Meet the alumnus bringing city kids to remote Indigenous Australia to nurture reconciliation

28 February 2017

At eight-years-old, when Arthur Alla came to Australia to start a new life with his parents he did not speak a word of English. Today, the UQ alumnus (Bachelor of Commerce '11) and NSW Young Australian of the Year uses his voice and actions to help other young Australians form an understanding of Indigenous culture.  

“To be part of our national narrative and as a minority, in a democracy, you need to have allies that understand your story and can empathise with you.

“Indigenous people want to be part of the narrative and I realised really early on that our programs at Red Earth can give them a platform.

“The Indigenous communities I work with fundamentally understand that we rise and fall together - all of us are part of the same team,” he said.

His company, Red Earth, gives traditional owners living in remote Australia the tools they need to host groups of young people on their land and share their stories on their own terms.

During these two-week long immersion programs, school-aged children travel to Indigenous homelands and learn from Indigenous locals and elders who openly impart their knowledge and stories with pride.

This is a program, which extends the transfer of knowledge across divides of age as well as culture, with genuine bonds of friendship and empathy formed between all parties, young and old.

The project started after Mr Alla decided to leave a position interning at an economics consultancy in Sydney to volunteer in Cape York, but he had no idea what it would grow into.

“It started as a project that I just thought would be interesting, but as it grew and as we did our first immersion with school kids in Indigenous Australia, I realised that there were genuine and meaningful connections forming between people.

“What happened after the first immersion was that the Indigenous people who welcomed school kids onto their homelands absolutely loved it; they wanted to work on further projects with them.”

The immersion experiences offered by Red Earth build understanding and empathy between young Australians.

“Spending time with people in the flesh, that's how you develop empathy, not just in young people, but in everyone.

“If you can empathise as a young city person with an Indigenous person who partially lives off the land and has lived in one of the forgotten corners of our nation for their whole lives, then there's no limit to who else you can empathise with, so as an educational tool it's incredible.” 

Mr Alla believes in the importance of storytelling in connecting young Australians across cultural divides.

“My work, it changed me too over time. I forgot about my resume, I forgot about climbing the corporate ladder and realised that the real power and the real wisdom lay in bringing people together and having them share their stories.

“Having young people join that chorus of people who care, not just about their school and their community, but about their country and who have enough confidence in themselves to know they can and must make a difference, that's really powerful.

“It is how you make us truly worthy of our very best selves and our title as the luckiest nation on earth.”

Red Earth employs four full-time-equivalent staff and 30 group leaders on a contractual basis; it also has a strong network of volunteers. 

“We employ many people but the thing I'm most proud of are our Indigenous partners who we work with on the ground, who help create these experiences. We work in areas of such little economic opportunity, so jobs are very valuable.”

Mr Alla considers the practice of sharing stories to be an integral part of breaking down barriers, a belief, which stems from his own and his family’s experiences.

“My dad was born in Algeria and his father was killed when he was 15, during the civil war as a result of sectarian violence.

“When my father fled to France, this was a time when French people were also seeing Algerians as subhuman; when they were getting spat on in the streets.

“My father was basically a refugee; the only reason he got into university and went on to become a professor of economics, was because someone on the admission board of the university heard his story about being an orphan and this struck a chord with them.

 “So again, you have the notion there that stories are what get us by.”

His experiences being kidnapped and held hostage in Nicaragua further demonstrated the importance of sharing your experiences with those around you.

“When I was 21, I went to Nicaragua to volunteer at an orphanage on the west coast and I got in a fake cab with a friend, knives came out, I was blindfolded and taken.

“It very much looked like we weren't going to survive and we were going to be killed – so I tried to connect with the captors, the people holding knives to our throats and threatening my life. 

“At one point I felt like I broke through with a woman who was part of the group, I told her my story and she told me hers and there was a brief moment of connection.

“A few hours later when the other captors came back angry and aggressive after my credit card hadn’t worked and said they were going to kill us, she actually came to our defence… Whether that saved my life, I don’t know, but I think maybe it was part of it.”

Mr Alla encourages other students to get involved with their communities and said students interested in taking part in one of Red Earth immersions are encouraged to volunteer.

"I would tell young Australians that you too can make a difference by going to remote Indigenous Australia and connecting with our first Australians, it’s the most patriotic thing you can do.

