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Meet Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, academic, writer, filmmaker and Indigenous rights advocate.

“I really love the work of the Sydney Women’s Fund because you can do things that can feel quite small, but they can be transformative. And we all have the ability to do that,” Larissa says. “If we can empower the women in our community, we can change lives, we can change families and we can change the community for the better.”

Earlier this month we celebrated Professor Larissa Behrendt AO at our annual Saluting Sydney Women event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition to her incredible academic and creative career, Larissa is a former board member of the Sydney Community Foundation and understands the importance for Foundations to actively listen to communities and provide them with the support they need to heal and thrive. Larissa was in conversation with her close friend Philippa McDermott and spoke about her work, the amazing women who have supported her throughout her life and the importance of giving back.

We spoke with Larissa about the event and her incredible career and life.

How did you become involved with Sydney Women’s Fund?
Wendy McCarthy AO has been a great mentor to me over many years so I knew about the Fund through her work. A lot of other high-profile Sydney women have been involved, but it was Wendy who drew me to the work of Sydney Community Foundation and its sub fund Sydney Women’s Fund. I also had the privilege of knowing Ros Strong who had introduced me to different elements of the Fund’s work.

Who are some of the other women who have inspired and supported you?
Tanya Hosch, who I met when we were both working in Indigenous Affairs in our early 20s. I loved her sassiness, her irreverence, sharp wit and love of fun. We just clicked. I had a great mentor in Bobbi Sykes, who would be known to women of her generation. And I’ve got a bunch of Aunties in Redfern, including Bronwyn Penrith and Auntie Millie Ingram – who’ve been very big supporters. But I’ve also had Wendy as a support and always at the times when I’ve needed her, she’s been there. Elizabeth Evatt AC [first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and 2015 Saluting Sydney Women honoree] and Justice Jane Mathews AO within my legal fraternity, also Linda Burnie and Pat Turner – who is now the head of the Coalition of Peaks. I’ve had women from both communities be very supportive of the work I’m doing.

You have such a prolific and varied career, how do you find time for it all?
Well, I’m not very good at doing things I don’t find interesting. So I pick the things I have more energy for – the things that mean something to me. There’s a lot of work I do that’s not easy, like child protection or working with victims of crime, but it feels worthwhile to me.

How do you maintain balance in your life?
Early on in my career I wasn’t so good at it and I’d just get myself in these cycles of burning out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated the importance of ensuring more balance in life. People often say to me, ‘oh, you mustn’t sleep’. But actually I find making sure I get enough sleep and recreation a big key to ensuring I’ve got the energy to do the work I’ve signed up to do.

How do you protect that energy?
Being with my family is really important to me. I don’t have a big family by Blackfella standards, but I get a lot of joy from that and spending time with my friends. My husband and I are very involved with the arts. We go to lots of movies and galleries and we love travelling. He’s very curious – I don’t think you can be creative without being curious. We have our own production company so I’m lucky I’ve got a life companion who I can create with. I’m much more creative if I’m giving myself time to get exposed to other people’s creativity. I find that not only is it a break from work, it actually reinvigorates me.

Do you mentor other women?
Having been the recipient of so much generous mentoring, I’m now at a time in my life where I’m bringing up a new generation. Having a younger cohort coming through – their energy, their passion -is infectious. There are days when I feel like a cat watching kittens run around! Their enthusiasm reinvigorates me. I see it very much as part of my role at the University with staff and students, but I mentor across the film industry as well. I was also privileged to be a mentor for Nardi Simpson when she was writing her book.

Your short film, Barbara, which was screened at the Saluting Sydney Women event, tells the story of a young girl who is wrongfully removed from her home. How did the film came about?
To give a person who has been marginalised in silence the ability to tell their story in their own words is a really important role for advocates to play. That’s one of the themes which was important for me to speak about at the lunch – talking about my own evolution as an advocate from a lawyer who speaks for people in court to moving into filmmaking and creating space for people to tell their own story.

For all of us, no matter what our background is – and some of us are more privileged than others, and some of us are within marginalised communities, but are highly privileged within those communities – the question we always need to be asking ourselves wherever we sit is, how can I use the privilege I have to assist those who have less privilege than me.

To donate to the Sydney Women’s Fund, please visit the website www.sydneywomensfund.org.au/donate-swf

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