We often hear the term reconciliation used to mean both the method and the endpoint of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but what does it really mean? While its framework has evolved over time, the Australian government most recently defined reconciliation as “an ongoing process of acknowledgement of the past and a commitment to move forward together” (Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2017, p19).
Government agencies frequently make motherhood statements like this about the process, yet historically they have often placed a greater emphasis on non-Aboriginal stakeholders making decisions for Aboriginal communities. The recent federal government’s Closing the Gap report recognises the error in this methodology, stating that they needed a “new way of working together with Indigenous leaders and their communities – putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre of decision-making” (p4). It is remarkable that in 2017, the government views this as a “new way”, when Stand Up – along with other NGOs – has done just this in its contribution to reconciliation, working with Aboriginal communities for the past 12 years.
One of Stand Up’s key partnerships has been with the communities of Toomelah and Boggabilla, of the Gamilaroi nation, about ten hours north of Sydney. Toomelah is a former mission, and Boggabilla is the closest town, predominantly Aboriginal, and comprising families who have moved from Toomelah. Stand Up’s programs in these communities have evolved, from one recreational program a year in 2005, to a combination of recreational and specific youth programs four times a year in 2017. The specific program is coordinated within community and in Sydney, for young people aged 14 to 20; it focuses on goal-setting, self-esteem building and teamwork. These more recent programs with the older youth were only possible because of the relationships that we had built with these teens over many years.
The decision to expand the program was based on two essential aspects of reconciliation. Firstly, the requests came from the community. The nature and aims of the program were devised in constant consultation with community elders and other key stakeholders. Secondly, we aimed to ensure that our program would be sustainable, so that we could maintain earlier commitments made to these communities. This, in my opinion, is a crucial aspect of reconciliation – too often, promises made by non-Aboriginal organisations are not maintained. Perhaps the reasons for the lack of commitment are legitimate, due to unforeseeable lack of funding or staffing, but for the Aboriginal communities, the reality is the same – when promises are not kept, trust erodes rapidly.
Over the past eight years of being involved in this program, I have been privileged to meet some incredibly resilient individuals. They include a strong group of elders who continue to fight for their land, for their health services, for their rights. They are able to recover from tragedy, band together and constantly think positively about the future of their community. Much of this can be seen through their focus on the youth and the increasing number of students graduating from high school each year, bringing immeasurable pride to the community. For many years, there were no graduates, but for the past five years there has been a steady increase and it is now seen as aspirational and desirable by the youth. I have seen these youth progress to work in their communities in health, childcare, labour and maintenance. Being witness to this change has been an amazing personal highlight – eight years ago, I was playing jump rope with these “kids” by their local river.
Being humbled in the presence of these resilient elders and youth, as well as learning from their experiences, has been key to understanding that we are not the experts in this reconciliation process. I believe that for reconciliation to be successful, we need to acknowledge this very quickly – that we are on a journey and learning on the way. Truthfully, I often feel that the more I know and the more I learn… the more I just don’t know. Acknowledging this, and being humble with it, is key to having an open mind and to ask questions from the people who do know, the communities themselves.
Being culturally sensitive is also an important part of the reconciliation process, which is something I had little understanding of when I initially became involved with Stand Up, given my limited prior interactions with Aboriginal communities. To be culturally sensitive, we need to ensure that we do not place negative or positive values on cultural characteristics; rather, we need to have an open mind and accept another’s culture for what it is, without judgement. This can be incredibly difficult. Additionally, we can’t assume that all people within that culture may behave a certain way. Ultimately, we are all individuals, so it is important to allow for the nuances to come through in community involvement as well. For this reason, Stand Up ensures that we are flexible at all times, adjusting to the needs of various stakeholders. We always consult before implementing a new program, and we alter our programs when there is Sorry Business – cultural practices for the death of a community member. We consider what they need first and build our programs interactively, not just based what will work best for our purposes alone.
This is why arriving to community with solutions is not a productive approach to reconciliation. It might sound generous to say “I know a dentist who can come and work here next week” when you hear there hasn’t been a dentist visit in months or “Can’t we just get a donation of sporting equipment?” when you hear that the sports team doesn’t have footballs. But helping communities is not about bringing up solutions that we think will work. It is not a transactional relationship defined by “this is what we can do for you”. It needs to be a personal, genuine and mutually respectful relationship before anything else. As Melissa Castan and Kerry Arabena wrote, reconciliation needs to be seen as a relationship journey, not simply an outcome.
So, while we often get offers of physical donations, we rarely take them to community. This decision might sound strange to an outsider, but it can work against the very premise of this relationship building and right into the notion of paternalism, whereby we are deciding what the community needs. Rather, we consider what the community discussed with us and how can we better support them to fill a gap if there is one. We have provided such assistance in the form of writing water grants, gaining sponsorship for sport teams, supporting their artists or applying to the government for grants. These forms of assistance, at the community’s request, involve reconciliation and working together, rather than bringing our perspective alone.
Finally, at the forefront of my mind in this reconciliation process is to acknowledge that the community knows what is best for them and it is patronising to think otherwise. It is a privilege to be invited into their homes and communities each year. So it is therefore important to go and listen, rather than just talk, be open-minded and non-judgemental. Of course, Stand Up’s process in walking together with these communities has not always been an easy, perfect journey – nothing is ever perfect when developing long-term relationships across cultures. But the success in our relationship is because we have always prioritised listening and learning from these communities. We have been different to other organisations who have entered these communities, who tell them what they need, impose their own values and customs and make promises that aren’t kept. We have recognised the true meaning of reconciliation – to walk together, side by side. While many people are unsure how they can contribute to reconciliation in Australia, it all begins with listening. Don’t be afraid to start your engagement with Aboriginal communities in Australia through volunteer organisations like Stand Up – ask questions, listen and learn.