One year of NIAA: Ray Griggs and Letitia Hope reflect on the COVID-19 threat to Indigenous communities and Black Lives Matter

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday July 7, 2020


The work that the one-year-old National Indigenous Australians Agency has undertaken to build strong relationships across jurisdictions and within remote communities has been crucial to the organisation’s successful COVID-19 response, according to NIAA deputy CEO Letitia Hope.

Speaking on the latest episode of Work with Purpose — in recognition of what would have normally been NAIDOC Week — Hope and the agency’s inaugural CEO Ray Griggs reflected on the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic to Australia’s remote Indigenous populations and the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Protecting Indigenous communities during COVID-19

Griggs noted that while no remote Indigenous communities have contracted the virus, it was important to not become complacent as restrictions ease across the country.

“I think we’ve got to be really alive to the fact that the threat to remote Indigenous communities has not changed. It’s just that the measures that were taken early on were effective,” he said.

NIAA realised early on that the metropolitan response to the pandemic wasn’t going to work in remote communities. Griggs said that was a “very important first step” which led to a team effort between the Department of Health, the Aboriginal health sector, and local leaders and communities.

Many remote communities faced challenges — or “confidence issues” as Griggs described it — when it came to travel restrictions, the provision of medical services and supplies, and securing food supplies, which NIAA had to address.

“If food security couldn’t be maintained, then people were going to up sticks, leave their communities, go into regional centres, potentially be exposed to the virus and then come back, just to get the basics that they needed,” he said.

“So food security was a challenge and of course, it was compounded by the panic buying in the cities, which then had a direct ripple effect right through to remote stores and the grocery supply system into remote communities, which is only about 2% of the national grocery market. From our perspective, it was the epicentre because it meant that without it, that confidence issue couldn’t be maintained.”

To tackle the food security issue, NIAA had to raise awareness of the situation among manufacturers, wholesalers, and the big supermarket chains. It did so through the national coordination mechanism, and the creation of a food security working group.

The agency also involved the Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australian, and South Australian governments to ensure there was a strong focus on “removing roadblocks to getting food through”.

Read more: Indigenous Affairs’ latest shakeup brings in a former military chief

Utilising relationships

With roughly 70 sites across the country, NIAA has built a strong national presence and formed relationships with local and state governments, and the Indigenous community sector, Hope noted. She said these connections were crucial during the pandemic.

“So being able to draw on those relationship investments in a time like this, where it was fundamental to get really good quality intel and information from the ground up, but also work cross-jurisdictionally around approaches, was really fundamental,” she said.

NIAA also reorganised its regional teams and placed more senior staff across the country in December, which Griggs argued “really paid dividends” by allowing employees to “cement” themselves into the varying state and territory systems — including their crisis management processes.

“We were deeply embedded across, I think it was about 40 or 50 different working groups and structures across the four states. And it wasn’t just as an observer, we were active participants. And again, I think it really built on the depth of those relationships that we had built over time,” he said.

“I would really like to see that level of collaboration continue, and we will continue to work on that … I think what COVID has done for us is really, it’s made our regional teams understand just how important their role is from the centre.”

The importance of those regional teams was emphasised early on in the pandemic, when anxiety emerged in remote communities.

“Dare I say, there was a lot of fake news. Our regional presence was able to get to the nub of the story,” Griggs said.

“And of course, particularly having an Indigenous cabinet minister, he was also getting fed a lot of information, and we were able to say to him we believe that’s true or not true. And that of course helped him triage what he had to do. Reinforcing the value of our regional teams and the ability to gather the on-ground intelligence and bring it back, synthesise it and work with it in those circumstances, I really want to see that stick on the other side of this from an organisational perspective.”

On Black Lives Matter

Griggs expressed gratitude for the way his colleagues have handled the international Black Lives Matter movement, which, in Australia, has drawn attention to this nation’s own relationship with its Indigenous populations, with a particular focus on the more than 430 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991.

“We have around 24% of agency staff who are Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander. And clearly, these are real heartland issues for our staff, and I have been immensely impressed at the way that collectively, they have dealt with these issues and still remained professional public servants. Because this is a really, really difficult challenge for the team to deal with,” he said.

“We try and create a space in the agency to have these really difficult conversations and we deal with a lot of very difficult policy issues on a day-to-day basis. And a lot of them, they go back 230 years.”

He argued that the only way to make change is to do it one person at a time.

“And every single person has to be involved in our reconciliation journey, and they have to do it through the contacts they make, the way they talk, the way they interact, the way they listen, the way they learn,” he said.

Reflecting on the ongoing protests and rallies, Hope explained how some of NIAA’s important work — including its Indigenous voice co-design process and truth-telling initiatives — relate to the global movement.

“So the first thing I would say is that protests are often the result of people who feel they haven’t been heard and don’t have a voice. So the work that the agency is doing led by the minister on the voice, both the national voice and the local regional voice, is a really sentinel part of work to this. I really do believe that,” she said.

“We’re at a really important time in our nation. I mean, COVID has been historically significant. It’s been anthropologically significant, and I think that there is an emergence that comes out of conversations and rethinking through priorities, and really getting down to the nub of the issues that will help, that I believe will be manifested out of this about thinking about the way we do things differently and how we traverse these issues differently. I do think the agency has a really important role to play in that.”

The agency also has a cross-cultural professional development programme called Footprints, which Griggs said involves not just learning about Indigenous culture, but learning about “how different cultural perspectives knit together”.

“I think in terms of professionalising that in the agency, that’s our contribution to make sure that at least in our workplace, we’re well down that reconciliation path. And as we go out into the broader community, we hopefully take that with us.”

Read more: SES to have 3% Indigenous employee representation by 2024 under new APS workforce strategy


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