Talking reconciliation with Chris Sarra and Angela Leitch

On 2 June during National Reconciliation Week, IPAA Queensland was pleased to host our second Stewards on the couch (and virtual) event for 2020 in partnership with QUTeX.

Over 350 registered to see Dr Chris Sarra (Director-General of the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships) and Angela Leitch (QUT Pro Vice Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy) in conversation with Lizzie Orley (journalist and 98.9FM radio host).

Chris and Angela shared personal stories of their family and childhood experiences, education and careers championing positive change for First Nations Peoples. They also shared their views on reconciliation, which together with their lived experiences, provide some compelling insights for realising genuine reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Some excerpts from the conversation on reconciliation are captured below.

On country and childhood experiences

Chris – My hometown is Bundaberg, country of the Taribelang and my grandmother’s country is just north of there, Gooreng Gooreng.

I’m youngest of 10 growing up. That made life interesting on its own but growing up in Bundaberg in the 1970s … with a very proud Italian father and very strong and very proud Aboriginal mother. It’s right back to a time when Joh Bjelke-Peterson was the Premier. We never ever thought of ourselves as poor or impoverished or anything like that, but we weren’t rich.

When I reflect on my childhood there were lots of things about it that were really special. You know like when I was a six, seven, eight year-old … we lived in proximity to the Burnett River, so I could just grab my fishing line and take off, you know. Because when you’re in a family of ten, I learned that I like to have my own space, and so I could just grab a fishing line and off I’d go.

Angela – I’m a Woppaburra woman and our country is the Keppel Islands off the coast of Rockhampton. I grew up at Woodridge … and there’s a lot of housing commission houses in the area that we were in, a lot of migrants, a lot of Aboriginal families. I grew up with mum’s sisters coming over all the time and sitting around the table and listening to what they’d have to say and there’s lots of space around us and we, my cousins were allowed to like run free and it was a really good period of time, that period of time before hitting school.

Chris – Going to school was pretty cool, I mean we had to grapple with things like racism and those sorts of things in that period because it was just okay for it to be so overt you know. And so we did grow up with some old guy over the back who’d call us little black bastards and all of those kinds of things. It was all around us and it was quite overt but thanks to my mum we were never ever victims to that circumstance … our mum helped us make sense of it in such a way that we understood very well that it was never our problem, it was often the problem of somebody else … it created challenges for us, but you deal with it.

Angela – one of my first experiences of school was the racism, and a teacher saying to me that I thought I was special because I was Aboriginal and that I’m not going to get any special treatment in her classroom. I was in grade one and I’m thinking, I don’t even know what this woman is talking about. But I think that, what was good, there was a fair number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at my school so we could all get together and talk about what’s going on for us. I think the great thing (about mums) – they kind of tell you that it isn’t us, it’s them. It’s their problem, they don’t understand … but I really loved growing up in Woodridge. You know, we were poor, but you didn’t really know you’re poor … it was a pretty good life.

Chris – As you grow up and you start making sense of the world, I think we always knew that we were at the margins you know, that we weren’t quite the mainstream, whatever that is supposed to be. But always okay with that, you know, and so there are various moments where you were reminded that you’re at the margins. Or you get called black this or black that whether it’s on the football field or at school or those kinds of things.

You know when you look at our big symbols of Australia as a nation, you look at the flag, the national anthem. They’re kind of reminders to me that you’re not quite… you’re still at the margins, yet I’m okay with that. I don’t feel a victim to that circumstance. It just tells me that there’s a way to go in our country before we are all together in our authentic sense.

Reconciliation – where are we at?

Chris – On the broader theme of reconciliation, it’s always interesting I think just between us three here, reconciliation week for me has always been, it conjures a range of thoughts and emotions for me because it comes up every year and then you’re called upon to comment on it and those kinds of things. But you sort of think, well it would be good if we didn’t have to have a thing like reconciliation week because everybody’s just getting on and doing what they’re doing.

At the same time I get why we need to have a week like this to make everybody mindful of the need to reflect on how we are together in a relationship and so (this year’s) theme In This Together means we’re in this together and if the notion of reconciling means there’s two parties, and in this case it’s Aboriginal Australia or three parties I suppose – Aboriginal Australia, Torres Strait Islander Australia, and white Australia or a new Australia if you like.

