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Let's talk about Country

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Our Artistic Director, Chloe Chung, met with Todd Phillips in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney for this conversation. They discuss the history and meaning behind acknowledgments to country, and Todd talks about his work as an Aboriginal tour guide, as a lecturer and researcher, and as a consultant for various companies, helping them to implement ‘Reconciliation Acton Plans’ that strive for greater diversity and inclusivity for Aboriginal people in the workplace. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Aboriginal heritage tour led by Todd Phillips formed the central inspiration for our March 2020 Virtual Concert series “The Birds and the Bees”. Find out more about the tours and book online, here.

Todd Phillips is a Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr man from the north coast of New South Wales. Todd is leading Macquarie University’s Indigenous Connected Curriculum Project, an Australian-first, university-led educational framework that has been designed and developed by Walanga Muru, the university’s Indigenous peoples’ unit, which is applying the embedding of Indigenous values, philosophies and knowledges across all educational faculties and departments.


Chloe Chung: As we would like to start with an Acknowledgement of Country, I’m curious about what you do?

Todd Phillips: I always use it as a story sharing moment and an educational piece. I find that even though it’s very familiar to me, my family and the people I work with, I often get, ‘Wow, I didn’t see it like that’ or ‘I didn’t know what it was about.’ And so that’s a way of sharing with people around me, because I work all over Sydney, all over the country and internationally.

So, if we were at the Botanical Gardens, we do it for our tours and our school groups and I do a bit of a story sharing piece but then relate it back to my own community. It's important to me because I’m an Aboriginal person growing up on the border of two nation groups. Historically and traditionally, people would cross them borders for various things, either trade, marriage, or ceremony, and for a long, long time - we’re talking a thousand years - people from different nation groups would welcome them into their land if they were coming for a particular event. And this is just one area in the north coast of the state we now know as New South Wales. And then that would be reciprocated with an acknowledgement from that group if they were crossing over the Clarence River, for trade or ceremony - they would acknowledge in their language, and then that would be reciprocated with either song or dance, or some sort of thank you.

CC: That’s so interesting, because in concerts and in other settings we usually have a set template, and we say the three sentences… When you did it in the tour it felt more inclusive and I really noticed a difference hearing it that way. TP: Yeah - we’re seeing Acknowledgements of Country being done in the banking sector, in schools, corporates and government, and sometimes it can be a bit of a mundane rhetoric where people just spit out a sentence. But I always like to remind people that there’s a long history of this actually happening in this country for tens of thousands of years. What we see today, whether it’s heartfelt or it’s not, is a bit of a modern interpretation of acknowledging place, space and people from a certain area. Historically, that has had a lot of varying meaning for different nation groups around the country.

When I Acknowledge I usually give a bit of a background into what it means for me and my family, what has been passed down, and also encourage people to find out a little bit about the area, why it’s important and who the people are. Most people don’t know that Sydney is Gadigal country and it’s of the Eora nation, and that within Eora (or greater Sydney) we’ve got so many different nation groups with such big history and so many great stories.

CC: I also want to acknowledge - something I read in your thesis - how you said that when one learnt about Aboriginal culture in a textbook, it felt really faraway and distant, whereas when you took us on a tour of the Gardens you made it feel so inclusive, and alive. That has added so much richness to every time I've heard Acknowledgements of Country since then.

TP: I’m in a really unique position where I get to learn every day as a researcher. I’m really amazed by how so much rich history and culture has been on this land and continues here. I’d like to also acknowledge the Gadigal people and the elders past and present, and pay my respects because it’s really, really important for me to do that as a Bundjalung Gumbaynggir man, living away from my home town, but living, working and raising a family on Gadigal country.

CC: Could you share some more about what you do, both in your work as a tour guide in the Gardens here and outside of that?

TP: I have the really unique privilege of working at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Centennial Park, and sometimes at Mount Annan, which all fall under the same trust. We do school tours and school groups, educational programs, and we also do tour groups with people from all nationalities and work groups, including government and education departments. It’s really just about sharing the history of the area, along with a big focus on native trees and plants - how they have been and continue to be used for things such as food, medicines, weaponry, clothing and housing and a whole range of different medicinal purposes. That’s what I do at the Botanical Gardens. I really, really love it.

