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8 min read

‘The door is open, we’re waiting for you to walk through it’

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 29/6/2020

“Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong is a change agent in philanthropy,” says Executive Officer, John Harding.

“We’re not sitting here just handing out cheques – we’re trying to change philanthropy from within.”

Launched in March 2019, Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong (KWT) is the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-led philanthropic fund that focuses its work exclusively in Victoria. Named by Wurundjeri Elder, Aunty Diane Kerr, Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong means “to give jointly, to share together” in Woiwurrung language.

KWT traces its roots back to another Australian Communities Foundation sub-fund, Towards a Just Society, which supported First Nations communities in Victoria for 14 years before transitioning the fund with support from Woor-Dungin and Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership over a two-year period to 100 per cent Indigenous control.

John Harding took up the role of Executive Officer at KWT in October last year, bringing with him a bold vision, a determined spirit and a ready laugh.  

Harding, who is a proud Ku Ku yimidir (Far North Queensland) and Erub, Darnley Island (Torres Strait Islander) man, has 40 years of deep cross-sectoral experience that includes government, the trade union movement, broadcasting and NGOs. He’s also a poet, an actor, co-founder of the Ilbijerri Aboriginal Theatre Company and an award-winning playwright, having penned 13 plays at his kitchen table in his spare time.

John Harding, Executive Officer, Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong.

John recently shared his thoughts about KWT’s game-changing ambitions, Indigenous incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how philanthropy can support First Nations self-determination.

Your professional background is filled with so many different experiences. How did you come to be where you are today?

JH: I think all the things I’ve done in my life have actually led me to this job.

The era I lived in, the Keating era, opened up a lot of different money for Aboriginal affairs, employment and training and really presented a lot of opportunities for people like myself. It allowed me to be versatile which meant I could move into different areas.

I think the two degrees from the University of Melbourne gave me critical skills and that, coupled with my passion for writing, meant that I wasn’t afraid of sitting down and drafting say, an Aboriginal employment strategy for organisations when I needed to.

I’ve worked in Aboriginal affairs my entire life and in nearly every job I’ve had, I’ve started as the only Aboriginal person there and worked to bring change to the organisation; changing the way they think, bringing the community in and setting up Aboriginal advisory committees.

Mind you, I’m always trying to bring in an Aboriginal committee of some kind so that I’m not a dictator! [laughs]. My male Blak heritage is up Cape York way and my mum’s side is Torres Strait Islands, so I’m really conscious of how important it is for First Nations people from interstate to always have that respect when they’re not on their own Country. You’re speaking on behalf of someone else’s Country.

My dad, Jack Harding, was the secretary of the Maritime Workers Union so there’s that too. He used to laugh he had [trade unionist] Normy Gallagher roneoing for him and making him cups of tea!

I’ve learned how to walk in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal world, and how to build alliances within organisations and between people. I guess I’ve always been a change agent; it’s just what I’ve done, almost by coincidence. I create people unions

What are your priorities for KWT? What would you like to see the Fund achieve?

Ideally, there should be a KWT in every state and territory; we’re already in talks about a Gippsland version.

You’ll find that every Aboriginal community in Australia will be interested in it because 95 per cent of us have nothing to do with philanthropy, it’s like an Easter egg that we didn’t know existed! [laughs]

We’re also working with a small group of philanthropic CEOs to develop a truth-telling in philanthropy initiative.

Without truth-telling we can’t change much at all, The Victorian First Peoples Assembly have just this month passed a motion to the same effect, as a precursor to any kind of state-wide Treaty. If people can’t see the need for that, then that’s why KWT is so needed right now, at this moment, to align philanthropy to get with the program!

“At some point, the philanthropic sector has to accept the proposition that all the wealth that was accumulated was done so on stolen land.”

That’s the whole point of truth-telling to build understanding of that proposition, then to act upon it.

Another thing I’ve asked for support for is to set up a national version of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) group. I’ve already had a couple of funders say they’ll lend their support and I a hope a few more will come on board too.

A local version of a loosely affiliated IFIP would help First Nations people who work in philanthropy or sit on boards to start talking to each other because sometimes, as an Aboriginal person, it can feel like you’re the only black kid in a classroom with ten social workers, and none of them are talking to each other.

People duplicate ideas, they don’t consult with the appropriate First Nations peoples before they start presenting at forums and so on. I’m not saying they have to talk to KWT, but we need some sort of clearinghouse group that meets three or four times a year where First Nations people and non-First Nations people can bring their ideas for discussion, and either lend their support or reflect upon it so we’re all working as a team. I am thinking we meet four times a year via this wonderful new technology called Zoom, so it doesn’t have to cost much at all!

