Community shows the way to sharing culture

At the heart of the Sharing Stories Foundation’s work is the protection, maintenance, and growth of First Nation’s cultural knowledge. From there, SharingStories uses art, technology, and digital media as the tools to help share with younger people what lies at the heart of that knowledge.

And it is through that shared transmission of knowledge – under the guidance of elders – that the stories, the songs, the art, and the languages are maintained, revitalized and celebrated.

Photo by Lorrie Graham

But if there is one element that distinguishes this process, it is how the funding that supports SharingStories is applied: in a very practical sense, SharingStories’ community-led approach acts as a pathway to participatory grantmaking, being the most effective way of realizing its stated mission to deliver “…community-driven media arts initiatives that build capacity for cultural continuity, production and distribution of rich outcomes.’’

While not a grantmaker itself, SharingStories may be regarded as a trusted broker ensuring any grants it passes on are truly participatory.

Dr Liz Thompson, SharingStories CEO and winner of this year’s Pro Bono Australia Impact Award for Innovation, explains: “It’s really about trusting that the community are best positioned to understand what the most valuable project implementation and outcomes are, but also to be agile, and adaptable when circumstances change.’’

Liz will be one of the panelists at next week’s Philanthropy Australia’s Thought Leadership Series on participatory grantmaking, featuring keynote speakers Lani Evans, Head of the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation (NZ), and Michael Jarvis, Executive Director of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (US).

Liz describes untied funding as “fantastic’’ and she knows that many of the First Nations peoples with whom SharingStories prefer the flexibility that comes with longer timeframes and programs that have capacity to evolve. 

“There are quite robust discussions with our partner communities about implementation of programs across one-three, mapping what it is they would like to achieve, priorities and focus areas” however it’s important that there is always capacity for initial ideas to change or evolve, only then are programs really community driven and directed.

SharingStories was established in 2012 and has worked with 17 language groups across the country. It works on two streams – a Create stream and a Share stream. It is the Create stream that supports collaboration with partner communities, exploring and  finding new ways of representing and interpreting important cultural knowledge.   

“It is very much a community-based, community-driven practice, running a range of programs, usually based around digital arts media, skills transfer and production,’’ Liz says: “Those skills and those media forms are utilized to creatively interpret traditional knowledge or important stories that are shared by the senior people who direct and oversee the program.’’

A key part of SharingStories work is the dialogue and teaching that takes place on country, that aims to best record the layers of the cultural heritage and knowledge shared by the Senior Cultural Custodians. This can take time and is hard to quantify when it comes to conventional grantseeking.

“One of the interesting things in applying for grants is that provision needs to be made for yarning - you know, talking: that’s what communities do when developing program ideas, it’s meaningful and necessary and sometimes it’s a long process,’’ Liz says. “It doesn’t always happen between 10am and 12 noon when you call a meeting. There might be a chat, then people might need to think about it. Some private conversations might need to be had about it, to bring back some other thoughts, change trajectory or that there is another community member who needs to contribute who isn’t around at the time.’’

“There’s a really important ‘dreaming up’ space that we try to make visible in our own (grant) applications that is a vital part of this conversation. Also debriefing and reflection – meaningful review – so that’s it really understood what worked, what didn’t, a process that is really community-led and participatory space and in which we all have time to reflect on the practice together in ways that inform future work and process,’’ Liz says. But she acknowledges it took SharingStories some time to understand and feel confident to identify this as a budget line. “We needed to really start to reflect that part of the picture and a big part of our learning process was making sure that it was identified from a funding point of view,’’ she says.

Liz will be a panellist on the Wednesday 25 August session of the Thought Leadership Series, 24-26 August. Register here for Philanthropy Australia’s Thought Leadership Series on participatory grantmaking, which will be taking place from 24-26 August 2021. 

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