Barwon Water’s award-winning Aboriginal Employment and Retention Strategy is just one part of its approach to working with Traditional Owners.

Barwon Water’s nationally-recognised Aboriginal Employment and Retention Strategy highlights the work the water corporation is doing to continue improving the cultural safety of its workplace as it seeks to increase the employment of First Nations people in all levels of the organisation.

Barwon Water Managing Director, Tracey Slatter, said that from board level down, the water corporation had tried to drive a whole-of organisation approach to boosting Traditional Owner involvement in water management. “At every board meeting, as well as an Acknowledgement of Country, we have a monthly reflection on First Nations achievements and issues for the month,” Ms Slatter said.

Ms Slatter said that by doing so, Barwon Water was striving to become a culturally safe and inclusive place for First Nations people to participate as employees, and thrive, grow and influence the organisation. “Our Aboriginal Employment and Retention Strategy, which won the state and national Australian Water Association Award for Organisational Excellence, is a good example of how we are trying to achieve what we want in this space,” she said.

Creating the strategy was a strong commitment in Barwon Water’s Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). At the heart of the strategy is understanding and embedding First Nations cultural values and the holistic well-being of First Nations Peoples. It provides the foundations for creating and delivering culturally appropriate, respectful and meaningful outcomes for First Nations employees.

The strategy holds Barwon Water accountable for developing meaningful connections and employment opportunities with First Nations peoples in its service region, to enable their knowledge, understanding and water values to form an integral part of the organisation’s water management and planning programs.

Understanding and supporting cultures and histories

Two successful initiatives coming from the strategy include the twelve-month traineeship program, developed in partnership with Wan-Yaari Aboriginal Consultancy Services and Gforce Employment Solutions, as well as an in-depth Connection to Country program for all employees, which includes cultural heritage education and visits to culturally significant sites in the region.

“Partnering with Wan-Yaari Aboriginal Consultancy Services, we put a lot of work into the strategy and our Innovate RAP,” Ms Slatter said.

“It’s also been part of our journey in furthering our understanding and importance of First Nations Cultural Values while creating a culturally safe work environment as we strive to attract increasing numbers of First Nations employees into career pathways that are diverse and inclusive.” Ms Slatter said in addition to the strategy, building strong relationships with Traditional Owner groups was crucial to Barwon Water’s work.

“We would like to give a special thanks to Wadawurrung and Eastern Maar Traditional Owners for helping guide us to see the land, water and  environment around us through the eyes of a Traditional Owner. “Their willingness to share knowledge and stories assists us to understand and support their cultures and histories, in turn helping us to Connect with Country.” Ms Slatter said there had been some milestone moments in Barwon Water’s reconciliation journey since the Innovate RAP was implemented in 2018.

These included the decision to transfer land near Ballan Reservoir to the Wadawurrung, the partnership with the Wadawurrung on the Porronggitj Karrong project on the land around the Aqueduct in Geelong, and Caring for Country tours with Traditional Owners across Barwon Water’s service area, where staff and Traditional Owners shared stories and knowledge. Ms Slatter said many staff had commented on how much they valued the experiences, which has changed their understanding and mindset.

“Every time we have the benefit of learning more, we realise how much better our organisation and region will be when we – in true reconciliation – create a new future that melds our knowledge for common purpose.” Ms Slatter said she and other Barwon Water staff had spent valuable time with Traditional Owners learning from them about how to think differently about the lands and water that the water corporation manages. “I am very grateful for the generosity Traditional Owners have shown in sharing their deep knowledge.”

Opening Barwon water land

Ms Slatter said that while Barwon Water had made huge strides in its reconciliation journey, she was looking forward to the organisation going further and embedding reconciliation in everything it did as part of its Stretch RAP, which was now with Reconciliation Australia for review.

“The Stretch RAP outlines the steps we will take to ensure that Reconciliation becomes part of everything we do at Barwon Water. It shows we will continue to invest in relationships with Traditional Owner and First Nations organisations and advance reconciliation within our organisation and our sphere of influence in the region and the broader water industry.”

Ms Slatter said that locally, the Barwon River was increasingly becoming a focal point for First Nations participation in water, including through the Porronggitj Karrong project, where Barwon Water is partnering with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners to explore opportunities to open Barwon Water land, which is no longer required for operational purposes, to the community.

The 66-hectare parcel of land, which features a heritage-listed aqueduct, is significant for the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners who have a connection with the river and surrounds dating back thousands of years.

“In partnership with Wadawurrung and other stakeholders, we are engaging broadly to develop a plan that, when implemented, will enable the area to be accessed and enjoyed by the whole community for its high ecological, heritage, cultural and recreational values,” Ms Slatter said.

Referred to as the Porronggitj Karrong (Place of the Brolga) project, the cultural and community precinct proposed for the area is intended to be a place people can visit to walk, paddle, and reflect. It will also be a place where traditional land and water management practices are trialled to rehabilitate and to learn about the local environment. Plans are being developed in partnership with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners and in consultation with the broader Geelong community.

“The Wadawurrung are having significant input into this project and we’re learning a lot as we go,” Ms Slatter said. Meanwhile, Barwon Water also has a three-year partnership agreement in place with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, which Ms Slatter said had been an important step in ensuring genuine collaboration with Traditional Owners on various projects. “The actions and projects we have implemented are contributing to positive change both within our business, as well as the broader community.

“We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the traditional owners of the land on which we work. “We know there is a lot of work still to be done in this area, but we think we are on the right path,” Ms Slatter said.

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