The same is true as we work towards building positive and effective partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.
This chapter considers some of the ways in which we can all build respectful relationships to progress reconciliation.
“…the answers, while complex, are now known. And that means… governments, and all of us involved, have no excuses left for failure.”
Hon. Fred Chaney AO, Reconciliation Australia Board Member
Whether you are in the business sector, government or the broader community, the ingredients for working effectively with Indigenous Australians is the same.
Ten top tips
Research has found that any policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities should be based on evidence of what works, supported by strong research into how it works and why.
The numerous reports, studies and research papers published over the years outline clear and repeated principles that can guide successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and policies.
Reconciliation Australia has identified ten ingredients for successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policies and programs:
What might be starting points for building relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Working well together is all about relationships. When people know each other, and trust each other, then they work well together. If there are familiar faces in a workplace, it will be easier for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to walk in and feel welcome. If you are familiar with some local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, you will feel more confident in your interactions with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Attending local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events is often a good way to meet people in a friendly and informal environment. There may be NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Celebration) events and Reconciliation Week events in your local area. There may be events held by a local Indigenous corporation or other local Indigenous services such as Indigenous Legal Services, Indigenous Medical Services, Land Councils, sports clubs and so on.
You might also contact local community organisations, health services, universities, vocational education institutions or other places where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gather. They may be interested in having your staff visit for an information exchange on how you can help them, and what might help them work more easily with your service.
Certainly, if you’re a manager in a local branch or office, you should introduce yourself to local people of influence.
Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in your local area will be able to advise on key contacts, organisations and events. If you have a local or regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service, land council, legal service, or any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community service, you might begin by contacting them. If you can’t find any local agencies, contact your nearest office of the state department responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs in your State.
If you are trying to publicise something – a consultation meeting, a position vacant, a new approach by your bank – it will often help to ask local people and organisations to ‘spread the word’. Mainstream newspapers or internet advertising on it’s own will not reach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as effectively as the ‘grapevine’ or Indigenous owned and controlled print, radio and electronic media.
What are some things I might need to know about communicating well with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
To ensure you, and others, are comfortable in your communications, you might keep some key points in mind.
Perhaps the single most valuable ‘asset’ to help you easily engage with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be a ‘mentor’ – an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friend or colleague who you can ask about anything that you are unsure of, be it small or large. This is one reason why employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff often makes a huge difference. She or he can give simple advice on things that may not be clear to you. But if you do not have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when you meet them and, as rapport develops between you, ask questions of them. Generally, if you are genuinely interested and respectful, people will be happy to answer your questions about their world (note though, that in some more traditional communities, too much questioning can appear intrusive).
Most of the ‘success stories’ of local partnership began with one person building a relationship with one other person. Reach out.
This does not mean that you can rely on the opinion of this one person to reflect the opinions of local people. This ‘mentor’ relationship will help you communicate better with other Indigenous people. It can not reduce the need for that communication.
Connection with country is crucial to the well being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For millennia, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people visited the country of others, there would be rituals of ‘welcoming to country’. Today, these rituals have a legacy in ‘Welcomes to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgment of Country’.
Usually a ‘Welcome to Country’ will occur at the beginning of any major public meeting. It will be done by an appropriate Elder – someone widely recognised as having ancestral connection with the country you’re meeting in. She or he may welcome in their Indigenous language, or in English.
‘Acknowledging Country’ can be done at the beginning of any meeting. Some organisations, for example, begin staff meetings with an acknowledgement.
An ‘Acknowledgment’ might be, for example *“I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we’re meeting on today, and acknowledge my gratitude that we share this land today, my sorrow for some of the costs of that sharing, and my hope and belief that we can move to place of equity, justice and partnership together”.* You may wish to establish your own wording.
[Listen to the welcome to country given by Matilda House at the opening of the 42nd federal parliament on 12 February 2008]
It is basic respect to find out what local people prefer to be called. (See ‘What do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people call themselves’?)
