Don’t ask First Australian people to “lean in”, says Jody Broun, chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Office. Practical action on reconciliation means reaching out.
Artist, activist and recent guest speaker at the Property Council’s ‘conversation’ event series in Sydney, Broun has spent the last three decades championing the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Broun has co-chaired the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and last year took the reins at the Aboriginal Housing Office, a statutory authority within the new NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
While Broun says Australians are taking meaningful steps towards reconciliation, we need to pick up the pace.
Giving Aboriginal people opportunities – whether through employment or procurement – is important. “But the journey is much deeper than giving people jobs. It’s about changing hearts and minds.” And that takes “genuine partnerships”.
The Property Council is currently progressing its first ‘Reflect’ Reconciliation Action Plan, joining a growing cohort of property companies, including Lendlease, Stockland, Investa, The GPT Group, AMP Capital and Scentre Group, using their influence to enhance respect and reconciliation.
In September, CBRE launched an Indigenous Centre of Excellence to increase supply chain diversity and connect Indigenous organisations with business opportunities worth up to $50 million annually.
Voice, Treaty, Truth
While Broun applauds these initiatives, she also urges the property industry to “look deeper”.
“Do you have an Aboriginal person on your board? Do you have a strong Aboriginal voice at the table to give you a diverse view? Ask yourself: ‘What does acknowledging Australia’s First Peoples mean to us?’ You may need some help to do that thinking with local Aboriginal people who can help you through a process.”
Broun also emphasises the importance of “Voice, Treaty, Truth” – the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week.
“It’s about having a voice, not just in Parliament, but in boardrooms, on television, everywhere. Treaty is around genuine partnership and agreement making. And truth is about acknowledging the history of our country.”
These conversations can be challenging. “But it’s OK not to know. It’s what you do then – whether you are prepared to reach out and ask for advice, seek out local Aboriginal organisations and ask them to be part of your journey. It’s as simple as Googling ‘Aboriginal land council’ in your local area and giving them a ring.”
Practical reconciliation in action
Rork Projects, Australia’s largest Indigenous construction, refurbishment and fitout company, is co-owned by Brian O’Rourke and John Paul Janke, a Wuthathi and Meriam Nations man.
Their strong friendship started at school in Canberra some 40 years ago. Both are driven in wanting all Australians to gain a deeper awareness of the rich histories and diverse cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In the early days, Rork Projects acknowledged significant cultural dates and Traditional Owners, supported social campaigns and encouraged staff to attend and celebrate Indigenous events.
But as Rork Projects has grown to a national footprint that now employs 80-plus staff in four offices, the investment in practical reconciliation has also expanded.
“Brian and I have established internal protocols and processes for our staff to engage with Indigenous communities, businesses, suppliers and subcontractors – but importantly we’ve enabled our staff to develop and own those processes,” Janke explains.
“Recently, all Rork Projects staff spent a day in the Far North Queensland Aboriginal community of Yarrabah, gaining a first-hand understanding of Gunggandji culture and histories with interactions with local Elders and families.
“It turned out to be a genuine sharing of culture and friendship with a lasting impact.”
Janke also says Rork Projects’ leadership team recently “challenged ourselves” to find “the most meaningful and culturally-fitting way to support reconciliation”.
As a result, Rork Projects recently launched The Wa Initiative – which means ‘yes’ in Torres Strait Islander language. The Wa Initiative supports scholarships for Indigenous youth from regional, rural and remote communities to attend some of Australia’s leading boarding schools.
“Both John Paul and I know the value of education and we want to create more opportunities for Indigenous kids to succeed, have a positive future and become whatever they dream of. That’s an example of practical reconciliation to us,” O’Rourke says.
Obstacles and opportunities ahead
Broun says a shift is underway and “much deeper relationships are being formed” but the obstacles are impossible to ignore. Aboriginal people are 16 times more likely to be homeless than the general population, Broun explains.
Broun leads an organisation that aims to ensure Aboriginal people in NSW have choice in, and access to, affordable housing. This is generally through social or community housing, in some part because “many Aboriginal people still can’t get houses in the private market”. While racism may not be as “blatant” as in the past, “we still hear stories about people getting knocked back once the property manager knows they are Aboriginal”.
Practical action builds reconciliation, whether that’s supporting property management teams with cultural awareness training or providing financial support to help more Indigenous people achieve their goal home ownership.
“We’ve set a target of 100 home loans over the next three years and we think we can go beyond that, but we are looking for partners to help.
“Rather than ask Aboriginal people to ‘lean in’, we are asking all Australians to ‘reach out’.”