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Ozwater’23 yarning circles spark cross-cultural reflection

A thrum of conversation filled the vast gallery space of the Sydney Convention Centre as delegates at Ozwater’23 partook in a first for Australia’s premier water exhibition and conference: a series of yarning circles.

As part of AWA’s continuing commitment to reconciliation and elevating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, the Ozwater’23 yarning circles followed the Day Two plenary address from lawyer, entrepreneurial leader and Yawuru/Bunuba woman Cara Peek.

“For those of you who are unfamiliar, yarning is a way to share knowledge, to speak, and to listen from the heart – or, as I like to say, to listen in colour,” Peek said.

“[It's about hearing] all perspectives, irrespective of the culture that it's coming from.”

Running for around 40 minutes, the yarning circles saw groups of around 20 people engage in wide-ranging conversations in a safe space led by Indigenous representatives from AWA’s Principal and Platinum member organisations.

Referring to her plenary address, where she asked Ozwater'23 delegates to check their bias' in order to move forward with meaningful impact, Peek encouraged yarning circle participants to discuss and share further. 

“I hope that my talk has sparked a conversation that can continue in the yarning circles,” Peek said.

“I hope that you had some cognitive dissonance and discomfort and a few of the things that I said. But I also hope you've got inspiration to move forward with it.”

Gathering together

Inviting delegates to share their own stories and thoughts, as well as to listen deeply, Peek was among the representatives leading the groups.

In her yarning circle, members of water organisations from all over the country explored topics such as decision-making, consultation with Indigenous communities, infrastructure, cultural dynamics, engaging with First Nations languages, cultural teaching and the Voice to Parliament.

“What we’re looking for is any insights or conversations around any of what was just covered in the session before or any of your learnings to date as part of the conference,” Peek explained to the circle, inviting participants to bring their own perspectives.

“Right now we’re dealing with a slightly different format to conference culture – and then you have your work culture, your societal culture, your religion, the country you might be from, all of those things you are traversing at any given point at any given day. And it would be great to hear what your thoughts are around your experience.”

The conversation that followed began slowly but warmed up as participants found more and more points of connection between their disparate experiences and workplaces.

Continuing engagement

Since 2019, AWA has introduced and embedded some key Indigenous elements at Ozwater, such as engaging with Traditional Owners for a cleansing and smoking ceremony to officially open the conference, and translating the conference theme into the local Indigenous language and incorporating this into all event branding.

Ozwater has also showcased Reconciliation Action Plan artworks from principal members and offered scholarships to support emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander water professionals to attend.

Sharing their knowledge on the importance of cultural water values, previous Indigenous keynote speakers have included Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM, Tanya Hosch and Dr Anne Poelina.