Why you should go off script when it comes to an Acknowledgement of Country

• Conversations

Have you ever given an Acknowledgement of Country and felt stuck on what to say? Or felt awkward, as if it wasn’t your place to say it?

Acknowledgements of Country play an important part in the reconciliation journey, building awareness and signalling respect for the land and its custodians. But often when we follow the same script it can feel tokenistic, inauthentic and like a box-ticking exercise.

Rhys Paddick and Emma Gibbens started having this very conversation four years ago when they met and now educate others on how an Acknowledgement of Country can be a powerful tool to connect, educate and encourage awareness and change.

Rhys, a Badimia Yamatji man and Emma, a change strategist came together to form Acknowledge This! an organisation which offers training and guidance, in what they refer to as a “conversation between friends” where they empower Australians to give authentic, genuine and informed Acknowledgements of Country.

This week the pair had their 10,000th conversation and since starting the business in March 2020, they are now training and consulting with some of Australia’s biggest companies and organisations.

Reflecting on how Acknowledge This! started, the pair agreed they both felt uninspired by the standard Acknowledgement of Country script and felt it needed changing.

“As an Aboriginal educator, I’d adopted the role of becoming the guy to do all the acknowledgement of country at all the assemblies and meetups,” Rhys said.

“They gave me a script… it was a respectful gesture.

 “But after a few years in the job, I started to question what are the rules here? Can it be different, can I make it my own, can I put myself into it?” 

For Emma, it was about taking the gesture from a box ticking exercise, to something more meaningful.

“I had to laugh, there was one event I attended, and they were like “Okay now the house keeping, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners…”,” Emma said.

“And I was like “Rhys! They put it in with the toilets and emergency exits, we have to do something!”

The pair now run fortnightly conversations online, where they empower individuals with the foundations to give a genuine and authentic Acknowledgement of Country.

The workshops help people learn more about the culture of where they live and learn about why country is so significant to First Nations people.

“Country is a wirrin, a spirit, it is alive and it is conscious,” Rhys said.

 “If we’re going to acknowledge country, it’s almost our duty to understand the context behind the people, the place, the culture that we’re actually acknowledging." 

“It has become this very rudimentary and boring thing to listen to a lot of the time, so we want to make it something that, if you have to do it, do it in a way that you want to and that you connect to.”

In these sessions participants are invited to have honest and open conversations and Emma said a lot of people fess up to feeling a sense of fear when it comes to delivering an Acknowledgement of Country.

“I think people feel like Aboriginal culture isn’t mine, it isn’t mine to learn, it isn’t mine to participate in,” she said.

“But actually you can find your own way of connecting to it.”

Rhys said by giving people context around why they should do an Acknowledgement of Country, it breaks down the emotional barriers.

“People feel like they have permission once they understand the context and kind of reflect on their own personal journey and once they figure out that nobody is writing the rules here,” he said.

“The last thing I want to make people do is feel like they have to be part of this conversation because it is respectful, if anything it is beautiful because people walk away knowing they can find their own value in what it is offering.”

Interested in finding out more? Check out Acknowledge This! here https://www.acknowledgethis.com.au/