What should HR look like in an Aboriginal Community Council? George Brown returned home and found out.
George Brown was 12 when his people were given their land back. “I decided then that whatever happened with my career and life, I wanted to give back to our community,” says the HR manager for Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council.
Wreck Bay Village, where Brown grew up, is in the Jervis Bay Territory, an area 200 kilometres south of Sydney which NSW gave to the Commonwealth government so Canberra would have access to the sea. In December 1995, its Aboriginal community council gained title to Jervis Bay National Park and Botanic Gardens in a joint management plan with the director of National Parks. The community subsequently changed the name of the park and gardens to Booderee.
At the time, Brown was a year six student with a bright future. He became Vincentia High School’s first Indigenous captain, played in the Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Team, and, after graduating, auditioned successfully for the prestigious National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association Dance College.
“I always wanted to make the most of my life,” he says. After a few years, Brown decided to change careers. In 2008, he embarked on a Bachelor of Commerce (Management and Marketing) at the University of NSW. The transition wasn’t easy.
“My first couple of years had its highs and lows. Lows to the point where I failed a particular subject – macroeconomics – three times. I was suspended for 12 months.”
Enter the CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program. Founded in 2009, it has helped more than 1000 Indigenous students to undertake internships, finish degrees and launch careers.
“They made me believe in myself. They made me understand that if I really wanted to go back home and make a difference, I needed to focus. They told me to be accountable, to think about my choices and actions. I remember a saying they drilled into us, which I still say now: ‘To be on time is to be late. To be late is unacceptable.’”
CareerTrackers put Brown into a year-long marketing internship. He showed so much promise, he skipped out early to take up an assistant role in research and marketing at Supply Nation, the biggest directory of Indigenous businesses in Australia. From there he jumped into the Indigenous Business Australia graduate program, then landed a position as a business development manager at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, Sydney.
After just eight months, in August 2016, a chance to return home arose.
“The Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council [WBACC] had never had a dedicated human resources manager. The board restructured the organisation and thought there was a need for one,” he says.
“They made me believe in myself. They made me understand that if I really wanted to go back home and make a difference.”
Although he hadn’t worked directly in HR, Brown had studied best practice during his degree. He also had management expertise, and his insights as a Wreck Bay local were invaluable.
To help him find his feet, the CEO enlisted an HR consultant who provided two months’ mentoring. Since then, Brown has continued to develop his skills through relentless training, from a Certificate IV in Work Health and Safety to Comcare’s Supervisor WHS Responsibilities. He’s also the recipient of a national scholarship for the Graduate Certificate in Social Impact, which he’s completing at the University of NSW and the Centre for Social Impact.
WBACC was established in 1986 under the Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Act 1986. Its numerous functions include land-holding and management, provision of community services and supporting business enterprises. It has just over 30 full-time employees, and Brown is a one-man band. He manages HR for three departments: administration, Gudjahgahmiamia Day Care Centre, and contract services, which include roads, building, cleaning, horticulture and the national park entry station.
“I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. I do everything from contracts, employee relations and performance training, to WHS and Comcare case management. At the moment, I’m working on reviewing workplace health and safety and rebuilding the training management system.”
Brown must juggle the needs of many stakeholders.
WBACC has inalienable freehold title, but must negotiate all decisions regarding land management with the Director of National Parks. What’s more, the CEO reports to a nine-person board, which in turn reports to the organisation’s 400 or so registered members who, under Commonwealth legislation, are the land’s traditional owners.
“The power belongs to the community. Our community members don’t shy away from sharing their thoughts. We have to find the right balance of meeting their expectations, running the organisation and working with national parks – as well as all the government agencies within the park.”
Key to achieving this, in Brown’s eyes, are common aims and open communication.
“We’re working well because we’ve realised that we have shared long-term goals: self-determination and sole management. So how do we get there together? How do we build capacity as a community? Through consultation, communication and inclusion. We’re all on this journey, so we’ve put it on the table and we’re doing it collaboratively.”
Outside of work, Brown is the deputy chair of the primary school, runs youth activities and has set up an Indigenous parenting committee.
“I always remind myself of the hard work of my aunts and uncles who set up this enterprise. I’m a product of my community, and my father and my mother, who invested in me. As a
Wreck Bay man, I was given so many opportunities. I hope to do them proud by holding up my responsibilities and duties. But I’m still learning.”
Image: Booderee National Park by Jon Harris.
Is your team engaging local Indigenous communities? Share your story and inspire others. Apply for the Stan Grant Indigenous Employment Award before 17 May.