It wasn’t until her late twenties that Aunty Leanne King realised that she needed to know more about her culture and connection to Country.
Leanne, who is Westpac’s first Elder in Residence, went on several trips to the Australian outback to live and work with Elders in remote communities. Her experiences stoked a passion that she carried into a career in academia, teaching about Aboriginal history, culture, philosophy and spirituality.
“I was so privileged to have done and experienced what I did out there,” says Leanne, a proud Dharug woman. “To be accepted in that community in so many different ways, it was a big learning experience for me.”
The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is “For our Elders” to acknowledge the importance of the older generations as custodians and teachers of Aboriginal history and culture.
Leanne is now using her knowledge to support Westpac’s Indigenous staff, as well as help them connect to Country.
“In a big corporate environment, it’s important to know that there are others that you can turn to for support,” she says. “They may be in similar circumstances or coming up against the same things, and feeling isolated.”
Her wider role is as an educator for all the bank’s staff, especially those who are keen to learn more about Indigenous culture and the importance of Country.
“It's not just our mob that have got to grow in this space, we've got to do it together.”
Leanne runs courses on Aboriginal culture and bushcraft from a 160-acre property near Wollombi in the Hunter Valley, and recently hosted a cultural camp for 15 of Westpac’s Indigenous staff. Her emphasis is on getting people out of the classroom and onto Country for a fully immersive experience.
“The corporate world is so fast and so busy, it's a nice thing to be able to just stop and think about Country and what it has to offer.”
All aspiring leaders can learn from the values that the Elders carry with them, says Jocelyn King, Director of Indigenous strategy and engagement at Westpac, and a proud Bundjalung woman.
“For us, leadership is about listening, it’s about trust, it’s about humility, and when you get those three things right then you’re seen as a leader.”
In contrast, “modern leadership is often seen as being assertive and confident, and saying what you say with conviction even if it’s not right – that really doesn’t advance anybody in society,” Jocelyn says.
She has spent the last 25 years absorbing knowledge from the Elders and now feels a responsibility to pass it on.
“We're told when we start learning, that you have to give it away to keep it,” she says. “It is so important to me because it has enriched my life and made me the person I am today. I draw a lot of strength from that.”
In this crucial year for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Aunty Leanne says there is a growing interest among Australians to learn more about Indigenous history and culture. That’s something she welcomes, as the nation prepares to vote later this year on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
“We need to educate everyone: I do what I do and share story not to make people feel guilty or feel sorry for anybody, or not to make them angry. I do it so we're all on the same page,” says Leanne.
“If we all know the story, we're all in the same place. We can heal if we share and educate each other.”
Meanwhile, Jocelyn King is wary of the additional “cultural load” that the Voice referendum will put on the bank’s Indigenous staff.
“If people know they are Aboriginal, they get asked what they think about the Voice and a lot of other stuff that they may not know about themselves,” Jocelyn says.
“That’s why I suggested we engage an Elder who could be that cultural support for people as they navigate this really difficult year.”