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NAIDOC Week: reflecting on the power of Yarning Circles

With this year’s NAIDOC Week theme being “For our Elders”, we asked two of the Ozwater’23 Yarning Circle leaders to share their experience of facilitating the practice, why cultural literacy is crucial for the water sector, and the role Elders play in passing on culture.

Traditionally led by Elders, Yarning Circles are a First Nations’ communication practice that facilitates open, respectful conversation and deep listening.

Unitywater Senior Environmental and Cultural Heritage Advisor Emma Newton and Sydney Water Environmental Scientist Felix Salmon both said leading the Yarning Circles at Ozwater’23 was an incredible experience, but also one that holds a lot of responsibility.

“Yarning Circles are a traditional way of communicating. It’s quite different to the way that we usually communicate today because everyone is sitting shoulder to shoulder, there is no one up the front presenting. Everyone has an equal voice and everyone is heard,” Salmon said.

“It levels the playing field. No one has their backs to each other, which is important as a sign of respect. It encompasses traditional values from the way that everyone is positioned.

“The most knowledgeable Elder or law person coordinates the circle or discussion to make sure it is done in the right way. It’s usually the Elders responsibility to ensure everyone understands how the process works.

“For me, leading a Yarning Circle doesn't happen very often. It’s been a big learning experience for me, too.”

Newton said Yarning Circles are a conversational process that involves learning from a collective perspective: “It’s about much more than hearing about what one person has to say”.

“The key is to build respectful relationships within the group. It’s a way to preserve and pass on cultural knowledge and it’s also an opportunity to speak more from the heart. It’s supposed to be a safe place,” she said.

“Yarning Circles are powerful. Everyone is present to speak, but also to listen to one another.”

Yarning at Ozwater’23

Following Cara Peek’s keynote address, delegates were split into about 15 different Yarning Circles. Despite having hundreds of people involved in the practice, Salmon said the process went very well, as people participated respectfully.

In Indigenous culture, we are big on respect. A lot of things we do are about respect. We had hundreds of people in the room, but everyone was communicating in the right way. It all went very smoothly,” he said.

“Everyone was on board with sitting on the ground in a circle, which was great to see. Sitting on the ground in a circle is something I don’t think a lot of water industry professionals do very often. 

“Changing up the environment like that really wakes people up, and they become more engaged than they would be if it were just one person presenting.”

Newton said there were some key themes that arose in the Yarning Circles, including building trusting relationships, and education, cultural awareness and truth-telling.

“People spoke very openly about their own personal lack of education in this space. I was proud to hear people say that. People were also interested in the impact that utilities can have on cultural values and heritage,” she said.

“I found the experience amazing, personally and professionally. I didn’t expect everyone to be so vulnerable about their thoughts and feelings. I was blown away. Conferences are very professional places, but people spoke from the heart.”

Difficult questions

Importantly, Newton said the Yarning Circles were an opportunity for delegates to unpack their thoughts following Cara Peek’s presentation, which included some challenging messages.

“Cara spoke about a range of topics, from cultural bias to raising cultural intelligence, and our need to embrace the collaboration process. There was a lot for people to take in within that keynote address, and my role was to provide a safe place for conversation,” she said.

“Providing that environment is important. Everyone sat down together without judgement and spoke about what Cara had said.”

One of the topics Peek spoke about that received a lot of attention was guaranteed material loss, Salmon said, which highlights the importance of continuing to develop cultural awareness within the water community.

“When we are doing a development, there is a guaranteed material loss for the environment and for Country. Being aware of that as we are working is important, even if it's a small job,” he said.

“My Yarning Circle spoke a lot about how we can include cultural values and look after Country in our work.

“Country is not just about Indigenous cultural values. We all enjoy the environment and we all need the environment. It’s serving everyone. We are all invested in the outcome of caring for Country because we all need it. We are all human beings living on the earth.

“A lot of big developments get planned years in advance. How do we bring cultural values into the initial planning phase and not just do some last minute engagement with local Elders who tell you lots of things but it's too late to implement it?

 “So we discussed how to do that important work at the start of all projects and incorporate it into the work, rather than adding it halfway through or at the end.”

For our Elders

 Given that there is still a way to go in terms of nurturing strong relationships, partnering with First Nations groups and developing more cultural awareness, this year’s NAIDOC Week theme offers an opportunity for everyone to learn about Elder’s roles in passing on culture.

“Our Elders’ role in the community is everything. They are keeping the oldest continuing culture alive, sharing it with the next generations,” Salmon said. 

“This year’s NAIDOC week theme means a lot. But for me, personally, I am trying to learn as much of my culture as I can so that I can keep sharing it with the next generation, too.

“For me, it’s about how our Elders have done so much to raise us, instil values in us and keep our culture in practice. Now it’s about the next generations coming through and continuing it along.”

This year’s NAIDOC Week provides an opportunity to reflect on and be inspired by everything Elders have done, Newton said, and what they continue to do.

“Their strength, their love for Country, and their commitment to making things better for the next generation is honorable. Everything they do is always for the next generation. It’s really beautiful to see,” she said.

“It has only been in recent years that I have started building my connection back to where I am from, but at Unitywater I have been lucky enough to work with Elders within my role.

“Building these relationships has been amazing professionally, but also personally. Elders have taught me to embrace culture, to embrace Country, and to be proud of sharing my knowledge with the next generation.”