At just 23 years old, Rona Glynn-McDonald is a leading voice in Australian society, drawing attention to First Nations peoples and the importance of sharing and celebrating their culture, knowledge and stories.
Rona Glynn-McDonald with Trinity College Warden and CEO, Professor Ken Hinchcliff (L), and Bill Cowan.
The recipient of the 2020 Bill Cowan Alum of the Year award was announced on Friday 7 February at Trinity’s annual Drinks Under the Oak gathering, attended by a record 550 alumni and supporters of the College.
Taking the crown was Rona Glynn-McDonald, a proud Kaytetye woman and social changemaker. As founder of Aboriginal-led organisation Common Ground, and a director at YLab, which puts young people at the heart of complex social problems to help design the future, Rona works with First Nations communities to create systems in Australia that highlight the value of Indigenous Australians to broader society.
After finishing high school in Alice Springs, Rona moved to Melbourne, and Trinity College, in 2014 to undertake a commerce degree at Melbourne University, majoring in economics and finance.
‘I wanted to study economics and understand why economic systems don’t work for First Nations' people. I wanted to learn to think critically about capitalism and the ways in which people in our communities can’t really engage in those systems the way that other people do.’
During the last semester of her degree, Rona was part of the Foundation for Young Australians Young Social Pioneers Incubator, a program that empowers young people to push for change in their communities and around the world. The incubator program gave her the opportunity to explore the steps involved in launching her own not-for-profit organisation.
In 2016, after completing her degree, Rona returned to Central Australia for the summer months to complete her cadetship placement with the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, where she worked in policy. Then, in February 2017, she founded her organisation, Common Ground. After a year of researching and designing the platform, which records and shares First Nations culture, it was launched in May 2018.
Common Ground aims to help Australians build a more comprehensive understanding of the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures by providing access to engaging content that enables users to connect more deeply with First Nations people. The platform’s online resources reach a diverse audience of 30,000 active users per month. Rona estimates that over 160,000 Australians have learned about first nations people and culture so far and that the audience is growing. ‘We use storytelling to try to shape future systems, and shape spaces where First Nations people feel valued by the rest of Australia,’ says Rona.
The platform piloted The First Nations Bedtime Stories Challenge in 2019, a program for schools and families. Each day, for five days, Common Ground shares a short film of a First Nations dreaming story that has not previously been recorded on film. Last year, 350 schools took part, meaning that over 60,000 young Australians were watching those stories and learning about First Nations culture at a formative time of their lives.
Rona believes that ‘when young kids are engaged early, they do have a lot of empathy, and when they are exposed at a young age they can start to think about the ways they can celebrate First Nations culture and people’.
As well as running the Common Ground platform, Rona also works full-time as a consultant director of First Nations with YLab, a social enterprise bringing young people of diverse backgrounds together and providing them with opportunities to solve complex social problems and design solutions for the future.
Being awarded the 2020 Bill Cowan Alum of the Year was completely unexpected for Rona. She didn’t know she was nominated and still doesn’t know who nominated her. ‘I feel very privileged to be receiving it,’ she says. ‘I think that to have a committee say that I’m the alum of the year references the fact that Australia is slowly changing as well. I think the Australian consciousness is more attuned to the importance of centring First Nations voices and people and culture.’
Rona will be joining us as a panellist for our annual International Women's Day breakfast. To find out more, please click here.
The Residential College Alum of the Year award is named in honour of Bill Cowan, who was the chairman of the Trinity College Board from 2006–13 and currently serves on the Fellow’s Committee. He remains a fervent supporter of Trinity’s students and alumni. The award recognises the achievements of a Trinity alum in the preceding year.