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7 min read

The journey to improve lives: Rueben Berg

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 3/11/2021

“It’s been a long journey to get where I am,” says Australian Communities Foundation Director and proud Gunditjmara man, Rueben Berg.

To date, Rueben’s journey has taken him from Melbourne to Queensland and back again. His “first passion in life”, he says, was architecture, a by-product of a childhood spent playing with Lego. But after receiving his degree in architecture, he realised the vocation wasn’t for him and he instead took a role in Indigenous affairs with the Queensland government.

Upon returning to Melbourne, Rueben worked in Indigenous employment, governance, infrastructure and heritage before earning a place in FACSIA’s men’s leadership program and later the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership, which he says provided the “grounding to take some risks and do the things I wanted to do”.

Each of these roles and the mentors he met through them, left an indelible impression upon Rueben but the person who has most influenced his personal and professional choices, he says, is his father, Gunditjmara Elder, Jim Berg.

Founder of the Koorie Heritage Trust, Jim was instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and a leader in the legal fight to return Aboriginal human remains that were held by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria back to Country.

Inspired by his father’s leadership, Rueben established his own business, RJHB Consulting, joined boards including Westernport Water where he has just become the first Indigenous Chair, as well as being a Commissioner for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, and a member of the Heritage Council of Victoria and First People’s Assembly of Victoria.

Rueben playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee.
Rueben playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee.

A man of many talents, Rueben is also the Chair of the Ultimate Rules Subcommittee of the World Flying Disc Federation and an “obsessed” devotee of Ultimate Frisbee.

In this Q&A, Rueben shares his motivation, most valuable lessons learned about social change and the importance of empowering First Nations communities.

Which focus areas are closest to your heart and who are the leaders or changemakers you look up to?

Initially, while I was working for the Department of Housing in Queensland when I was studying architecture, I really gravitated towards their motto which was: Improving people’s lives through housing.

I’ve been really lucky to have had opportunities that many others in my community haven’t, and that’s never far from my mind.

Improving people’s lives is what I work towards. It’s about using my skills to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular, and that’s really been the driver for me.

I’m also aware that I’ve been really lucky to have had opportunities that many others in my community haven’t, and that’s never far from my mind either.

In terms of who I look up, I’d have to say my dad. He’s been a great inspiration and is still seen as a really strong leader in our Aboriginal community in Victoria. He started up many of the great institutions and was a pioneer in a lot of ways. I really want to emulate some of the things he’s done.

Other leaders who inspire me are people like Belinda Duarte, the CEO of Culture is Life.  She’s an elite athlete who’s gone on to hold important governance roles while keeping that cultural strength and being able to work with governments to get good outcomes. She’s shown that you have to work within that system to achieve outcomes and that inspires where I’d like to be with my journey as well.

Having worked across the private, public and non-profit sectors, what’s the most valuable social change lesson you’ve learned?

To me, the biggest thing is that you want to be empowering communities to have the capacity to do things they need to do. It’s not about outsiders coming in, but empowering people at the local level because these are the people who know what they need, and the most important thing is to empower them so that they can do it.

For Aboriginal people, it’s about self-determination and no longer it being us having to go to government to seek permission for things but having the government coming to us. That will make a big difference. 

That doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes, but we’re the people who are in a good position to make real change.

What’s one thing you wish more people understood about First Nations issues in Australia?

There are lots of things I wish more people understood but one thing I always like to push is that people often make the mistake of thinking that Aboriginal culture is “somewhere else”.

Aboriginal culture is around us every day; it’s right here, where you live.

This happens a lot in our cities and suburbs even today where people associate Aboriginal culture as being in Uluru or Alice Springs or Arnhem Land but in fact many of us are living right there in the cities with you.

Aboriginal culture is around us every day; it’s right here, where you live.

What was it about Australian Communities Foundation that attracted you to the position of Board Director?

I really liked the organisation’s values, that’s what attracted me initially to the role. It was clear that those values were reflected in the work that they were doing and I could see that there was capacity for me to bring my skills to a broader scope of work at a national level and beyond.

Is there anything you’d like to see philanthropy do more (or less) of?

More empowerment of communities! That’s where I see the real value of philanthropy because it doesn’t have to be weighed down by red tape and all the bureaucracy that government has.

I’d love to see philanthropy stick with that flexibility and freedom and really seize the opportunity to do things differently.