Dr Kerry Bodle CPA has embedded First Nations culture into the Griffith Business School and is changing the way future accountants learn.
At a glance
- Dr Kerry Bodle CPA is the Griffith Business School’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic director.
- Bodle has been instrumental in bringing a strong focus on Indigenous culture to the bachelor of business curriculum, to ensure that graduates are culturally capable when working with First Nations people.
- The course is also designed to address the issue of financial literacy among Indigenous business owners.
By Megan Breen
It was not until her daughter Kylee went to university that Dr Kerry Bodle CPA revisited a long-held dream to go back to school. Her academic aspirations had been put on hold after she became pregnant at 16, but she had never fully let go of the idea.
“I left school in year 10, and I was voted the ‘most unlikely to achieve’. So, you know, that’s the pathway that you have, and you always believe that you’re never good enough, you’ll never amount to anything,” says Bodle.
“I had always wanted to be a maths teacher. My eldest daughter was at uni, and she said to me, ‘Mum, I’m sick and tired of hearing you say you always wanted to go to uni.’
“So, she brought home an application form for Griffith University and encouraged me to apply for the accounting degree. She said teaching didn’t offer lucrative career pathways!” says Bodle.
At the time, Bodle was in her mid-30s, raising four children and working part time at a local high school as a teacher’s aide. She filled out the application and hasn’t looked back.
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Bodle began working with the GUMURRII Student Success Unit as a tutor and student adviser. She completed an honours degree and then a doctorate, continuing her research in areas including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander financial literacy, business failure and Indigenous business and education fields.
Over the two decades that followed, Bodle taught accounting courses in undergraduate and graduate programs, and is also the Griffith Business School Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic director.
She has developed the master of accounting financial reporting course based on the CPA Australia qualification module, and has been the driving force behind CPA Australia’s Queensland Indigenous Accounting Forum for several years running.
“I call myself the ‘accidental academic’. I guess this is the imposter syndrome. You are told all your life that you will never amount to anything, and eventually you start believing it.
“I feel like two people sometimes – there is the one who puts the blinkers on and says, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing’, and the other person is me being a mum and, outside of all this, wondering how I got here.
“It hasn’t always been an easy road,” Bodle says. “I’ve been here 23 years, and I’ve really had to fight to try to bring something different and to be taken seriously, both as a woman and as an Indigenous person.”
As a descendant of Karendali, Kalali and Wakka Wakka First Nation Peoples, Bodle’s background reflects the story of mistreatment all too common to Aboriginal people across Australia. Bodle feels a deep connection to her ancestors, going back several generations.
At the age of two, Bodle’s grandmother, Moola Conbar, was assigned to a white family in Gladstone, Queensland, on a work permit. At a young age, Moola fell pregnant to a white man and was sent to the Barambah Aboriginal Settlement in Cherbourg.
Bodle’s mother, Margaret, was born in 1929 and subsequently taken from Moola at the age of three. After Moola tried to escape the reserve and find her daughter, she was sent to Palm Island, where she died without ever being reunited with her family.
“As a First Nations person, there is a journey of searching for your cultural identity, and with that comes the inherent intergenerational trauma,” says Bodle.
“My mum was part of the stolen generation, and she was sent to a Salvation Army home and told to forget about where she came from. Her mother died trying to find her, and it wasn’t until I started at uni that we were able to trace her history.”
"It's all about working together - First Nations people working with non-indigenous people. We need to stop the vicious cycle, so that we don't repeat the past, but we also want to learn from it and create new ways of thinking, so that we can hear the voices of our First Peoples and actually embrace and value their cultures."
Bodle’s parents also struggled, and when she was five, she and her twin sisters, Sharon and Karen, were also sent to a Salvation Army home. Bodle went to school in Sydney in the 1970s and, after giving birth to her daughter Kylee as a teenager, she was pressured to give her up.
Fortunately, with a change in the laws and the introduction of the single mother’s pension, Bodle was able to reunite with Kylee and take her home. If she hadn’t, the cycle her grandmother and mother had experienced would have continued, Bodle says.
