NAIDOC Week is a time to reflect and celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to recognize them as the Traditional Custodians of the land in Australia.
This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is ‘Heal Country!’ This means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage and ensuring that the culture and values of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander people are respected now and into the future.
In honour of NAIDOC Week, we sat down with Natalie Cromb, a First Nations woman belonging to the Gomeroi Nation, and a member of the Legal team at WiseTech Global. Natalie shared with us her journey to becoming a lawyer, how her passion for law reform and human rights is helping to create a more equitable society, and what NAIDOC Week and Heal Country! means to her.
When did you join WiseTech Global?
I joined WiseTech at the end of 2017 during a period of rapid growth where we worked predominantly on M&A transactions. Since then, we've pivoted our focus quite a lot, so now I mainly work on supporting ongoing needs of the business from commercial contracting, employment matters, integration projects, compliance and governance projects.
When did you realize you wanted to be a lawyer?
In high school I was very interested in legal studies and found it aligned with my goals for social justice. I was offered a place at the University of New South Wales but ultimately completed my studies through flexible distance education at Charles Sturt University to allow me to work full-time, funding my own studies while ensuring I could also support my family and community.
Can you share a little bit about where you grew up?
I grew up in Tamworth which is in rural New South Wales. My family is from Tamworth and Coonabarabran, which are the town names but it's actually part of an expansive Aboriginal country called Gomeroi country, and we’re the Gamilaraay people of the Gomeroi country. We’re from the Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve outside Coonabarabran in Warrumbungle country.
Our country is one of rolling hills and mountains above vast bushland and grasslands. The Gamilaraay people of which I belong, were and are a matriarchal people that tracked star systems and cared for country based upon the seasonal changes of the stars. Our kinship structures are best described as a circle of reciprocity and this extends beyond the individual.
I’m a proud descendant of Mary Jane Cain, my great, great, great, great grandmother. In the 1880’s she began her advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal people to be safe from violence and persecution. She lobbied and in June 1893, at the age of 49, Mary Jane wrote a letter to Queen Victoria asking for a parcel of her traditional homelands to protect Aboriginal people. She was granted the Forky Mountain area and founded the Burra Bee Dee mission in 1908. She raised goats and provided school, home and protection for the Aboriginal people of the community while continuing to agitate for protection of Aboriginal people her whole life.
The Burra Bee Dee Reserve remains just outside of Coonabarabran to this day, where cultural activities continue to take place and where there is a small cemetery where the Aboriginal people descended from her are laid to rest.
Who have been your mentors or role models who have inspired you in your life?
Apart from being a descendent of one of the first land rights activists in this country, my Aunts and my Grandfather were significant role models for me.
My Aunts and Grandfather espoused the principles of cultural kinship and responsibility but also prepared me for the world around me, educating me at a young age about why I was seen as different when I was little and confused at the names being levelled at me in the school yard. Growing up in a country town at that time, one of the only points of difference was Aboriginality – so that was something I was very aware of when socialising in the non-Indigenous community. I wrote about some of these experiences in the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia.
My Grandfather was particularly fond of dinner table lessons where we were taught the political landscape of Australia and the historical struggle for rights, as well as what needed to be done. My Grandfather was not considered a citizen until 1967 despite being of this land. He experienced enormous hardship and devastation in his life, but to the entire community of Coonabarabran (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) he was known for Sunday lunches. Anyone in the town who was hungry was welcomed to come and have a lunch. He cooked, fed and told stories until his passing in 2020 (during but not because of the COVID pandemic).
As far as non-familial inspirations, Maya Angelou and her literature has been one of my main educators in terms of human rights advocacy and examining structures through the lens of critical examination of race and ethnocentrism. Her prevailing notion of love and humanity is deeply inspirational given it can often be hard on the soul to give so much to justice advocacy and still see pervasive racism in society.
Another mentor who has been impactful in my life was Professor Sue Green (then at UNSW) who provided very close guidance in my early years at university. She knew my family responsibilities, community and cultural responsibilities but also how I operated as a person. Her early advice to me was to look for balance as I navigated my career and community responsibilities to ensure I did not end up burnt out from giving so much intellectual and emotional labour to one endeavour.
