As I mentioned in passing an earlier post, Tuesday 2 August saw the formal graduation for the mentorees under the Housing NSW/Aboriginal Housing Office 2009 Aboriginal Mentor Program. The photo shows me with Jennifer (Jen) Hails, my mentee.
Jen is a proud woman of the Yuin nation from the NSW South Coast.
Now that the formal program has come to an end, I thought that it might be interesting if I reflected on some of the things that I learned over the twelve months.
Around 6 per cent of the staff of Housing NSW are of Aboriginal descent. Some four years ago, I can't remember the exact date, the Department introduced the Mentor Program as a way of increasing retention of Aboriginal staff, while improving their career prospects. This year, the Aboriginal Housing Office which has majority Aboriginal staff, joined the Program for the first time.
At the time the 2009 Program started, I was doing some contract demographic and policy analysis for AHO. Jen and I knew each other from the office, had talked about the things that she wanted to achieve, so we decided to give it a go. The Program included a number of combined sessions, so I met the other mentorees and heard about their hopes and problems. I was also mixing with Aboriginal staff not just from the AHO, but also from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council; the AHO head office is in the NSWALC building.
I make this point because the comments that follow are general comments that may, but need not, apply to Jen. The mentoring relationship itself is uniquely personal and is necessarily confidential. Further, to the degree that my comments bear upon specific features of Aboriginal society and to the relationships of that society to the broader community, I am talking NSW. I do not know enough about conditions elsewhere to attempt to generalise my conclusions. Even in NSW itself, there is wide variety within the Aboriginal community. My comments should, perhaps, be seen as reflecting a slice.
The first and most important point is that the pressures placed upon Aboriginal people seeking career advancement, and the barriers to that advancement, are far greater than I had realised. Further, those pressures and barriers are not quite what I had expected.
Aboriginal people do experience prejudice and even racism in a variety of ways. However, even though this exists in specific individuals, it is not of itself a barrier to advancement in the environment that we are talking about. Indeed, there is and has been for some considerable time, a conscious individual and corporate approach from the highest level seeking to open opportunities for Aboriginal people. In my judgement, this is genuine and indeed substantial, measured by effort.
Aboriginal people are also, on average, less well educated than the general community and have had exposure to a more limited range of working and other experiences. This is a real barrier and one that the Mentor Program (among other things) attempts to address. However, beyond the simple fact of less education are a range of quite complicated factors that I did not properly understand.
Non-Aboriginal people looking to career development think and act in individual terms. All they have to worry about at the first level are their own aspirations, abilities and needs. Societal expectations are supportive. The position for Aboriginal people is far more complicated.
Traditional Aboriginal society was collective. Further, it was marked by kinship structures that effectively placed every member of that society into familial relationships with every other member of the society. Fathers, mothers, aunties, uncles, brothers or sisters were kin relations that extended far beyond the simple concept of the nuclear or even extended family. This was associated with complicated systems of reciprocal relationships.
European colonisation broke many aspects of Aboriginal life, but both the collective view of society and basic kinship structures remained. Then, on top, came new relationships and indeed tensions as forced relocations of Aboriginal people moved people round the state and also put different groups together.
While average Aboriginal family sizes have been falling, immediate past families have been very large. An Aboriginal person today may six to thirteen relations on both their father's and mother's side, while each of their grandparents may have six to thirteen siblings, each in turn with a significant number of children. This means that many Aboriginal people have a very large number of blood relations plus broader kinship ties.
Problems within Aboriginal society associated with social deprivation have been well recorded: NSW prison populations have a disproportionate number of Aborigines; roughly one-third of Aboriginal people in NSW live in social housing; social problems in Aboriginal communities abound.
All this is usually expressed in terms of numbers, statistics. Putting it in a purely individual context, given family sizes and broader kinship relations, pretty much every Aboriginal person in NSW no matter how successful is dealing with these issues on a practical, day-today basis in their extended families and kin-ship groups.
Who, then, takes responsibility? Do they walk away and focus on their needs and that of their very immediate family, or do they try to help, to take responsibility for others, including their community?
Some walk, others can burn themselves out trying to help.
Aboriginal people are proud of their culture. They know that their culture has to change, but want (as Jen put it) to control that change. In fact, they have very little control over this because of the way that decisions are made.
They have an added problem as well. Non-Aboriginal Australia places expectations on Aboriginal people that do not apply to the broader community. What other community in the country not only has its problems so constantly featured, but featured in a way that says fix it yourself, mate!? We swing between continued authoritarian paternalism on one side, self-determination on the other.
