I was a ‘young Indigenous leader’ once – now I’m just some guy

18 Apr 2016

How come there is an 'Indigenous youth parliament' for kids but no actual Indigenous parliament for adults?

I was once tapped as a ‘young Indigenous leader’, and have been invited to various equivalent programs over the years to talk to the next generation of ‘young leaders’ and it has never really sat that well with me that the opportunities provided to our ‘young leaders’ don’t seem to continue very well after we turn 25. What is the point of focusing on recruitment if there is not a similar focus on retention and promotion?

Me, being all young Indigenous leadery and whatnot.

Image: Get it? The banner says ‘towards reconciliation’, and we are walking. 

Of course I think we should provide opportunities for the growth and development of leadership skills in our young ones, and it is humbling to be invited along from time to time to participate. But all too often I feel that the organisations who host these events gain more than the participants themselves.

The last time I was invited to attend one it was in another state, and I was asked to volunteer my time and to also cover my own transport and accommodation costs. At the time I was self-employed – and only just at that – and doing speaking gigs was one of the main means I had available to earn a few dollars and try to keep my head above water.

I declined the invitation, I couldn’t have afforded to attend even if I’d wanted to, but part of me wanted to attend just so I say “Hey kids, don’t be like me and accept unpaid work to help someone else, someone non-Indigenous, earn their paycheck… and make sure you get the most out of your Indigenous Youth Parliament sessions later because there isn’t actually an Indigenous Parliament to graduate into once you finish. Treat this as a holiday camp, a fun week to make new friends and have some cool experiences, but don’t think this interest in you will continue once you pass the age limit.”

I went into university straight out of high school to do a teaching degree, but like too many other Indigenous teachers I left the job in less time than it took me to get the degree. What I was taught in classes at university, and what I was told by the Department of Education about their interest in getting more Indigenous teachers into the profession didn’t translate into suitable strategies to ensure that we would want to stay. I would often talk to other early career teachers about the challenge of beginning your career and being the only Indigenous teacher within the school. The phrase ‘everything with black ink on it gets put on my desk’ was a common expression that summed up the experience of being given anything and everything that had to do with any aspect of Aboriginal education.

The conflict of being given responsibility without the necessary support and opportunities to do it in the ways that it needed to be done was a challenge that I know many Indigenous teachers have faced. I also know many Indigenous student teachers who never even made it though the degree because either they struggled to be heard within a Eurocentric curriculum that rarely understood Indigenous perspectives on ‘mainstream’ education beliefs.

I often think of Indigenous student teacher, and early career teacher, retention as the canaries in the coalmine of Aboriginal education. If we cannot even keep people who chose to enter into the profession and are paid to be there then what hope do we have of engaging and retaining Indigenous students?
Thinking about retention – as well as recruitment!

In education, there is significant gap in the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples completing university programs. Similar to other aspects that tell the story of Indigenous disadvantage, paternalistic approaches have focused on recruitment more so than retention. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are treated as numbers for organisations and traineeships to boast about their efforts in ‘closing the gap’, whereas the retention rates tell us there needs to be a focus on much more than just recruitment

It has long been common to hear corporates talk about creating Indigenous traineeships or scholarship opportunities within industries where there are already substantial numbers of mid career practitioners. A reluctance to employee mid career practitioners, or to promote those who are employed, and all too common stories of traineeships not leading to meaningful employment bring in to question the sincerity of the intent to bring in more Indigenous staff over the long term.

Equally important to consider are the career pathways to move up within an organisation. Given the number of major organisations who have been receiving Indigenous employment funding for two to three decades already, there should logically be a significant number of Indigenous staff in senior roles, yet this is rarely the case.

A part of this failure to meaningfully increase retention rates within institutions, such as the public service or universities, may be the thinking behind why increased Indigenous representation is important, especially as many have a history of open exclusion of Indigenous people well within living memory. In 2012, a review on education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples outlined the under representation of Indigenous people within academic and research roles.

Increasing representation within these organisations therefore becomes much more than a numbers game, but also necessitates processes of decolonising and Indigenising practices within these organisations.

Such processes do not just create a safer working environment for Indigenous staff, students, and clients, but can greatly improve an organisations working culture and have benefits for all staff, and all clients.

