ADVICE: Don’t be scared to initiate the conversations – Renee Thomson

Renee Thomson, a proud Wiradjuri woman and Co-Founder of Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network, believes strongly in the powerful impact effective community engagement can make, particularly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In this interview, she outlines what constructive change looks like and how she believes we can get there.

  • What does ‘positive and sustainable’ change for Aboriginal people look like to you?

Positive and Sustainable change for Aboriginal people to me, is the:

  • Acknowledgement and acceptance that Aboriginal people are the original inhabitants of this land;
  • Whole of Australia embracing Aboriginal people;
  • True history of Aboriginal Australia prior to colonisation is acknowledged and accepted;

Australia’s acceptance of Aboriginal customs and cultural practices that sustained our people, land, water, plants and wildlife prior to colonisation needs to be embraced to fix our country and help in creating a culturally rich, harmonious country for us all to thrive in.

Change is Aboriginal people having a voice.

Positive and sustainable change for Aboriginal people is my people not leading the statistics for incarceration, health complications, decreased life expectancies, disproportionate child protection cases, suicide deaths, homelessness and unemployment in this country. In fact, it is my people having the ultimate power to determine their own destinies, lives and aspirations for themselves, their children and their grand-children.

It will be a time where we, as First Peoples aren’t continuously facing the ongoing inter-generational traumas, racism, prejudices and socioeconomic disadvantages across the country.

Once we get there, we as a country will create a culturally rich, unified, harmonious country for all to thrive in.

Ultimately, positive and sustainable change is Aboriginal people not having to justify our existence, and having the ability to excel like everyone else in this country with our culture and history being celebrated, not hidden or overseen.

  • What can Australian government organisations, corporates, business leaders, and individuals do to contribute to this change?

As human beings, we all have the power to contribute to positive and sustainable change. Regardless of whether you work within government, a corporate institution, you’re a business leader or an individual within this country.

We all have the power to work together to initiate change to the life of Aboriginal Australia.

I invite and encourage all individuals to conduct their own research into the history of this country. This will give individuals the opportunity to understand the impacts of colonisation and the everlasting inter-generational traumas which continue to effect Aboriginal people across the country of all ages, genders and socio-economic status.

By gaining your own clarity and a further understanding of Aboriginal culture, you will be open to shifting paradigms and challenging the current status quo surrounding the First Peoples of this country.

There are great resources online which are currently available to assist in furthering your knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture and history, also many individuals and organisations who will yarn with you to provide further insight.

Reach out to your Local Aboriginal Land Council and local Aboriginal organisations for guidance – just don’t be scared to initiate the conversations.

  • What makes you passionate about driving this change?

I am passionate about driving this change because I want all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to know that they belong, they are valued, they are loved and they play a pivotal role in our society.

We are the oldest, living, surviving culture in the world with over 60,000 years of resilience, strength and perseverance pumping through our veins and this is something we must never forget.

We are standing on the shoulders of giants, warriors, trailblazers and leaders who walked this earth long before our time, who fought for the opportunities we are presented with today, and I believe that we must continue their work.

I want my people to flourish in all aspects of their lives and know that they are capable of anything they put their mind too, especially our youth.

Our youth need to heal, feel loved and know they belong. By instilling self-belief, confidence and self-determination within our people, that is when the collective change will come.

We must not forget that it was only 50 years ago that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (My Mother, Aunties, Uncles, Grandparents and Great-grand parents) were considered flora and fauna (plants and animals).

They were not considered human beings and not counted in the Australian census, until the 1967 Referendum.

For far too long the systemic regimes which this country operate on have been failing and dehumanising Aboriginal people and continue to disempower us, on all levels. We as individuals must hold the power we possess within our hearts, minds and souls and continue to strive towards systemic, effective change.

One of my key motives and why I drive for this and many more changes, is because I long for the day when I drive down Luxford Rd (Mt Druitt), and I will not see an Aboriginal person being harassed/strip-searched and racially vilified by the Police, just for being Aboriginal. This is a daily occurrence in Western Sydney and across the country.

Regardless of the individual’s age, whether they’re holding their babies in their arms or their children are walking beside them, the Police will continue harass them.

It has to stop!

People don’t realise the ongoing impacts this behaviour and mentality has on the progression and self-determination within Aboriginal people at all stages of life. Whether this happens to us directly, or an Aboriginal person we may not know – it has the same effect on us mentally and spiritually.

Ultimately, I am passionate about driving change as I believe it is time for our people to take back our power and create long lasting, effective change now and for future generations.

  • What is the role of community engagement in enabling constructive societal change?

Community engagement is pivotal.

It is vital that communities are involved in all stages of any projects that may impact their Community – the planning, the implementation and the evaluation stages.

The role of community engagement in enabling constructive societal change is key. It will determine the success or failure of any community project.

When communities are not involved from the inception of a project, it is less likely to be adopted by the community. This happens at an increasing and alarming rate within Aboriginal communities, as institutions make assumptions, generalisations and judgements on a community, without understanding the history, values and current circumstances.

Through meaningful community engagement, institutions, companies and government agencies will gain a better understanding of the communities’ concerns, aspirations and values, which in return lead to the effective delivery of programs, legislations and policies achieving better outcomes for that community.

By upholding trust, transparency and honesty within communities through effective community engagement, it enhances the community’s approval, resulting in an improved uptake of services as they are more tailored to the unique aspirations of each community.

