AEU Victoria’s inaugural First Nations Project Officers Shannon Bourke and Alinta Williams are calling on all union members to be active allies in carrying the cultural load.
Newly appointed AEU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Project Officers Shannon Bourke, a Garawa woman, and Ngunnawal woman Alinta Williams live and breathe their lifelong commitment to encouraging cultural connection and celebrating the proud history of First Nations peoples as educators. But when they looked around, they didn’t see many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleagues, nor representation in their union. So, meeting one another and bonding at an AEU Women’s Conference was a huge deal.
“I really loved being a union member, but I was also looking for that connection with other Aboriginal teachers or education staff,” Shannon recalls. “And that’s where it all started.”
Alinta, a primary school teacher, agrees. “From my perspective, there were a lot of tensions around working in a system that wasn’t working for Indigenous kids. And that’s not across the board, obviously, but speaking from my personal experience growing up, and then in my career as a teacher. Shannon and I had an instant connection over wanting more for our students, and for our own children.”
They teamed up again when asked to assist with a log of claims on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members. Shannon was working in early childhood, “but I felt like it was really important that I show that solidarity with my school sector colleagues. To underline the importance of our kids feeling safe at school, they need mob in the classrooms.”
This work led to them participating in the inaugural First Nations Forum, which brought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander AEU members together to help build stronger connections with one another and with union leadership.
Hear our voices
Alinta notes that a big part of the forum process involved addressing the lack of clear representation of First Nations members within the AEU. “We saw how the union supported members generally, but where were the people that represent us internally?”
She proposed creating the organiser roles. “I know we’re small in numbers, but if that became an excuse for not creating that role, then we weren’t going to get anywhere in terms of self-determination and building capacity. We want the union to hear our voices.”
The AEU’s official response to the forum’s recommendations acknowledged that the union had not done enough to be a culturally safe organisation, nor to stand in active solidarity with First Nations members in rooting out oppression within the education system and more broadly.
Alinta was impressed by the AEU’s openness towards establishing organiser roles. “It felt empowering to realise, ‘OK, they’re listening. Let’s go!’” Shannon agrees. “I felt like it was a very considered response: owning it; accountable.”
“We really have an opportunity to disrupt the dominant narratives of the way that our systems work.”
A united front
It’s safe to say, though, that Shannon and Alinta were a little reluctant when first asked to step into the new positions. “We both had educator roles that we loved, and I envisaged the job as dealing with the cultural and emotional labour of racist systems all the time,” Shannon says. “That’s so not what the role has turned out to be – but, in my mind, I didn’t want to work through that rubbish every day.”
Alinta had similar reservations. “There was also some reluctance around being the first people in the role, because of other people’s experiences of being in spaces where they’re just not looked after. Unfortunately, that happens a lot, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the case here.”
She followed her gut, as did Shannon, and they’re both glad they said yes – particularly because they get to work together as a united front. “AEU Victoria is leading the way here,” Alinta says. “I know people in other organisations and unions who feel so isolated, and it’s not really a safe space to be working in when you carry such a huge cultural load solo.”
Shannon says they share the same goals. “We’re looking at it from the same perspective. We had our vision about what we wanted it to be, and sometimes you’ve got to go, ‘Yep, it’s gotta be me’.”
They’ve hit the ground running, working with the AEU’s newly formed First Nations members committee to work on boosting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation within the union. All AEU employees are currently undergoing cultural safety training run by the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.
Getting it right for mob
Their work will not only affect how the AEU does business but will also help forge connections across the union movement.
“We want to get it right for mob,” Alinta says. “And we feel so supported. We just had a meeting with [AEU Federal Aboriginal Education Officer] Darcel Russell, who is an incredible human being and force. We really have an opportunity to disrupt the dominant narratives of the way our systems work. To say, ‘Hang on, can we think about it from a different lens – one that everyone can benefit from?’”
Shannon sees it as vital that the AEU helps build better environments for First Nations members in all sectors, and not just during NAIDOC Week. “We want to work towards best practice in all workplaces. It’s really important that all educators have the skills and knowledge, to share that load for our kids.”
It’s there in DET’s Marrung Aboriginal Education Plan, after all. “It’s not like we’re asking for something outrageous,” Alinta says. “The expectation is there; it’s vital that we advocate for these things to actually happen. Educational justice for First Nations students is dependent on how well a workplace engages with First Nations people and perspectives.”
Non-Indigenous allies are important, adds Alinta. “If everyone makes one little change, thinking about how you can be an active ally for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that can make a big difference.” Shannon pipes in with a big grin. “But then don’t stop. Keep going.”