By Brett Scholz
Nankeri nanggi / good day
During border closures in 2020, I remember feeling both more acutely unable to get anywhere I might want or need to be, and more in touch with where I was (very privileged to be on the largely COVID-free Ngunnawal and Ngambri country with lots of open space to get out and make the most of its beautiful surrounds). I was exhausted working to ensure that health care consumers could be the architects of the ICU triage process for the Australian Capital Territory during the pandemic. Something that gave me energy to get through this, and that helped me feel more connected to family and home beyond Ngunnawal and Ngambri country was trying to learn and engage more with Aboriginal languages. I have always been interested in language, and disappointed that I didn’t have any knowledge about Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri language despite having close ties to that part of the country. When I would email colleagues, friends, or family on Kaurna or Ngarrindjeri country, using local greetings and sign offs it helped me to feel like I was a little closer to them. When emailing others, I used Ngunnawal language greetings to locate myself to others.
I was excited, then, to have been successful in an application to work on a 6-week secondment earlier this year through the Australian National University’s partnership with Jawun, and to get the chance to work on Ngarrindjeri country. I was based at Moorundi – an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service providing holistic care across the whole Ngarrinderi community. It was the longest I had been out of Ngunnawal and Ngambri country since before 2020, and as the frosty mornings crept up on us in Canberra in May, I was preparing to head to the still-cold-but-much-more-mild climes of the lower River Murray region.
On one of the first nights in Ngarrindjeri country, my fellow secondees and I were taught by Auntie Ellen Trevorrow some of the principles of Ngarrindjeri weaving which is done with rushes that grow along the river. At first, my weaving felt uneven and looser than I thought it should be, but with each stitch I started to get into a rhythm. I couldn’t have imagined how important this weaving was going to be to my secondment experience. It has been said that “to weave is to make a family” and certainly through weaving (and my subsequent attempts to grow rushes despite the Canberra chill) I was able to better understand the land and connections between people, place, and practice. Most nights during the 6-weeks were spent weaving, yarning, laughing, and reflecting with my fellow Jawun secondees.
Working in Moorundi for 6 weeks was unlike any other workplace I’ve had before. I was working closely with Uncle Stevie Sumner – a CEO unlike any other I’d met before. I immediately noticed he and his staff had somehow managed to instill a culture of mutual respect, care, down-to-earthness, and humour across the organisation. In my first week I baked matcha shortbread and delivered them to colleagues to try and meet people and have a yarn. I very quickly realised everyone loved working at Moorundi.
One of the reasons they loved Moorundi so much was because of the value they found in the relationships between staff members, with clients, and with the community more broadly. This became one of the lessons of my time on secondment: to understand that relationships are more important than outcomes. It’s a lesson easily forgotten in academia where we are often valued either to the extent of funding we bring in from external sources, or as much as the impact factor of our most recent publication. This isn’t to say that Moorundi doesn’t care about outcomes – it has an exciting, bold vision for its role in supporting the health of the Ngarrindjeri community and delivering on this vision is considered pivotal. Rather, it struck me that relationships were at the core of building community, and in turn community would be key in achieving outcomes.
It was a huge privilege to have the time to work on building those relationships. When we’re busy with all the teaching, research, service and/or admin that take up our daily work lives, it leaves little time to listen and reflect deeply. Universities have a reputation of going in to communities, taking data and co-opting knowledge, and leaving. The opportunity to spend time within a community and working in service of an Indigenous-led organisation felt special and rare. It has given me a better appreciation of what we can achieve if we want to be serious about reconciliation and truly put time and effort into decolonising our institutions.
I know that my Jawun secondment experience is just one thread in my own journey towards reconciliatory practice. I’m genuinely thankful for the experience, and am pleased to see my university engaged in reconciliation action (rather than just tokenism). Active acts of reconciliation (like supporting staff to be out learning from elders and communities, and understanding country experientially) are so valuable. This morning, as I was walking around Lake Burley Griffin here in Canberra, I saw two nori (pelicans – an important ngatji or totem for Ngarrindjeri people) flying overhead, and it made me feel a connection with and a yearning for Ngarrindjeri country. I’ve returned Canberra in Ngunnawal and Ngambri country reflecting on how I will keep weaving (literally and figuratively) decolonisation and reconciliation in to my life, actions, and work.
I’m very grateful to have had the experience to be supported by the Australian National University and its partnership with Jawan to go and be on Ngarridjeri country at Moorundi, and to the whole Moorundi team and my Jawun secondment-mates for helping to make it such a special time. I’m also grateful to Barb Corapi for reviewing and improving an earlier draft of this piece.
About the Author
Brett Scholz is the Secretary of the International Society of Critical Health Psychology, and a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the ANU Medical School at the Australian National University on Ngunnawal Country in Australia. For his commitment to facilitating consumer leadership in health policy, practice, education and research, he won the inaugural Impact with Communities Award in the 2021 ISCHP Award and the 2021 Tall Poppy Science Award from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science. He’s currently collaborating with Canberra Health Services to support their Strategic Commitment to Consumer, Carer, and Community Partnerships in research and education, and on a philanthropically funded research project on suicide prevention co-designed with young people. When he’s not busy thinking about co-production and co-authoring research with consumers, he can be found enjoying anything matcha related, or singing Eurovision classics old and new at karaoke.