The cancer disparities for Aboriginal people are undeniable - Aboriginal people are 60 per cent more likely to die from their cancer diagnosis than non-Aboriginal people. For a non-proft dedicated to defeating cancer, we needed substantial action to tackle cancer amongst Aboriginal people.
We wanted to do more than offer sporadic programs for Aboriginal communities. We recognised that we need to fundamentally change the way we engage with Aboriginal people so that it was not just seen as the responsibility of those few people who happened to be delivering specifc programs. We wanted to create an internal culture where all staff and volunteers would take responsibility for Aboriginal engagement relevant to their own role, whether in fundraising, volunteer recruitment, community engagement or HR.
But we faced some challenges. There was no specifc position in the organisation dedicated to Aboriginal programs or engagement; only one dedicated Aboriginal staff position (part of a research project), and no specifc budget for Aboriginal engagement. However, we had enthusiastic staff willing to step up to help progress our work in this area and the support of our formal leadership, including at CEO level.
We decided to adopt the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) model as the vehicle for developing our organisational strategy because of its structured format; linked to a nationally recognised model; and because it required us to consider our internal organisational practices as well as external program delivery.
We set ourselves a tight timeframe with our Statement of Intent in November 2011 committing us to having a RAP by May 2012. We also set ourselves an ambitious process for developing the RAP, making a deliberate decision to be as inclusive as possible and to adopt a distributed leadership model. We invited 20 staff to take on the role of ‘Yarn-Up Leaders’ - responsible for working in pairs to host and report back on at least two discussion forums (Yarn-Ups) with staff, volunteers and community stakeholders. We held 24 Yarn-Up sessions across NSW involving almost 280 people including 132 from Aboriginal organisations and communities.
The Yarn-Up sessions generated over 900 suggestions for how Cancer Council NSW could demonstrate respect, build relationships, and create opportunities for Aboriginal people, including many ideas about improving the appropriateness and accessibility of our own programs and services. From the beginning, the helpful staff at Reconciliation Australia and many Aboriginal people we spoke to had warned us about the need to take ‘small steps’; and that any substantial initiatives needed to be developed in partnership with Aboriginal people. For this to happen, we needed to allow time and energy to build trusting, mutually respectful relationships. With these words of wisdom ringing in our ears, the Yarn-Up Leaders took the 900+ ideas to a two-day retreat for some highly disciplined collation, synthesis, pruning and prioritising. We came away from this effort with a draft RAP, which we circulated to all Yarn-Up participants, and internal stakeholders for comment. During this stage, there was much discussion about wording of ‘measurable targets’ – how would we hold ourselves publicly accountable for our planned actions in a way that balanced aspiration with feasibility?
Our RAP http://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CC6580-CC-RAP-Brochure-FA-for-Web.pdf outlines specifc commitments to include Aboriginal perspectives in our work, and to continue to build our relationships with the Aboriginal community in order to encourage more Aboriginal people to address cancer. We have also identifed practical actions to respect and celebrate Aboriginal culture and develop a culturally supportive workplace. Our plan includes specifc actions to increase the number and proportion of staff and volunteers who are Aboriginal and ensure that our programs are meeting the cancer-related needs of Aboriginal people.
We know that we are only one very small part in the many factors that contribute to the cancer disparity for Aboriginal people, and we are conscious that we are only at the beginning of our journey of reconciliation. But in the words of one of our Yarn-Up Leaders “Everyone deserves the same level of health care and services in Australia, so this is our time to make a difference in tangibly closing the gap between Aboriginal and nonAboriginal people.” Early steps yes, but at least the journey has begun.