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March 4, 2024

Storylines – Working with mob

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♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

As broader Australia begins to place more value on First Nations Knowledge and how it can improve our lives and the world, there has never been a better time to reflect on working with mob. Many are asking ‘whom do I talk to?’. While it might seem easier to engage with the people who appear to be most available or have the most to say, I would proceed with caution. Generally, the right people are hidden behind layers of conversation and they can take a while to find. They are also probably the busiest and have many priorities that they are juggling.

There are many misconceptions that mob are sitting around waiting for things to do. With this rise in interest from a range of professional industries and individuals come a huge time pressure and massive burden inflicted on mob. It can feel overwhelming when all opportunities to be involved in projects seem incredible, and it can be difficult to know when to say no. Generally, people are more willing to work with people they know, so my first word of advice would be to identify individuals or organisations that you would like to work with and start to build relationships. From my professional experience in engagement and as well as my personal journey as an Aboriginal woman, it takes time for the right people to open up and share. Most Knowledge holders or individuals with special expertise will take a while to test you out and size you up. Within our First Nations cultural framework, Knowledge is earned and this applies when working with mob.

It is also vital to speak with multiple people within community to ensure that you are receiving collective advice and direction. Commonly, the isolated and loud voices, who are not part of an organisation or network, are at odds with the broader community. When working with mob, I always enquire about whom else I should be speaking to and, from there, the list of individuals or organisations snowball and become apparent. Eventually you start hearing the same names and you recognise that you have reached out to most people you needed to engage with. At some point you will need to draw the line with how much time you can spend yarning because there will always be others to consult.

Walk on Dharawal Country with community. Photo Zion Engagement and Planning

We have strict cultural protocols that require us to not speak about things that we don’t have authority over, whether that’s Country or Knowledge. This means that community should generally self-regulate and our cultural protocols will ensure that you are referred to the right people. You will then be engaging with community-recognised individuals or organisations; this process of referral is vital to answer the question: ‘whom should I be talking to?’. However, the individuals highlighted above with the loud, isolated voices will likely present as a cultural authority and make you feel uncomfortable in working with others. Probably in fear of being exposed for their approach and position, which will be in conflict with community cultural protocols.

It is also important to note that many expect mob to engage without payment. With the increasing demands mob are strapped for time and generally need to retain employment while engaging with a range of people without being remunerated. We need to consider the importance of placing value on the knowledge and time that are generously shared and treat that knowledge with respect through payment. The appropriate Indigenous cultural intellectual property measures should also be embedded into your thinking and approach.

Working with mob is complex, and it takes time. Please refrain from trying to rush the process of building relationships and attempting to get straight down to business. The impact of colonisation in conjunction with our cultural protocols means we are particular about whom we work with. We are ultimately trying to protect ourselves and this sacred Knowledge that previously hasn’t been treated with due respect.

It is easy to become enticed by individuals who seem willing and available and seem like the easiest route; however, they generally have an ulterior motive, and while they have a contributing voice, it may not be the voice of cultural authority that speaks in certain spaces. Investing in relationships and building trust will get you a lot farther in the long run, as you are being respectful of the systems that govern First Nations communities. Remember to practise patience. We have been waiting 200 years to be heard and just because you are now willing to listen doesn’t mean we are ready, or have the time at the exact moment you are needing something.

Elle Davidson. Photo supplied


Elle Davidson is a Balanggarra woman from the East Kimberley and descendant of Captain William Bligh, and describes herself as being caught in the cross-winds of Australia’s history.

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