Reflections from the road

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Over the past decade, Professor Mick Dodson AM, has attended every site visit as Chair of the judging panel for the Indigenous Governance Awards. From remote Australia, to our busiest cities, Mick reflects on his visits to finalist organisations for the Indigenous Governance Awards and why it’s time to talk about success.

Too often the public narrative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face in this nation, particularly in the media and policy discourse, is one of deficit. It is too often a picture of failure by Indigenous peoples and our organisations. Yet, from what I have heard and seen as Chair of the judging panel for the Indigenous Governance Awards—nothing could be further from the truth.

I have been involved as a judge in the Awards over the course of 10 years, and I wish all Australians could see and hear what I have seen and heard on the site visits over that time. I truly believe that if they did, many would hold a completely different view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

For a start, the reality I see through the Indigenous Governance Awards is starkly different from the public discourse we have had to endure for far too long. The dialogue I hear focuses on success and achievement. It speaks of innovation and resilience; and is founded on trust and respect.

From what I have seen, it is clear that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are empowered to take the lead, anything is possible. Every finalist we’ve had, represents the best of what is happening, not just within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but across Australia as a whole. These organisations are leaders—innovative and strong—tackling issues head on from which others have shied away.

Take for example the 2014 finalists:

The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) is getting more and more of our kids into university;

Girringun Aboriginal Corporation is reviving traditional land management and decision making processes to protect against new and modern challenges;

The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health is using evidence and data to revolutionise the delivery of Aboriginal health services;

Ngnowar Aerwah Aboriginal Corporation is delivering world class drug and alcohol services in the remote east Kimberley;

The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) is using culture to see our children grow up resilient and strong;

And Waltja provides a way for strong women from Central Australia to speak up and deliver critical services to their communities.

Outside of incorporated organisations The Marruk Project is uniting the multicultural Swan Hill community through sharing Aboriginal culture, and The Muntjiltjarra Wurrgumu Group is taking the lead in determining how best to create positive change in Wiluna.

The 2014 finalists demonstrate how progress can be made. They are indisputably delivering results and are examples of self-determination and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples leading positive change. They symbolise viable solutions to the numerous social and economic issues affecting Indigenous Australia. With their determination, vision and courage they are changing the dialogue from one of deficit to one of triumph.

The best Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations do what all good organisations do—provide reports, hold meetings, manage finances, develop their people and write long term strategic plans. But they also do something that mainstream organisations can’t do. They put culture at the heart of everything they do. The interests of the people they serve is what drives them. This is why, very often, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations succeed in creating positive change in their local communities where outsiders have failed.

But more importantly, the best Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are creating a new history for the future. It’s not a history to replace or forget our history over the past two centuries, but rather this is a history of success and achievement that our kids and grandchildren, and those after them will not only remember and celebrate but will also proudly replicate.

The finalists in the Indigenous Governance Awards are an inspiration to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to many other Australians. They are the key to our control over our progress, on our terms.

For too long Aboriginal communities have been dictated to and pushed around. We have had all responsibility taken away from us and instead had rules and regulations imposed upon us by colonists. We have existed in this country for not just 200 plus years, but at least 60,000 years. We have survived and thrived.

We don’t need constant departmental interference from governments. Our people are perfectly capable of creating and enacting our own rules and regulations and determining our own destiny. By allowing Aboriginal communities to exercise the right to self-determination and through our leadership we will encourage others to prosper.

Looking back on 10 years of the Indigenous Governance Awards I believe the Chairwoman of the 2012 winner, NPY Women’s Council’s Yanyi Bandicha, said it best: “We’re no strangers to governance”. The ingenuity and legacy of thousands upon thousands of years of governance is something I have had the privilege of witnessing as part of the Indigenous Governance Awards over the last decade, and the finalists are living proof of this legacy and ingenuity. They demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led organisations and projects are effective at finding solutions to complex issues—issues that have long confounded governments and mainstream organisations.

Put simply, they are the vanguard of the new discourse and it’s time we take note of their success.

Professor Mick Dodson AM is a member of the Yawuru peoples, the Traditional Owners of land and waters around Broome. He is Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law and has undertaken a sabbatical as the Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam Harvard Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University.

Professor Dodson has been a prominent advocate on land rights and other issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. He was Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and in 2009 he was awarded Australian of the Year.

Mick is a former Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia and has been Chair of the Indigenous Governance Awards judging panel since its inception in 2005.

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