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Indigenous Affairs is not so black and white.

19 Jan 2019

When reflecting on my time working in Indigenous affairs, my good memories are often trumped with the bad.

When reflecting on my time working in Indigenous affairs, my good memories are often trumped with the bad.

Like most young Indigenous people in their early twenties, I believed that I could change Australia and subsequently the world. I wanted to tell the good stories, share the beautiful things about Indigenous culture and shift the racist paradigm plaguing the nation.

My career however did not begin in Indigenous Affairs, it was more unconventional.

At the age of 19, I worked in the health and fitness industry. In the beginning I was that person on the front counter that greeted guests, I was bubbly, outgoing and happy. After my first year, I was moved into a management position, I was trained and upskilled to manage the operations of a large fitness club. My staff were young and non Indigenous, I was respected by all and enjoyed my time in that role for five years.

A move to Sydney opened my eyes to other opportunities, this move also opened my eyes to the “Indigenous Affairs portfolio”. As a Koori man who grew up on Murri country, Sydney was this unknown beast, that felt strangely familiar. It was also home to where a lot of decisions were made about the lives of Indigenous peoples.

As I began my working journey, I started to see more broadly what “Indigenous Affairs” meant and who was responsible for the decisions being made. I wanted to be a part of that space, I wanted to assist and facilitate change and ultimately work with mob. I wanted Australia to become the bla(c)k nation it has always been underneath the lies.

I wanted Australia to become the bla(c)k nation it has always been underneath the lies.

A chance job landed me smack bang in the middle of the national conversation. This opportunity fundamentally changed my life for ever. Before working in this position, I thought every person working with and for the Indigenous community, wanted to be there and wanted to make change.

How very wrong I was.

Not long into my job, I began to see how people profited from Indigenous disadvantage. How the monetisation of bla(c)kness really worked and it did not sit well with me.

Now there are good people, doing amazing things. These people, still to this day are fighting the good fight. These people tend to miss out on opportunities, or are overlooked by louder more shinier versions of bla(c)kness. These people tend to operate outside of the traditional cliques and circles. They are most likely accountable to a community or multiple communities and they interact with Indigenous peoples outside of their “core duties”. This yarn is not about this group but the problematic other ones, especially the non-Indigenous people who dominate Indigenous Affairs.

After cutting my teeth working in Sydney, I began to notice a pattern in the way I was treated whilst working at some “Indigenous” organisations. I believe my treatment not to be unique and isolated. I saw the way co workers were treated if they spoke about Indigenous issues that didn’t bow to whiteness and its fragility. January 26 was contentious and awkward when discussed openly, the space was not supportive if your view differed.

Like most workplaces you are offered professional development. In these organisations this was more often than not promised but never delivered, or I was made to feel guilty for requesting to receive the training promised. Sometimes my non Indigenous manager got to receive their professional development training whilst mine was held off ‘until the next financial year’.

One of my favourites was when I was told  that I was ‘intimidating to other staff’ because I pushed back on things that I felt were wrong. As my confidence grew, I began to say no more often. I began to assert my thinking based on my lived experience of being Indigenous. Managers didn’t like this, they became uncomfortable. They liked the idea of having an Indigenous employee, they just didn’t want me to think like an Indigenous person outside of what they deemed appropriate.

My life and my inability to turn off my Indigenous identity was not accounted for in some cases. I was to get in line and not be “one of those “angry Aboriginals”.

For Indigenous people, when decisions are made about our lives, we see the impacts through our personal experiences and the experiences of our family members and friends. This has an impact when you are witnessing the “production line” of programs and projects.

Indigenous thinking and methodologies are not embedded in the national psyche, not even in Indigenous Affairs where it is desperately needed. We operate in a white system built to suppress us. Indigenous Affairs, much like its many ministers is missing many key elements, there needs to be a major shake up of how it operates and who governs us.

I was rolled out at events and special occasions. Forced to make speeches and greet non Indigenous visitors to the office. I was used in promotional publications and was sometimes the face of campaigns. I was wanted for my face but not my thoughts or experiences. All whilst being one of the lower paid employees.

The power dynamics in these organisations are horrible and they ultimately turn Indigenous people off working with mob. They lead to resentment and ultimately the people who miss out are the very people these organisations were created to assist.

If the purpose of the Indigenous Affairs portfolio is to assist Indigenous people to better their lives, then we need to do better. We need workplaces that support Indigenous self determination and autonomy. We need these spaces to be pro actively working to break down the very structures that have been in place since 1788. Once broken down, these structures need to be rebuilt through honouring our spirit and our ways, no other way will work.

Changing the nation will be a difficult task, but we as Indigenous people need to lead it.

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