My dad and his family grew up in a tin humpy on the banks of the Namoi River in Walgett, New South Wales. My grandmother worked on a station, raising the station manager’s children, and never received her pay during her lifetime.
Growing up my father was denied an education and instead given a football; he left school at 15 and later in life was drafted with five other Aboriginal men to play rugby league for the Gundagai Tigers. That year Gundagai saw their first grand final win. Gundagai loved Dad until he retired from football and needed a job.
My journey towards becoming a business owner started standing on the Gundagai overpass, waving goodbye to my father as he hitchhiked for work, as no one wanted to employ an Aboriginal.
Our family’s experience of economic exclusion across generations is, sadly, not uncommon. The result of this widespread exclusion is reflected in disparities in health, education and employment. Today, despite owning or have controlling interests in some 40% of the Australian land mass, First Nations people continue to be excluded from not just the economy but the conversation regarding this country’s future. We continue to live in a system that reinforces the status quo and refuses to recognise the benefit offered to all Australians in embracing Aboriginal people, culture and knowledge systems.
I have dedicated my career to improving the lives of First Nations people. I worked in remote communities across the Northern Territory within Aboriginal organisations, at both state and national levels, influencing policy, and, recently, within the private sector. During this time, I witnessed firsthand the systemic barriers that maintain the cycles of disadvantage and poverty. At the same time have also seen the only assets Aboriginal people own, that have the ability to break these cycles, exploited by non-Indigenous people.
In 2019 I established Guumali, a social enterprise that works to create opportunities that support First Nations people to take part in the economy. Guumali recognises the importance of independent economies in enabling our communities to thrive. Through our work we hope to support Aboriginal land and sea owners in realising the full potential of their resources and knowledge systems in a way that reinforces overall wellbeing and cultural values.
To date, most economic development on Aboriginal land and sea has focused on benefiting a third party and not Aboriginal communities directly. When Aboriginal people and enterprises are represented in supply chains, it’s usually in the initial stage before a product’s full value is reached, such as the picking, gathering or collecting of a product. While some people and communities are happy with this model of participation, many are calling for a new approach to Aboriginal economic development – one that sees Aboriginal people and business represented across the entire supply chain.
For this to happen we must challenge the current approach which is built on a western framework. At Guumali we want to see an approach where Aboriginal people and their systems, including their language, culture, and traditional decision making processes, are the heart of economic development rather than on the sidelines. We believe in building genuine partnerships between the private sector and Aboriginal communities that sees both business and community succeed.
Today investors want to engage directly with Aboriginal land and sea owners, and we are more than capable of doing so without the middlemen. For thousands of years Aboriginal people in this country have operated systems of trade.
From as early as the 1700s Aboriginal tribes from Arnhem Land to the Kimberley traded with Macassan fishermen who sought trepang (sea cucumber). It wasn’t until the 20th century that this was blocked by the Australian government. Today, unless you can buy back/lease one of the three trepang fishing licences owned by Tasmanian Seafoods, Aboriginal people are prohibited from traditionally harvesting trepang for direct commercial gain.
This example of the structural barriers and the role that colonisation has played in our exclusion demonstrates the need for reform at the very foundations of the system. For this to happen we require courageous leadership that must take the conversation beyond the comfort zones of government and business. Leadership that recognises the benefit to all Australians in allowing equal participation of First Nations people in this country’s future.
While the memory of waving goodbye to my father on the bridge is still painful today, I hope to use this as a force for good, ensuring that our family’s experience is something we as a country learn from, not deny. I truly believe that as a society there is nothing to lose from our inclusion, only an opportunity to gain.
So in the spirit of reconciliation week I take this opportunity to invite you to walk on this journey with us, to start the conversation, to encourage participation and to hold our leaders accountable. We cannot do this alone and call on our allies to lend their voices, their hearts and resources for the broader benefit of Australia.
Sorrell Ashby is a Gamilaroi woman from NSW and is the founder and managing director of Guumali, an Aboriginal owned and operated business creating opportunities that give First Nations people an honest and equal say in the future of tomorrow
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