The appropriate local term may be a regional name (Koori, Nyoongar, Murri, etc), or it may be ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Islander’ or ‘Indigenous’. In smaller communities, the particular language group (‘Kija’, ‘Walpari’ ‘Yolngu may be preferred.
It would be a good idea for your branch or office to find out what is appropriate locally, and inform all staff. When in doubt, though, the term “Indigenous” will not cause offence, even where people prefer a different title.
Do not use terms like ‘Blackfella’ unless you know people well, and then only with their endorsement. Even though many local people may use it, it can cause offence from a stranger. A term like ‘Abo’ is not the equivalent of ‘Aussie’ for the vast majority of people. It is a clear sign of disrespect. Other terms that can cause great offence are terms like ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-caste’. (These terms have been used to both control and divide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and are a relic of racial thinking that devastated many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.) (Refer to [Who is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] for more information.)
Often, people feel that they should ‘know’ about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, and even try to tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) world. But this can cause offence. Most people are offended when you express strong opinions about how they see the world. (If someone tells you, for example, that ‘as a non-Indigenous person, you mainly care about money’ you might take offence). One of the keys to building good relationship is to listen more than you speak. And, where appropriate, ask questions more than give opinions.
This is particularly important because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are diverse, and what is true for one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is definitely not true for all Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. For example, protocols of eye contact, name avoidance, or kinship behaviour patterns, will be important in some areas, and for some families, but not others. So you need to be aware that these protocols may be important, but don’t assume they are. In short, get to know people as a human being, not as a stereotype.
Sometimes people make the mistake of asking a local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person’s view on an issue, and then assuming that that is “the Indigenous view”. If the matter you are discussing will impact on people’s lives, it will almost always be crucial to speak with a number of people so that you hear all perspectives. It will usually be important to involve one or more recognised Elders. The first question in most consultations should be ‘who are all the people we need to speak with about this?’
When a good relationship has been established between you and another person, everything else will flow much more easily. Make good relations your first priority, rather than outcomes. The outcomes will flow from good relations. If people don’t trust you, you won’t achieve sustainable outcomes.
(Note that, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ‘where are you from?’ and ‘who are you related to?’ are more common ‘small talk’ questions than ‘what do you do?’).
The impacts of history have created a lot of mistrust. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have, in their own lives, or the lives of their parents and grandparents, suffered significantly as a result of policies and practices of control, repression and segregation. Equally, many Indigenous people have experienced, or know of, a litany of broken promises and ‘moving the goal-posts’. Added to this, many Indigenous people complain, with justification, that ‘we are the most consulted people in the world, and the least listened to’.
For all these reasons, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be initially wary when they are meeting with you. It will be important, if they raise it, that you acknowledge the wide range of challenges and injustices – past and present, that they have faced. If you keep trying to bring the conversation ‘back to the business in hand’ you risk feeding mistrust. It is more effective to become genuinely interested in the perspectives of people you’re speaking with. They will then know that you are someone they can work well with.
For example, you may be meeting with someone about how you might serve local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers more effectively. This could well lead to a conversation about the local history of 6:00pm curfews, of forced removal of children, of the days when Indigenous people couldn’t own houses. It may also lead to a conversation about re-building community capacity, personal healing, reconciliation, and Indigenous employment. All of this history, and all of these solutions, may be genuinely relevant so listen well and listen openly, rather than trying to ‘get back to the point’.
Note: If you are working in an area where cultural ‘law time’ and other traditional practices take place you should get local training and advice on how to accommodate this, and this is not covered here.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, like many cultures around the world, put a high priority on family, community and cultural obligations.
Throughout Australia the extended family is likely to be extremely important to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ‘Family comes first’ is an extremely important principle for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When you understand that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would count hundreds and sometimes thousands of people as ‘family’ (See ‘kinship systems’) then you will understand that the tension between family obligations and business or work obligations will be high for many people.
When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and customers, it is essential to recognise this, and work to negotiate how both the family obligations and the work obligations can be met as effectively as possible.
