In 2018, TACSI’s Aboriginal Lead and Aunty in Residence Aunty Vickey Charles led the creation of the ‘Cultural canvas’.
This was a one page toolkit and set of questions designed to help non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples build in considerations for working on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lands, and to help them include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples into every one of our social innovation projects.
It was based on our experiences of bringing considerations for working with Aboriginal Peoples across a number of projects, and a desire to make that part of every project.
The impact of the Cultural canvas was huge
In the complex work of reconciliation, decolonisation and self-determination, the Cultural canvas gave us a better chance of getting something right. A practical way to get good intentions into action, and to prompt new thinking and doing.
For something so simple it has created a lot of value in a wide range of projects. It prompted conversations at the very start of a project before everything got operational, when there was still the possibility to shape something. Lands were acknowledged, relationships built and project scopes changed when they wouldn’t have otherwise. This included projects that didn’t have a specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander focus.
Through 2021, we worked on improving that canvas
Improvements and iterations were made using our own broadening understanding. This was fueled by our work, a national shift in awareness of systemic racism, and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander thinkers and practitioners like TACSI’s Aborginal Lead Aunty Vickey, Tyson Yunkaporta and Victor Steffensen putting a spotlight on the relevance of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ways of valuing and knowing when it comes to tackling our greatest challenges.
We reflected on the use of the canvas, re-engaged with Aboriginal clients and partners, and reached out to thinkers and practitioners we respected but hadn’t connected with for some time. We made some new connections, too.
This was all in the context of our forthcoming strategy, which weaves a First Nations perspective through everything we do. This means that instead of making Furthering Self-Determination a single focus area of our work, we can create an allyship with First Nations Peoples, Country, and Knowledges.
Introducing the Many Threads
From that reflection emerged a new set of questions, which we’ve turned into The Many Threads framework, a set of practical prompts to help non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Peoples engage First Nations Peoples and foreground First Nations’ wisdom, so that together, we can further reconciliation, self-determination and change.
Below, we’ve outlined the Many Threads of reflection, which we encourage you to use at the start, middle or end of any project, whether that project has a First Nations focus or not. Below, you can also read and download the entire Many Threads framework, designed as a workbook for easy reference.
Country & Peoples
This thread is about understanding and acknowledging where you’re working and who you’re working with.
On which First Nations’ lands will the project take place?
What considerations should be made around Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country?
What cultural considerations should be made around people on the team and people informing the work?
What language considerations should be made around people on the team and people informing the work?
Who should you connect with, why, and when? Consider community leaders or elders, community members, organisations, expert informants, and others.
“It’s your personal responsibility as an ally to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Cultures, and to be respectfully curious and learn about the Community you work with.”
DANA SHEN, CO-DESIGN PRACTITIONER AND FORMER TACSI TEAM MEMBER
Histories and realities
This thread is about educating yourself on past and present in respect of the issue in focus.
How is the topic you are working on conceptualised by the First Nations Peoples you’re working with?
How is the topic you’re working on experienced by First Nations Peoples? What does the data and research say?
What have First Nations Peoples said about the topic?
What historical context needs to be kept in mind?
What recent events should be kept in mind?
What might be happening in communities during the time of your project? For example, cultural business?
“I only see through Black eyes and hear through Black ears. It’s important to see things through that lens. It’s about not having assumptions, and recognising that Aboriginal voices are different depending on who you ask.”
AUNTY VICKEY CHARLES, ABORIGINAL LEAD AND AUNTY IN RESIDENCE, TACSI
This thread is about supporting and, if needed, catalysing First Nations leadership, and First Nations defined futures.
Are you the right person/organisation to lead this work, or would it be better done by a First Nations person, organisation, or in partnership?
How can you create greater self-determination in this project? What might you need to share, or give up?
What are the First Nations’ visions for the future on this topic?
What First Nations Peoples, communities, and organisations are leading innovation on this in Australia, and on other continents?
How could you connect to and amplify these people, work, and the conditions for it?
How will ownership of the knowledge generated and shared in this work be recognised internally, publicly and legally?
“Being a good ally means working to support the self determination of Aboriginal Peoples. It means working in true partnership, and making sure you listen deeply to what Aboriginal Peoples have to say. This involves practising cultural humility and respect, knowing we don’t know everything as non-Aboriginal people and being open to learning, and working with Aboriginal people to translate their vision. Last but not least, you need to create a safe space to join up together and do it in true partnership.”
DANA SHEN, CO-DESIGN PRACTITIONER AND FORMER TACSI TEAM MEMBER
Seeing and valuing
This thread is about foregrounding First Nations thinking.
How could First Nations ways of valuing, being and knowing contribute to addressing this issue to the benefit of all people?
What could First Nations Knowledge from around the world teach on this topic?
Who could help you with this?
For more on this topic, we recommend listening to the podcast episode Indigenous Systems Thinking from the podcast The Other Others, hosted by Tyson Yunkaporta.
“I always think, ‘What would my aunties and uncles say? What would they encourage me to do? ...If you're not open to it, then you'll miss part of what could help you in expanding, or filling up your knowledge bundle.”
MELANIE GOODCHILD, ANISHINAABE SYSTEMS THINKER
This thread is about bringing worlds together.
How could you support non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to build the capability, confidence and conditions to better support First Nations Peoples to achieve their aims, so that these organisations can be better allies?
What are you learning about supporting First Nations Peoples, organisations and systems?
How could you support First Nations organisations’ work in dominant culture systems (if they choose to) so they can achieve their goals?
“Our people need allies, we didn’t get here alone”
DANA SHEN, CO-DESIGN PRACTITIONER
Brown and white threads:
This thread is about showing the potential and creating the space for pan-cultural innovation.
How can you demonstrate pan-cultural innovation partnership in this work?
How can you further the conditions for pan-cultural innovation partnership in this work?
“There are a lot of opportunities for sustainable innovation through the dialogue of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of living… the problem with this communication so far has been asymmetry: when power relations are so skewed that most communication is one way, there is not much opportunity for the brackish waters of hybridity to stew up something exciting.”
TYSON YUNKAPORTA, SAND TALK
In 2022, we expect this to grow and evolve again as we put it into practice, and continue our learning journey. The threads are certainly not complete, and what we’ve developed here is specific to our social innovation – we’d encourage you to adopt and adapt from your organisation.
This work has been inspired by lots of people, over many projects. We’d particularly like to thank Uncle Tony Lovett, Dana Shen, Tyson Yunkaporta, Aunty Vickey Charles and Melanie Goodchild for sharing their perspectives.
This work has been created with knowledge from Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander communities we’ve worked with, thinkers and practitioners and clients that we’ve worked with, and those that have written down or recorded their thoughts for others. We thank you all.
For more on this topic, you may also be interested in listening to the podcast episode An Aboriginal lens on Co-design, a conversation between Aboriginal co-design practitioners Dana Shen and Aunty Vickey Charles, who discuss their work, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander principles for co-design, and what it takes to be a good ally.
We can also recommend the book Practical Reconciliation from Evolve Communities.