In Conversation

Working through the problems

Negotiating friendship, producing results

WE WORK TOGETHER as co-directors of the Indigenous Settler Relations Collaboration, a research unit at the University of Melbourne. In this context, our working relationship requires a high level of trust, but as an Indigenous person (Sana is a Torres Strait Islander) and a non-Indigenous person (Sarah is a white settler), we don’t take the trust between us for granted. We are conscious that relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers do not generally have a bank of trust for either side to draw upon in difficult times, which means Indigenous-settler relations are always contingent, always at risk. To further understanding of these challenges, we have staged a number of public conversations that explore the question of trust in our professional relationship. Prompted by a single question – ‘Do you trust me?’ – these conversations have changed over time to explore different aspects of the positionality and conditionality of trust between Indigenous peoples and settlers through the lens of our own working relationship. Here, we have edited one conversation about building trust in each other over time.

SANA: When I reflect on why I work with you, and why I trust you, it’s very much grounded in a realisation that the work came first, and the relationship of trust followed.

SARAH: Yes, we barely knew each other when we both stumbled into this working space. Most people probably assume we had this long history together, but we barely knew each other.

SANA: Do you know – I just remembered this! There was a meeting you organised to bring together a range of people who might be interested in talking about institutional change in the Faculty of Arts and across the humanities and social sciences [at the University of Melbourne], and no one came. It was just you and me in that room, and I think that says something…

SARAH: I’d forgotten that. Illustrious beginnings!

SANA: There was a shared purpose from the outset in that we both wanted to find ways for Indigenous research and Indigenous researchers to be more supported and valued in an environment that constantly pushed this work to the margins. But we’ve also built a practice over the last couple of years as the two people who turn up to the space to do the work.

SARAH: For me, too, the work itself has always been central, and the need to think carefully about how to do that work together effectively is a large part of what has actually made that work possible.

SANA: The role trust plays is that it has not been an absolute concept. It hasn’t been the situation where there’s a full cup of trust in this hand and complete cynicism and distrust in the other. There is this movement of trust between us at different points in time that allows us to do the work even when it’s difficult.

The first time we had this conversation in a room with our collaborators, I commented that I trust you explicitly rather than implicitly. It’s interesting to consider what is required for trust to exist in a context where there are all these dimensions of power in our relationship, and audiences can read those in different ways. I didn’t turn up to that room years ago because I trusted you, but because I trusted myself to make good decisions in that room. Good decisions that would ultimately improve the opportunities and environment for Aboriginal and Islander students and colleagues in the faculty. And myself, of course. I was thinking of myself.

I think to have trusted you implicitly would have been naive: naive to the possibility that you might exploit or take advantage of me, use me as a legitimising presence for your own agendas. I don’t trust anyone implicitly. I grew up on university campuses, at the interface between Indigenous scholars and the academic institution. I just know too much to trust implicitly.

So when I said I trusted you explicitly, what I meant was not that there was no trust but that it was a considered trust. One that was generous but also very hesitant in those early moments, and that transformed over time as we kept turning up to the same space, with a shared purpose, and slowly began to get things done: shifting Indigenous research and researchers out of the diversity portfolio, aligning faculty strategy with university strategy. As we’ve done the work, the trust has built. My trust in you, but also my trust in myself to be able to navigate all the complexity that goes with choosing to work together.

It makes me wonder a lot about what kinds of experiences of trust you’ve had that make it possible for you to step into these working relationships – even when you’ve had challenging experiences in the past. How does trust work for you?

SARAH: So one of the things I’m aware of in myself is that since I first decided I wanted to work on Indigenous politics as a newly minted PhD graduate, and every non-Indigenous colleague around me said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s too fraught, it’s too difficult, you’ll be torn apart,’ I had to decide to back myself! I told myself it was okay because that’s what academia is for. Criticism is our currency, right?

I mean that sounds kind of naive now because I have since seen and experienced some of the kinds of violence that can take place in this space. I’ve seen it between Indigenous scholars and I’ve also been on the receiving end of some pretty nasty stuff from time to time, sometimes because I’d fucked up and sometimes just because I’ve been a white person in the space. But in my early career, I had to back myself, to believe I had something to contribute to this space. And that’s a very white thing to do!

