Designing a Space for ‘Champions’ of Reconciliation: A Reflection…
A few weeks ago I tried something different, something big, something that I perhaps didn’t realise at the time would be such a significant experience for me…
Last year the organisation in which I work provided me with the opportunity to develop a group of ‘RAP Champions’. This was to be a new group of individuals who worked across teams, portfolios, states and territories and would be responsible for leading the actioning of our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) at my organisation. When I was approached to facilitate this team, it was suggested that I’d probably want to change things — and they were right. The team was meant to be a space where Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous people would come together and demonstrate how to work together, share power and effect real change in the organisation. Ethically, I couldn’t not try and change things up.
I invited some of our Aboriginal RAP representatives to a virtual or ‘in-real-life’ cuppa and listened. I learnt about their lives, their families, their COVID issues, their Christmas plans, their work challenges, their clients and their questionably raunchy gym instructors. But I heard more than that. I also heard that many of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members don’t feel safe within our large organisational committees and working groups to speak up and to share their opinions. I heard that there can be a fear of bringing shame upon themselves and also their team. I heard a fear of being disrespectful by voicing their concerns and ideas for change. I heard that many don’t feel comfortable sharing themselves with people with whom they have no real relationship, people who don’t know anything about who they are and where they come from. I heard that many of our traditional Western-style meetings prioritise agendas, efficiency, pace and achievement over relationship-building and trust.
I learnt that, at least within the Reconciliation space, as a start, we need to do things differently.
Reconciliation is not the sole responsibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Non-Indigenous people are the ones who came to these lands, subjugated its Indigenous populations, denied them their culture, language, knowledge systems and family relationships, and committed genocide. We need to be taking action for steering our relations and country back on the right track. And we have a lot to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as a country and within our organisation. We need to co-create spaces where our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members have the opportunity and agency to fully and safely participate.
On building spaces
Reflecting on these discussions with team members, and informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of being over thousands of years, I proposed the following principles for guiding how we designed our RAP Champions meetings:
● Building relationships
● Feeling respected and safe
● Being open to learning
● Trying different ways of doing.
All of these were proposed to ensure that we could achieve the mission we were given — to feel confident to lead the actioning of the RAP in our local teams, regions and communities.
The inaugural session was held over two hours with over 30 of us coming together in a virtual meeting space. To bring these principles to life I tested breakout rooms where we spent the start of the session in small groups of 4–5 people, with prompt questions that had nothing to do with work. While I facilitated much of this first session, Indigenous and non-Indigenous teammates participated through delivering a heartfelt Acknowledgment of Country and invitation to ground oneself; sharing updates on the development of our new RAP; discussing the importance of National Reconciliation Week; and sharing specific examples of how they work alongside other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in their own community. I heard some very beautiful stories, met some wonderful people — it was a good start.
As I reflected on the session, I realise that this was the first step of a longer journey. I’d invited anonymous feedback and while this was generally positive, one comment struck me: “More structure”. I could understand that feedback, but it did make me wonder: in creating this space for RAP Champions, am I creating discomfort for those non-Indigenous team members who feel more safe and comfortable within the status quo of our current Western-based ways of doing?
And am I OK with that?
Reflecting on change
It took a few days, some chats with colleagues, lots of reflection and a slice of cake to realise that I am OK with that. For centuries we in Australia have expected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (amongst other groups) to shift to our way of doing things. There has been progress in the name of inclusivity. Within many work settings, we now magnanimously create seats at our proverbial table for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. But I wonder: why are we creating space at our table when they have a table of their own? Beautiful tables, old, gnarled and rich with wisdom and experience. Do Aboriginal people even want to sit at our table? Many times I prefer theirs; I feel more welcome, more safe, if I’m invited.
The idea of an organisation where many ‘tables’ could thrive, and where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders feel confident to share their knowledge and experiences, genuinely excites me. But in supporting this change I also need to be explicit about what this might look like, and feel like; and why this is so important. I need to be clear that this space is being intentionally designed to question Western-based principles rooted in colonialism. Over time we will hopefully start to explore how embracing Indigenous ways of doing, knowing and being might enable us to create a supportive group where participants feel safe and included; where we connect as people and not just as workers; where we share what we don’t know as often as we share what we do know; where we make decisions based on heart and gut as much as with our heads. And I suspect that I’ll find that like most good design, the experiences that are designed around marginalised groups end up supporting the needs of everyone.
Yes, for many this is a change and will feel uncomfortable. After years of thrusting this discomfort onto our First Nations peoples, trying a new way of gathering seems a small ask. I’m sitting in this discomfort now. If that’s you, I invite you to sit with me and see where it leads us. As a values-based organisation, if we are truly committed to walking alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders towards Reconciliation, then sitting in this discomfort is an important first step.
This is a journey for me, one without a specific destination. I’m here to learn more, to stand corrected, to engage in respectful discourse in order to do better. A year down the track I might disagree with what I’ve put forward above. If you have thoughts on the above, please let me know. This isn’t a path I want to travel alone.