This issue often surfaces around funerals. Most non-Indigenous people would attend the funeral of immediate family even if it disrupted work. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with their much broader sense of family (and the sad fact that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die tragically young) commonly have a much larger number of funerals to attend. Many workplaces negotiate with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to determine how to accommodate this important obligation while minimising disruption to the workplace.
Remember, though, that this issue of funerals will not be relevant to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. As with other issues, be aware of the possibility, rather than assuming it to be the case for all people.
In some areas, where traditional culture has been less disrupted, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be in Avoidance Relationships. For this reason, when arranging to meet with people, comply with any suggestion that you should meet with different individuals or groups separately.
Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today have English as their first language (though this will not be true in some remote areas). For some, however the ways of using language can be different. One of your roles, as an employee of an organisation, is as a professional communicator. Here’s a ‘checklist’ of things to consider when communicating with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. (Some of these, of course, apply to all people.)
Sometimes when people have faced difficult or hostile interactions with one Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person they begin to assume that other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will act the same way. It is important to fight this assumption because it gets in the way of good communication. People can feel when you are harbouring feelings of judgement, anxiety or defensiveness, and can, as a result respond negatively.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often experience racism, defensiveness or aggression in their daily lives. For this reason, they are often ‘on edge’ when walking into a business. So it is important to openly and genuinely demonstrate how committed you are to serving them respectfully. Don’t ‘say one thing and mean another’, because people will detect it. Commit yourself to genuine respect, and then make that commitment apparent.
This is the first and most important point of all – everyone is different. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like other cultural groups, share things in common, and have differences between them. So if you are serving an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customer, be aware of possible cultural differences, but don’t assume them. Remember this as you go through the points below.
Be ready for cultural differences in communication, particularly in areas where traditional culture has been less disrupted.
A few examples are given below, but you should talk to local people about others to be aware of.
Occasionally you will have difficult interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Here are just a few pointers on how to manage this well.
Most importantly – try not to take any hostility personally. One of the impacts of history has been that it has built up a legacy of hostility and mistrust between us. Some tend to assume that people will try to exploit them, or treat them disrespectfully, and many experience significant discrimination. This assumption can lead to negative communication on their part which then leads others to be defensive or hostile back to them, which further builds their hostility and mistrust. A vicious cycle of mistrust builds up.
But you can break this cycle. Simply commit, within yourself, to interacting with the person respectfully and personably. If you are genuine in this, she or he may quickly come to see you are a helpful person, and will communicate more easily.
Here is a simple ‘checklist’ to ensure that you are communicating well in difficult circumstances
If you are holding negative attitudes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it will show. No matter how justified you might think these negative attitudes are, they will make it harder for you to communicate well. In fact, the negative attitudes will lead to more difficult experiences, which will harden your negative attitudes!
If you are not well acquainted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, it will limit your capacity to communicate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers and partners well.
Good training can ensure you are better informed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and enable you to explore some of the things that frustrate you about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, perspectives or ways of being. If you are interested in receiving such training, or you think that others in your office or branch would benefit from such training, ask your manager if such training can be arranged.
Local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies, or the local or regional office of the State Government Department responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues may know of suitable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainers. Contact them for a list of people you might approach. The following notes may assist you in selecting an appropriate trainer.
Generic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander awareness training will generally involve 3 broad areas:
Be clear that the trainer(s) specialize in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander awareness training – not in more generic cross-cultural awareness. (Some trainers provide excellent training in working across cultures; – with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. However, the experiences and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are very particular, and often quite different to non-Indigenous groups, and should be dealt with separately).
Perhaps the best way of ensuring the training you get will be of good quality is through word-of-mouth recommendations. Talk to people you know who have been trained by particular training teams. Have they found the experience valuable? Did they feel alienated by the training? Did their views change positively as a result of the training? Do they understand the perspective of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people better? Do they feel better prepared to work effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
However, if you cannot speak to people who have been trained by a particular team you will need to assess their suitability independently.
A number of factors may enhance a person’s capacity to provide excellent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awareness training. Few trainers will have all of these features, but this ‘check-list’ will help you consider the likely effectiveness of a trainer.