Property Australia

In this together


As National Reconciliation Week’s theme for 2020, #inthistogether, resonates in unpredictable ways, placemakers at AMP Capital and Cushman & Wakefield are building bridges to reconciliation and respect. What can we learn from their leadership?

Held each year from 27 May to 3 June, National Reconciliation Week’s dates commemorate two significant milestones in our shared history: the 1967 referendum and the High Court Mabo decision.

This year’s theme, #inthistogether, resonates in ways that Reconciliation Australia could not have predicted when it was chosen last year, well before the COVID-19 crisis reminded us of our interconnection. And it’s a theme that certainly reverberates with Cushman & Wakefield’s Melissa Black.

270520 - Story 1 - Melissa Black“For me reconciliation is very important, as I have both a black and a white family, and that has always felt like two conflicting sides of history.”

A Cherbourg, Kirralee and Butchulla woman from Queensland on her mother’s side, Black is also a service delivery manager for Cushman & Wakefield and looks after Transport for NSW’s property portfolio.

“My mother was part of the stolen generation and I’m living proof that it didn’t happen hundreds of years ago,” Black says. Her mother and 15 aunts and uncles were forcibly removed from their family and grew up on the Cherbourg mission north-west of Brisbane.

Intergenerational trauma meant Black had a tough childhood and spend some time in foster care. “I was passed around like popcorn in a frying pan,” she explains.

But Black was a hard worker, training as a mechanic before learning skills in carpentry, bricklaying, and hospitality – a formidable combination that saw her rise through the ranks before landing a job with Cushman & Wakefield nearly five years ago.

Black says Australia’s property industry plays a central role in reconciliation “because property is everything – it’s where we live, work, shop and all the infrastructure in between”.

“But for Indigenous Australians, land is everything. The land is our god, our totems, our middle names, our sacred spots. Byami [the creator god in several language groups in south east Australia] is the land – it feeds us, it shelters us.

“When you hear about people being heartbroken because their house burnt down, it isn’t just a house, but a family connection that may go back generations. Indigenous people have that same connection to the land.”

Black shared her insights at the Property Council’s annual staff summit earlier this year, as the Property Council’s team work on its first Reconciliation Action Plan, or RAP.

Cushman & Wakefield launched its first RAP in 2017, and Black says this signals that “we want to learn, we want to ask questions and we want to do it in the right way”.

She is particularly passionate about the powerful role of procurement. The Indigenous business sector contributed $6.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2018, and Black urges property companies to contribute this growth.

“Whether it’s commissioning artwork or looking for Indigenous businesses for property maintenance, like lawn mowing, procurement is important,” she says.

“Indigenous businesses are more likely to hire Indigenous people and they are more likely to give back to their local Indigenous communities,” she adds.


Opening new windows on the world

Adrian Williams, acting chief financial officer and chief operating officer at AMP Capital, is a long-term champion of reconciliation.

In 2009, Adrian founded Indigenous Accountants Rock to address the critical shortage of Indigenous Australians pursuing careers in finance and accounting. This evolved into the Indigenous Accounting Initiative in 2013, and Williams sits on the advisory committee to this day.270520 - Story 1 - Adrian Williams

AMP Capital launched its first Reflect RAP in 2019 and Williams says cultural awareness training has played an important role in deepening his company’s understanding of place.

“We’ve had people who are surprised to discover, despite their age and education, they know very little about the places they live and work.”

But understanding our shared history opens windows on the world.

“Our headquarters are in Sydney’s CBD. The streets leading down to the water, George and Pitt streets, were large arterial roads that were made and used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. If you stand on George Street and imagine families walking down to the water tens of thousands of years ago, you think about buildings and space differently.

“When you begin to think about place in terms of thousands of years, it reinforces the responsibility that we all have to care for country and land, and to care for each other,” Williams adds.

Williams’ colleague Binowee Bayles, First Australians program manager at AMP Capital, agrees.

“You don’t have to be an Aboriginal person to be a custodian with an obligation to this land. It is a human responsibility. Once we acknowledge the thousands of years of history [in a place], we automatically inherit those thousands of years of stories and history,” Bayles says.

Bayles was born on Gadigal land with six generations of Redfern residents behind her. Her mother, part of the stolen generation, was a Gweagal and Wonnarua woman, from the Sutherland shire and Hunter Valley, respectively. Her father, Birri Gubba and Gungalu man Tiga Bayles, was a pioneering broadcaster and rights campaigner. Her grandmother Maureen Watson was a renowned actor, vocalist, writer, musician and storyteller.

“If you love this place and you call it home, it’s big enough for all of us. But you have a responsibility to understand the true history of the place you call home,” Bayles says.


Reconciliation starts with respect

Bayles and Williams both emphasise the word “understanding” as crucial to reconciliation.

“How can we be in this together if we don’t understand each other? And if we are not doing it together, it’s not reconciliation,” Bayles stresses.

“Understanding not only leads to respect. It also leads to internal reflection, and this is often quite profound, powerful and emotional for people,” Williams adds. Start the process of understanding by “looking to learn more about the areas you live and work,” Williams advises.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Melissa Black emphasises that Indigenous Australians “want recognition, not revenge”.

“We are here, we want to be a part of society and we want to contribute. We aren’t asking for a handout, but a hand-up. We want to move forward, but we need Australians to join us and to show that we are all in it together.”

The Property Council is currently engaging with people across the industry, including Adrian Williams, Binowee Bayles and Melissa Black, as it develops its first RAP.

To learn more about our shared history, visit Reconciliation Australia’s Share Our Pride website.

Header image by Murray Vanderveer.