Samantha Harris.
Samantha Harris. Tim Hunter

Inspiring the next generation

On the eve of NAIDOC Week, these young indigenous achievers are already making their mark.

Samantha Harris, 27

There's a difference between being a model and being a role model, but Samantha Harris has them both covered.

The Tweed girl was catapulted into the modelling world at just 13 when she was a finalist in Girlfriend magazine model search competition, the launching pad of many Australian modelling careers.

By industry standards she has reached great heights, appearing on the cover of Vogue Australia at 19 and famously being booked for a record number of shows at Australian Fashion Week in 2010. She has been a brand ambassador for David Jones, Westfield and Priceline.

In a notoriously fickle industry, Samantha has emerged a gracious stayer and, at 27, is using her platform to promote her people, and her charity work and to encourage other young women to pursue their dreams. This year she was named in Who Magazine's annual "Women Who” list for her work in inspiring others.

Samantha is still bemused as to how she became a role model and mentor but it's a mantle she's happily taken up.

"I still really don't know why that happened,” she laughs.

"I thought 'why me, I'm not that exciting' but then I thought if I could give anyone some positive to hold on to, that's a good thing.”

No doubt many young girls saw something of themselves in the shy, unique looking girl with op shop clothes who put herself out there in an arena seemingly the domain of polished, blue-eyed blondes.

"I always wanted to be a model,” Samantha says. "I liked the idea of it but never in a million years did I think I would ever be on the covers of magazines.

"I would have been really happy just being in Target and Kmart catalogues.”

Such earthiness has undoubtedly played a part in Samantha's success, particularly at a time when no one in a Target or Kmart catalogue would have looked like her.

Samantha's mother Myrna is a Dunghutti woman, from the Kempsey area, a member of the Stolen Generations removed from her family as a baby. Samantha grew up with her mother, father and three brothers in a modest house at Banora Point.

"It was my mum who took me to modelling competitions,” Samantha says. "I was the only girl and it was the thing we did together.

"She is still one of my biggest supporters.”

Samantha moved to Sydney nine years ago to pursue a modelling career, determined to chase her dream despite her crippling shyness and the market for Aboriginal models being decidedly untested.

"When I first came to Sydney, I would go to castings, sometime four or five a day and I wouldn't get any jobs,” she says.

"At a young age, it was hard. You think 'they don't like me' but as I got older, I understood it was because the client has a vision of what they were after and I just wasn't the look. And I learned that was OK.”

She has weathered bigger knocks along the way including vicious and racist trolling on social media and the jailing of her husband for two years over a car accident that resulted in the death of an elderly man.

But Samantha proved herself to be made of strong stuff. Somewhere along the way she lost her shyness but it was never replaced by that icy modelling veneer. She is natural and chatty, the quintessential grounded Aussie girl, who is happy to lend her time to good causes and share what she's learned with other young people.

"I tell them it isn't a walk in the park,” she says. "So what I pass on to young women especially, whether they want to be a model, a nurse or anything at all, is that it isn't going to be handed to you.

"But if you work hard and persist, it will pay off.”

Samantha visits schools and indigenous groups to spread the word. She regularly receives messages from young women on social media telling her they are following their dreams because of her and it makes her feel good inside.

She is an Ambassador for the Barnados Mother of the Year Awards - "that's really because of my mum”, she says - and last year took part in the Twinings Tea Challenge where she was asked to design tea packaging, with a portion of sales going to her chosen charity.

Again she called on her mother and they came up with an Aboriginal dot painting- inspired design, depicting the colours of the sea and sand of the Gold Coast.

Her chosen charity was another she is an Ambassador for, the Make A Wish Foundation. That partnership was forged through her meeting with a chronically ill 12-year-old indigenous girl some years ago who'd always been told she looked just like Samantha Harris. One of the girl's wishes was to meet Samantha.

"I was contacted through a friend so of course I went to meet her,” Samantha says. "She really was the spitting image of me. She could have been my little sister.

"I spent quite a few hours with her and I always kept in contact with her. Her family said it really made her day. She thought I was like Angelina Jolie or something but really it was my privilege so I've supported the Make A Wish Foundation ever since.”

And this is no stock story for the media it seems.

"Actually, tomorrow will be three years since she passed away,” Samantha adds. "I still think of her.”

During NAIDOC Week, she will travel to Canberra to sit on a panel for the Girls Academy, a government initiative to keep indigenous girls engaged at school, through in-school mentoring, well-being support and sports programs.

As for the future, she simply wants to keep working, a level-headed ambition in a profession known for its limited lifespan.

