6 weeks in Central Australia

6 weeks in Central Australia

By Louise Lynch, Senior Brand Advisor at IAG Australian Business Division

Last year I participated in a Jawun secondment. For six weeks I lived in Alice Springs working with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, an indigenous non-profit organisation. It was an inspiring and joyful experience that opened my eyes and broadened my understanding of life for the Aṉangu people and the hope they have for their future.

Jawun means ‘friend’ or ‘family’ in the language of the Kuku Yalanji people who originate from the Mossman Gorge in Cape York. Jawun brings together corporate Australia with indigenous organisations for shared learning, to build capacity and deliver projects led by indigenous people.

Each year IAG invites employees from across the company to participate in the Jawun experience. These secondments form part of IAGs commitment to delivering on our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) - which outlines how our organisation will contribute to the improvement of opportunities for indigenous Australians. I was one of eleven secondees from a number of government and private organisations to participate in the program in the October round for 2015.

So why did I apply for this secondment? Like most of my fellow secondees, I had grown up in Australia with little understanding of our indigenous history and the thriving cultures that exist today. This was the perfect way to begin what I hoped would be a lifetime of learning.

The first week of the secondment was an induction to prepare us for the environments we would be working in. This included cultural awareness training, a 4WD course and a camping trip to a remote community.

The cultural awareness training was an interesting discussion about the social structures, family relationships and areas of sensitivity. This gave us more confidence in how best to work alongside the Aṉangu people in our roles.

The 4WD course was great fun and full of practical advice for driving through the desert. Led by two lovely blokes Mike and Jol, we were taught how to check the engine, release tyre air pressure when driving on sandy roads and the importance of having enough water for a road trip. Did you know that one litre per hour per person is the recommended amount (it was a surprise to me!) This was all crucial information for long trips in 40+ degree heat.

Finally we visited the remote community of Finke which is five hours south of Alice Springs. This small town of 200 people had a primary school, medical centre, recreational hall and store. At Finke, we were hosted by the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council youth worker, John and his wife. (The Women’s Council provide services to approximately 6000 Aṉangu (Central Desert Aboriginal) people across the NPY Lands – but more about them later). John welcomed us with a tour of the area and took us for an early morning desert walk. In town, we were greeted by lots of kids who were keen to kick the footy and play basketball with our group. We also brought to share, boxes of kangaroo tails from a butcher in Alice Springs, which are much loved bush tucker. The tails were wrapped in foil and cooked in hot coals in the ground. I won’t be racing back for more roo tails but enjoyed them on the night.

After a week of induction our minds were full of new information and ready to tackle our roles. My brief was to write a communications strategy for the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Tjanpi a social enterprise of the NPY Women’s Council and provides one of the few opportunities for women to earn an income on the lands. The women weave baskets and sculptures from tjanpi (native grass) and the team purchase the artwork to sell through retailers and exhibit in galleries and public institutions around Australia. In 2015, Tjanpi featured as part of the Australia exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The small team of five run an ethical art organisation and work hard to represent the women in the Australian art community as well as to the broader public. They also travel throughout the NPY Lands to collect the work directly from the women and host workshops to improve skills and teach younger women about weaving.

It was a great experience to write a communications strategy that would help them tell their story of women’s empowerment, indigenous art and the cultural importance of the artists connecting with Country. Applying my skills in a different context gave me great freedom to be creative and innovative.

As mentioned, while working with Tjanpi I had exposure to the broader organisation of the NPY Women's Council. A powerful organisation formed in 1980 during the land rights negotiations when the women felt they didn't have a voice.

This incredible organisation is led by a board of directors comprising 12 indigenous women from the Lands. They have hard working, talented and compassionate teams which support people in the areas of:

• Childhood nutrition and well-being
• Youth programs
• Domestic and family violence
• Family support services
• Elderly and disability services
• Ngangkari Program (Ngangkaris are the traditional healers)
• Tjanpi Desert Weavers (social enterprise)

During the 35 years since their inception some of their major achievements of the NPY Women’s Council have included successfully lobbying for the introduction of opal fuel to radically reduce petrol sniffing in the region and initiating the first ever Cross Border Justice Program so domestic violence offenders couldn't escape conviction by simply crossing a state border.

Being around this organisation was incredibly inspiring. This is a group of incredibly strong women working to improve the opportunities for themselves, their families and future generations.

Outside of my role, this was my first time in Central Australia so I made the most of my time there to go camping, discover watering holes and explore some great bush walks – while also adjusting to the heat! I also took the opportunity to visit Uluru which had been on my travel wish list for a long time. Having grown up in Melbourne I was blown away by red rock landscapes, bright white snow gums and vast open land. It was a scene previously only seen in tourism campaigns and postcards. I felt fortunate to experience a very special part of Australia that many people who live here don’t get a chance to see.

Reflecting on my experience, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of hope and positivity. While the situations of many of the Aṉangu people are tough, the NPY Women’s Council are delivering positive outcomes every day. The Tjanpi Desert Weavers are taking indigenous contemporary art to all parts of the country and around the world.

While the recent 200 years of our indigenous history is filled with great sadness, the culture that lived before this time still lives today in many parts. Since returning home I have attended more events, read more articles, picked up more books, developed a new love of indigenous art and encouraged more people to sign up to the Recognise campaign to have our indigenous people recognised in the constitution.

This experience gave me a better awareness and appreciation of the richness of culture across our country. I am inspired to continue to learn a little bit more each day, and find opportunities to bring this knowledge and experience into my work and personal life.

About the Author

Louise Lynch is a Senior Brand Advisor at IAG, responsible for the CGU brand and sponsorships of the Collingwood Football Club, NSW Waratahs and Move in May.

With a background in public relations, communications and sponsorship, Louise has previously worked in PR agencies on brands such as ANZ Championships, ANZ sponsorship of WICKED the Musical, Australia Post and Visa.