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The question that sparked change for reconciliation

What would Red Cross look like if its staff, volunteers and clients were all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

The question is challenging.  It's meant to be, says Thungutti man Jimmy Kyle.

Jimmy posed the hypothetical to Red Cross leaders in Victoria, during a meeting on how to bring our Reconciliation Action Plan to life. 

It sparked debate, raised even more questions and led to soul searching by individuals and as an organisation.

Then it led to a six-month concerted effort to attract and retain more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and volunteers in Victoria.

Victorian Executive Director Wenda Donaldson says the meeting brought leaders to reflect 'on what does reconciliation truly mean and how do we bring our heart to it?'

Jimmy, who facilitated, is a straight talker. "Reconciliation is about turning words into action as actions build relationships and trust. 

"For it to work, you need to be prepared to stand up, make, create and deliver opportunities for Indigenous Australians and as an individual and collective show the highest level of respect for the first people of this country."

A shakeup

Australian Red Cross is into the third year of its Reconciliation Action Plan "Brighter Futures".  It contains wide sweeping targets and goals across all levels of the organisation building respect, relationships, employment and business opportunities.

Wenda wanted to go a step further. "We had to reflect and think what are we doing and can we do better?"

"It's easy to see a Reconciliation Action Plan as an intellectual exercise of targets and checks and incremental steps towards predefined goals and strategies.

"But we didn't have a heartfelt connection as to why reconciliation was so important."

"We needed to make significant shifts in the way that we think, act, work and feel; and bring them into daily practice," she says. 

Do no harm

Wenda says any ideas, solutions and actions needed careful consideration.

The Wominjeka Group, a team of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders within Red Cross, provided guidance, support and leadership.

Their advice was that any approach should be guided by two key principles: that the way forward needed buy-in from all staff;  and that it did no harm to Indigenous people.

This meant Red Cross should maintain its focus on providing a safe, welcoming environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.   

"It's not an option to say it's all too hard.  Doing nothing is still doing harm because we're not actually drawing on our resources, the power and influence that Red Cross has to contribute to meaningful reconciliation," Wenda says.

One big change

The Victorian Leadership believed there needed to be a catalyst to change, to think and act differently.

As a result, for the next six months all new Red Cross positions in its Victorian office will be identified roles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Wenda says the identified positions are something immediate and meaningful to build momentum and draws attention to change.

There are 10 positions now available, from working in finance and property to migrant support and patient transport.

Cultural shift

The group knew that recruitment and retention was just one step, there also needed to be a cultural shift in the workplace.

Working with HR, every staff member has built into their performance review what contribution and personal commitment they will be making for reconciliation.

The strategy also incorporates building greater community engagement and connections, like hosting Elders at events, holding Yarning Circles and open days for the local Indigenous community to get to know Red Cross.

Lessons learned

Wenda says one of the best ways to effect change in a large organisation is to trial new ways of working in specific areas, and learn from them.

"It's about timing and ensuring we have the support and practices in place to take this step."

"Australia is made up of over 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nation groups. Our approach will look and feel different not just to other States and Territories, but regions within them," she says.

"They have different Indigenous groups to draw guidance and leadership from as well as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Team."

Jimmy says Indigenous people are well versed in seeing deficit and so are best placed to provide solutions. "We commend non-Indigenous staff for taking the leap, to sometimes feel uncomfortable."

"When we relinquish the goals and quotas and get the practices right, when we are a culturally competent organisation all of the time, then we will move forward."

Meet some of the deadly staff we recognised in NAIDOC Week

Learn more about our commitment to reconciliation