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Promoting Indigenous affairs within organisations: Ngata!

Strategies for advancing Indigenous perspectives and participation in organisations were on the agenda in a recent DBS webinar.

On the 29th July 2020, Jason Mifsud, a member of the Deakin MBA Advisory Board, joined Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, Dr Jane Menzies and Assoc Professor Sandeep Reddy in a seminar on promoting Indigenous affairs within organisations.

Jason is truly an impressive individual.  He was a former AFL player and coach and has held many high-profile positions, including being the Chairman of Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation.  Jason has held the position of Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs, advising the Victorian government on how to better promote Aboriginal people and affairs, and was involved in creating a cultural treaty between Indigenous Australians and the Victorian Government.

Emerging from exclusion, hardship and trauma

There were many complex issues discussed throughout the presentation including the courage of elders, the ‘silent leaders’, to go through all the things that they went through before Aboriginal rights were recognised in Australia.

Systemically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were ignored by the Australian community, and were locked out of opportunities for many, many years.

Prior to 1967, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not considered to be citizens of Australia, until constitutional amendments allowed for their full inclusion in Australian society*.

Indigenous people were excluded from basic human rights, such as the rights to health care, the to give birth in a hospital, the right to catch a train, the right to employment, among many other atrocities committed against them. Enduring such hardship, and trauma suggests the strength of Indigenous people, and the ‘silent leaders’.

Getting started in your organisation

Jason made three keys points about we can do to improve Indigenous affairs:

Point 1: Rather than focusing on what is ‘wrong’, we should focus on what is ‘strong’ about Indigenous cultures. In essence this means celebrating all of the positives of Indigenous cultures such as the successful sports people but importantly also the great business people, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators among many others.

Point 2:  Create dreaming circles within organisations to generate curiosity, generosity, and a space that people are invited into to think freely, and develop new ideas.  Dream time could assist with solving organisational problems, and be a forum for innovation.

Point 3: Be the elder that you want to see in the world.  Interestingly, in the Western context we tend not to respect or accept older people, because we often believe they have exceeded their use to society. The fact that people over 50 often find it hard to secure employment is reflective of this. However, it is part of Indigenous cultures to use the experience of elders in your life and acknowledge elders and eldership.  Elders have wisdom that can help you, including in the world of business.

Making lasting change

Jason made a range of other suggestions including:

The importance of teaching Aboriginal culture in early learning centres, primary, secondary and higher education. Unfortunately, this is often at the discretion of individual schools, i.e. it has never been part of the Australian educational curriculum to teach Aboriginal culture in school.  The Aboriginal culture has some 90,000 years of history, knowledge, beliefs, symbols and practices that could have some serious benefits for Australian culture and business. Change needs to happen to include Indigenous knowledge in curricula Australia-wide, rather than being left to individual schools. We can learn many things from Aboriginal culture such as the management of country, relations between different groups, community, business, trade and learning more generally.

Promoting Indigenous culture should be about keeping Aboriginal people part of the ongoing conversation rather than just ‘bolting it on to organisations’ for specific projects that may end when the project is finished.

Horrifying statistics demonstrate that young Aboriginal people are more likely to go to jail rather than getting a Higher Education.  Australia needs to do better. We need to foster higher expectations in our community, and show more Aboriginal people as successful people, leading organisations, sitting in board rooms, on the TV, winning sports, and being the superstar.  Australia needs to raise expectations but also deliver results. We need to have diversity and inclusion policies, ones that include women and different cultures including Indigenous people in the boardroom, and making decisions within organisations.

The Australian Government’s targets to procure 5% of services from Aboriginal businesses, is one example that has assisted in promoting Indigenous business owners. This has helped develop capabilities to ensure that Aboriginal businesses are competitive across industries. This experience can be translated to other organisations.  It is up to decision-makers in corporate organisations to support Aboriginal businesses such as engaging such businesses in procurement and setting targets for change. Whether it is Telstra, construction or banks, Aboriginal businesses are now more tender-ready, with competitive products and services that stack up, and they have the ability to speak the procurement language.

One other strategy that Jason highlighted was the Eastern Maar group in Warrnambool which has been working on gifting an Aboriginal present to newly born children through the Maternal and Child Health Services.  This is designed to help develop awareness of Aboriginal culture with the hope that in the future individuals will be able to reciprocate opportunities to Aboriginal people.  In essence it’s a 30-year investment.

It’s time for decision makers to act

Jason concluded the seminar with the suggestion that it is now up to decision-makers within organisations to provide opportunities for Aboriginal engagement.  If you are in supply chain, making decisions about procurement, reach out to Aboriginal organisations that provide the relevant services or products.  If you are in HR, develop policies for employing Aboriginal people, and actively seek them out.  Whatever role you are in, use your levers to better engage with the Aboriginal community.

Focus on what is ‘strong’ about Aboriginal people, and not what is ‘wrong’.

If you need further consulting advice on how to promote indigenous affairs within your organisation, Jason Mifsud welcomes your contact on mifsudconsulting@gmail.com

* Altman & Sanders, 1991

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