“I can identify with their stories – being a single mum – and obviously doing a lot of the stuff on my own has been a struggle at times. I think about my mum and my grandmother, and when you get to a point where you are sobbing your heart out and you know something is not quite right, I feel a strong ancestral link to them and I know they are there guiding me.”
Culture at the core
Her heritage and the tradition of storytelling are central to Bodle’s teaching methods at Griffith University. The bachelor of business curriculum Bodle developed has a strong focus on Indigenous culture, history and knowledge to ensure graduates are culturally capable when working with First Nations people.
“Organisations have human resource departments and workplace policies on racism and discrimination. We need to educate our students about the importance of the history of our First Australians, so it becomes relevant in today’s workplaces,” she says.
She also points out that the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap Report 2020 promotes key priorities for improving education and employment, such as increasing the number of Indigenous-owned and run businesses and recommending most organisations implement a Reconciliation Action Plan.
“Every part of the economy has to be considered, so that we have something that is collaborative. It’s all about working together – First Nations people working with non-Indigenous people. We want to stop the vicious cycle, so that we don’t repeat the past, but we also want to learn from it and create new ways of thinking, so that we can hear the voices of our First Peoples and actually embrace and value their cultures,” says Bodle.
Bodle has been involved in extensive research projects to influence industry professionals, government policymakers and educators around Australia.
Her strategy is to take people on a journey and identify ways she can help them understand the importance and relevance of Indigenous culture to their area of expertise.
“I work with academic staff to look at their existing curriculum, and we rebuild it to include more in-depth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content. I then help them and the students with authentic resources, case studies and assessment ideas. I also mentor the staff on how to use cultural safety methods and modules.
“I can remember being invited to sit down with economics professors from a regional university to explain how they could embed First Nations content into their traditional economics courses. At the start, they’d sit there with their arms crossed, leaning back in their chairs, saying, ‘Oh, and how are you going to add First Nations content into an economics theory that was developed in the 1400s?’.
“I explained that First Australians have been here for over 65,000 years – they were doing business before colonisation, they practised sustainable business practices such as managing and trading food resources. By the end of it, they are leaning across the table and really listening to how they can apply it to their course and their research,” says Bodle.
The Indigenous bachelor of business course is one of a kind in Australia, attracting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. While Bodle talks about the benefits of making the course attractive for Indigenous people, she also stresses its value for the broader cohort.
“The first year we ran the Indigenous business course, 90 per cent of the students who enrolled were international. They said they hoped to live in Australia one day and wanted to know more about its beginning and history. That is what we’d like to see.”
The course content is also a part of Bodle’s strategy to address financial literacy among Indigenous business owners and provide the next generation with the tools to help businesses succeed.
Bodle’s own PhD focused on bankruptcy, and she identified a major discrepancy in how the value of intangible assets is measured for many Indigenous businesses.
This led her to research and work with communities to improve their understanding of basic business principles and navigating financial sustainability.
Many First Nations people find themselves in business accidentally, without any real guidance, says Bodle. They may sell art or run a dance studio, having received assistance to get started, but many begin to struggle when the grant runs out.
“The paperwork and legal requirements are complicated and, while governments are trying to do their best in providing all the support and initiatives, there is a disconnect between the funding and how people can access it,” she says.
Another important goal of Bodle’s course is to make Indigenous students feel culturally safe and comfortable.
“The government talks about ‘closing the gap’, but this suggests there is a missing piece. Rather, I say it’s about ‘closing the loop’. I want this to be so that when our kids come from traditional country and communities, whether it be urban, regional or remote, they can identify their own culture in our teaching and see that they can take something back to their community and become part of the solution,” she says.
One person, many roles
- Griffith Business School pro-vice chancellor’s nominated equity champion
- Griffith Business School diversity and inclusion committee member
- Griffith University’s Reconciliation Action Plan champion
- First Peoples Employment Working Group member
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council committee member
- Indigenous Accountants Australia member and co-chair from its inception in 2015