It brings a time in the year where we have to reflect on who we are and how we exist together in this relationship. So you’d like to think that we don’t just do nice things during this week and then we forget about it for the rest of the year. And I think that’s the challenge for all of us, is to reflect on who we are and how we are with people of difference.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that reconciliation week or the notion of reconciliation is just about Aboriginal people, when the truth is it’s not. It’s more about mainstream Australia. For me it’s more to do with mainstream Australia than it is about Aboriginal Australia.

Angela – Mine’s slightly different. I do have a problem with reconciliation and our elder was saying the other day, don’t talk to me about reconciliation – I have nothing to reconcile. I think back to the 1990s when it was first introduced and there was going to be social justice and we were going to have this package of things the government was going to look at to remove structural discrimination and systemic discrimination. It was going to be fantastic. ATSIC was set up.

And then the government changed and ATSIC got abolished and practical reconciliation came in which then allowed a barbecue or painting on a wall or something to be an act of reconciliation and it sort of has started to become for me this very superficial kind of week, and as much as other people try to make it otherwise …. So for me, do I actually get involved in reconciliation week? I feel that it’s not making a big difference because it was introduced in the 1990s and look at the position it’s still in today.   Years later not much has changed and it’s actually gone backwards in some aspect.

Reconciliation – it’s not about us

Chris – So we can’t help being struck by the irony right, there’s three black people here talking about reconciliation saying it’s not about us.

Angela – Yeah that’s right so for me; it’s kind of like I’m hoping that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is going to make a bigger difference for our mob and move that forward.

Chris – I mean to be fair you’ve got a great organization like IPAA, you know I’m on the board, is reaching out to try to create this kind of a circumstance, to do what it says here you know to challenge our thinking about such things and so that’s what we’re doing here, challenging people’s thinking, so next time around we are stretched in our thinking about how we might do this differently. And that’s why this is a good forum to do that.

Angela – non-Indigenous Australians need to educate themselves about Australia’s true history and the contemporary space that we all live in, and the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within that. It’s like they come to you as an empty vessel or something so can you please just pour it all in. They actually need to come with something and show that they’ve had that commitment to learning and understanding that space before they come and ask you questions about that … for me personally, I’ll welcome them in more if I know that they’ve done that.

And we need to understand too I think that Australia has done such a good job at hiding its history that there are people out there that don’t know what’s gone on. Maybe they’ve deliberately tried not to know what’s going on … but if they can actually work on it themselves and then come and see us I think that’s the way to work with us and to also come from a kind heart and come from that they don’t have the answers, but we’re here to work with you

Chris – Let me come at it this way … I could talk to people about what not to do, you know, some people think that they’re being polite by saying I don’t see black and white you know and I think that’s problematic because what I would say to people is I want you to see my blackness. I want you to see the things that make me Aboriginal, and don’t pretend that they don’t exist or that you have to be polite and not see that. Because I’m not ashamed of that and neither of us should pretend that that’s something to be ashamed about because I’ve rejected that stereotype a very long time ago and the kids at Cherbourg school rejected that stereotype a very long time ago.

I want you to see that, you know, and what do you do is to see the things that make me Aboriginal and be intrigued and interested in those things and treat those things respectfully. But also understand that that’s not who I am in total, that there are so many other things that make me who I am. My sense of being Italian, for instance. I speak pretty good Italian ….

Connected to my sense of being Aboriginal is my sense of humanity and that’s where each of us I think need to connect to that. And with that comes a responsibility to acknowledge my sense of agency, my sense of capacity, my sense of the need for hope and optimism and have those things nurtured all around me, and the people that we deal with.

I think that’s part of the trick and that we don’t confine that to one particular week in the year, that we have to commit to doing this in an ongoing way. And if that can be done, we can commit to connecting with our humanity and our sense of being Aboriginal and being respectful of that, then that takes your connection to not just years but tens of thousands of years of connection to this country. And that’s got to be a good thing right.

Look if we reflect on Australia’s history, reconciliation came along at a time when people were ready for that. I don’t know that when reconciliation came along, people were ready for discussion about a treaty. And that’s progressed. So it might be a distraction but I don’t think we should let it be a distraction, that it becomes part and parcel of the same story. I’m forever optimistic about continuing to find a way forward and being committed to finding a way forward and encountering other non-Indigenous people who are committed to that as well.