Today, my career enables me to put my legal knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills to good use purely for the purposes set out by the business. This allows me to indulge in critical thinking without the emotional weight of cultural responsibility. Outside of my day job is where my cultural and community responsibilities kick in. I undertake community work in a number of ways, from writing, mentoring, advising and advocating for human rights with a focus on Indigenous advancement. I know that if I was working purely in social justice I probably would have burnt out by now, so that advice from Professor Green definitely helped me find balance.
What sort of social justice and human rights advocacy work do you do?
Outside of work I’m an advocate in the social justice space and am also a writer. I mentor and develop early career writers and support a number of publishers with increasing their diversity. Through writing, speaking and my advocacy work, I have been requested to provide support in working groups and advisory groups. One such group I’m currently part of is drafting the instruments required to try and ratify the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Other working groups may be things like creating models of structural reform, examining areas of law that are problematic and raising the profile of such issues.
I’m passionate about supporting justice initiatives that work to hold Australian institutions to a higher standard, and to encourage them to critically self-reflect on their place and their responsibility in advancing all the issues in this country, not just Indigenous peoples issues.
Pro bono legal advice and community advocacy is a particular area that I invest time into, also in support of frontline community services that work so hard to support vulnerable members of our community. It can be as simple as supporting someone financially for electricity costs. It can be transport, food, groceries and basic essentials to things like navigating NDIS for mothers who need access to support their children with additional needs.
While I am culturally required to provide support to my people in any and every way I can, it’s not lost on me that I am immensely privileged to have had the education I had and the advice along the way from people I love and admire. The ultimate aim of everything we do in the social justice space is to contribute to the movement towards a more equitable society.
What does NAIDOC Week, and this year’s theme is ‘Heal Country, heal our nation’, mean to you?
NAIDOC stands for the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee, and it’s a significant week for Indigenous communities around the country. For me, NAIDOC Week is a symbol of the nation taking pause to contemplate our country and its history, and the continued presence of Aboriginal people here.
There are a lot of tangible ways that both people and organisations in Australia are working to really acknowledge that this is, and always has been Aboriginal land, and they’re taking steps to acknowledge that it's a coexistence as opposed to the long-held narrative of this country being ‘settled ‘.
This year’s theme, ‘Heal Country, heal our nation’ is particularly meaningful given all that has transpired in recent years. On my homelands, there are a number of destructive coal seam gas mines that have decimated the land and ecosystems. Fresh water creeks and streams are now flammable and there have been a number of massive ‘fish kills’ from river systems ceasing to flow during periods of drought where the commercial draining of the river systems was not reduced in line with prevailing conditions.
Despite my personal thoughts on governmental environmental policy, I have been impressed to see some of the measures we are seeing within corporate Australia in marking NAIDOC week over recent years. In line with the thematic of this year, I’ve seen companies run tree planting days, I’ve seen companies buy merch from ecologically sustainable companies, and make financial decisions to bank with certain companies that refuse to support destructive organisations.
But I think most importantly, seeing companies taking the lead in acknowledging history and collective accountability is the most gratifying thing to see because this means that any initiatives that are brought into a company through this lens will be meaningful, rather than a box ticking exercise.
What can organizations do to better support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?
I think it all starts with having conversations and being committed to the learning process that is involved in making sense of the very complicated history we have in this country. Then it’s about seeing what is the right fit for the particular business and the industry it operates within.
Beyond making choices commercially that align with the principles of inclusivity and sustainability, we should be creating deliberate pathways for diversity and measuring ourselves, holding ourselves accountable and taking a continuous improvement approach.
What advice would you give to young Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people wanting to pursue a career in law or technology?
My advice would be to seek out the pathways and opportunities that already exist, then identify and reach out to mentors in the industry. From a legal perspective, there are a number of incredible opportunities among law firms and the Bar Association that support and mentor law students and early career professionals.
From a tech perspective, there are some really amazing Indigenous tech organisations and companies that provide guidance to those wanting to carve a path in the industry, but there is also scope for mentoring in the mainstream technology space.
What can individuals do to be respectful, genuine allies to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
Advice that was always drilled into me as a kid with Aunties was to “use your ears and mouth in the ratio they were given.” I think when learning anything, but particularly when learning something as important as how to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is to listen intently with an open heart.
Provide support in your presence, carve out space where you can, ensure the spaces you carve out are culturally safe spaces and inclusive.