Am I Ready for Reconciliation?


WOB Executive Director Claire Braund reflects on her readiness for reconciliation with First Nations people.


I grew up in country NSW in the 1970s. There was one Aboriginal family at our primary school of 25 children. A boy and his sister. He was a nice kid, good at sport, but struggled at school. I didn’t think that was strange – after all black people were not as smart as white people - right?

I remember the boy was excited when his cousins came to the school. Their parents were itinerant workers who picked potatoes for the local farmers. We thought the children were dirty and smelled. We felt sorry for them but didn’t want to sit next to them in class. We had no understanding of their history or their culture – in fact when I left primary school in 1981 I knew more about Australia’s involvement in WWI than our First Nations forbears.

That was pretty much my experience of Aboriginal people for the next 12 years. My nearly all-white girls boarding school – we did have a couple of Japanese exchange students - did not have a single identified Aboriginal child in the six years I attended.

University was pretty much the same, albeit with some more social justice activism. Aboriginal students may have been there, but I never noticed them or had anything to do with them. I finished university in 1991 and it was not until I entered the workforce as a rookie journalist and had the police and court round that I encountered Aboriginal people again. This time they were drinking in the mall, sitting in the dock and occupying police cells. The town in which I lived called the Aboriginal area ‘Silver City’. Sometime after I left the local independent member did a political deal to house more Aboriginal people in return for the Government building a brand-new Police Station. Irony.

I was nearly in my mid-twenties, and this was my experience of Aboriginal people.

Fast forward 27 years. I live in an affluent white suburb on the NSW Central Coast. My children go to independent schools, where there is at least a smattering of Aboriginal children, none of whom I have yet had the privilege of seeing in my home. I sit on the board of an emergency housing body where Aboriginal people are one-third of our clients yet represent less than 5% of the region’s population. I run a company with regular requests from government, NFP and some listed boards for an Aboriginal board member, despite many being poorly prepared for what it might mean to have an Aboriginal voice at the top table.

Since my mid-20s my understanding of Aboriginal people has grown ever so slowly, informed by sporadic activities such as reading books (eg, Sally Morgan’s My Place), watching the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, reporting on the struggles of First Nations people in Tasmania to achieve recognition they even existed, attending workshops on mediation and negotiation with Dr Jackie Huggins AO, spending a few hours with Tracey Holmes (wife to Stan Grant), listening to a few podcasts and welcome to country ceremonies and doing the rote Acknowledgement to Country on a regular basis. For many white people I suspect its fairly typical level of engagement with First Nations people and culture. Note that I now call Aboriginal people First Nations people.

So why am I telling you this?

The other day I was speaking with Claire Beattie, member of the WOB Cultural Diversity Committee, board member at PCYC NSW and Women and Girls Emergency Centre, an executive director in the NSW Department of Education and a fiercely proud Yorta Yorta woman.

The conversation was around whether organisations are doing Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) as a tick box exercise or because they truly seek reconciliation. In other words, have organisations audited if they are ready for a RAP before they embark on what can be a very painful, trauma impacted process – for white and black people.As always, Claire raised more challenges and asked more questions than she gave answers, framed in the context of her role in developing the RAP for the NSW Department of Education with then Secretary, Mark Scott.

Over the weekend I was reflecting on this and previous conversations with Claire. Conversations which challenge me to confront my inherently unthinking and racist past when it comes to our First Nations people. Conversations which challenge me to tell and own my truth on my journey to reconciliation.

My truth is that in my 52 years I have not known or really had anything to do with First Nations people. They have lived on the periphery of my life, been talked about as a problem ‘to be solved’ and pitied for their poverty and circumstances. Every now and again a First Nations person has come into my life and impacted me, but I do not have close friends who are First Nations people, have not sought them out to hear their stories, not tried to understand their culture or even engage in the conversation about their identity.

I consider it a positive that I am becoming more conscious of my lack of understanding and awareness of our First Nations people; of my shame at my former words and actions; and of my need to sit and wrestle with all this in the context of a time when we need both unity and diversity to bring us to national maturity.

Does this mean I am ready for reconciliation?

Possibly not, but it does mean that I am very open to the prospect of reconciliation and both the sadness and joy this will bring.

Women on Boards and The Voice referendum

Women on Boards will not take an organisational position on the referendum on the Voice to Parliament. We encourage considered and informed discussion that is respectful to all people via our WOB Community platform and on other media as appropriate.

Latest newsRSS