People

5 steps towards volunteering & engaging with Aboriginal communities

Many informed people want to help and work with Aboriginal communities. This guide helps you prepare, engage, and find resources and contacts for volunteer jobs.

Where do you start to help & volunteer in Aboriginal communities?

I'm wondering if there is anything positive 'on the ground' I can do to help my local Aboriginal communities and where I might find resources and contacts for possible volunteer work?—Derek

The only thing I miss – or couldn't find so far – is how to get personally involved, e. g. finding interesting events like discussions, aboriginal festivals or so.—Hermine

Do you have the same question as Derek and Hermine? You want to know where to start to engage and work with communities? Are you frustrated because you cannot find resources and contacts for volunteer jobs in Aboriginal communities?

Here’s a guide how to find ways to prepare yourself to engage with and help Aboriginal communities and organisations. You don’t necessarily need to look to volunteer in remote Australia – often it’s easier and more rewarding for you to help locally.

But before you start there’s a little homework to do.

Step 1: Some homework and introspection

Before you venture out it’s a good idea to review where you’re at and be totally honest with yourself in your answers.

Here’s a checklist you can print and work through:

1) Evaluate your pre-conceived ideas

  • Do you hold stereotypes, prejudice, or racist views?
  • Become aware of your current thoughts, opinions and preconceptions about Aboriginal people.
  • Are you willing to see life from someone else’s perspective?
  • Do you have certain beliefs and ideas you want to challenge?

2) Develop awareness and interest

  • Be observant and willing to learn.
  • Visit local Aboriginal cultural centres or contact your local council.
  • Explore your local area’s history and the culture of the local Aboriginal community.
  • Watch educational programs (e.g. NITV, SBS - TV or online).
  • Visit your local library and research online about questions you have.
  • Check maps and get to know the Aboriginal language groups in your area and some of the history of those groups.
  • Find out which Aboriginal group’s country you live and work on.

3) Practice respect

  • Respect is very important in every social structure in Aboriginal communities.
  • Respect for Elders, the land, animals and ancestors are fundamental aspects of Aboriginal culture.
  • Aboriginal people will subtly test how respectful you are before they trust you more.
  • Role-play with your partner or a friend how you would approach an Aboriginal person, then ask them how they felt.

4) Can you ask for advice?

  • Your ability to ask for advice regarding cultural matters is very important.
  • You’ll need to learn protocols (e.g. about gender division, greetings, speaking and listening. Note that protocols depend on geography.
  • For more remote communities, read Whitefella Culture (PDF) by Susanne Hargrave

5) Attend events and activities

  • Find out about significant Aboriginal days.
  • Attend festivals, events and activities to get to know your local Aboriginal community.
  • Start building relationships with people at the event with a friendly, informal chat.
  • Aboriginal culture has a greater emphasis on relationships, so approach events with the intention to connect and build relationships.
  • Contact your local council to find out about events near you.

Step 2: Get to know your local Aboriginal community

Now that you have some background knowledge it’s easier for you to attend events without feeling ashamed because you don’t know enough.

  • Look for your local community rather than remote communities. Urban Aboriginal identity can be just as strong, with powerful territorial affiliations.
  • Attend community events and meetings as a guest and practice to just listen.
  • Participate in Aboriginal tours of your area. Show interest and ask questions.
  • Use these opportunities to practice your homework from Step 1.
  • If you do not have any contacts or direct links with your local Aboriginal community, a good starting point is to contact either your Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) or local Aboriginal education organisation.

Useful links:

Step 3: Make contact with your local Aboriginal community

Time to meet community members and start building your network! Some of the following points are more related to organisations. If you venture out by yourself just do a scaled-down version.

  • Meet local Aboriginal people and explain who you are, what you do and why you’re interested to learn more.
  • Invite local Aboriginal organisations/elders for a morning tea and talk about historical information regarding the local area.
  • Do an Acknowledgement of Country at the start of activities.
  • Ask an Aboriginal person to do a Welcome to Country at ceremonies and official events.

Step 4: Start a deeper conversation

After an initial contact you can share more about you. Remember not to be pushy but humble: First it’s your turn to share and give before you can receive.

  • Share about where you and your family come from, and note whether this personal sharing is reciprocated.
  • Dare to be vulnerable by opening yourself to the other person and offering a heartfelt connection.
  • Come as an equal and not in a dominant, paternalistic or thoughtless way.
  • Be willing to share your life and family as well.

Step 5: Become involved

Now you are ready to offer your help. There are some people who know something about you and, ideally, you have received some trust and sharing in return.

Remember: Always ask and offer, don’t recommend or propose.

Case study: Skilled volunteering secondments at NAB

NAB employee, Wendy Kelly, shares her story about secondment in Kunanurra with Jawun and the overall vision of their work in the East Kimberley region.

Useful links for volunteer work and to reconciliation groups

Links to volunteer work

Fact 6 million Australians volunteer each year.

About Indigenous Community Volunteers

Links to reconciliation organisations and groups

There are currently no reconciliation organisations in the Northern Territory, ACT or Tasmania.

Other contact points

Here are some ideas who to contact within your local area:

  • Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers
  • Aboriginal Education Officers
  • Community workers
  • Aboriginal Heritage Office
  • Aboriginal colleagues at work
  • Committees or Elders from your local area or the wider region
  • Non-Aboriginal people in your area who have already become familiar with appropriate protocols