Indigenous allyship: principles and practice

RDI Network
November 2021
8 min read

Being an ally means supporting the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Indigenous peoples in a way that is meaningful and respectful to them. 
“We need good allies. We are only three per cent of the Australian population. We can’t raise the profile of issues affecting us without our allies.” – Summer May Finlay, Yorta Yorta woman, public health practitioner, academic and writer. 
Below we outline some takeaways on steps to being an effective ally, and what it means. The information below is not exhaustive. The focus of our summary is on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, Indigenous peoples face similar challenges and opportunities globally. We recognise the diversity within and between Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, the points below have some relevance to Indigenous peoples globally, although the Indigenous experience within other contexts should be considered in approaches to rights and allyship.
Allyship as a spectrum. 
Finlay who we quoted above, identifies allies as people who mean well and do the right things most of the time. Allies are proactive in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space. For example, an ally will stand up to blatant racism. They (allies) promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices above their own, they appreciate that Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander people have been discriminated against and are still marginalised, and will be vocal on such issues though may not do so if it threatens their own standing.
Finlay, distinguishes between allies and accomplices. Accomplices take allyship further. Accomplices stand and act with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, allow Indigenous people to define the issue and the action. They don’t step away when things get tough, and are committed to addressing inequities, regardless of the personal or professional cost. Accomplices also recognise their own privilege.
Being an ally requires individual action. Below are seven actions people can take to be a good ally.

  1. If you witness racism, say something
  2. Don’t expect Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people to educate you
  3. Appreciate the diversity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  4. Please stick with us even when things are tough
  5. Promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices
  6. Be prepared to not be part of decision making
  7. Don’t go it alone, support Indigenous leaders

In addition to these steps (also provided by Summer May Finlay) we add the importance of individual approach to decolonisation. For example, personal reflection on worldviews, and steps to learn of and from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 
For workplaces, 10 key points for organisations to improve workplace inclusion.
The following 10 points come from a report titled Gari Yala (speak the truth in Wiradjuri language). The report identified the following steps as important for workplace inclusion. 

  1. Ask Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff about how it is to work there. Listen to what you are told with an open heart, however uncomfortable this may be.
  2. Ensure any Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander-related work is led and informed by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. This means engaging with Indigenous people both inside and outside your organisation.
  3. Develop principles for your organisation that guide how Indigenous community engagement and employment should work in practice.
  4. Don’t focus on getting Indigenous people “work-ready”. Focus on your organisation’s readiness to employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  5. Recognise identity strain, and educate non-Indigenous staff about how to reduce this.
  6. Recognise that cultural load exists, is real and is a burden. Recognise it in job descriptions and compensate for it.
  7. Consult with Indigenous staff on how to minimise cultural load while increasing cultural safety.
  8. Build better careers for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people by supporting career development and leadership development.
  9. Act on workplace racism including formal racism complaint procedures are uncommon.
  10. Look to high-impact initiatives that evidence-based research shows increase Indigenous employees’ well-being and retention. These include formal career development programs, mentoring and support, anti-discrimination training and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days and weeks of significance.

Program approaches that support Indigenous self-determination 
Program approaches that support self-determination, that is, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples’ control over their own destinies, are consistent with being an effective ally. This includes program approaches that support the ability of Indigenous people to live freely and equally, and recognise their rights and custodianship associated with being First Nations peoples.
The approaches outlined in other RDI listicles on Indigenous partnerships, copyright and intellectual property, provide examples of such program approaches. In addition, there is also a role for allies to challenge structures and systems antagonistic to self-determination. Including those which non-Indigenous people benefit from. For example, advocating for policy and legislative change with Indigenous partners.
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