Ventia's Indigenous Development Manager, Llewellyn Williams reflects on the 2021 Australian Reconciliation Convention.

It's hard to believe that 2021 marks 20 years of Reconciliation Australia, and that we're approaching 30 years since the formal Australian reconciliation process began.

I was excited to attend the Australian Reconciliation Convention this week, which has been billed as a "once in a generation event" and is the first national reconciliation gathering in more than 20 years.

Day one got off to a great start, with a powerful panel chaired by Kerry O'Brien and including Fred Chaney, Dr Jackie Huggins, Uncle Bill Lowah and Shelley Reys. They each gave personal reflections of their incredible contributions to the first decade of this nation's reconciliation movement.

Dr Huggins talked about the issue of propaganda, and how the role of the Reconciliation movement was to combat misinformation. She also said she believes the 'Bringing Them Home' report was one of the most significant of the decade. 

Fred Chaney referred to the High Court's Mabo decision as "the biggest shift in balance for Aboriginal people since 1788. That (First Nations) people could come to the table, not as supplicants, but as stakeholders."

The highlight for me, however, was hearing from Tanya Hosch, Executive General Manager of Inclusion and Social Policy AFL. Tanya was on the panel discussion 'What's holding structural racism together' and her insights were both powerful and extremely relevant to my role as I support the development of the next Ventia Reconciliation Action Plan in 2022. 

Here are some of the things I've taken away from that session, and plan to incorporate into how I approach reconciliation planning in the workplace:

  • The importance of having the tough conversations: Tanya says we're not great at having the right conversations about systemic change; "…our communities make it very clear about the systemic changes we want to see made and have offered those solutions up time and time again but we still really as a nation are very very challenged about having those conversations in a way that gives both perspectives and those remedies any opportunity to be tested to see if they actually do make a difference that we believe and we know they can."
  • The disconnect between leaders and people of influence and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities: "People with power, with influence who have the capacity if they look at decisions that they're making the way that they use their political capital, their social capital to influence these sorts of conversations at a national level quite often it's not there…I think to me that comes back to a lot this idea that people of goodwill can't possibly be racist and yet continue to prosper from systems that do discriminate against people because of racism and yet don't really use their power and their privilege to question those systems and structures…its often up to the victims, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular to try and advocate for these things in quite an isolated way."
  • The lack of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people on company boards: "…it's one thing to have an employment strategy but what's happening about the elevation and ensuring that you do have Indigenous people in decision-making roles that are really going to be able to directly challenge those systems and structures."
  • The lack of understanding of what racism actually is: "I'm not convinced that everyone understands it (racism) as much as they think they do....I've been amazed at the number of times I've had conversations with people who I do not believe to be racist at their core but have not done that self-examination work adequately enough to really notice when the racism that has been inherent in all the power and privilege that they've had in their lives does seep through. The number of times I've heard it said oh yeah, but I know this person and they wouldn't have meant it, it doesn't mean the impact hasn't occurred, it doesn't mean that the racism hasn't been felt."
  • The importance of allies: "(good allies) do their own self-awareness work, really coming to terms with their own privilege and power and think about how they use that constructively and actively… looking for every opportunity and then determining in a strategic way alongside First Peoples…how do we tackle this together…I can appreciate that it is confronting and challenging to do but unless our allies are prepared to do more of that then the burden of responsibility falls back to the people who were feeling the weight of living under that same discrimination. It's very easy I think to work alongside Indigenous people and forget that those very Indigenous people that you're working alongside are also suffering from a whole range of other pressures."

Many Australians work in an environment where Indigenous participation is low. I am proud to work for an organisation where employment of Indigenous people is a real priority, and their sponsorship of this week's event is testament to their commitment to this issue. But even at Ventia it's still a small percentage.  

In order to provide a culturally safe work environment, to ensure Indigenous colleagues feel included and welcomed at work, we all need to take on the role of allies. 

I'll leave the last word to legal academic, writer, filmmaker and Indigenous rights advocate Larissa Behrendt, who said of the role of allies during her session - "step up and do some of the heavy lifting."


Originally published by Llewellyn on LinkedIn: