Melbourne Business School News Indigenous Business Month finds new ways of connecting during COVID-19

Indigenous Business Month finds new ways of connecting during COVID-19

Indigenous leaders are using technology to connect with culture, community and clients during COVID-19.

Annette Sax of Yarn Strong Sista

October 2020 marks the sixth annual Indigenous Business Month, founded by alumni of the MURRA Indigenous Business Program at Melbourne Business School.

The theme of this year's event is "Invigorate, Build, Maintain", which is particularly relevant for Indigenous business leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yarn Strong Sista is one example of how the challenges of 2020 have led to new ways of doing business.

An Aboriginal education consultancy, Yarn Strong Sista works in the area of early childhood teaching. From collating Aboriginal children's books to sourcing ethically made artefacts such as clapsticks and boomerangs, it also delivers workshops to connect people with Aboriginal culture, values and pedagogy.

"March and April were incredibly stressful months," says owner Annette Sax.

"We didn’t know if our 19 year-old small business would survive. All our face-to-face Aboriginal cultural workshops were cancelled. The worry of not being able to employ our staff, most of whom are Aboriginal, was huge."

The pressure also inspired some radical thinking.

"We went into survival mode, completed a risk analysis and looked at ways to pivot Yarn Strong Sista. The result was a model of built authentic experiences in online Aboriginal education as we inspired new thinking in this digital learning phase."

This thinking led to the Koori Courts Possum Skin Cloak Project, delivered online.

Holding a significant place in the life of an Aboriginal person, the possum skin is a child's first blanket. Incised with symbols on its underside that are significant to the clan group, the possum skin connected the child spiritually to the land and spirit ancestors.

Used in everyday and ceremonial life, over time, pelts and symbols would be added so that the skin would grow with the child. At the end of life, people were often buried in the possum skin that had been their cloak and their blanket, and the link to their place and the spiritual realm.

With dispossession of Aboriginal lands, the possum skin was replaced with blankets by missionaries. It did not offer the same protection and, for South Eastern Australia's First Nations people, it represented dispossession and a forced rejection of culture.

"I ran several Zoom workshops with Aboriginal men receiving support from Galiamble (Men’s Rehabilitation Centre in St Kilda). I shared cultural knowledge of possum skin cloak-making and the men designed, burnt and painted with ochre their possum pelts. At such a stressful time in their lives reconnecting with culture was so healing for them."

The beneficial impact of culture delivered online will be a key feature of other programs as well. In 2021, Yarn Strong Sista will deliver all its mentoring and cultural competency workshops with early childhood professionals online. Participants take part in art experiences and oral storytelling as a way of connecting with Aboriginal culture.

"Educators and teachers are essential services providers who are under massive stress right now. They can really benefit from our Aboriginal Arts program that focuses on health and wellbeing."

The experience of Yarn Strong Sista is similar to that of many Indigenous businesses in recent months.

"We've found that COVID-19 has accelerated the plans of many business owners to expand their presence online,” says MURRA co-founder Associate Professor Michelle Evans.

"That, in itself, isn’t such a surprise. Businesses across Australia have all had to pivot and technology is now a big part of their strategy. The interesting thing to observe is how leadership was exercised by Indigenous business owners, and the impact of the use of technology on the community.

"Rather than investing in it solely as a way to broaden their market, their primary objective has been to connect with the community at this really difficult time. And the by-product of that has been new avenues of sales, because people have seen the way Indigenous culture can provide comfort and wellbeing.

"We’ve seen this in Indigenous businesses in native foods and performing arts. The technology has allowed entrepreneurs to connect with people far away and offer support through workshops and networks. Through this, they've found new markets."

While these stories are encouraging examples of growth and adaption, the immediate challenge for the Indigenous business sector is to ensure that the hard-fought gains of the past decade are not lost.

"Indigenous Business Month is running again this October, but like everyone else, we’re delivering it online," says Associate Professor Evans.

"We know that businesses everywhere are doing it tough, but stories like this tell us how resilient First Nations businesses are. Indigenous people have been in business for 60,000 years. We've experienced challenges before, and 2020 will be just another challenge in our long history that will enable us to adapt and to show how culture is more relevant than ever."

For more information, visit the Indigenous Business Month website.

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