An open letter to non-Indigenous people who work in Indigenous affairs

11 Mar 2022

When I get frustrated or upset over something you think is no big deal, or if you think I am overreacting, remember – this isn’t just a job for me. You are not talking about a number or an abstract concept of some far away peoples, you are talking about my family, my friends, my elders and our children.  

When you recite statistics at me and tell me we should only aim for a 25 per cent reduction in suicide because ‘that is more achievable’, rather than 100 per cent, that’s my cousin and my high school boyfriend you are talking about, and you are saying a hundred Indigenous suicides each year is acceptable.

When you tell me that Aboriginal people dying in custody is their own fault because they are criminals, you are telling me that one of my best friends who made a stupid choice one night as a 13 year old child deserved to die for that choice.

When you tell me you don’t understand why Aboriginal children don’t finish school to help lift themselves out of poverty, you are talking about my cousins who live in overcrowded housing and need to earn a wage to feed their families.

And you might not realise it now, but you are talking about me.

Every day I see our Elders working long past retirement when they should be enjoying their twilight years with their grannies and families after long lives of fighting hard for our people. But our Elders continue to work to stop the trauma and disadvantage caused and maintained by colonisation, so it is not passed onto another generation.  

Every day I also see governments focus on insignificant administrative tasks rather than trying to create real, sustainable change for my people. I see non-Indigenous people in leadership roles, and I have no idea how they got there or why they are there. And when I ask them what they stand for and what they are trying to achieve, some come up with a gammon reason like ‘there was no qualified Aboriginal people’ or ‘I have 25 years’ experience in Indigenous affairs’, but many just don’t know why they are there. It is frustrating, infuriating, maddening and beyond disappointing, and it is a constant reminder of the conflicting reasons people work in Indigenous affairs.

I have dedicated my 20-year career, half of my life, to making the future better for my children, grandchildren and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I’ve had some good non-Indigenous colleagues, but they are few and far between. These are people who know when to stop and listen. They do their best to amplify the voices of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues. They know when it’s time to step away so an Aboriginal person can step up, their succession plan is to see themselves out of the job to make way for someone Indigenous. But it is never the same as having lived experience, and it will never be the same reasons your Indigenous colleagues come to work.

I have seen lots of other non-Indigenous people in Indigenous affairs too. You’d know the type, the missionaries and the white saviours, those paternalistic types. The ones that think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need saving and they are just the ones to do it, because they know better than we do about how to solve the problems that people like them created. Those non-Indigenous people that have existed in our spaces for too long and directly hinder our progress. They’ll sit in meetings with Indigenous people and tell us they know better, because ‘they’ve been around blackfellas, didn’t you know’. They may have started with the best intentions, but the road to genocide, stolen culture, language and children, and the gap we have to close was paved with good intentions.  


We don’t want you to try and save us – we don’t need saving. Because self-determination is our birth right. We don’t need you taking up our space, crowding us out, leaving zero room for us to grow and lead. Making culturally uninformed and unsafe decisions that we have to live with. We want self-determination and we want you to realise what we know to be true that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people understand and make better decisions about policy, programs and services that affect our lives.



So next time, before you decide to apply for or take a job, especially a leadership role, in Indigenous affairs, whether academia, community, government, not-for-profit or corporate, ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to work in Indigenous affairs?
  • Do I want to work in Indigenous affairs for the right reasons?
  • What am I bringing to the role as a non-Indigenous person?
  • Am I giving more in technical and leadership skills then I am taking in cultural knowledge from Indigenous staff?
  • Am I taking up the space of an Indigenous person?
  • Am I doing a ‘tourist stint’ in Indigenous affairs to further my career?
  • Am I being parachuted in over the top of Indigenous staff that have worked in the area for years who are not valued for their cultural knowledge and contribution in a Western institution?  

If you can’t answer these questions, or the answers to the last three are not a firm no, please don’t apply. 

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