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Aboriginal Australians represent the longest continuous cultures on Earth, dating back tens of thousands of years, yet First Nations Australians continue to be face disadvantage. Barbie-Lee Kirby, who is a Ngiyambaa, Wailwan, Paakintji-Maraura, Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay First Nations woman from Brewarrina, New South Wales, is making it her mission to address that disadvantage and discrimination.


“Data is the language that the government, corporates and non-profit sector use,” Barbie-Lee says, “yet, traditionally, most of that data has been kept from Indigenous communities. To empower ourselves – and to protect our rights – we need to access that data. We are looking for data sovereignty so that we can construct our own narratives and overcome the cycle of dependency on government funding and philanthropic support.” That, in a nutshell, shows why Barbie-Lee, as director of data governance & evaluation at the Maranguka Community Hub, based near where she grew up in New South Wales, is doing such an important job.

Exchange and transfer of data is happening, but is not as seamless as it should be. Some communities have data sovereignty in action; however, policies and legislation are playing catch-up, and there is a need for government to mandate data-sharing with First Nations communities. Most data collected from First Nations communities sits outside of communities, with ownership and storage of data held by government and institutions. This means that data is often used to create narratives that lack nuance, are misinformed or negative of First Nations communities.

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There are two obstacles, Barbie-Lee explains: the first is government and the second lies within the Indigenous communities themselves. “So far as the government and many institutions is concerned, they maintain, wrongly in our view, that the community data they hold is theirs. It is taking us years to get datasharing arrangements in place.”

The second challenge is to educate and upskill the communities themselves. “There is a huge gap in understanding,” Barbie-Lee says. “Some people are scared by data, or else they think that it is a whole other world that doesn’t concern them. One of my key tasks is to build data capability in communities and to support the understanding that access to data is our sovereign right.”

Maranguka now operates a data platform, Palimaa, an asset that hosts data and is attempting to expand to assist other communities. “Data allows us to make informed decisions, and actually take control of our own affairs. Data empowers cultural authority, ensuring that we get to decide what investments and programmes are needed in our community.”

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Some people are scared by data, or else they think that it is a whole other world that doesn’t concern them.

Key role

She should certainly know, having worked for Herbert Smith Freehills for three years between 2019 and 2022, although not in a legal capacity. With the firm, her title was Executive, Responsible Business & First Nations Engagement, coordinating a range of programmes and support for Indigenous communities. The firm also guided other corporates on their reconciliation action plans, as they are known. “It was brilliant being in the centre of the firm’s endeavours to support Indigenous communities,” she says. “I was able to use my cultural knowledge and lived Indigenous experience to steer the firm and to make sure the support was well-targeted and impactful.

“What I particularly liked was that the firm wasn’t throwing money at programmes and communities, as some corporates do. They were really targeting good initiatives, working in collaboration with communities and making a real difference. They were supporting charities, non-profit organisations and programmes, both financially and with pro bono legal advice. It was definitely the most interesting job I have had so far.”

Why, then, did she leave? “During Covid, I got to work back in my hometown. As much as Covid was disruptive, for me it was actually something of a blessing because it enabled me to work ‘on country’ with my family for seven months. And I loved it so much that when I was asked to go back to HSF in Sydney after we all returned to work, it just wasn’t the same. I wanted to be back home ‘on country’, as we say.”

Early breaks

In her short career so far, Barbie-Lee can certainly look back on some other fascinating roles. She started her career with Qantas. After studying accounting and law at the University of Technology, Sydney, she opted for the accountancy side. Having done an internship with Qantas aimed at providing opportunities for Indigenous people, she joined the Qantas finance graduate programme. She was the first Indigenous candidate to join the finance graduate cohort.

After two years, she then moved to corporate governance as a manager. “It was transformational for me, because I came from a background where we didn’t really know much about business, so I completely immersed myself in it. I have taken that knowledge forward with me.”

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Barbie-Lee now also has other roles where she can use her commercial experience and her knowledge of Indigenous communities. She is a director of The Crescent Institute, an Islamic organisation educating young Muslim professionals in Australia, and she is a director of NASCA, an Indigenous non-profit organisation that supports education for First Nations youth. NASCA is also seeking opportunities for Indigenous youth to have access to cultural resources, whether it’s the revitalisation of Indigenous languages or cultural practices.

“NASCA is looking to help First Nations people not only to finish high school but actually to have a really great experience at school and to come through that experience understanding who they are as First Nations people and being strong in their culture,” Barbie-Lee explains.

She is also an external adviser on the RAP Leadership Committee for Uber Australia, advising the company on its own reconciliation journey and responsible business programmes.

And another thing

As if that weren’t enough, Barbie-Lee has started her own skincare business, Walaan Skin. The idea came to her during lockdown, when she realised that the native fruits and plants that her family uses for skincare and other healthcare applications could be made more widely available. “We harvest wild native fruit and plants that are incredibly beneficial in a number of ways, and it dawned on me, why not share this with the world?”

It was also important to her that the processing was done by Indigenous communities and not delegated to the well-established skincare product manufacturers. “I want people buying our products to know that they are buying authenticity and thousands of years of knowledge of native Australian plants.”

She is already selling serums, and trials are underway to make lotions and cleansers. Oh, and she is also starting some other businesses that are still under wraps!

 

First Nations explained

The recently adopted term of “First Nations” is a better identifier for communities than Aboriginal or Indigenous. Australia is one nation when classified as a sovereign nation, but actually comprises 450 Indigenous nations, based on traditional lands lived in by different communities for centuries. Each has its own traditional law, its own language (including different dialects) and traditional ways.

 


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