A Little More Conversation, A Little Less Action


Black and white Australia are in a relationship – whether we like it or not. And it’s time we put some quality time into how we work together, writes Geoff Aigner.

The recent report on Indigenous wellbeing made my heart sink. I felt disappointed, disillusioned and, well, cranky.

It’s all bad news when it comes to incarceration, mental health, chronic disease and disability. There has been significant improvement in infant survival rates but these kids are looking down the barrel of poor literacy and numeracy and more of the same in health and education… and I am not going to take comfort in life expectancy shifting by a few months.

But what made me really cranky was that the chances of shifting any of these indicators from where we currently stand are very low. I certainly wouldn’t put money on it.

And I don’t buy the usual reasons why we are not making progress. It’s not because Canberra doesn’t know what they are doing, because we aren’t spending enough money, because Indigenous communities don’t want to change or because Australia is racist. I don’t believe any of these things really play a large part.

There are many people working really hard ­ black and white – to make progress.

The reason we are not making progress is because we are continuously seduced to focus on more ‘doing’.

It’s hard to argue with the Abbott government’s focus on education, employment and community safety. But I don’t know what difference we will make in any of these areas when we actually don’t know how to work and talk together.

We don’t have a problem with policy, spending or structure. We have a problem with our capability to work in relationship with people different to us.

If a marriage is in trouble we wouldn’t suggest a new project. A veggie patch, a new boat, or renovation is not going to help a troubled relationship. In fact it will probably make things worse because we don’t have the foundations on which to do any work together.

The cover of the new book, Lost Conversations.

Black and white Australia are in a relationship, whether we like it or not. And it’s time we put some quality time into how we work together.

We need to build these muscles to work together. This means being more curious (rather than polite), having more difficult conversations (rather than worrying about looking incompetent or culturally incorrect) and owning the power we have (rather than acting like victims).

And in case you are wondering, I am talking about white Australia more than black when I talk about acting like victims. I feel a part of a very large section of Australia who feels ‘helpless’. This makes me a victim.

When we don’t see the power we have, when we aren’t curious, when we aren’t ready for conflict we end up acting aggressively (think the Intervention) or sympathetically (the usual tut-tutting about ‘Indigenous issues’).

Sympathy and aggression are not useful. We get in the same old arguments, politeness and hand-wringing.

Tomorrow, nine black and white authors are launching a new book called The Lost Conversations (I am one of the nine). We are making a perhaps naïve attempt to shift how we relate and work together.

I thought about the origin of this book when I met with some of the authors recently. This book came from an attempt by a white organisation to do something useful for some Indigenous leaders (sound familiar?).

What we learnt was, well, that doesn’t work. That’s where this book came from (and what shifted how we all operate in our respective domains): a recognition that we have to look at how we work together and build our skills to work together before we can focus on what we do differently.

So how about we stop now and think about how what we can learn about how we work and talk together given our failures before we rush into more doing?

* Geoff Aigner is an author, educator, consultant and Director of Social Leadership Australia at The Benevolent Society.

** Lost Conversations – Finding new ways for black and white Australians to lead together is a new book about cross-cultural leadership that brings together the diverse perspectives and personal stories of five Aboriginal and four non-Indigenous authors – Geoff Aigner, Cheryl Godwell, Jane Martin, Grant Paulson, John Rawnsley, Kim Robertson, Liz Skelton, Libby Varcoe and Mark Yettica-Paulson. It's available for download free of charge under Creative Commons licence here.

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