NAIDOC Week 2020: A remarkable change

By Lee Fagan

2020 has been a tough year for many people.

For many of us in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Queensland, the passing of our year is marked by significant social and cultural events on our calendar. These events give recognition to our place as First Nations peoples of Australia.

In 2020, some of these of these events occurred in the early part of the year. Invasion Day (26 January), National Apology Day (13 February), National Close the Gap Day 9 (19 March) and Harmony Day (21 March) are some of the events that marked the start of 2020 for us. We were lucky enough to be able to celebrate these, but unfortunately, many other events scheduled for the latter part of 2020 were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most prominent events on our cultural calendar to be affected was NAIDOC Week, which is always observed in the first week of July. NAIDOC Week celebrates our identity, history and connection to this country. It also acts as a cultural beacon for a themed union to all our nations as well as the rest of the Australia.

The changes to NAIDOC Week this year are being felt across Queensland. Here in Brisbane, it is one of the most significant events on our cultural calendar. It is when many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people renew and reinforce their connections and make new ones with others.

Many South East Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities celebrate this special week, which culminates in a Family Fun Day at Musgrave Park in Brisbane’s West End. As Musgrave Park is seen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a site of extreme cultural and social significance, the culmination of NAIDOC Week at this special location is fitting.

In lieu of NAIDOC Week in July, WorkUp Queensland started to collaborate with our host WeWork site around the possibility of hosting a modest NAIDOC celebration throughout the week in the WeWork space.

The activities we proposed included dancing, cultural group activities such as weaving and storytelling, and discussion panels that showcase the rich cultural history of Australia’s First Nations peoples to WeWork co-workers.

It’s worth noting that many of these co-workers are national and international companies and start-ups, who we assumed would have minimal interactions with First Nations peoples, let alone be exposed to and be able to participate in NAIDOC with us.

Throughout the months leading up to November, WeWork and WorkUp planned and reviewed the list of possible activities that could be hosted in their space. This list was eventually whittled down to just onsite events due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

As a result, we had to cancel any events that required a number of people in the same place, such as the traditional dance performance, cooking activities, opening ceremony and Welcome to Country by community Elders, and the highly anticipated expert panel.

Despite this, we continued planning and what resulted was a well-considered ‘gig guide’, mostly generated by WeWork staff member, Emma O’Brien, whose events management background gave her the passion to really plan and negotiate with WorkUp.

We settled on a series of low-impact events designed to showcase First Nations culture that could be run in the commercial WeWork space.

The events include:

  • a static art display from Birrunga Art Gallery, at the Eagle Street WeWork site, which also happens to be located at one of the most prominent executive buildings in Brisbane
  • a Spotify playlist of only First Nations artists generated by The Healing Foundation and WorkUp Queensland staff to be played through the sound system of the three WeWork sites for the entire week
  • a large pull-up banner with Acknowledgement to Country at the entrances to the WeWork sites, which WeWork will also propose to their head office, to make this a fixed feature in all their work sites
  • static displays of words in English and in local and regional languages and dialects placed throughout the building for tenants to read
  • a large reference map of all the First Nations countries and groups on which WeWork tenants will have the opportunity to ‘pin’ where they are from or where their business is located
  • catering for breakfast and afternoon events, using Australian bush foods, also by Birrunga, which is owned by and employs First Nations peoples
  • free non-alcoholic beverages from Sobah Beverages, another First Nations owned company
  • a static strengths cards display in the general area of the Edwards Street site to promote reflection on First Nations issues. This is from Chris Payne, a WorkUp Queensland staff member who developed it in partnership with Rona Scherer, a Mamu-Yalanji woman from North Queensland. The resource cards are grounded in respect for First Nations ways of knowing, being and doing.

Despite the limitations placed on this event, this exercise with WeWork has highlighted the cultural respect and integrity of WeWork staff in ensuring that we, as First Nations peoples, are acknowledged and consulted with respect and thought.

I noted particularly that throughout the process, as First Nations people and WorkUp Queensland staff members, our perspectives were actively sought and embedded into the planning.

I have no doubt that this period has strengthened our connections to WeWork and its tenants, as not just a partner during NAIDOC Week, but as an ally in showing the spirit of NAIDOC Week and walking beside us to acknowledge that we are all, indeed, Australians.