Honestly, I don’t think I would make that choice now. The world has changed in the last fifteen years, and there has been this fantastic blossoming and growth of so many amazing Indigenous scholars like you all around the country. If I was in my early career again, I would be of the view that there are enough Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars in this space or coming into this space that I really would just be in the way. But I didn’t feel that then, and for better or worse I do feel like I have made a contribution.

One dimension of that was the background I brought to the decision when I was in my thirties. Before I even went to university as an undergraduate (in my mid-twenties), I’d worked in a particular Aboriginal community in the city, and that experience fostered my deep belief that creating more just relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian state is one of the most profound and important challenges this country faces. I’ve always felt like if we could get that right, or at least better, it would actually unlock some of the other challenges we’re facing around climate, around refugees. I still believe settler Australia is so blinded by the moral illegitimacy of our foundational relationship that it actually makes us a morally less capable place in a range of other ways.

SANA: That view of Indigenous-settler relations as such an integral part of the fabric of Australia – that, for better or for worse, Australia being a colonial apparatus, those relations are central and foundational to the politics of this continent – is something I also share. That Aboriginal and Islander politics is not peripheral to the real politics of Australia, or to the mainstream politics of Australia. That we’re not on the edges of anything, and that all politics that takes place on this country is a politics about us, whether it’s done with us or not.

SARAH: Yes, I think that binds us in a shared purpose even though our pathways towards and through that purpose are often quite different. I think we’re really bound in our rejection of the common understanding that Indigenous politics is some sort of minority politics. For me it’s the only politics of any interest! I’m really proud of the work we’re doing within our own discipline of political science, particularly the article we wrote together that points to the ways in which the apparently neutral institutions of our political system are in fact colonial and colonising. I think we share an understanding that centring this view of politics is also central to the work of institutional transformation.

Sana: Yes, absolutely. The work we’re now trying to do both within and against the politics discipline has been a product of building trust. It’s not necessarily work I expected we would do together, particularly when our politics on more day-to-day issues are often very different. But I think our sense of the responsibility of politics as a discipline of thought in Australia today is something we agree on quite easily.

Can I ask one more question? Before your PhD, you were working in Redfern as a youth worker and support person in the justice system. Did you have a sense of whether Aboriginal people or that particular Aboriginal community had trust in you? I guess what I’m asking is did you need to have the trust of Aboriginal people first to be able to back yourself in that way? Or do you think backing yourself has helped Aboriginal people and Islanders like me to trust you in turn?

SARAH: Honestly, I look back on that time when I was first a youth worker in Redfern and Waterloo with a kind of horror. I went into that work so staggeringly naive – just staggeringly naive – and ill-informed, which tells us a lot about our education system. Yet I was in a role where the relationships I had with young Aboriginal people were incredibly raw. I was working with young people who were living in very difficult circumstances in a part of Sydney where they were routinely brutalised by the police, almost daily, and where their home lives were often very difficult as a direct result of child removal polices of the past. In fact, the moment where the lightbulb went on for me was while I was talking to a young woman I was working with who had a baby of her own. She was talking about her parents and the fact that both her parents and her grandparents had been removed from their families as part of previous policies. This was the late 1980s, before the Bringing Them Home report. We didn’t have the language of Stolen Generations; child removal policy wasn’t really on the public radar, it wasn’t talked about except as this long-ago thing that had happened. I can visualise that moment, I can visualise that young woman, I can see her standing there holding her baby and we’re having a chat and there was just this moment where something historical came into sharp, immediate, present-day focus. And that was a transformative moment for me.

So that’s a bit of a digression, but it is to say that I did have relationships with those young people that were trusting. It was through this work that I started to really educate myself. I’ve written about how, following that insight, I did what a lot of white people do and I took the overwhelming sense of guilt and anxiety that accompanied my new knowledge of Australian history, and I dumped it on an Aboriginal person. So many white people do this! It’s terrible. But I took all these feelings and I went to talk to an older woman in the community and told her I felt really paralysed and like I didn’t know what to do. And I’ve always been so grateful for her generosity because she didn’t just tell me to go away and get over myself, she put her arm around me and she said, ‘Don’t be guilty, dort, just be really, really angry!’ And that was a statement of trust that has been really sustaining because she was telling me not to sit around staring at my navel, but to go and do some good work. I carry that. I carry that as a really important guiding principle. It has to be about the work.