I love working outdoors, because in my other role, I work at a university, where I’m a tutor, lecturer, and researcher - and I’m predominantly sitting at a desk. That’s also around Indigenous affairs and empowerment of people, and also that pedagogy component of Indigenous studies. Then I also sit on a number of boards and committees. One thing I’m really passionate about is working with corporates around the Reconciliation Action Plan piece. Some of these big corporates have got commitments, but they just don’t know how to engage Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal people, how to get and create positions.

CC: Could you explain the Reconciliation Action Plans?

TP: Reconciliation Action Plans, or RAPs, as many people refer to them, are commitments that corporates such as the big banks, state departments, [and] government schools have - I think at the moment there’s about 900 of them across the country - and it’s these big commitments in three areas. It’s about creating opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, either through work or training, then it’s about creating respect within their business – so: ‘How are they going to incorporate a respect pillar?’. Businesses do it all differently. Then there’s a relationship piece: ‘How do they build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?’; because you can’t have one without the other. They all sort of fit them three pillars and [organisations] have to be doing a minimum in each pillar for Reconciliation Australia - which is a government organisation - to endorse the RAP.

Once you have a RAP, you’ve got a term, whether it’s one year, two years, three years, to fulfil them commitments, and you’ve got targets and outcomes associated with it, and then, “bang,” you go. It gets reviewed every year, and Reconciliation Australia will say, “Yeah, you’re on track,” or “You’re doing terribly. What can you do to fulfil your requirements?” That’s where a lot of corporates will draw on people like myself to say, “Hey, we’re really stuck here, we’ve made some big commitments to recruit 20 Aboriginal people but we haven’t had any luck”, or “We’d like to embed Welcome to Country ceremonies within our business. How do we do it?” So, I just come in and give some advice!

There’s a couple of companies: Fujitsu, MSG Pharmaceuticals, Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson; I’m working with a whole range of them, giving advice about what they can do to enhance their business. It’s moving away from seeing it as a sole diversity issue but really an inclusivity issue. Companies can be diverse but unless you are inclusive and you value the diversity, nothing changes.

CC: You were saying in your thesis how if young Aboriginal men can’t see themselves represented in various different types of jobs, then what’s the incentive for them to work towards that?

TP: Yes, I write a lot about this in my PhD as well - that young Aboriginal men don’t see themselves represented in a whole range of different industries: in the media, as lecturers in universities, as managers in big banks. There’s a big focus on representation in boxing and football, rugby league, and AFL, so much emphasis goes onto that. I feel like it’s my mandate to get young Aboriginal people to look outside the box and see that we’re all superheroes in some sense, that we can achieve whatever we want to achieve, and support them to do that. But yeah, it’s a challenge and I love it.

CC: I feel like for my generation, or because of the way we were taught about Indigenous culture, it was a very awkward topic; there’s so much sensitivity and trauma associated with it, I was really nervous when I was preparing even with you now.

TP: That’s a comment that I often get, because in one of my roles I work at Macquarie University and we teach, pretty much, introduction to Indigenous studies. The majority of students are straight out of high school. And in week one of semester I always ask students, “What have you learnt about Indigenous people and Indigenous studies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?”, and often I get “Not a lot”. Or you might get one person in a class that will say, “Oh, in my school we had a teacher who did this...” In my work with corporates this is sensitive information; people are walking on eggshells because they don’t want to say or do the wrong thing.

CC: But it’s also important to acknowledge that there’s so much that still isn’t said, and unspoken history which continues today.

TP: Yeah, absolutely. It is a delicate area. I guess that’s why I love doing what I’m doing because I get to share and pull down some of them barriers, whether it’s working with corporates or students or people who want to learn more.

This is the first of a two-part interview. Click here for the second part, where Chloe and Todd discuss living with Aboriginal lore in modern Australian society, Aboriginal music-making, and Todd shares his wishes for what every Australian should know about Aboriginal culture.

Profits from this concert were donated to Firesticks, Indigenous Fire Alliance. Firesticks provides Indigenous leadership to protect, conserve and enhance cultural values of people and Country through Indigenous fire and land management practices - something that we feel is incredibly important in this time of increased bushfire severity. You can learn more about them or donate directly here.


All illustrations by Sandra Rose Brand.

Article written by Carlo Antonioli with editing by Toni Berg.

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