The more you know the more you don’t know

Sitting in a lounge room in Broken Hill, I felt like I had jumped off a cliff and taken a whole room with me.

In late 2014 I was privileged enough to lead a group of travellers on a learning journey through the Murray Darling Basin. We talked our way through the Basin, meeting Aboriginal communities and Elders, non-Aboriginal Australians, farmers, business people and engineers. We broke out of our life bubbles and learnt together about some of Australia’s shared history, the realities of life in regional Australia and some peoples’ visions for our future.

One of the reasons that I was selected as a facilitator for this tour was my experience working with the Engineers Without Borders Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program as a volunteer. Whilst I am not an Aboriginal Australian, I felt comfortable in my knowledge, my role as learning support for the group, as well as being someone who could lead discussions or be asked difficult questions. Throughout the build up to this tour I had bolstered my knowledge and research of Traditional Owners Country that we were travelling through. On the trip I was constantly looking forward to the next place and learning as much as I could to be of support to our participants.

We researched and used a number of case studies on the trip that would serve as examples for discussion. One case was Australia’s first known use of the Restorative Justice process in Cultural Heritage management. In that case, Pinnacle Mines, a Broken Hill based mining company, had knowingly and willingly destroyed a site of Cultural Significance to the local Traditional Owners, the Wilyakali people. Through the Restorative Justice process Craig Williams (owner and CEO of Pinnacle Mines) and Wilyakali elders met in mediated conversations to achieve a mutually beneficial resolution. In that resolution, Pinnacle Mines was ordered to pay $1400 plus legal costs and implement a number of actions including a cultural heritage management plan, employment opportunities for local Aboriginal people at the mine and having Traditional Owners employed onsite as Cultural Heritage monitors.

Participatory processes such as this, where stakeholders are full participants, often have different outcomes to the adversarial approaches commonly used by courts. Where participatory approaches allow for full expression and work towards mutual understanding of values and differences, adversarial approaches can limit discussion and lead to a winner/loser mentality. Participatory approaches often also lead to two way education and an empathetic understanding of the other parties involved in a dispute. Everything I had read outlined this case as a model process for cross-cultural justice. I was very excited about the potential for such a system to resolve this style of conflict.

In Broken Hill, we were fortunate enough to spend a morning with one of the key elders involved. After interrupting her morning tea, she graciously took nine of us into her living room and talked openly. Whilst many of us were optimistic about the restorative justice process, we were told in no uncertain terms that the process had failed the Wilyakali people and that the relationship with Pinnacle Mines has broken down to the point that Wilyakali representatives no longer have access to the mine site (on recognised sacred ground) and are unable to contact Pinnacles Mines representatives.

This was just one example throughout 16 days on the road where my preconceived knowledge was challenged. It served as a strong example to me that I knew just enough, to know worse than nothing. If I were to be working with Wilyakali people and were to cite that case as a successful outcome for both the community and corporation I would lose any and all respect that I could possibly have already earned.

This case was a reminder to me, that the more you know, the more detail there is to know nothing about. It was a reminder that the only place to begin engaging with people and to learn from is the place of not knowing. To start without assumptions and to ask questions. To assume that we know what is important to others, from outside is patronising and insulting.