The pressures placed upon Aboriginal elders are enormous. They have to participate in the ceremonial; they have to promote Aboriginal society and culture; they are expected to solve immediate problems that may be beyond their power to control.
The mentorees I met are, to some degree, caught in this trap. Their history and cultural background makes for a lack of confidence.
I think that the first challenge that every mentor faced was to draw out the strengths of their mentoree, to give them confidence. This was actually pretty easy to do. Universally, those graduating cited increased confidence.
Just to give you another visual, this photo shows the graduating group.
The second challenge was to help the mentorees acquire additional knowledge and skills. Again, and depending on the mentoree, this is not hard. However, it is an area where a mentor as a more experienced manager, a facilitator and as an advocate can play an important role in helping the metoree define skills gaps, identity opportunities and then pursue them.
In Jen's case, one of the many things that she achieved was a Certificate IV in workplace assessment and training. initially she found it hard because the language was different. I knew that this was only a matter of learning to think in new ways and indeed, once she got her mind around this, she sailed through.
Before going on, this photo shows Jen addressing the graduation ceremony.
All the mentorees had to deal in one way or another with problems in their own families and their extended families and kinship groups. All the mentorees had to work out the relations between themselves and their communities. Indeed, one mentoree who was passionate about her community role dropped out because, I think, the conflict between community and personal was too great.
I struggled with this conflict in a different way.
There are a number of Aboriginal specialist positions that focus on work with the Aboriginal community. There are an increasing number of positions in Aboriginal organisations. The problem with this, at least as I see it, is that there is an expectation inside and outside the Aboriginal community that Aboriginal people should go for those positions.
As an example, Jen lent me a book called Paperbark: a collection of Black Australian writings. There is a story in that book about a young Aboriginal man who was told by his Aboriginal girlfriend's father that he should seek a job with an Aboriginal organisation as the best way of helping his people. He finally did so, and it was the right decision in his case.
Yet there is a conflict between the focus on helping the community, on one's obligations to family and broader kinship networks, and on personal advancement. The conflict is not helped by expectations placed on Aboriginal people by the non-Aboriginal community, nor by expectations in the Aboriginal community itself.
To be continued
I stopped writing this post yesterday because I was struggling to get the words right. I felt that the tone was becoming wrong, that it might be read as negative, another story of problems. It is not.
I was impressed by the commitment of all the mentorees. I was impressed by the gains made by them all. I thought that the Program and the year was a success. However, what I am trying to do is to give you a feel for the things that I learned and the issues as I saw them.
To continue, I want to return to the conflict as I saw it faced by ambitious Aboriginal people: a conflict between the focus on helping the community, on one's obligations to family and broader kinship networks, and on personal advancement.
Aboriginal young people, and especially those working in organisations with large Aboriginal client bases, are well aware of problems in their own communities; they see them all the time. Many feel a strong sense of commitment. They also have to deal with expectations in their own extended families and communities with their more collectivist approach. This includes a sometimes expectation that they will help or prefer their own.
These are not easy things to manage. Among other things, those who take responsibility may find themselves facing work disruption as they try to sort problems out.
The immediate career choices Aboriginal young people face include Aboriginal specialist positions, positions in Aboriginal organisations or broader positions open to all. If they seek the broader positions, they may not be able to help their own people in a direct, immediate, sense. If they opt for the specialist positions or for the Aboriginal organisations, they may find themselves locked out of the experiences and networks required for broader career advancement, locked into an Aboriginal work stream.
Normal mentoring focuses on career issues conventionally defined. Advice, personal support, access to networks, assistance in developing career plans. Aboriginal mentoring involves more than this because it inevitably brings in culture, community and family.
When I began, I had limited idea of the complexities involved. As I listened to the mentorees at the first session talk about their experiences, their aspirations and their relations with their communities, I began to get a feel for the challenges.
What do we do about all this? It's not easy.
As Jen says, Aboriginal culture has to change. However, as she also says, Aboriginal people want to be in charge of that change. Indeed, they have to be. There has been far to much paternalism, far too many non-Aboriginal expectations, placing almost crushing pressure on Aboriginal communities. Effective change comes from within.
It is the younger Aboriginal people and especially those who have already made the break into work who will lead the change. Programs like the Mentoring Program help. I remain worried, however, about the continued pressure and expectations placed upon the Aboriginal young, the future leaders, by both the Aboriginal and broader communities. This increases stress and can of itself act to limit choices.
Finally, my thanks to both Housing NSW and the AHO for organising the program and for allowing me to participate in it. My congratulations, too, to all the graduates.