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Two key blocks to chip away for reconciliation

06:00am May 27 2021

The May 2000 Bridge Walk for Reconciliation, one of Australia’s largest public demonstrations, was conceived by the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation. (Loui Seselja, National Library of Australia 24526893)

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since the concept of “reconciliation” between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community was formally introduced in Australia. 

At that time, as a naïve, wide-eyed 24-year-old, I jumped at the chance to join the new body charged with the job – the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the first formal reconciliation process by any Australian government, albeit building on the work of countless individuals across previous generations. 

Back then, I was daunted by the task ahead.  How could we reconcile the relationship between us? 

And while there’s no doubt we’ve come a long way since, with much to celebrate, I’ve become increasingly reflective on the matters that hold our progress back as a nation. I’ve come to realise there are two key sticking points that, and like bricks in a wall, when you chip them away, the barriers will start to fall. 

The first is that people can feel like they’re walking on eggshells on this topic. 

Often when conversations turn to First Nations people and reconciliation, I find that many people begin to feel fearful of saying – or doing – the wrong thing. That fear leads to inertia – they disengage, they say and do nothing and the opportunity for progress is lost. 

This common reaction doesn’t generally stem from disinterest or a lack of commitment, but from a continuing knowledge gap about Australia's history, its impact on our First Nations peoples and how it affects them today in the workplace, and in life. Without this knowledge, it’s difficult to understand why a reconciliation process is fundamental to who we are as Australians.

The second challenge is our reticence to begin the difficult conversations. And I believe the most difficult conversation is that of racism. 

It's not an easy word to hear, nor say. No one wants to think of themselves as racist, nor do they want to think that those that they love and respect are racially intolerant, or that there might be racist practices and policies within our organisations. However, if we are to repair our relationship, we need to have the brave, courageous and uncomfortable conversations in every corner of our sphere of influence..

In my experience, the foundation to addressing these two challenges is through education. I began by developing ‘a people’s movement for reconciliation’ with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the early 90s, firmly driven by educating the wider community.  I went on to focus on workplaces in the late 90s and it’s to this outcome I’ve dedicated my life’s work: creating a culturally competent Australia, one workplace at a time. 

By giving Australian employees factual information, in an engaging manner, I believe we can demystify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and history, and give leaders and the broader workforce the skills and confidence to remove the eggshells, in order to have more meaningful conversations and to make more informed decisions. In doing so, they are more likely to champion a reconciled nation amongst their colleagues, families and friends. 

The good news is that a growing number of organisations are open to building a culturally competent workforce. It is a very different conversation from the earlier days, when the Government was seen as the only partner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, leaving the capacity of the corporate sector largely untapped. Fast forward to today, the number of Australian organisations with Reconciliation Actions Plans has grown beyond 1200, and instead of asking “Do I have a role to play?”, many more understand the bottom-line benefits and are asking “What more can I do to be even more impactful?”

The biggest challenge for those organisations is how to cut through. 

Not only is it a complex topic, employees in large firms are flooded with information, e-mails and compliance training (and much of the online training is uninteresting, tedious and therefore, ineffective). 

Aside from the need to capture attention and spark imagination, I find the key is to show rather than tell. Many years of sitting with First Nations people around the country has taught me that storytelling is the most effective way to gain true insight and real engagement from my audiences. Most importantly, you need to create empathy – if you can help a person walk in someone else's shoes, you encourage them to be more curious and committed to find a solution because they understand the context of a problem rather than applying a one-dimensional lens. 

This has been brought to life in the new Indigenous cultural competency training recently introduced at Westpac, which presents a very different method to training within the bank to date. It is delivered via a series of high quality, beautifully directed and shot, short films. Aside from the visually engaging and captivating cinematic approach, it purposefully doesn't spoon feed solutions. Rather, it’s designed to build empathy and a sense of connection between the viewer and the customer – a highly unusual, yet effective, approach to training. 

I would urge all organisations to use this fresh lens when thinking about their approach, because education, knowledge and confidence is still as necessary today as it ever was.

I’m deeply committed to changing the relationship between us and, if the last 30 years are anything to go by, I have great faith that most Australians are willing to join me. Together we can enable all Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to share a safe, equitable and fair environment filled with prospect and hope.


Shelley Reys AO is an Indigenous woman of the Djiribul people and a respected First Nations specialist, strategist and service provider. She is CEO of Arrilla, a leading provider of Indigenous cultural competency services that are virtual, digital and face-to-face, as well as broader consulting services. She played a formal role in Australia’s national reconciliation movement for more than 20 years, including as the inaugural co-chair of Reconciliation Australia from 2001 and the apology to The Stolen Generations.

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