Reconciliation: how your organisation can drive sustainable change

Aboriginal reconciliation concept rainbow outback

While ‘reconciliation’ denotes an achieved outcome, it is in fact unfinished business in Australia. Previous generations of Australians have fought hard to bring us closer to the goal of a reconciled Australia, but there is still much to be done.

Brunel Australasia’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager Sonya Liddle weighs in on the importance of reconciliation and what we can do to enact real change. She shares key insights from three Indigenous emerging leaders on practical steps we can take – as individuals, organisations and societies – to bring us closer to true reconciliation.

Sonya Liddle
Manager, Diversity & Inclusion Services
Sonya Liddle

Indigenous Australians sand pouring connection understanding concept

Now is the time to act

National Reconciliation Week 2022 is a call to action for every Australian to ‘Be Brave. Make Change’. This is crucial work that needs to be on our agenda every week of the year. We need to be brave and address the gaps in reconciliation, so we can make change to achieve an equitable future for all. As we are seeing in so many of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) arenas, the time for awareness and understanding is coming to a close. Now that we know better, we must do better. Now is the time to act and implement change.

You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in. YOU alone are responsible for becoming more ethical than the very environment you grew up in, in all areas of your life. We speak so often of wanting to leave behind a better planet for future generations, of wanting more for our children than we had ourselves. Surely then, creating an equitable future must be a big part of that.

Ethics and kindness should always go hand in hand. Sometimes this means taking the time to learn more. We live in an age where the information of the world is at our fingertips, so ignorance is really no excuse. Critical thinking is the first step needed to educate ourselves. And we must be willing to listen.

Aboriginal sand art communication concept

Three Indigenous emerging leaders share their perspectives

I recently had the absolute pleasure of connecting with three amazing Indigenous emerging leaders and talking with them about reconciliation. We discussed what they would choose to see enacted as change if they were the decision makers in some of our biggest companies in Australia.

One of the key themes throughout our conversations was ‘nothing for us, without us’. This is an obvious statement, right? But how does this play out in a day-to-day business environment? Indigenous advisors should not just play a role in initial employment or community engagement but should be key in developing employee progression plans and workforce development strategies. They should have input into any framework that speaks to the promotion triggers developed within an organisation and have a delegation of authority that reflects it. By implementing a truly diverse perspective on career progression, we can move away from the outdated ‘years’ experience model’ and align with a skills and behaviours matrix that will allow our First Nations people (along with other diverse employees) to experience true progression throughout our Tier 1 organisations. For those who think this is already happening, ask yourselves: how many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders do you see in C Suite roles in ASX listed companies today?

During our discussion, we also recognised that in so many areas of Indigenous engagement with businesses, there is a standard deficit. Unfortunately, I cannot think of any organisation I would hold up as the gold standard…yet. Too often, we try to anglicise the engagement models we use with First Australians (and other culturally and linguistically diverse ethnicities). But what if we committed to fit-for-purpose models of engagement, procurement and employment? How would engagement look if we approached it with an open minded, people-centric lens? Instead of adapting current processes to cater to Indigenous businesses, let’s take the opportunity to invest in them by bringing them along on the journey too. What if we committed to building corporate capacity within those businesses so that they no longer required accommodations, but had the requisite skill sets and experience to engage on an equal playing field? Developing areas such as contract negotiation, strategic business development, and legal requirements for different sectors, along with general business management skills, would be an empowering move. Those skills could then be taken back to their communities and the experience shared.

A key point we agreed upon unanimously was the danger of ‘performative reconciliation’: doing the ‘easy’ things that signal support but do not drive any real change or sustainable outcomes. Change is hard, which is all the more reason that true change should be bold and – dare I say – aggressive. Plan big, do better and be bold when it comes to reconciliation. Every action or initiative should have accountabilities, whether qualitive or quantitative.

Following is a list of actions organisations can take, as shared by these emerging leaders.

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Practical steps organisations can take towards reconciliation

DON’T

  • Deliver cultural competency and awareness training via e-learning. Recognise that the shared stories and experiences are what builds the competency we seek.
  • Stop mentoring and instead focus on sponsoring. Sponsorship is the preferred approach, as it drives growth and opportunity. Sponsorship creates the connections, introductions and platforms where opportunities grow.
  • Underestimate the cultural load that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders need to carry, especially during key dates such as reconciliation week and NAIDOC. Reward, incentivise and amplify the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who continually provide insights and learnings on cultural differences.

DO

  • Recognise that cultural connection is just as valuable as work ethic and that belief systems can also drive a person’s moral compass.
  • Undergo an organisational cultural needs analysis to benchmark where your organisation is on its journey.
  • Conduct a qualitative analysis of employee experience and measure the impacts of any initiatives you deliver on your organisation’s cultural competency.
  • Fully align reconciliation action plans with the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
    - Ensure Indigenous voices are not just listened to, but heard and have impact in business decisions and matters
    - Treaty – organisations ensure they have respectful partnerships with the local Indigenous community including land use agreements
    - Truth – organisations should genuinely reflect on their history to understand any historical impact they may have had on the exclusion of Indigenous peoples and through owning their history, commit to how they will proactively dismantle the systems that do not allow full and equitable participation from Indigenous peoples in all facets of society (workplace, community, economy, education etc.)
  • If sponsoring education pathways, dedicate resources to the metro areas and ensure realistic funding is provided for appropriate streams (graduate programs aren’t the only option).
  • Look outside the box for initiatives that truly give back to the community: 
    - Build a cultural centre specifically aimed at being a safe space for cultural and family discovery, for those affected by the Stolen Generations (i.e. those who know they are Indigenous but do not know who their family are or their culture), This would enable a way for those who have been ‘lost’ to be reconnected.

 

Aboriginal art didgeridoo dot painting culture

As with any area of inclusion and diversity, it almost always falls to individuals to enact change in their day-to-day life. But imagine the incredible change we would we see if organisations took it upon themselves to invest in reconciliation: not just a well written reconciliation action plan, but a budgeted series of initiates and commitments, with accountabilities attached. Imagine a company-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion, because of the simple belief that a diverse and a fully inclusive work environment fosters a plurality of thought and perspectives that solves challenging problems and creates value. Will your organisation be the new gold standard for reconciliation initiatives, moving forward?

About the author

For over 15 years, Sonya has operated and managed Indigenous businesses providing services within the employment, training, community health, council governance and resource sectors. Driven by a strong desire to see equality and inclusion not only discussed, but tangibly enacted, Sonya works with people and organisations to build the pathways and capabilities needed to make ongoing change possible. Over the course of her career, Sonya has designed and implemented numerous Indigenous Recruitment and Employment Strategies including Mentoring, Training and Workforce Development Plans, and has successfully facilitated the recruitment and placement of over 150 Indigenous personnel across maritime, resource and professional roles.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Brunel acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of the many traditional lands and language groups of Australia. We acknowledge the wisdom of Elders both past and present, and pay respect to the communities of today. We recognise their continuing connection to the land, waters and community.