people. She also contributed to the Victorian Indigenous Strategic Plan.

Her professional experience saw Inala return to the United Nations in 2010, this time in New York City, and this time not as an observer, but as an assistant to her father, who was a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. It was, Inala says, a huge opportunity to see how the UN worked and to build an international network. The event also confirmed Inala wanted to study a Masters in Human Rights Law.

Also in 2010, Inala transferred her advocacy skills from the public service to the tertiary sector, first with Monash University and now University of Melbourne. Here she helps create culturally safe environments in which Indigenous students can flourish. At Monash University, Inala also worked as deputy college head of residential services and managing the Indigenous Leadership Program across 13 residential halls.

Inala was then appointed as the Senior Adviser/Manager of Indigenous Strategy & Engagement at Monash, where, among other things, she provided strategic and cultural advice to the Vice Chancellor and the Indigenous Advisory Council. She also worked with various faculties and departments to bring the university’s Reconciliation Action Plan to life.

Since 2017, Inala has been based at University of Melbourne where she went straight into a leadership role with the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity Program. This program is a collaborative, Indigenous-led project aimed at harnessing First Nations knowledge and skills and using this to create meaningful change. Inala’s leadership qualities did not go unnoticed and last year she was promoted into her current role as Director of Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development.

In what might otherwise be spare time, Inala volunteers as a director on four not-for-profit boards, including one targeting Indigenous youth suicide, and is a regular commentator on ABC News Breakfast and The Drum.

Although now a leader in her own right, Inala still draws inspiration from those who paved the way and who continue to fight, like her Uncle Paddy, who is in his 70s and still a Senator.

Inala says, “I ask him, aren’t you tired? And he says, ‘well, when there’s work to be done…….”

A leader for Indigenous Affairs

Inala Cooper

Inducted 2021