Hayden Walsh

First Nations Advisor

Hayden Walsh takes a relaxed and optimistic approach to inclusion and respect in his role producing Sydney Living Museums’ Indigenous programs.

At the age of 11, Hayden Walsh stood in his primary school playground, being teased by a group of his classmates. Recounting this moment years later, Hayden, a Wiradjuri man, gives a characteristically nonchalant grin: ‘It was just left-field stuff like “Ha ha, we stole your land”’. While he’d always known that his nan was an Aboriginal woman from the Nyngan area of central NSW, it was only the day before that he’d shared this with a teacher, and the news soon spread to the schoolyard.

This was the early 2000s and, according to Hayden, ‘not telling the world about our family background was common, especially because of the pain and hurt copped by my nan when she was growing up’. Now, knowing that he could either ‘shrink … or rise and defend myself’, he stood tall: ‘Yeah, so young and uncertain of my own story, I stepped out into that cultural space’.

It was partly his interest in sport that kept Hayden attending high school, at Hunters Hill on Sydney’s north shore. But even more valuable was the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), a new initiative pairing Indigenous youngsters with volunteer mentors, to nurture their wellbeing and steer them towards tertiary studies: ‘I was going to drop out. It was the mentoring program that kept me in school.’

Yarning it up

After matriculating, Hayden began an arts degree in media studies at Macquarie University. A series of internships with National Indigenous Television and SBS, spanning radio, journalism, film crewing and video production, strengthened both his communication skills and his cultural awareness.

Although his studies were in media, Hayden saw a different path ahead. While studying he had worked in the university’s Indigenous outreach unit, visiting schools and providing the same guidance he’d received as a teenager. He then ventured out alone as a freelance speaker providing workshops, ‘challenging stuff for a 19-year-old, but lots of fun’. ‘Yarning it up’ in school assembly halls and camps, Hayden’s main focus was on helping young Aboriginal people develop life skills: ‘We’d talk about building resilience, embracing failure, setting goals, as well as cultural knowledge and identity. And because of my age, I wasn’t talking down to them’.

Hayden also held a series of casual museum positions, mainly as a tour guide and on holiday programs, at The Rocks Discovery Museum and then with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS): ‘Pretty soon I became involved in MAAS’s Indigenous program, which was great because I was getting a lot of cultural stuff I didn’t get as a kid. Working with elders and people like the Mabo family at events was so meaningful and enriching’.

A legacy to build

In 2018, Hayden accepted the exciting new role of Indigenous Programs Producer at SLM, although he was torn: ‘I didn’t want a full-time job, because I wanted to expand my workshops and take them across the country, to regional and remote areas’. Fortunately, the new position allows Hayden to combine his personal priorities with producing an ambitious range of events and school programs for SLM. ‘I was told, “You can create and shape [SLM] programs and continue to work with community – it’s your legacy to build”. So I gave it a go … It was a great start and it just got better and better’.

Hayden’s aim is to more effectively engage Aboriginal communities and voices, and to highlight Aboriginal resilience and culture. He wants to see closer cooperation with Aboriginal communities and more Aboriginal people attending SLM events. Among his proudest achievements are producing the Whale and Eel festivals in 2018 and 2019. These popular annual events, launched a few years earlier, explore Aboriginal connections to Country and place through ceremony, food, music and community. In a first for SLM, Darug language workshops were held at Elizabeth Farm in June to coincide with Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), with intensive classes and yarning circles facilitated by elders. Hayden was also deeply involved in planning this year’s NAIDOC Week event, held at Rouse Hill House & Farm on 14 July.

Coming full circle

Hayden still channels that uncertain 11-year-old whose journey began with a mentoring initiative and continues today through his support for Aboriginal communities. He has a vision for expanding SLM’s outreach to include Indigenous high school students and working collaboratively on projects that inspire young people to engage with culture and with SLM sites. ‘For me, the most important thing is to bring together Aboriginal kids from different areas. In some places there may only be one or two students identifying, without the support needed to speak out or stand proud. This way you can band together and realise that there’s this big community here. I see myself and my own story in all the kids I work with, and it’s kind of an inspiring circle that keeps on turning.’

Young man in blue shirt leaning with one arm on sandstone ledge.

Hayden Walsh, SLM's Producer - Indigenous Programs, Experience & Learning Team. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums