Working with Indigenous communities in Australia

I recently completed a six week secondment, working in an Aboriginal community organisation on the Far West Coast of South Australia. I had the privilege to listen, learn and understand some of the challenges faced by Indigenous communities across Australia and apply my skills to contribute to their long-term success. 

Transferring my knowledge and skills to these communities was a very enriching experience both personally and professionally and something I would like to continue being involved with in the future.

In this blog I would like to summarise my experience participating in this Jawun secondment.

Jawun is an Australian non-for-profit that partners with corporate, government and philanthropic organisations to support Indigenous communities. This 3.5-minute video gives and excellent overview of what it is about.

My secondment began with an early morning flight to Adelaide on 31st of July to meet my fellow secondees for our induction. We travelled to visit local organisations in the Lower River Murray region, including Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corporation, Moorundi Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service and Ngarrindjeri Ruwe Empowered Communities.

I got the chance to learn about traditional weaving techniques and even have a go at it myself!

After spending a couple of nights at Camp Coorong, I flew to Ceduna where I spent the remainder of my secondment.

On arrival in Ceduna, I spoke with the National Indigenous Australians Agency and Far West Coast Community Partnerships to better understand the opportunities in the region. I also met with local community leaders and learned about their programs.

I was starting to get an idea of where I can add value based on my skills and local priorities. I didn’t get a project brief prior to my arrival, however, this fluidity leaves room for being agile and adapting to the changing demands in the community. On a personal note though, this degree of uncertainty was quite difficult for me to adjust to!

I ended up working on two initiatives simultaneously – a rare opportunity for this type of secondment.

One of the projects, I was working with a number of Indigenous organisations (Yadu Health Aboriginal Corporation, Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation, Yalata Anangu Aboriginal Corporation, Scotdesco Aboriginal Corporation and others) in the region to conduct an Organisational Health Check. I was using a framework developed by one of Jawun partner companies to assess maturity and help prioritise investment.

Organisational maturity is a measure of readiness and capability expressed through people, processes, data and technology with consistent measurement practices.

Gaining visibility of the organisational maturity provides the foundation to better understand their strengths and needs. Without adequate levels of maturity; processes, functions and decisions cannot be performed robustly and organisations struggle to sustain themselves.

Support requirements differ for each organisation depending where they are on their journey. Initially, specialist skills like accounting or knowledge of the grant submission process are very useful. As they mature and build capacity, the focus often shifts to establishing better governance and risk management practices.

In many ways it is similar to a capability maturity assessment we would use in cyber security, but it has a different focus. It’s much broader and looks at the organisation as a whole, covering aspects like vision, strategy, financial and organisational strength, and more.

I was facilitating workshops with leaders of multiple organisations to assess the current state and help identify opportunities to make an impact and deliver measurable outcomes. The results from this maturity assessment provided a process based roadmap for organisational improvement. As the old adage goes “you can’t improve what you can’t measure”.

Apart from the organisational maturity assessments and as a second project, I was also helping the CEO with improving data and reporting practices at Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation.

The corporation runs initiatives that have a positive impact on the community, but it can be difficult to quantify the success of their programs. Data collection and analysis is key to demonstrating measurable impact.

Data can be used to support evidence-based decision making. The philosophy is similar to what we often do in cyber security engagements: performing data-driven reviews to gain visibility and drive uplift. Moreover, quality and integrity of data is important to comply with funding requirements. 

There is an opportunity to save a lot of time through consistent reporting using a single system rather than multiple reporting mechanisms for different funding sources.

I worked with the vendor to outline the business logic that fits the needs of the organisation. I then helped develop modules that map to the numerous initiatives that the organisation runs: Employment Hub, Transport Services, Youth Justice, Education, Sports and Recreation, Parenting Support, Driver Mentoring and many more.

It was a highly collaborative project that gave me an opportunity to sit down with program leads and gain real insight into the day-to-day operation of the organisation. Collected data can then be presented as a dashboard giving stakeholders a visual representation of how their programs are performing.

I wrote step-by-step visual guides on how to use the software, highlighting the importance of timeliness and accuracy of data input. I challenged myself to keep things simple. I was spending time training people on it, encouraging them to try it out for themselves and supporting them throughout. It’s about working alongside people, not telling them what to do.

