Marsha Riley, a young woman of the Western Aranda and Walpiri tribe, is committed to encouraging others — Aborigine and non-Aborigine alike — to find their voice. Marsha found hers through a long, difficult, but extremely rewarding journey.
Marsha has faced many hardships from early childhood on. She was born in Hermannsburg, Australia, in a home where she did not always feel physically or emotionally safe. Her mother became an alcoholic and her father was always in and out of jail. For her, life at home was often violent and unpredictable. She sometimes had to flee home and sleep at another relative’s house for safety.
Marsha grew up thinking that being invisible was the best thing she could do. Yet as a child, she often felt lost, ignored, like “a nobody.”
However, Marsha’s life started to take a turn for the better when she started going to school at St. Phillip’s College. She began to find a sense of self, purpose and achievement in both academics and personality. With help from friends, teachers and house parents, she began to feel cared for and this helped to bring her out of her shell.
“In my journey struggling to achieve, I met so many wonderful people, both indigenous and non-indigenous,” Marsha wrote in a memoir. “That made me feel good about myself because I [became] able to speak without being shy anymore.”
Marsha recalled school as difficult at first, entering it as a girl from the “out bush” and not knowing how to read. She found joy in sports and art, which she says helped develop her character.
However, being indigenous, she also experienced racism from some of her colleagues at school, which she eventually learned to ignore. “It hurt,” she wrote. “I thought to myself, why? Why me? Iím just trying to fit in after being left out. Then, I was told why. It was because the [other] person didnít feel good about themselves — so they picked on other people… [From then on], I ignored it completely.”
As time went by, Riley was able to reconcile with her parents. Despite a rocky upbringing, she still expresses gratitude and love for her parents. “My parents weren’t the best parents, but they canít change who they are,” she said. “No matter what they did to me years ago, I forgave them because I didnít want to have hatred in my heart. Also, they were the ones who brought me into this world we all call home. And I love them as much as I love my Nana, who raised me to be a stronger person.”
Marsha took advantage of camping and exchange programs that her school offers, which have taken her all around Australia and even to India. The trip to India made quite a large impression on her. Not only did it introduce her to an entirely new culture, but also made her realize that life shouldnít be taken for granted.
“Poverty was one of the things that stood out to me in India, and it touched me,” she said. “But to make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to go to an under-developed country to make a change. You can change someoneís life here.”
Participating as part of the Young Indigenous Leadership Program was an experience that helped her to fully embrace her indigenous heritage. “I got to tell them my story of when I lost everything at a young age, and how people lent a hand that got me where I am now,” she said. “The leaders also spoke of being proud of who you are and where you came from… It gave me the strength to stand out more and be proud of being Aboriginal.”
Now, she is finishing up school this year with several options ahead of her. She is contemplating spending a gap year going to school in Southern Australia or studying tourism in Uluru. Eventually, Marsha plans to become a member of the police force.
“Every individual person is unique,” she said. “We have our own struggles to face, and the only person who can make things happen is you.”