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Following in the footsteps

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

“We make the change together.”

Mr. Jones knelt near the red earth of the remote Ngaanyatjarra Lands, his knuckles touching, fingers interlocked beneath, and his two strong thumbs crossed and bracing the image he was creating of community change on his Land.

The year was 2014 and it was humbling to see such a vivid and deeply felt representation of the collective approach we had felt we were ‘pioneering’ across remote Australia.


For years now, colleagues and I have noted this symbiosis as observers; the inherent Aboriginal way of being and connecting and the collective impact approach we have worked with to enable social change. The model of kinship and connection. The courage and resilience. Leadership which is integrally linked to place, and which is, at once, both adaptive and respectful of long-held values, rites and rituals.

These are the qualities that underpin the very work we are ‘newly’ applying to create change. And this time, we are following in the footsteps of Aboriginal Australians who have been waiting patiently for us to arrive in this place. If this deep connection is the natural approach for our first nations people, what then can Collective Impact offer within Aboriginal communities?

Our great hope is that this time, we are making every effort to walk alongside; working with all impacting stakeholders to bring the different perspectives together as one. Personally and professionally, we, as non-Aboriginal Australians, are undertaking a journey with Aboriginal people which often involves us struggling to line up and engage, restraining ourselves from simply applying the next ‘sure-fire’ solution against a rhetoric of human-centred design, and pushing back on the change forces which wreak undue influence. It is apparent that this collective approach, which relies so deeply on place and people, is not an innate way of working for so many. We have much to learn and we have to work hard to build this collective capability.

The value of the Collective Impact approach in Aboriginal communities is also much more about offering transparency and accountability across the various sectors than it is about trading in a new way of operating.

“Transparency was a hidden word. We didn’t understand it and we were too afraid to ask. This has maintained our disadvantage.” (Warakurna, 2015)

In Roebourne in remote Western Australia, the Gathering Team regularly brings together whole of community across language groups, mining companies, tiers of government and every service in the region to engage in the change. They have been doing so for more than 9 years. With the increasing uptake of Collective Impact in the town, the ‘Gathering Team’ (all Aboriginal community members) provides the Backbone role. The Team works tirelessly to bridge the divide, collecting the data and information, the people and the understanding needed to move forward; “One Community. One Voice.” During the meetings, proposed solutions are tested against 5 ‘Elders’ questions’; the basis for a social impact investment model which is right for Roebourne. At the end of the meetings, people overflow from the Ngurin Cultural Centre into the heat beyond. Many hours of intense debate and heightened urgency are tempered with tea and damper. Sense has been made and the next steps have been agreed by an informed community increasingly equipped to engage in the decisions that impact their lives. Transparency enables authentic participation.

In Collective Impact, we purposefully work to ‘join the dots’ and a key aim is to re-shape service delivery so it is truly seamless, accessible and fully integrated. This lofty goal has eluded most communities. Within Tasmania, however, kutalayna health has offered an exquisite resolution within the Jordan River region. Community co-design has always been a foundation in building strategic direction for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). TAC’s kutalayna health emerged in Jordan River after more than 40 years of delivering community controlled services, building resilience and being adaptive to changing environments. This solid foundation has been augmented by collective impact which has enabled the rigorous application of local data and the voice of community in prioritising the offerings and focusing effort so it truly counts. The holistic service model then wraps support around individuals and families, linking health to learning and social-emotional wellbeing. Critically, hundreds of families are now seeking the health support they require. The approach is concurrently deepening connections across the Aboriginal community in the region, is strengthening the sense of culture and identity and is helping create an inclusive society. Once again, Aboriginal peoples are showing us a vastly different and relational way of looking at the world and the services meeting within the Community Leadership Table, feel an increasing accountability to offer a corresponding approach.

There is deep reciprocity possible when working together with Aboriginal people using a collective approach to change. The opportunity is for each of us to embrace this gift, to learn and grow alongside the custodians of the land and, for our part, to unlock the barriers to impact by offering transparency and high levels of accountability to the collective cause.

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