Overall, there is no point in writing a ‘perfect’ report if no one can understand it or will read it. It’s not about the deliverable, it’s about transferring skills and knowledge and making incremental sustainable improvements. A lot of this happens through conversations with people as it allows for the transfer of not only technical and non-technical skills. It’s also about giving people the confidence and tools to have their own voice.

Although, not strictly speaking an information security engagement, I was continuously finding ways to uplift security awareness through little stories here and there to demonstrate why and how things can be done in a more secure way.

There is also a lot of sensitive information being processed that needs to be appropriately safeguarded. I was focusing on some foundational security improvements, like tightening permissions based on peoples’ roles.

There have been some late evenings to help get things in a better state given I only had a few weeks to deliver this, but I found this experience very rewarding.

I also wanted to share a few aspects of Aboriginal culture that I had the privilege to experience.

I had the pleasure of visiting local art and language centres and tried out the local cuisine: kangaroo tails and quandong pies were yummy!. There are several languages in the region and they are all quite different. Some important work is being done to preserve these languages, through the use of technology.  

The paintings that I saw were gorgeous. Having a chance to speak with the artists and hear their stories that have been passed on through generations, that inspired the artwork, makes you look at it differently, beyond abstract shapes and colours and appreciate it much more.

I learned a great deal about deep listening, which is somewhat different from active listening that is more common in the business context. I had to suppress the urge to interrupt to ask a question, comment, share my own experience or to give suggestions on how to solve a problem, and just listen. Being present and making space for people’s voices with a genuine intention to understand rather than confirm or disprove our assumptions, or gather information is quite difficult to explain, but you can feel it when you are engaged in it in a yarning circle.

Together with learning, it’s also about unlearning. Some life stories are difficult to listen to. They are not being told to get sympathy or elicit guilt – it’s about finding ways to make things better together, through understanding. Indigenous communities have struggled to get their voices heard and deep listening is one of the small ways to start reversing this.

Sport is where reconciliation happens naturally. It brings people together, regardless of their background. 

Football is a big part of the community in Ceduna. There is a couple of clubs in the area and I had a chance to watch the Koonibba Roosters play one weekend. 

It’s a whole day event where multiple games happen, one after another between several age groups. Everybody comes together and helps where they can – and I had a pleasure of volunteering at the canteen selling snacks to the spectators. This brings back memories of working at a McDonald’s when I was younger!

I was given a priceless piece of advice before I left for my secondment: overinvest in relationships. Despite looming deadlines and sometimes slow progress on the project front, it’s much more important to focus on building strong relationships initially. It certainly takes time and getting involved with the community gives you a chance to start building trust.

Like in football, although individual contribution is important, ultimately and over the long run, it’s a team effort.

In the last week of my secondment, I was busy embedding the improvements I made and handing everything over. I presented to the leadership of my host organisation, the Jawun Regional Director and other stakeholders in the community, on the things we achieved together.

I finalised the Organisational Health Check for the region that will allow Jawun to better support organisations going forward. I also summarised the outcomes of the data and reporting project and made recommendations for potential future initiatives in this space.

While reflecting on the past six weeks, I was trying to assess the impact of my contribution. In many ways it’s hard to quantify, and there is an argument that it may actually be counterproductive. Of course, I could calculate the number of hours saved through improved processes, estimate potential efficiency gains and revenue increase through better governance and so on. But all of this misses an important point: I was invited to empower local leaders and work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. It’s important, therefore, to be able to stand back and let them lead change and tell their own stories.

This secondment made me realise that I have many more transferable skills than I initially thought. Although I’ve been in the industry for a while, I often felt like a graduate: immersing myself in new organisations, meeting people, getting engaged in as many things as possible to add value (I spent one afternoon assembling office furniture) and constantly learning. And it’s a great feeling!

Jawun’s Theory of Change. Source: Jawun Evaluation Report, Executive Summary

I thought I was transferring skills and experience, I realised that I was receiving much more in return. I felt very welcome and got to know people I worked with and their families. And I certainly learned a lot!  Adapting to an unfamiliar environment helped me build personal resilience and deepened my empathy and emotional intelligence.

Before commencing, I heard some people describing their secondment experience as ‘life changing’. I was sceptical at first, but now I know what they meant. It certainly challenges you in many ways, shows you a different perspective and opens up new opportunities to contribute and add value. I built relationships that can last a lifetime and I’m keen to stay engaged to help where I can with the wider reconciliation efforts.

Although my secondment has come to an end, this is just the beginning of my journey in Australia.

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