The starting point: Investment in relationships

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2019

[You] must let go of [your] own world view. Social workers have [an] evolving professional identity – they are confronted with their own limitations and in the face of this they hold onto their professional identity and apply their expertise in identifying the issues and coming up with the solutions for Aboriginal people. This deficit-driven approach fails to take into account the resilience, strengths and ongoing resistance of Aboriginal people.

- Social Service Practitioner

Relationships and connections are central to any engagement within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A professional and personal commitment to learning and building relationships is the most important and fundamental step in engaging and working respectfully and effectively with Aboriginal children, families and communities.

An investment in relationships is not always at the forefront of hierarchical mainstream systems or professional university degrees. The expectation that practitioners reach a degree of proficiency or expertness means that they are often seen as ‘central’ to any interaction with children and families. This manifests in professional assessment, investigation or diagnosis of the presenting issues.

What other information is excluded? In some practitioner models, they are [so] distracted looking for a diagnosis, they miss what’s important for the client.

- Aboriginal Practitioner


This use of ‘expertise’ can be an obstacle when it comes to working with Aboriginal clients. It can reinforce a history of marginalisation and can deny Aboriginal people the opportunity to tell their stories. Without understanding the ways their expertise can affect their ability to develop relationships, non-Aboriginal practitioners can unwittingly adopt a position of contempt for Aboriginal clients.

One Aboriginal practitioner noted that professionals should ‘park [their] qualification at the door’ if they want to build strong relationships with Aboriginal children, families and communities. A ‘de-centered and influential’ position with Aboriginal people means that the practitioner consciously sets aside their expertness, in favor of a position of curiosity which recognises they have much to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This involves taking opportunities to pursue individual learning about the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will want to know you as a person. The kinds of things they may be considering about you are:

Is this someone who will respect me and the different cultural understanding I bring?

Is this someone who will advocate and support me without judgment?

Is this someone who values my contribution to this relationship?

Have a look at this short documentary on Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali Website:

Paul Kelly – Stories of Me.

From Little Things Big Things Grow, P Kelly and K Carmody.

Then reflect about the reciprocal relationship that was formed Between Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly.  What does this story highlight about what is important?

– The idea of honesty as being important to relationship-building and reconciliation;

– The idea of collective efforts and co-constructive narratives being significant to shaping ‘bigger’ or stronger voices and actions of reconciliation;

– The idea of reconciliation being a movement—as an active, ongoing process that continues to have currency;

– The idea of the need to put time and patience into reconciliation processes.


Youtube video:

From Little Things Big Things Grow, P Kelly and K Carmody licensed from Sony ATV

Please note:

This video is copyright Shark Island Productions and used with permission. ABC Archival/Library footage is licensed by Shark Island Productions for inclusion in the feature documentary Paul Kelly – Stories of Me.

From Little Things Big Things Grow, P Kelly and K Carmody licensed from Sony ATV.

This film was produced by Shark Island Productions for Reconciliation Australia. An accompanying professional learning resource for the film can be accessed on Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Education platform. 

Look and Listen:

 If you work with Aboriginal people now, what have you seen and heard that is important to them about your approach? How do you know it is important?

 If you have not worked with Aboriginal people yet, you could try to explore the following:

  1. Chat with an experienced colleague who is respected by the Aboriginal Community. What have they learned from their experience of working with Aboriginal people?
  2. If you work with Aboriginal staff in your organisation, you could express your desire to learn more about working with Aboriginal people. A good idea might be to ask them what you should be thinking about as you develop in your role, and ways you can make better connections with Aboriginal Community.

 Learn and Reflect:

  • How do you ‘wear’ your expertise? How does it affect your relationships with other people and service users?
  • Are you always ‘centered’ in your work with Aboriginal people? Or do you create space to learn from them, to hear their stories and to understand their experiences? How has your practice changed because of this?


  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Be genuine about taking the time to hear the story.
  • Learn about the community you are working with. These learnings will be your connection points.
  • Consider the following questions:
    • What does it mean in your work to know that business takes a back seat to the relationship?
    • What are the conditions and behaviours needed for effective relationship building with Aboriginal people and communities?

How did you let this person know you heard their story? Did you clarify what you heard during the conversation by repeating it back?

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