20 years | National Reconciliation Week

National Reconciliation Week runs from May 27 to June 3. Leah Armstrong, Director, Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation Office of Indigenous Strategy and Leadership at Newcastle University, says race relations, conscious conversations and respect are at the heart of this essential Australian journey. 

As a young Torres Strait Islander, growing up in Mackay, Queensland, Leah Armstrong learnt about the importance of good relationships and caring for others. Her family were an accomplished mix of carers and entrepreneurs, each of them loyally committed to supporting their community. 

“Social purpose is close to my heart. It’s something my family was always involved in,” says Leah. “My mum was a nurse – very caring and always wanting to help people. My uncles were entrepreneurial – always involved in businesses and they cared about families being economically independent. Locally we helped set up Aboriginal and legal services, and supported social welfare issues. My family were heavily engaged in the advancement of Torres Strait Islanders.” 

When Leah left school she worked in her stepfather’s small business and discovered the power of economic independence. 

“I left Mackay, went travelling and pulled up in Newcastle. I got involved with the local community and worked with Awabakal – a leading social welfare organisation. That was over 30 years ago.”

Like the rest of her family, Leah worked hard and built successful organisations, run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“Those early days gave me the opportunity to work on something I’m really passionate about. I’ve always been inspired by my family’s experience – wanting to see better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.”  

Leah Armstrong has been involved in the Reconciliation movement in Australia for 30 years.

Reconciliation Australia

This year, 2021, marks twenty years since the inception of Reconciliation Australia and almost three decades of the Australian formal reconciliation process.

Reconciliation Australia is an independent, not-for-profit organisation and the national body for reconciliation. In 2010 Leah was appointed CEO. A role she adored. 

“I was CEO for four years and I loved it,” she says proudly. “It was daunting moving from a Regional to a National organisation but it enabled me to engage with everyone from the Prime Minister and corporate CEOs, to local child care and Indigenous groups.” 

According to Leah, working with everyone and building relationships, is essential. 

“Reconciliation Australia promotes and facilitates reconciliation by building relationships, respect and trust between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” she adds. 

This year’s theme, More than a word. Reconciliation takes action. shines a light on our capacity, as a country, to take brave, inspired action for impact. 

“Real reconciliation begins when people are brave enough to engage in conversations and open up opportunities where we all share the decision making,” says Leah. 

“Reconciliation is multi faceted and the issue of self-determination is critical. You can’t do that unless you engage with the broader community and mainstream economy. It’s important (for us) to work with non-Indigenous businesses and still maintain our cultural differences.” 

Leah admits, one of the bravest acts Australia can take is to get Indigenous people into positions of power so their voice can be heard.  

“There are several ways of doing that,” she says positively. “Calling for a voice, in Parliament, so Indigenous people are at the table to look at policy and practices that affect us, being senior executives so they can influence culture within organisations, and having your own business so you can decide about your future and your families economy.”

As you can gather, Leah is not one to do things by halves.  

“I throw myself into things 100%,” she laughs. “When I was CEO I was commuting between Newcastle, Canberra and Sydney. My kids were still in primary and high school. Yes, I had a lot of support – you must when you’re doing a role like that.” 

Conscious conversations 

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements.

“If we can understand our shared history then we can certainly understand the critical importance of reconciliation as part of a nation building exercise,” says Leah. 

“Real reconciliation begins when people are brave enough to engage in conversations and open up opportunities where we share the decision making.” – Leah Armstrong, Director, Newcastle University.

“The work we did at Reconciliation Australia was to understand, what would a reconciled Australia look like? To get there we must acknowledge our truth and our history – there is still a lot of denial around what happened in terms of colonization.” 

As a leader in this space Leah is realistic. She understands real change begins with the next generation and it’s not going to happen overnight. 

“If you take an issue like Black Lives Matters, it is our younger generations who are trying to raise awareness. It’s like environmental changes that are being led through schools. If we can get school programs and preschoolers, learning and appreciating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, they will go home to their families and inspire a conversation.”  

While the plan in the early days was to spend 10 years working towards a reconciled Australia, Leah is adamant there can be no end date to a subject like this.

“There is no destination,” she explains. “It’s a journey and it’s all about relationships. To achieve the unity and equality we want (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait and Islander people) we must focus on building the right relationships. Unless you bring people together to have a conversation you’re not going to build a better relationship.

“Relationships go through phases,” she adds. “There will be breakdowns and you have to keep rebuilding them.”  

National Reconciliation Week 2021 is May 27 – June 3. Click here to learn more. 

*The Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) program provides a framework for organisations to support the national reconciliation movement.

What can you do? ​

Wondering what you can do to support National Reconciliation Week? Read Leah’s tips:

Educate yourself – “If you want to be engaged in the conversion you must build your awareness. There are plenty of resources. Take responsibility and educate yourself.”

Talk, act, inspire – “If you want to have an impact look at your skillset and interests. Look at your workplace or social groups and see what they are doing as a collective, or as a group. Talk to your colleagues, networks, friends and family, take action and inspire others. *The Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) can guide you on the way.”

Open up spaces – “Empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be the voice. You don’t have to step into their space, or be the voice for them. Open up the spaces where they can be heard.”

Make conscious choices – “A great way to take action and have an impact is through your supply chain. If you’re going to spend money, social and environmental benefits matter.”