"Maybe one day have a product or my own business,” Samantha says. "And just continue being a positive role model.”

It seems she's got that last one in the bag.

Latrell Mitchell.
Latrell Mitchell. Brett Costello

Latrell Mitchell, 21

It's pretty much official: Latrell Mitchell is rugby league's next big thing.

Just days after his 21st birthday, Latrell, from Taree, was instrumental in wresting back the elusive State of Origin title for NSW, shining in the game's biggest arena that many thought he was too young, still too impetuous, to take on.

But the youngster proved his mettle, stepping up to score crucial tries in both games of the series so far and all but cement his place in the NSW side for years to come.

In a subplot to the classic sporting narrative, his young Blues outfit defeated a Queensland side captained by his childhood hero, the game's veteran indigenous superstar Greg Inglis, the towering figure Latrell has been compared to since he burst onto the scene as a prodigiously talented country rookie.

Rugby league has produced some fine indigenous role models over the years and, despite his youth, Latrell well understands his responsibility as a leader not just of indigenous children, but children everywhere.

"I'm happy to be that,” he says. "I want to achieve so I can create that pathway for the younger generation.”

Already he makes a point of lingering on the field after games, to speak to young fans who wait long after full-time for so much as a cursory glance from a passing player.

The story goes, as a kid, Latrell travelled to Newcastle to see his other indigenous hero Johnathan Thurston play. There has probably been no player in the history of the game who's spent as much time with children post-match as Thurston, but that night, he didn't get to the young Latrell.

It gave him a good take-home lesson.

He comes from athletic stock. His father Matt, his first footy hero, was a gifted player who gave up his shot at the NRL because of homesickness, the story of many a brilliant indigenous player from the bush. His mum was a Goolagong - Australian tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley is his great aunty.

Latrell is proud of his indigenous heritage as a Biripi man.

"Being indigenous is everything to me,” he says. "I wear it on my sleeve. Anything I do I will always remember where I came from.”

Latrell is an ambassador for promoting heart health and, earlier this year, was involved in the Knockout Indigenous Health Challenge, a NSW government initiative to promote weight loss and improve health outcomes in 29 regional indigenous communities.

It wasn't just lending his name to the program. Latrell and other indigenous sporting stars gave hours of their time to help train participants in the program and speaking to them personally about the importance of diet and exercise.

Indigenous health is a topic close to his heart. He never met either of his grandfathers, losing both to diabetes in their early 40s. At the start of the year, he cut sugar and junk food from his diet, shedding kilos and emerging leaner and stronger in pre-season testing.

The new regimen translated on to the field as well, making it difficult to overlook him for selection at Origin time.

He was one of four indigenous debutants in the NSW side along with James Roberts, Josh Addo-Carr and Tyrone Peachey.

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Latrell and he's not sure what his footy commitments will be come NAIDOC Week but he will mark it anyway.

"I was talking to Dad about it just the other day,” he says.

"We were talking about the dreamtime and that part of our heritage.

"My dream is to achieve with my footy, just be the best I can be as a player, enjoy my footy and give back, always give back.”

Hannah Duncan.
Hannah Duncan. Remco Jansen

Hannah Duncan, 22

If you want to change the world, you may as well go straight to the top.

That wasn't exactly the plan for Queensland law graduate Hannah Duncan but she's found herself in the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra nonetheless.

Hannah is the granddaughter of arguably Australia's most prominent indigenous land rights figure, the late Eddie Mabo, although she never met him. He died before she was born.

"I've heard the family stories about him ever since I was young,” Hannah says. "I know he was a hard worker and very passionate - a good guy.

"I'm very proud of him but it's a lot of pressure too.”

Hannah is both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander from the Meriam people. She was born in Townsville but moved to Cairns, the Northern Territory and Toowoomba with her father's work before studying for her law degree at Bond University on the Gold Coast.

She worked in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in Brisbane before taking up a graduate position in Canberra five months ago.

"I'm learning so much about policy development and assessing and reviewing funding,” she says. "It's not strictly legal work but it's such good experience.”

It's all part of a long-term plan for Hannah to one day become a barrister and advocate for people. It's in no small part influenced by her grandfather's landmark legal case that, in 1992, had the High Court overturn the doctrine of terra nullius, effectively acknowledging indigenous people have rights to the land.

On the eve of NAIDOC Week, Hannah says her hopes for indigenous people in modern Australia are that they can be confident in who they are and have a hope to achieve their goals.

She sees being a young indigenous woman as a responsibility.

"I've been in the community recently and I think there's a lot to look forward to,” she says. "I've had such good opportunities and I want to show others that things are out there for them.”


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