"Think about the skills you can bring and offer to bring them.  If you're a uni student, you can volunteer to help lead a group to the remote areas of Australia which is good leadership development. If you're an outdoor person maybe you can be a more permanent leader with us. Everyone can bring something.” 

Mr Alla says he thoroughly enjoyed his time at UQ.

"UQ is a good university, it has world-class professors and lecturers, it's in a beautiful environment, and the people are pragmatic and grounded here. I think that creates a more positive learning environment then what you might get at other universities."

Mr Alla is among many UQ Alumni recognised in the Australia Day Awards and Australia Day Honours.


Among those named Companion (AC) in the General Division of the Order of Australia were:

The Honourable Dr Anna Bligh AC (Bachelor of Arts ’81, Doctor of Laws honoris causa ’10).


Among those named as Officers of the Order of Australia (AO) were:

Dr William (Bill) Bowness AO (Certificate in Provisional Accountancy ’67, Bachelor of Commerce ’68, Associate in Commerce ’69, Doctor of Business honoris causa ’15).

Ms Roberta "Bobbie" Anne Brazil AO (Bachelor of Arts ’66, Bachelor of Laws ’87, Master Laws ’98).

Professor Raymond Frost AO (Bachelor of Science ’64, Grad Dip Education ’65, Bachelor of Education ’67, Master Science ’75, Doctor of Philosophy (Chemistry) ’82).

Adjunct Professor Lizbeth “Liz” Kenny AO (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’80).

Emeritus Professor William “Bill” Lovegrove AO (Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) ’70, Doctor of Philosophy (Psychology) ’74).

Emeritus Professor Max Lu AO (Doctor of Philosophy (Chemical Engineering) ’91).          

Ms Anne O'Donovan AO  Officer (Bachelor of Arts ’66).


Among those named as Members in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) were:

Mr David Barbagallo AM (Bachelor of Surveying ’81).

Associate Professor William Emmerson AM (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’79).

Mr Ian Klug AM  (Bachelor of Arts ’79, Bachelor of Commerce ’81).

The late Dr Peter Parodi AM (Doctor of Philosophy (Physiology & Pharmacology) ’82).

Mr Frederick Pidgeon AM (Bachelor of Commerce ’79, Bachelor of Laws ’81).

The late Dr Larry R Smith AM (Bachelor of Educational Studies ’77, Master of Educational Admin ’80, Doctor of Philosophy (Education) ’87).

Honorary Professor Catherine Turner AM (Bachelor of Arts ’87, Doctor of Philosophy (Social & Preventive Medicine) ’00).


Among those named as Members of the Order of Australia in the General Division (OAM) were:

Professor Neal Ashkanasy OAM   (Dip in Computer Science ’72, Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours ’82, Doctor of Philosophy (Psychology) ’89).

Dr James Bardsley OAM (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’88).

Mr Brian Besly OAM (Bachelor of Engineering ’56).

Miss Emilee Cherry OAM (Bachelor of Health, Sport and Physical Education ’16).

Mrs Gwenyth Cutler OAM (Certificate in Education ’60, Bachelor of Arts ’64).

Professor Hugh Dickson OAM (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’73).

Mr John A Ferguson OAM (Associate in Commerce ’66, Bachelor of Commerce ’66).

Mr John M Hardy OAM (Qld Dip in Agriculture ’67).

Mrs Deirdre Hargreaves OAM (Bachelor of Science ’68).

Mr Anthony Hickey OAM (Bachelor of Laws ’79).

Mr Ian Jarratt OAM (Master Agricultural Science ’88).

Mr John S Johnstone OAM (Grad Dip Advanced Accounting ’76, Bachelor of Commerce ‘74).

Mr F J Lunn OAM (Graduate Diploma in Journalism ’63, Bachelor of Economics ’68).

Professor I A Meyers OAM (Bachelor of Dental Science ’82).

Ms Cecily Pearson OAM (Bachelor of Educational Studies ’93).

Dr L C Thompson OAM (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’74).

Mr Adrian Unger OAM (Bachelor of Pharmacy ’69).

Dr K W Zabell OAM (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery ’74).


Among those who received Public Service Medals (PSM) were:

Mr Randall Cox PSM (Bachelor of Science ’72).

Dr Philip Moody PSM (Bachelor of Agricultural Science (First Class Honours) ’72, Master Agricultural Science ’77, Doctor of Philosophy (Agriculture) ’96).