SANA: So do you think it took trust for that young woman to tell you her story? There was trust there?

SARAH: A lot of trust. Those kids knew they could come to that service, which had a mixture of Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, and they could bring substance abuse issues, they could bring criminal justice issues, they could bring family issues. As a worker in those spaces you had to police some boundaries because they were often very intimate relationships. You were often working with kids in extraordinarily vulnerable situations and there had to be a lot of trust. If you were working with a kid in crisis who wanted to abuse substances, or wanted to self-harm, or wanted to commit crime – which a lot of those kids would do as a means of feeling okay in the world again, of feeling a sense of power and control – then you had to find a point of relevance. Why would that kid want to engage with you rather than go out and do any of those things they knew would produce a kind of instant balm or salve to those really raw feelings? You know that young woman I was just talking about – her sister was one of the kids I engaged with most deeply and long term, and when she died I felt the extraordinary weight of that loss for that community of young people, and for that community of Aboriginal people. Those are the kinds of experiences that make you confront the outrageous structural injustice of this country that is built upon that young woman’s family and the generations before it that have been dispossessed and marginalised and brutalised – and it’s still happening for her and her generation.

So did they trust me? Yes, I reckon they did.

I want to come back to something. We’ve talked about the ways trust in ourselves has allowed us to trust in each other, but are there other things you have brought to this or I have demonstrated or we have together nurtured that have allowed that trust to deepen?

SANA: Yes, of course! I think initially the shared purpose was clear, so I think my tentativeness in shaping up what this could be or what this might look like, or what might even be possible to accomplish, was informed in large part by the fact that I’d never really worked with anyone. I was in my very early career, I’d never co-authored anything with anyone, I’d never been on a research team, I’d never had a cohort.

So my first piece of work had nothing to do with Indigenous-settler dynamics and more to do with having to make a decision about whether I was going to be a solo academic or a collaborative academic. As the child of academics, I had witnessed all sorts of difficult collaborations. I grew up seeing a whole range of really powerful research and intellectual collaborations take shape. Some produced exceptional work that will have a future of its own in the academy long past the end of its authors’ lives, but there has also sometimes been a really agonising and gut-wrenching dimension to it. I witnessed a lot of important personal friendships and relationships disintegrate. So I carried with me in that tentativeness a pull between the possibility that I might actually have a co-conspirator on a set of problems and issues I wanted to make a contribution to, and the fear that it could all blow up.

Even though I was isolated as a university student, there was also freedom in just being an independent agent. Then all of a sudden, I was in this space as an early career academic. If I were ever to do this work on Indigenous-settler relations by myself, it would be fifteen or twenty years down the track – or I could do it right then, with you. That was a big call. I felt like I hadn’t quite earned my stripes, research-wise, and I also knew that this kind of work can’t really be done without forging significant personal relationships. I’d never done that before, and I knew it came with this huge risk of blowing up in my face.

Where the trust is for me, and how that trust built over time, came from the fact that you always turned up. It’s still one of the things I admire about you. I see your diary now and I don’t know how you manage to turn up to all the spaces that you do, but you’re in the room when it counts. I’ve never been shut out or left out in the cold or left to guess. We’ve had really wonderful intellectual conversations about our respective work, in which we see quite clearly both our shared understanding of the world and also how we end up in totally different positions, and what we think that means in terms of things like Indigenous autonomy and governmental reform.

For me, being able to have intellectual disagreements that aren’t personal and aren’t hostile: that’s where I was able to begin to trust that we could do this work. That it didn’t have to end in a hugely traumatising, explosive finale.

