In This Together.
These three words are powerful in their simplicity – and, as this year’s theme for Reconciliation Australia’s National Reconciliation Week, likely to provide food for thought for many Australians.
As a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working side by side, this theme hit particularly close to home here at Evolve. Our Co-Directors Carla Rogers and Munya Andrews recently reflected on the theme and its significance to them.
“I think for me, it’s about acknowledging that we all have a part to play, that it’s a team effort and it’s that sense of all of us being supported by one another,” muses Evolve Co-Director, Munya Andrews. “We’re no longer alone in this because if each and every Australian plays their own part, it becomes easier. We all have a part to play, we all own this, we’re all in this together. That would be my interpretation.”
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘Reconciliation’ as “a situation in which two people or groups of people become friendly again after they have argued”. Reconciliation Australia’s more specific definition speaks of “strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all Australians”.
Both seem incredibly simple, and do little to betray the deceptively intimidating task at hand.
After all, in 2020, the responsibility can feel enormous. This is certainly something Co-Director Carla Rogers has felt as a non-Indigenous Australian.
“The population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 3%,” she explains. “That means that if you have a classroom in a school, only one of those 30 students is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It can’t be left to that one person to take action and make a difference. And it’s very unlikely that all of the other 29 other people are going to. Some of us have got to take action and share it, certainly nothing’s going to happen if it just falls on that one-in-thirty person.”
For Reconciliation Australia, this year is particularly significant: it marks 20 years of their existence. The last two decades have brought the ebb and flow of social change, of government and policy. The wider population’s beliefs and preconceptions have been challenged. There has been growth.
And Reconciliation Australia has worked through it all.
It’s only natural, then, that our own attitudes to the idea of Reconciliation might have changed in that time.
“At the beginning I was sceptical,” says Munya, “and a bit concerned about the term ‘Reconciliation’, because to me, it suggests that there’s been a marriage that has broken down, and now you’re reconciling. But for me, I felt that there’d never been a marriage between white and black Australia. In fact, we’d never even gotten to the dating stage!
But over the years, I’ve seen the value of Reconciliation – that it’s so much more than that. Really, it’s about connecting, valuing and cherishing each other. It can be a simple act of reaching out, and helping someone who’s fallen and picking them up. That’s Reconciliation. Or the simple act of two young children, black and white, playing with each other in the school yard. That’s Reconciliation.
By recognising this broader vision of Reconciliation, I discovered I was much more closely aligned with Reconciliation than before, so I started to embrace it and take it on.”
Carla has noticed a change, too. “I’m sure I wasn’t as aware of Reconciliation as a non-Indigenous person twenty years ago but I was very much doing practical Reconciliation when working with Indigenous communities. I had heard a lot of Aboriginal people say, ‘What’s to reconcile?’ you know, ‘You came in and you invaded, took our land.’ But I love Reconciliation Australia’s definition of Reconciliation about strengthening relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And I guess, looking back over the years, that’s what our work together has been about.
So, I think in terms of the change, what I’ve noticed is more people being aware of it, in particular a real hunger or burning desire from non-Indigenous people to contribute and do something.”
There is certainly hunger – and it extends both ways. A 2018 study by Reconciliation Australia found that 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and 54% of Australians in the wider community wanted to do something more to support the cause.
But in light of our shared history, and the atrocities committed by colonial Australians, do we share an equal responsibility? It’s an uncomfortable question.
“As a non-Indigenous person,” says Carla, “I think I do have more of a responsibility, partly because of the sheer numbers. Aboriginal people are outnumbered, 29 to 1.
A lot of people say, ‘Well, I wasn’t around 230 years ago, I didn’t do these things,’ but a lot of these things are still happening today. There’s the unofficial stolen generation and the ongoing discrimination that Aboriginal people still experience today. I witness racism, I witness prejudice and I witness the privilege and opportunities that I have as a non-Aboriginal person, and also the things I don’t have to think about.”
But it’s not about feeling guilty, she explains. “We teach in our programs that guilt is the number one enemy of practical Reconciliation and allyship so guilt is not helpful in this context. I believe that I have more of a responsibility to know the history, to understand its impact today.
So, it’s more about awareness. I have responsibility for awareness, and then if that leads me to take informed action, then that’s fantastic.”
Munya agrees, “Yes, it’s all about the numbers game for me and setting the record straight. It’s also important to not contribute to myth-making in Australia, you know, the notion that white people originally come from this country or that Australia is a white country. That’s simply not true. There were black people here long before Europeans arrived, that are still here, struggling to be acknowledged and recognised.
Let me share a poignant example that’s a true story. It involves my sister’s neighbour, a little six-year-old girl who would often come over to her home. One day, when I was visiting, the issue of Aboriginal people came up. When I explained to her that that we were here before white people came to this land, the poor little thing was visibly shocked and upset. She didn’t know what to do with that information. It was as if I’d told her that Father Christmas had died! And this poor little girl, she was so traumatised by that, I’ll never forget it. That’s truth telling for me, so that little kids like that don’t grow up, and then are suddenly shocked to discover, ‘oh my god, there were people here before us and oh, what did we do? What did my forebears do?’ It’s not a good thing. But if we start talking about it from when they’re young, people will begin to accept it. There were Aboriginal people before us. Just don’t create a myth and say there were no Aboriginal people here at all. That’s terra nullius in action.”
When details of our shared history are so painful, it’s hard to find the right steps to move forward. But together, we’re stronger – and the reward could be tremendous. “This is everybody’s opportunity to get in there and get it right, and just get on with the business of getting on with each other, get over the guilt and get on with the fixing,” explains Munya.
Carla shares her optimism. “I think the theme is very positive, and we see a lot of positive people in our programmes that want to know, ‘What I can do? I want to take responsibility.’ So, as the eternal optimist, I’m hoping the whole of Australia is like that!”
So, let’s say you’re aware of Reconciliation. You’re inspired to contribute to change, you want to help move Australia forward. Where do you begin? What’s one small thing you can do?
“Listen,” says Carla. “Listen especially to the stories of Indigenous people.” Munya agrees, “Yes, and just open your hearts. When we open our hearts, all things are possible.”
National Reconciliation Week runs from May 27 – June 3. For more information, visit the Reconciliation Australia website: www.reconciliation.org.
(c) Evolve Communities, 2020