It’s all about culture - Glenda Merritt

Fostering Indigenous engagement

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Glenda Merritt is a community leader, and Cultural Engagement Coordinator, working with International Towers.

Part of Glenda’s role is to mentor and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and foster a culture of inclusiveness and understanding.

I’m a Ngunnawal Elder, I have a daughter Renee and two grandchildren Jarrad and Kyesha. I was born and raised on a mission in Yass with all my mob and I remember moving into our own home in mainstream society. In 1980, I completed Year 10 and went straight into the workforce. At the age of 17 I left Yass and my very first job was working in a fruit and vegetable market in Western Sydney.

One year later, I moved back to Yass/Canberra and enrolled in a private business college and completed a secretarial and administration course. Whilst studying, I also worked part-time in a service station in Queanbeyan pumping petrol, checking oil and checking air pressure in tyres as they did in those days.

From 1982, I commenced my career with the Public Service and my initial department was the ACT Schools Authority. I worked there for 10 years before I became more interactive within the various Australian Public Service agencies. I worked in many other Government Departments for over 20 years and during this time I held senior and executive payroll positions, which also included working as a former member of Parliament’s payroll assessor, for MP Kim Beazley AC.

After leaving the Public Service, I was successful in attaining a position as the Regional Assessment Coordinator with Department of Environment & Climate Change and they also allowed me to study Conservation and Land Management and Community Facilitation, which enabled me to work on Caring for Country Aboriginal Projects for the NSW Lachlan Catchment Management Authority, which involved a lot of travelling for work, as it incorporated such a large area to focus on.

I then moved onto other projects and commenced work with ABIGROUP Construction back in Canberra as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer on the Bulk Water Alliance Enlarged Cotter Dam project and the Murrumumbidgee to Googong Pipeline Water Transfer Project. When these projects were completed, I then moved back to Sydney.

I was fortunate to commence work with Lendlease Building as the Barangaroo Site Administration Officer and was then given other opportunities, which enabled me to work as an apprentice mentor with the Barangaroo Skills Exchange.

Another opportunity for a new career pathway presented itself, to become the International Towers Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Engagement Coordinator. For the first couple of years I was seconded to the site’s contracting company Dimeo, that provides cleaning services for the three International Towers. My role included recruitment and retention strategies for the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander workforce.

My secondment from Lendlease was extended in early 2018, and I’ve now transitioned to the International Towers management team.

As the workforce is hugely diverse, and there is a large under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workforce within the CBD, part of my role is to mentor and guide the diverse team and foster a culture of inclusiveness and understanding.
Our goal is to create employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Our culture needs to be understood by the wider community and this can sometimes be challenging in a traditional employment situation. As an example, we have NAIDOC week, which is an entire week of cultural celebrations. NAIDOC is an opportunity for the wider community to take the opportunity to become more educated in our culture and its diversity and what it means to us.

We are so fortunate that International Towers supports our need to take this time and celebrate our history and our future. But many within the community don’t understand what it’s about, so it’s engaging with the whole community, and educating them about things that are meaningful and important within our culture. It’s about people and the richness of cultures and we can work together within this one environment, feel valued, understood and appreciated, and have a place to work and feel safe.

We’ve come such a long way. There has been so much ignorance attached to the Indigenous cultures of our land for so long, it’s still taking time to dispel misconceptions and myths about our people and there’s still so much more educating that needs to be done.
Throughout my journey, gathering life skills and job opportunities my literacy and numeracy only progressed over many years from my own developments and willingness to learn, self taught. I have been able to identify my own weakness and challenges by breaking down my fears, overcoming barriers and becoming a successful Indigenous leader in my community and in the workforce.

Personally, for me this is a very special place to work, as I was a part of its growth. Barangaroo is named after a very powerful Aboriginal woman, this place is unique and the people here are so friendly, it’s really exciting to be a part of a new creative precinct for Sydney, especially when I was one of the first females to work in the construction zone on this site, to now being a part of the corporate environment.

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Interview: Shirley Chowdhary, CEO, GO Foundation

For Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, football was the ‘ticket’ out of a life of disadvantage. Embracing a sporting community that provided guidance, education, training and support enabled both men to thrive, and rise to be amongst the most successful AFL players in Sydney Swans’ history.

