Taking philanthropy “to dream’’

John Harding was living in Sydney, plying his trade as an actor, director and playwright, when he returned to Melbourne, looking for a new challenge. He wasn’t particularly interested in full-time work until he saw an advertisement at the Koorie Heritage Trust for a philanthropic intern. As John remembers it, that was the first time he became aware of a role for an Indigenous person to become involved in philanthropy.

John believed his family experience informed the philanthropic impulse behind his interest. “It was actually just the way I was brought up,’’ he said. “My mother [Eleanor Harding] was quite prominent in the social sector in Victoria and eventually became important at a national level: and she always brought us up with the ethos…[that] anyone who was homeless she would basically just bring them in to the house on to the lounge room floor or into our beds and we’d sleep on the floor.’’

John applied for the job at the Koorie Heritage Trust but didn’t get the role. Yet the idea of philanthropy stayed with him. “I thought: ‘There are good people out there in philanthropy who have resources, money and contacts who may want to help us, and they don’t know how,’’ John recalled.

Fast forward 15 years and John Harding heard of another job, this time as executive officer with Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong (KWT), a First Nations’ community-led philanthropic sub-fund of the Australian Communities Foundation.

This time, the job application outcome was different. “I said in the job interview: ‘This is where I’ve been heading for 15 years.’,’’ John recalled. And although John got the job, it wasn’t quite enough. He wanted to take the next step.

“The issues I’m thinking about are national and require negotiations and meetings,’’ he said. “I think we needed to address issues that philanthropy needs to address itself and those issues are not in the charter of KWT. We need to take philanthropy to dream and that’s how it happened.’’

What happened was John creating Barmal Bijiril, to help disperse funds to First Nations’ people and communities across Victoria. The name comes from John’s grandfather’s language and means to “take someone to dream.’’ (Barmal Bijiril is supported by Indigenous Employment Partners Ltd while on the road to its establishment as a Foundation.)

“I think this sector needs to move on in terms of raising First Nations people in a better way,’’ John explained.

“We need to take some responsibility too – in our culture it’s always mutual. It’s not you need to fix yourself – it’s you can’t fix yourself without us. We don’t have a top-down culture: everything’s mutual and cyclical, so I just thought well, we need to take you to dream because you can’t take us to dream.’’

How that works with Barmal Bijiril is a unique model of collaboration and engagement, built around two powerful ideas – truth telling and what John has called the “BLAK Loungeroom’’. Not surprisingly, at the heart of the ideas, is a coming together, a series of conversations and the aim of reaching a shared outcome. But the participants are those involved in philanthropy – those board members of sector organisations who may want to take part in truth telling forums (the first is scheduled for November) and for First Nations’ people working in philanthropy or who sit on boards who can become part of the BLAK Loungeroom.

So, what does truth-telling look like? John explained that he and his team spent four months working out the four principles they could “put on a flyer’’ about it.

They came up with:

  1. How has philanthropy benefited from colonization – First Nations’ dispossession and exploitation – resulting in wealth accumulation.

  2. What responsibility does this place on philanthropy to recognize, acknowledge and address this?
  3. How might we do this and how might we begin to have the conversation in a respectful and constructive way?
  4. How can the philanthropy sector be improved by the continued practice of truth telling about colonization and its impacts on First Nations’ people?
  5. Importantly, those who join the truth telling forums will have a First Nations’ mentor to help them explore their own history.

John might have the timing right for such an innovation. Internationally, the discussion about colonization, wealth and philanthropy has become increasingly mainstream, led in part by US philanthropist, author and advocate Edgar Villanueva’s book, Decolonizing Wealth (just released in its second edition). Edgar, who was a keynote speaker at Philanthropy Australia’s conference this year, had a long conversation with John about their shared perspective.

“We have very similar cultural principles to Native Americans…they’re like mirror images of each other,’’ John said. “I was able to contact Edgar and we had the most incredible chat simply because we were two people on the same side…and he said, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ I asked him: ‘Could you show the world that we have the same principles?’ …We need Edgar’s book here - we could write that same book,’’ John said.

John has a long history of cultural innovation. He started the Ilbijerri Theatre Company 30 years ago, and watched it grow in to the longest established First Nation’s theatre in the country. It has been an innovative and powerful national force across three decades of telling Indigenous stories. But this time, there is a palpable sense of urgency, to make a difference sooner, not later. “It’s vitally important for anyone reading this article to pass this on to First Nations people in the sector,” he said.

So, the other key element for Barmal Bijiril is the BLAK Loungeroom, which evolved from John’s realization that there was no directory, not even a list, of First Nations’ people who worked in philanthropy. That will be one thing that John hopes to fix with this initiative.  

“I spoke to a philanthropist working in Perth, and they said did you know there are two girls over here in the Kimberley who are working in philanthropy – “Do you want me to ask them if they want to join the BLAK Loungeroom?’’ John recalled of one recent conversation. “Which she did. And they’re now coming to next week’s meeting. It’s both a way of sharing ideas but also a leadership forum.’’

But it’s also something else beyond the networking and providing mutual support for those Indigenous Australians working in philanthropy who may feel isolated: it will act as a forum for its members and non-Indigenous philanthropic bodies to bring ideas into the Loungeroom without judgement, for discussion and support. It will also provide an opportunity to advocate on behalf of all the members to improve communication and policy decisions at national and global level.

John senses there is a renewed desire for philanthropy to embrace the First Nations’ agenda. “You get the sense – and it’s probably stronger with the generation of those aged 50 and under – that they are waiting for us to lead them,’’ John said.

“They don’t want to be talking on behalf of First Nations people. It’s such a good thing. I think the majority of philanthropy is ready to be led by First Nations peoples into a peaceful arena, and neither of us can do it alone….’’

To find out more, click here or contact John on 0456 771 649

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