Crayons can teach us a good lesson
I recently attended a training event in Sydney and the trainer asked one of the students to come up to the front. This was unexpected because we were all in our seats ready to begin, and the woman in question was not a trainer or an assistant.
The room erupted with whispers as everyone tried to figure out what might be going on. I was intrigued then everyone was suddenly quiet. She addressed the room...
As it turned out the student, Robyn Forester, was an indigenous Australian, she was also the CEO of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC), a charity that provides training and mentoring opportunities for indigenous people to develop their careers and expand the ways they contribute to the community.
Robyn had asked if she could open the training event with a Welcome to Country.
For those who have never attended an event in Australia, there is commonly a ceremony performed at the start of many formal events.
This is either a Welcome to Country, performed by a Traditional Owner or Custodian (Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander), or an Acknowledgement of Country, performed by someone nominated, if there is no Traditional Owner or Custodian present.
This ceremony is like a blessing or a greeting for visitors, like being welcomed into someone's home.
Home in this case is the land, neighbourhood, area or province where the Traditional Owners or Custodians, clan or mob, have resided for, in many cases, tens of thousands of years.
This year marks 20 years of Reconciliation Australia and almost three decades of Australia’s formal reconciliation process.
I have heard the Welcome to or Acknowledgment of Country at multiple events over my 14 years living in Australia and it might sound something like this …
... 'I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, Traditional Custodians of this place we now call Sydney on which we gather today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.'
Reflecting back on my previous experiences of listening to a Welcome to/Acknowledgment of Country, I realised how much more Robyn’s words spoke to me.
Others I had heard sometimes sounded a bit tokenistic and often the speaker didn't really appear to be connected to the words.
And even when the Welcome is delivered by an indigenous Australian I can sometimes sense an awkwardness in the room and feel embarrassed that this passing moment of acknowledgement is the only regular interaction that many people have with first nations culture.
Although it feels more authentic as a welcome, it is like visiting my Auntie Flo at her home - super clean and tidy, plastic still on the sofa and no one dares to touch anything or move. Let's not spill or break anything!
But I have never felt more welcome in my life as I did when I heard Robyn speak.
What was different?
When Robyn spoke, with so much feeling, she made it personal, and her words conveyed such sincerity. In her quest for inspiring reconciliation and inclusivity, she included me, as an immigrant, as a black woman, as a fellow Australian.
I felt a deep resonance, and many others in the room felt it too. It was heartfelt, it was genuine and it was the most welcomed I'd felt by anyone.
It felt like she was saying ...
..." Yay! Welcome to my home. Thank you for coming. There's so much culture and history here. Others have come before you. Now you are here! Many others will come after you. Mi casa es su casa! Enjoy yourself. Stay as long as you like. Yes, we are different, we have our differences, and we have so much in common. We are one people. Some born here, some have been here for generations, and some are creating new beginnings on this land. Let's acknowledge the past, live in the present and build for a better future."
It just goes to show the power that language holds. The intention of the speaker, the tone of the speech, the energy of the listeners. The three key elements that make the world of difference to inclusion, to reconciliation and to conversation. It is more than words.
What is your intention?
What is your tone?
What is your energy?
For me, the Welcome is also a reminder about how English settlers violently dispossessed Aboriginal people (I’m a Brit by birth) – of what first nations Australians have had to suffer and continuing issues to this day.
I believe it's a good thing to remind people that there are still issues of disparity and lack of voice that all Australians are responsible for addressing.
It is like we are crayons, different colours, different names, all learning to live together in the same box.
It takes us working together to create a beautiful picture.
The theme for this year’s National Reconciliation Week (NRW) is ‘More than a word, reconciliation takes action’, a theme that asks all Australians to build on their awareness and knowledge to actively contribute to reconciliation.
The views expressed above are my views. This may differ from the thoughts, ideas and insights of other Australians. This is what makes us all unique.
If you are keen to learn more about the Welcome to or Acknowledgment of Country, you can read more about it on the Australian government website: indigenous.gov.au
Tracy Gandu - lifecraftcoach.com.au