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Working with Indigenous Australia starts with understanding

BY PHIL USHER | FRIDAY, 12 NOV 2021   2:56PM

The role of First Nations Foundation is to promote financial literacy among Indigenous Australians, and we believe this is the cornerstone for true economic participation for Aboriginal people.

When I took over as the chief executive of the Foundation in January last year, our intent was to continue to grow the reach of our innovative Big Super Day Out roadshow, where we partner with superannuation funds and various government departments to visit remote communities and help those community members to locate superannuation balances that they may not even know they had. The roadshow had operated for seven years and had relocated more than $26 million in funds for Indigenous communities across the country.

However, with the arrival of COVID-19, everything changed. We knew immediately that we couldn't risk bringing people out to communities and so we looked at what we could do, and we launched several successful initiatives that enabled us to continue to deliver our services through new channels and by engaging new audiences.

One part of that was the Beyond the Gap podcast, which is something I've wanted to bring to life for a while. In an evolution of different ideas and directions, Beyond the Gap became an Australian-first investigation into best practice reconciliation and Indigenous engagement for corporate Australia and beyond.

I wanted to have meaningful conversations with industry leaders about the relationship between corporate Australia and Indigenous people, something that seems so obvious in the journey towards reconciliation but was still being tiptoed around.

There was so much out there about the need for corporate Australia to engage First Nations people, without really getting to the meat of how, and what does this even look like, and how organisations can do it meaningfully. We know from our work with financial services businesses through the years that there is a genuine desire to work towards a better future for all Indigenous Australians, so how could we help them - and the broader business community - improve the outcomes they were looking to achieve?

Throughout my conversations with the guests, recurring themes about truth-telling, cultural understanding, and building genuine relationships were mentioned by guests like Dr Simon Longstaff, Karen Mundine and Ian Hamm; and how without these, true reconciliation will always be out of reach.

Former Cbus chief executive David Atkin has worked with the Foundation for years and his insights were enlightening, on how a leader remains in touch with the issues while at the same time running a large organisation that also happens to have a significant percentage of Indigenous members.

David explained that there is a continual and growing focus on ESG commitments of investors including super funds, and 'Indigenous' sits in this area, both in terms of Indigenous engagement with members but also in how an asset owner invests. It needs to be a combination of the fund making ethical decisions on what they will and won't invest in, and listening to the expectations of their members. This has certainly been the case with companies like Rio Tinto and Telstra, where there is now more ability and super funds - and their members - can hold companies to account.

He also discussed how any commitment to reconciliation needs to be driven from the executive level and it is often an internal driver of the leadership team. However, the biggest change and impact is led by passionate staff members who nominate to be on the RAP working group or other internal committees to continue driving things forward. Harnessing that motivation within an organisation can put the right people in the right place to achieve meaningful outcomes.

Again, this is important, because dealing with Indigenous Australia is not the same as dealing with other parts of the community.

There was one particular episode that will stay with me forever - when I spoke with Dr Tracy Westerman, an Indigenous psychologist whose resume is seriously impressive, an so too are her insights.

In our conversation, Tracy explained that 30 per cent of trauma amongst Indigenous Australians is intergenerational - meaning almost a quarter of a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country deal with trauma related challenges that have been locked in even before their first breath.

How do we begin to close the gap using all the learnings that were drawn out over the course of the podcast series, when we are still navigating through intergenerational damages?

Just like we see in health, education, and the justice system, there are serious consequences of this inherited trauma for the financial empowerment and resilience of First Nations people.

Growing up in Aboriginal housing commission, I was always trying to figure out why we had less money than others. It wasn't until my 20s that I witnessed a stark comparison between what my non-Indigenous friends' families could focus on - teaching their kids and grandkids about personal finance and building wealth - and what the mob I knew had to take on instead... mission life and living on rations, proving they were 'clean' enough to work alongside non-Indigenous colleagues, balancing their cultural obligations with a career.

It struck me hard when I saw the huge juxtaposition of financial literacy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of roughly the same age - not just what assets were being handed down generation to generation, but what understanding was too.

In 2019, along with NAB and the Centre of Social Impact, First Nations Foundation launched Money Stories as a first-of-its-kind research piece into the personal wealth and finances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The findings were confronting and reiterated what I'd witnessed in my 20s. More than 48% of Indigenous people were experiencing severe or high levels of financial stress, compared to just 11% of the broader population. 52% of Aboriginal people reported they had no savings compared to 13.5% of non-Indigenous people, and 33.9% of the broader population felt as though they had financial security, while only 9.7% of the Indigenous population did.

While confronting, these findings really make sense. Most of our life skills are a product of what our parents can work with us on or at least someone from our family. When we don't have that type of role model, those skills are lacking - especially when it's something like financial literacy and wellbeing that is not extensively taught in schools. For a lot of First Nations kids, just like me, that go-to person to ask about money and savings and investing simply doesn't exist.

It is time for initiatives involving reconciliation and closing any gaps to factor in the unique position of Indigenous Australians; to truly understand who we are, and to build the bridges that we all need to bring our cultures closer together.