Having both now retired from the sporting arena, they’ve turned their disciplined focus to giving back to the community, by supporting the education of disadvantaged Indigenous youth through their GO Foundation. We spoke to the foundation’s CEO, Shirley Chowdhary, about her journey and why education is so critical to community success.

Tell us about your journey and how you came to be part of the GO community.

I began my career as a lawyer and worked in some wonderful firms in the USA and Japan for many years before returning to Australia. I felt I needed a change, so on my return I got involved with a number of community initiatives, including the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and wrote a biography for a prisoner of World War 2. I returned to the corporate world as part of the legal department at BT Financial Group and then as Counsel in Treasury at Westpac and had the opportunity to volunteer for the Westpac Foundation. I realised that my true passion lay in the community work I was doing, so when the opportunity came up to join Adam and Michael and be part of the amazing things that GO was doing, I jumped at it!

How did the GO Foundation begin?

Like many great success stories, GO had very humble beginnings. The foundation is very much the realisation of Adam and Michael’s passion to give disadvantaged Indigenous children opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and to give back to the communities that nurtured them when they were young.

Along with their good friend and supporter James Gallichan, they established the GO Foundation, and began supporting a variety of community programs in the NSW town of Dareton, which has a population of only 600 – a third of whom are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.

In the first three years, the foundation supported presentations to the community about healthy lifestyles, vocational training for Indigenous students, the donation of sports uniforms to local schools, and a financial contribution towards the purchase of play equipment for the local community centre.

In around 2014, the foundation refined its focus to the exclusive support of education.

Why education?

It simply wasn’t sustainable for the foundation to support a hugely diverse and ever-growing list of initiatives, despite Adam and Michael’s best efforts! It became clear that of all the things the foundation could do to help young, disadvantaged children living in urban Indigenous communities, education was by far the most significant influencer of future outcomes. Although the sources of disadvantage can be very complex, if there was ever to be a ‘silver bullet’ to addressing those complex issues and creating a pathway for a brighter future, education was it. Adam and Michael both had first-hand experience in how education can change the course of your life, and the profound impact it can have on others around you. So, our focus for the past few years has been solely on providing educational scholarships within an ecosystem of support to young, disadvantaged, Indigenous children.

How does the Foundation select scholarship candidates?

It’s not easy! Obviously, we’d love to help as many children as we can, but we deliberately implemented a fairly robust selection process because, from the very beginning, Adam and Michael wanted to ensure that each child was as committed to the process as we were.

Approximately 85 per cent of Indigenous kids are in public schools, so for us it made perfect sense that we work within the public school system, where we can make the biggest difference. Every child’s circumstance is absolutely unique; often their challenges may be financial, environmental, social, or a combination of many things. So, we take a holistic approach to addressing their core challenges and finding practical ways to help overcome them. Sometimes a solution can be as simple as funding the cost of WiFi into the home, or providing a laptop, so the child has the same tools and resources needed to do their work.

Outside of the classroom, the children are also supported by a community and ecosystem of advisors, experts and role models, and provided with access to opportunities they otherwise might not have, to help them explore their full potential in every area of life.

The other unique aspect of our process is that we try and support the eldest child within a family. Our experience has shown that younger siblings are heavily influenced by the attitudes and behaviours of older ones, whether it be a sibling, relative or friend, so by providing opportunities for children who can act as role models, we create an opportunity to positively influence an entire community of young children beneath them and help create role models of the future.

Both Adam and Michael attribute much of their success to the role played by positive role models, including their mothers, both on the sporting field and in business, and clearly they’ve gone on to be extraordinary role models for a whole generation of children all over the country. It was a logical focus that one of the primary goals of the Foundation be to nurture and develop the future leaders and mentors within the Indigenous community.

Tell us about the #GOFurther initiative.

At the end of 2017, in conjunction with KPMG Arrilla Indigenous Services, GO released the results of research that examined the correlation between Indigenous students continuing their education after Year 12, and better outcomes. The research was clear – the longer Indigenous students stay in education, the better their outcomes.

Our #GOFurther #RealSkillsRealCareers campaign is all about helping to give Indigenous students the opportunity to choose the educational path that’s right for them. It could be university, VET or an apprenticeship. It’s about empowering them, inspiring them and giving them the guidance to make the best choices, and change their own lives.

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