From 1862 to 1973 many Aboriginal men and several women were employed by NSW Police as Trackers. Two of these men were former NSW Police Force Sergeant Rebecca Lewis’ grandfather and great-grandfather. Hearing their stories growing up, it was important to Rebecca that the contribution of all Trackers be recognised as a part of Australian history.

As a proud Gomeroi Yinnar (woman) from Moree NSW, Rebecca joined NSW Police Force (NSWPF) at the age of 19 and later was able to bring her ancestors’ stories and those of other Aboriginal trackers to life as part of the AGSM Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Program (EIELP)

Bringing cultural values to the frontline

Over 21 years of service, Rebecca developed a vast skillset, achieving the rank of Sergeant while working in a range of roles and teams. Starting in frontline general duties, she worked with the Forensic Services Group, in education and training as well as human resources, focusing on First Nations recruitment and retention. 

Her approach was to always lead with the values she was brought up with on country, making decisions with a human rights perspective. She used traditional communication methods like yarning and storytelling to de-escalate high risk incidents, obtain victim impact statements and generally make people feel comfortable when there was a police presence. 

Most recently, Rebecca was the First Nations Coordinator working at the NSW Police Academy in Goulburn NSW. She was a lecturer to all students and offered cultural pastoral support for First Nations students. This is where a passion for education and research was brought to light.

“Throughout my policing career, I've always been in some sort of education or research role. I've always somehow done it outside my core duties, so now looking back I’ve always had that passion. It wasn’t until I got to the Police Academy and started teaching that I realised this is what I want to do.”

Rebecca’s father always told her that through education comes change, so she wanted to learn all she could, teach others from inside the organisation, and eventually bring positive change back to her community.

“I also remember my mother’s words ‘do not change who you are for the organisation.’ She told me to go in with my cultural lens. My upbringing instilled in me that the police should adapt and value what I bring as a First Nations woman and my perspectives,” Rebecca says.

The power of bringing First Nations leaders together 

While teaching at the Academy and completing a Master of Education in 2020, Rebecca’s manager asked if she was interested in studying at AGSM @ UNSW Business School, recommending the Emerging Indigenous Executive Leadership Program (EIELP). 

Throughout her career Rebecca had completed many leadership courses, but what attracted her to the EIELP was that this program approaches leadership skills and frameworks with an Aboriginal perspective. 

“It's the only program I've ever done that really had that Aboriginal perspective. It gives you strategies on how to cope and be resilient to some of the politics and confrontations that can come in your work environment when it comes to Aboriginal affairs.”

Rebecca says having the opportunity to network with other Aboriginal leaders was also extremely valuable. She learned about how family history, community and culture helped shape the leaders they’ve become and for her, that was an empowering experience.

“It focused on being a leader but acknowledged trying to navigate in two worlds. Your traditional culture and the Western world. It asks the question of where you fit in as a leader today without impacting your cultural integrity.”

The opportunity to honour unrecognised members of the NSWFP

The EIELP program module, ‘Develop and implement a strategic action learning project to impact change in your organisation’ gave Rebecca the opportunity to bring a project to life that was close to her heart, and the hearts of First Nations Peoples everywhere in NSW - the NSW Aboriginal Trackers Honour Roll. 

With her family connection to the Trackers and her personal connection to the NSWPF, this project was a no brainer– and with the help of the EIELP program coordinators, Rebecca was able to make it happen. 

“When I worked at the New South Wales Police Academy, there was a lot of memorabilia for fallen officers, dogs, horses, cars, but there was nothing as far as Aboriginal culture and history. In my First Nations support role, a lot of students would come to me and say ‘Sarg, there’s no culture here. There’s no history that connects with us.”

So, Rebecca started digging and found a NSWPF Trackers project led by Dr Michael Bennett, which culminated in a website called Pathfinders. There was supposed to be a display at the Goulburn Academy in conjunction with the launch of the website, but it had not been followed through. 

“When I started the EIELP, they said ‘we want you to do a project that’s impactful and meaningful.’ I thought oh perfect, I'm going to do this. I knew with the expertise here I could properly set it out, get help putting strategies in place, and figure out how I was going to do it. The Honour Roll project was an extension to the original research.”

Rebecca says that having the AGSM frameworks to plan the project, set targets and milestones was instrumental in getting it off the ground. It gave her confidence that it was achievable so she could go in and pitch the project to her manager with confidence. After receiving an extremely positive reception, she was encouraged to start immediately. 

By the end of the program, it was time for everyone to give an update on their projects. Due to the global pandemic, this was one of the few times participants were able to be physically together and the reaction to Rebecca’s project solidified her commitment to following it through.  

“At that point I was up to the design part, and during my presentation it was a really powerful moment. While I knew it was a valuable project, I didn’t realise the impact until I saw people crying in the audience. Seeing how the people in my cohort reacted emotionally, I was even more determined to get it done after I completed the program.”

The Aboriginal Trackers display was officially opened at the NSW Police Academy in Goulburn in March 2023 and Rebecca says it was an extremely proud moment. The historical display and honour roll reflects the remarkable stories of 609 NSW Aboriginal Trackers, showcasing their dedication and unique skills which enabled NSW Police to solve crime, apprehend offenders, save lives and share knowledge through storytelling and learning from the land. 

Rebecca thanks  Aboriginal communities around NSW for sharing their stories and the support of Dr Michael Bennett,  Aboriginal members of the NSW police force, both sworn and unsworn, whose descendants were trackers like hers. As the project progressed, it was clear they wanted their family members to be acknowledged and remembered.

“It is important to recognise the work they did and the contribution they made to the NSW Police Force because I know it wasn’t easy work either. They definitely had to walk in those two worlds as well.”

A career change to follow a lifelong goal 

While she was able to follow her passion for knowledge and education into the EIELP, the program and Honour Roll project made Rebecca consider her career outside the NSWPF. EIELP Program Director Eva Freedman encouraged her to explore the idea of starting a PhD, even setting up a meeting with EIELP alumni who had also gone down the academic research path. Through sharing their experience, they helped her realise that it was what she really wanted to do.

Now Rebecca has started a PhD focused on defining what is appropriate police discretion within Aboriginal communities. She will also be using her policing history to inform her work, talking to Aboriginal police officers and First Nations communities to get their view of appropriate discretion. 

“In academic literature, there’s a lot of research in the space of inappropriate police discretion and linking that to overrepresentation. I can’t find anything that defines appropriate discretion,” Rebecca says.

She wants her to work to eventually inform police networks and improve outcomes for First Nations Peoples and believes that improving policy is the best way to make that happen.  

“I originally joined the NSW Police to make a difference for all First Nations communities. I left my community to join an organisation that there was generally a strong mistrust towards due to negative and discriminatory police practices. But Elders gave me a strong message before I left, they said “You need to go and change the Gundji minds.” Gundji means police. This stuck with me for 21 years.”

This advice guided Rebecca throughout her policing career and she’ll be carrying it with her through this next chapter. She always had the intention to change people’s minds, but through following a passion for #LifeLongLearning to AGSM, Rebecca now has the skills and confidence to turn the power of knowledge into a new profession, with life-changing capabilities. 


To learn more about AGSM’s Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP), click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School Executive Education programs, click here.