Young Aboriginal males fill 50 per cent of Parkville Youth Detention Centre, but we are only about three per cent of the Victorian population. Nearly 60 per cent of our young females fill the other half.

We’re working with the Reichstein Foundation to hold a conference on the issue – we want to hear from ex-offenders and advocates as well as experts from overseas including New Zealand people who are having success tackling the problem.

Reichstein and KWT are also working towards partnering on a First Nations language development program for juvenile justice in Victoria, in conjunction with a First Nations linguistic expert on Victorian languages.

We’ve also just received our first major grant, which was $100,000 from the Ecstra Foundation to build a community-led approach to financial capability.

The State Trustees in Victoria have just stated they’d like to work with us on funding community project applications relating to children that come in during our next grant round in September. And that’s in perpetuity.

One thing that I want people to realise about KWT is that, apart from disseminating our small grants in our Victorian community, is that we are here to play a brokering role.

Sounds like you’re really getting things moving!

Well, I started in October and you can’t waste time when you’ve only got a two-year contract! Right now, KWT has enough funds to survive until 2022 – we’re a finite organisation at the moment.

My job is to build the engine room because without the capacity and the staff, nothing’s going to happen.

Besides, Covid’s given me too much time to sit and ponder like Plato and Aristotle [laughs]

Philanthropy has a reputation for reinforcing unequal power structures. KWT is a marked departure from that model – how are funders responding to what KWT offers?

I think the trick is that you have to start with like-minded philanthropic foundations that are already showing some semblance of understanding and progressiveness. Every time I’ve spoken with these types of philanthropic bodies, they’ve completely supported the idea of KWT.

There is currently only one of me, so, I’m picking the targets and finding that it’s a bit like a stone rolling down a hill that gathers momentum and we’ve been getting more and more support, particularly over the last four months.

Thousands of Australians have been out on the streets in recent weeks protesting Indigenous deaths in custody and marching in support of Black Lives Matter – what do you make of the present moment?

In the past, I used to just see the same type of people at these marches, the same unions, the uni students, the socialists at their stalls with their newspapers. The most exciting thing about these recent protests is that I’m seeing people who haven’t marched with us before.

Thousands of school-aged kids are turning out for the first time in large numbers and they’re organising their own groups with their own banners and they’re doing it themselves. That groundswell of youth and the excitement of having those young people involved and seeing them become aware of the increased authority they wield – something the climate marches helped awaken that in them – that’s incredible.

Seeing so many people who haven’t been there before, young people, older people, people who are angry and confused because they didn’t know the situations we face in Australia, like 430 deaths in custody and not a single cop charged. Sadly, this is the truth!

And it’s not getting better. Here in lefty, progressive Victoria, we’ve just surpassed the incarceration rate of African Americans. When you tell people that, they’re in utter disbelief. Things are pretty bloody dire right now.

We’ve got to change the political agenda because at the moment, if you lock children up it gets you votes even though you risk young people’s lives being destroyed forever. We’ve got to build political pressure to make that happen and to me, that’s what KWT’s role is in a big way, to act as that broker bringing everyone to the table.

“KWT is a free agent – we’re not stuck in policy silos and we don’t rely on government funding. That’s why KWT can be such a powerful force, if only the sector will get behind us.”

We can help solve these things. The rest is just talk.

What do you want to see philanthropy in Australia do more (or less) of?

Less talking about us and more talking to us. Philanthropy needs to support grassroots movements, and if you know your history, you would quickly realise that BLM and all other great movements worth their salt started as a grassroots reaction to need that eventually benefited all.

We fortunately can potentially auspice these types of movements too, so please don’t use their DGR status as a reason not to fund human rights.

It is now acceptable to torture our children in institutions, and silence is permission.

The philanthropy sector has to realise the door is open, there aren’t any closed doors – the door’s been open a long, long time; we’re just waiting for you to walk through it.

KWT is adding the oil to that creaky old door to help it open in a more rapid way for the benefit of us all.

One thing I would make sure of, is that I am on the right side of history. As my mother would often say:

We must teach our children it is a much prouder thing to die on your feet than to ever live on your knees, we didn’t raise you for that.

Now that KWT’s here, we can walk with you. Nguluk and Essau

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Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong invests in First Nations people and organisations based in Victoria to support change and innovation with a focus on self-determination.