Community engagement can help shape and envision a community’s future, bringing wider societal change and global impacts through implementing services that benefit individuals and families in future endeavours and prospects.

  • What have been your biggest learnings from your career and experiences so far when it comes to community engagement?

The biggest learnings from my career and experiences within Community Engagement is understanding the importance of meaningful community engagement and the impact community engagement has on the success or failure of a service or program.

It has become increasingly evident that a service will either prosper or deteriorate depending on the amount of time and resources put into the effort of community engagement. Positive, effective relations between an organisation and individuals will usually lead to a successful process.

I’ve learnt to never set unrealistic expectations for any individuals or community members when delivering a service. I was once told, to avoid disappointing community you must always under promise and over deliver.

I learnt really quickly that community members are more likely to gain your trust through what you do not what you say. Many individuals have been let down by services who fail to show up when they said they would or haven’t provided the ongoing support their service is funded to provide.

Community engagement isn’t just the oral communication between an organisation, an individual or community. It is about being present, empowering individuals to make informed decisions and believing in the individuals/community you are working with.

When working in a community setting, especially within marginalised communities, you must be prepared to work longer than what is stated within your contract or your standard 9-5 hours.

I’ve learnt that if people aren’t willing to go above and beyond for community, do not apply to work within a community.

  • For those considering a career in community engagement with indigenous communities, what is your advice?

My advice through my lived experiences for those considering a career in Community Engagement within Aboriginal communities is quite different for those who are Aboriginal and those who are Non-Aboriginal.

Obviously those who are Aboriginal and are connected to their family and community will have a deep, thorough understanding of how to work with mob through their lived experiences. It is essentially working with family and upholding our values of kinship, respect and inclusion in all aspects when working with mob.

For Non-Aboriginal people whose roles may require them to work with Aboriginal communities through community engagement, my advice for you is to:

  • Speak to an Aboriginal person you know to have an open, robust conversation about your understanding of Aboriginal culture;
  • Request to participate in meaningful Aboriginal cultural awareness training prior to commencing your role to give you some context of our culture (note – this does not make you culturally aware or an expert in Aboriginal culture, rather just gives you a glimpse into the oldest, living culture in the world);
  • Respect Elders and leaders within in the community and involve them in important decision-making processes;
  • If it is possible, many community members would prefer men to speak to men and for women to speak to women, especially in circumstances where you are not known by the person or community;
  • Conduct your own research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so you are aware of the inter-generational traumas and ongoing societal impacts which continue to effect Aboriginal people of all ages, genders and socio-economic status’s;
  • Never assume, always ask (even if you may think it is a silly question, this technique will assist you more than you think);
  • Connect with your Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC), local Aboriginal community organisations and Aboriginal elders groups to create meaningful, effective relationships;
  • Embrace your privilege and always be open to learning and shaking your unconscious biases;
  • Don’t be scared, worried or anxious when working with mob because we are the most welcoming, respectful, warm-hearted people you will ever meet.

I’m always happy to further discuss this topic and assist in any way possible, or be that person who you may want to reach out to.  

  • Why did you decide to create the Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network? What are the key goals for this organisation?

The Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network was created to be a culturally safe, inclusive space for the Aboriginal youth of Western Sydney and aspire to have a voice within government processes, strengthen partnerships between organisations and stakeholders and ultimately create social change.

William Trewlynn and myself (Co-Founders) noticed the lack of participation of young people in Aboriginal Organisations or the decision making on policies which affect us.

With that voice, young Aboriginal people can provide a youth perspective in helping create age appropriate change within their communities and throughout the world, if provided with optimal guidance, support and opportunities.

We believe that well-designed engagement with young Aboriginal people can lead to enhanced community involvement, increased self-empowerment and confidence, increased cultural connection and reduced contact with the justice system.

Prior to COVID-19 we were meeting once a month (the first Thursday of each month) at Kimberwalli in Mt Druitt, which unfortunately we’ve had to cease until further advised.

Together, at our meetings we discuss the current societal issues, policies and regulations that impact us as Aboriginal people and our ability to create prosperity for future generations. During our meetings we also strategise how we can overcome these issues collaboratively.

We have established a social media presence on Facebook, which is a public group open to any Aboriginal person under the age of 35 from Western Sydney. We share all meeting notifications, employment opportunities and community announcements through our page.

The goal is to ensure that the voices of our young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are at the table on conversations that impact them. We want to ensure that young voices are captured, articulated and heard on subjects which impact us.

We want to be spoken with, not spoken for.

  • What are you most excited about for 2020?

I’m most excited for the Youth Leadership Network to establish ourselves as an incorporated body of young people who are driving the change for our community and future generations.

I know that there is change on the horizon, and I am so excited to watch it unfold in 2020.

About the expert

Renee Thomson is a proud Wiradjuri woman with cultural and ancestral ties to Erambie, Cowra, Central Western NSW. She was born and raised in Mt Druitt, Western Sydney where she continues to work and live within her community.

She is devoted to increasing the economic prosperity and independence of Aboriginal communities and families across health, education, policy and reform and justice sectors.
Renee’s life experiences and ongoing involvement with community, has led her work in grass-roots and peak body initiatives and institutions across local, state and international platforms.

As the Sydney-Newcastle Youth Representative of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council Youth Council, Renee was selected to represent First Nations people at the United Nations, Expert Mechanisms on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, 2019.

Renee firmly believes that the secret to success is to listen and work with community, to create tangible and positive change for all. With those goals in mind she developed the Western Sydney Aboriginal Youth Leadership Network.