Every year National Reconciliation Week is held between 27 May and 3 June. Despite being a nation-wide event since 1996, many Australians still don’t know about the historical significance that drives the week. National Reconciliation Week coincides with two key historical events for First Nations peoples. The week begins on 27 May, to commemorate the historic 1967 Referendum where Australian voters chose ‘Yes’ to count all First Nations peoples in the census and give the government powers to make laws for them. Then the week wraps up on 3 June, the date that the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court, which ruled that this land was not in fact terra nullius it did belong to First Nations peoples. These two dates reflect our shared history as a nation and should be part of the key messaging around National Reconciliation Week.
This year’s theme for National Reconciliation Week is ‘Be a Voice for Generations’. Reconciliation Australia state that:
“the theme encourages all Australians to be a voice for reconciliation in tangible ways in our everyday lives – where we live, work and socialise. For the work of generations past, and the benefit of generations future, act today for a more just, equitable and reconciled country for all. National Reconciliation Week … is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia.”
Let’s unpack this.
There are always conversations in First Nations communities about why this notion of reconciliation is problematic. To put it simply, reconciliation is not a one-size fits all approach for all communities, and if true reconciliation were happening then we’re sure recent Close The Gap reports wouldn’t be feeding us data about the widening gaps, First Nations people still wouldn’t be dying in custody, and First Nations students sitting in our classrooms wouldn’t be less likely to finish school and more likely to be incarcerated compared to other student demographics. To quote now deceased, Arrernte Anmatjere woman Rosalie Kunoth Monks, “I am not the problem”. First Nations people aren’t the problem. We didn’t bring the guns, we didn’t bring the diseases, we didn’t remove ourselves from Country, and we didn’t try and assimilate ourselves under racist and oppressive policies. So, given the history between white Australia and First Nations people over the last 235 years, how does one ‘be a voice for future generations’?
Firstly, let’s not confuse the use of voice in the theme. Depending on which social circles you run in or how much you are keeping up with current political affairs, you might be thinking this theme has something to do with the Voice to Parliament. It probably could, but we don’t see it that way. ‘Be a voice’ is a verb phrase, a call to action. The reason why it’s important to separate the context of ‘being a voice’ from the Voice to Parliament campaign is that it shouldn’t take a Voice to Parliament for non-Indigenous Australians to drive change or reconciliation.
The most culturally respectful action you could do this National Reconciliation Week is to amplify the voices of First Nations people but continue to share their voices every other week of this year and beyond. First Nations people have been asking for the same things for decades. Our mob experience barriers in housing families, gaining employment, accessing necessary services, education, and adequate health care. Our mob are incarcerated at alarming rates, die younger than other Australians and are more likely to suffer from preventable diseases. These challenges need to be addressed. Yet many Australians still think we are asking for too much when we demand to be heard.
Each community around the country is different, so the needs of current and future generations will vary. Check-in with your community about what it is you can do to help them. But don’t just ask, do something with the information. A morning tea is nice, and a cuppa with the mob is always a good time, but what will you do after that? It’s great to read about what First Nations people need and want, but educating others about key messaging in classrooms, workplaces or over coffee with a friend gets necessary conversations happening.
Lots of buzzy, warm and fuzzy words get thrown around during Reconciliation Week. Truth-telling. Bias – conscious and unconscious. Allyship. Whatever informs your mission statement for the week, think about the following:
Truth-telling. Truth-telling is merely unlearning a romanticised version of our nation’s past and accepting the history of First Nations people – the good and horrendous events – are also included in our national history. Something we heard once was if you’re not uncomfortable learning about the past then you’re not learning history. The takeaway is that two things can happen at once: we can recognise the huge and amazing achievements of First Nations people and celebrate them, and we can also recognise that there’s been blood on the wattle and in a not so distance past First Nations people have been slaughtered on this land. Even in the face of adversity, First Nations people are still here, which is a testament to our strength as a people. But knowing our nation’s history is crucial to the process of truth-telling, and the processes of reconciliation. Keep rebuilding your understanding of our shared history and consider watching a film/ documentary at your school/workplace/home, reading a First Nations book or listening to a First Nations podcast. Then go and recommend those things to everyone else you know! Engaging with these mediums for learning is always a great start, but impactful learning can come from engaging with your local community face-to-face. If your community comes to your workplace, school or public event to talk about reconciliation or their truth, be sure to remunerate them for their time.
Bias. Lots of people always say, “Undo your bias” or “Know your unconscious bias”. But how can you undo those biases if you don’t think you have a bias to begin with? Hmm.
Whether you think you don’t have any biases or you’re sure your students or colleagues do have some, how will you navigate that? Work on including more First Nations perspectives (histories, cultures and languages) into your teaching or what you share online, plus start mentioning First Nations content you’ve read, heard or watched to your colleagues and friends. Make sure these exchanges are regular and consistent where possible. The more one is exposed to something the more likely they are to expand their understanding and perspective. Sometimes things should be done on purpose and sometimes it's cool to bring up these ideas in informal conversations:
- If your workplace hasn’t engaged in cultural awareness training for some time, (firstly find out why) seek advice from your local community contacts.
- If your workplace doesn’t yet include any clear connections to culture, a simple email signature that says something like “this email is being sent to you from [insert Country name] Country” could be a start.
- Putting up the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia can also spark some good conversations you can build upon and help create learning and confidence building informally.
However, you must do something with those things and not just think that displaying something cultural is enough.
To measure the impact of whatever you do, it’s always good to anonymously assess your work colleagues, students or personal network about their knowledge and understanding of First Nations peoples, cultures and histories, provide some learning and then reassess again later down the track. You’ll get a snapshot of where you are and where you need to head. This is always a good approach because your engagement with First Nations anything doesn’t have to be limited to National Reconciliation Week.
Whether you’re an ally, you have a First Nations friend, some of your family is First Nations or you work with First Nations people, being a voice for future generations is not possible without good, deep yarns about what it means for First Nations people around you. If this is your first National Reconciliation Week or tenth, consider what you did last year and how you can do better this year. If your words didn’t eventuate into actions last year, then how will you drive change this year? We don’t have all the answers because we don’t speak for all mob, but the takeaway is this – know our history, know how it affects our current world, know that First Nations people still experience excessive amounts of racism and oppression, and know that many First Nations people still are some of the most disadvantaged people in the country.
First Nations people don’t need non-Indigenous people saying what they think is best for us. Instead, we need non-Indigenous people to use their voices to project ours. Almost all successful First Nations protests and movements have happened on a grassroots level, and they’ve happened with the support of non-Indigenous allies. Whatever you decide to do this National Reconciliation Week, mean what you say and act upon that – words about reconciliation are meaningless without action. Reconciliation is about meeting First Nations people where they’re at.