Recruiting Indigenous staff does not guarantee this process if there is not a substantial commitment from management and internal decision makers to facilitate it, and asking Indigenous staff to make this happen while simultaneously resisting the process is usually a recipe for conflict, frustration, and eventual burnout. I have seen this occur countless times for Indigenous staff involved in creating and implementing reconciliation Action Plans, working on Indigenous Advisory Groups, or working in roles of Indigenous engagement, recruitment and support. The consistent word that I hear from people involved in these processes is ‘tokenism’.

Tokenism within organisations can take many forms, but commonly occurs when: individuals are given responsibility for implementing programs or processes with minimal support or guidance; there is limited opportunities for career development; when there is not a whole of organisation approach; there is an inability to recognize, utilize or properly remunerate specific and unique skill sets and knowledge; executive staff are unable to demonstrate leadership towards achieving targets or unwilling to provide long term commitments, flexibility or perseverance.

We offer funding and incentives to organisations to engage in Indigenous recruitment, but not so much for long term retention and career progression of Indigenous staff or students. Government policies are often talked about in terms of ‘dangling a carrot’ or using a ‘big stick’, and in Indigenous affairs it is usually major organisations who get the carrot and Indigenous people who get the big stick.

Penalties for parents whose children don’t attend school, mandatory sentencing, welfare cards which control spending but do not provide enough money to live instead of equal wages, and fines handed out from employment services with little to no oversight and lengthy appeal processes. Yet for corporations it is social capital, funding opportunities, and incentives, creating Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) and traineeships, but no penalties for failing to meet targets, no accountability for failing to meet outcomes. There have been half-hearted attempts to have better benchmarks for incentives, but that is still a long way from the punitive approach meted out to Indigenous communities.
Recruiting and Retaining ‘Young Indigenous Leaders’

Now that I am well past any definition of ‘youth’ and not in any real position of ‘leadership’, I realise that more often than not the ones who benefited the most from the times I was taken along to a ‘Young Indigenous Leaders’ event were those who got funding and photo ops for bringing us together. The ministers or CEOs who got their photos shaking our hands, and the organisations who got funding to coordinate our sessions.

For the rest of us, the outcomes were less tangible, as many of us were not necessarily interested in transitioning from ‘youth leader’ to ‘government employee’ or ‘corporate shill’ but had dreams of following in the footsteps of those who had come before us actively fighting to improve conditions and gain rights. I think I have done okay anyway, but I don’t feel that my involvement in such programs did much to get me to where I am today.

These are the fundamental questions that I’m not sure are asked often enough about ‘Indigenous Youth Leadership’ or even ‘Indigenous Leadership’ more broadly; namely, what is an ‘Indigenous Leader’? What qualities should an Indigenous leader have? What areas do you need to work in to be one? Who gets to decide who is an Indigenous Leader? Who should we be supporting to identify and create opportunities for ‘future Indigenous leaders’?

‘Indigenous leader’ is a term that media use very regularly, though inconsistently, and this usage has made it a term that many of us are highly suspicious of, and even more wary of ever applying to ourselves. I think on the part of media it is most often just a term of convenience, it is noteworthy that the people generally referred to as ‘Indigenous leaders’ are those in high profile positions, or social commentators rather than community Elders, those with cultural leadership roles, or those who are selected to speak on behalf of a group of Aboriginal people by the people themselves.

It is also problematic because Indigenous people are not a homogenous group, and we do not have a central leadership base. We never hear ‘white leader’ applied to anyone, and it would raise countless eyebrows if such a term were ever used, yet the term ‘Indigenous leader’ is a common phrase that rarely comes under scrutiny.

This ambiguity of who decides who is an ‘Indigenous leader’, what qualities they should possess, and whether the opportunities offered to those identified as ‘young Indigenous leaders’ do more to serve appearances than Indigenous communities, or even the interests of the young people involved, is an issue we should definitely confront. If we don’t we will likely see another generation of ‘young leaders’ used for photo ops, funding opportunities for non-Indigenous organisations, and feel good stories rather than seeing them placed on pathways that will enable them to take on the challenges that await the next generation.

This article was originally posted on NITV.

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