SARAH: I remember one of our earliest conversations about trust where I named it. The fact that I trusted you and that you seemed to trust me came upon me with a bit of surprise. I remember I said, ‘I think we can do this work because we trust each other.’ But I think I also said something like, ‘But you know we can never have a falling out.’ Maybe I’m stupid to trust in that, but I believe we’ve got this commitment – that we’re not going to have a falling out, we’re going to work shit through. If we ever do find ourselves in a situation where we radically disagree about strategy or what we’re trying to do in the institutional space – not intellectual disagreements because those are stimulating – but if we should ever find ourselves in a position where we disagree about the other stuff, I trust that we would work it through respectfully and carefully and that we would never take each other down. That seems unimaginable to me at this point in our relationship.

SANA: I don’t know that it’s unimaginable for me. I can imagine the end of days, so I can imagine things well short of that quite easily! But what I realise is that those things along the way that have built trust between us have also helped me to see where my trust in myself comes from. I know that my response to conflict is one that works hard to maintain respect and space for people to always speak their mind, whether I agree or not. This is something that has generated out of mutual shared purpose; we’ve talked back and forth about a whole range of potential projects and strategic approaches, and we talk each other in and out of things all the time. Where we land is always in a place that, to date, has been exceptionally effective and has enabled us to bring together a whole range of other scholars who also work in similar ways and bring a similar kind of disposition and ethic to this space.

I trust you because over the last few years you’ve turned up every single time. We haven’t always agreed, but that hasn’t resulted in the end of days. You’ve protected me from conversations and work within the faculty that I haven’t wanted to do. You’ve backed me even when perhaps you haven’t needed to and I’ve made you my messenger on certain problems and questions. I’ve taken credit for things that you’ve been fundamentally instrumental in. I think I’ve pushed you more than you’ve pushed me in some respects, in terms of having to front up and do the work and not do it once, but do it over and over and over again.

I don’t feel like any of that is necessary now. Early on there was a time where I’d go through anything that happened where I wasn’t in the room with a fine toothcomb. I needed to know what was said and I’d always ask, ‘What does Sarah mean when she says this?’ Over time it’s just become clear that Sarah means what she says! To me that’s been a really key tipping point in terms of how we actually work on a day-to-day basis – and that’s trust. That’s how trust has been built over time, how it moves towards the implicit from the explicit.

There have been moments where we’ve had to drag each other through different kinds of dead ends, where one or other of us has felt beaten or disheartened. In the space we work in, at the time we’ve worked in it, there is actually no way we could have done it without each other.

I think that’s something worth highlighting about how Indigenous-settler relations come to function in an institution like this. Because there are parts of the institution that can move with really strong Indigenous leadership, and there are other parts that don’t. Being one of very few Indigenous academics in this space makes it very difficult to do certain kinds of work, and you – for all the experience and seniority and authority that goes with being a professor in the discipline – you couldn’t work in this space anymore without an Indigenous collaborator.

When I think about other people trying to do this kind of work and trying to do it together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working towards a shared purpose, I would want them to understand that the success or effectiveness of their work isn’t going to just float to the surface through a strong interpersonal dynamic.

SARAH: It’s a grind.

SANA: Yes. This is work. It’s work that the institution has often wanted to make invisible, has not wanted to value, has not wanted to recognise in certain ways. It is work that has disproportionately fallen to Aboriginal people and Islanders working in these spaces, where we can never be sure if our work is being used to legitimise existing practices, or if it comes with a genuine commitment to reform, if not something greater. If we’re going to provide any kind of message or narrative of what this working relationship has required, I wouldn’t want to do it in a way that makes that work invisible just because we like each other. Because I think when people don’t see that work, there’s a risk they’ll step in and try to do it themselves and not realise how fraught it is.

In our different ways, for different reasons, we still have to navigate the optics of our working relationship every day. We both carry the risk that goes with doing that, and that takes communication, it takes honesty, it takes trust, and for me it takes a whole series of quite micro-level decisions on a week-to-week basis about what I will and will not do, about which meetings I will and won’t show up to… I don’t want people to think that–

SARAH: –you can make the change or you can do the work by just getting along.

SANA: Yes, exactly. Friendship is nice, and trust is really useful, but there’s also labour that goes into committing to the work. That’s where we started.

Neither of us has ever shied away from doing the hard and difficult bit, and I think that’s what makes it look easy. But what people really need to know and understand is that this is hard, hard work. And it’s always going to be hard work. The trick is in trusting that doing this hard thing is also going to be worth it.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review