Supporting a Kimberley language organisation to tell a precious story

Background

Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre (MDWg) is an Indigenous-led, not-for-profit organisation in Kununurra, East Kimberley. It was established in the 1970s to preserve, analyse and record language and culture of Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng people.

According to Dr Knut J. Olawsky, MDWg Manager and Senior Linguist, Miriwoong is classified as a critically endangered language. There are only a limited number of elders fluent in Miriwoong language and in a position to share their vast and precious knowledge on traditional ways of life including language, dance, traditional skills and ancient stories. MDWg is recording, documenting and sharing traditional language to deliver on its vision,

“Together, we come to the place to keep Miriwoong alive by capturing, sharing and nurturing our language and culture. Together, we build a strong, proud and respectful community where our people have a sense of who they are and the land to which they belong.”

MDWg has established several innovative programs, including the Miriwoong Language Nest and the Miriwoong Knowledge Cycle. These are based on internationally renowned language learning models. The organisation is also using innovative technology to develop new tools and resources, including bilingual audio-books and a Miriwoong app featuring audio support. These resources are enabling current and future generations of Miriwoong people to learn their language and celebrate their culture in relevant and accessible ways.

The work that MDWg is doing to maintain and teach language is vital for local Indigenous people, and also has impact on the community more broadly. Kate Wilson, Principal, Kununurra District High School, has noticed that “the Language Nest allows cross cultural connection. In the years where Miriwoong is taught, we see kids with their arms around each other, going on play dates. In the high school years where Language Nest is not on, the relationships are not as strong.”                   

Globally, language builds connection, understanding and cultural identity. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness of the importance of first nations languages. Elder David Newry, Senior Language Consultant for language and culture and a founding member of MDWg, explains their profound value: “If we lose language, we will be lost. There will be nobody to look to. There is a saying – if you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are going.”

A critical challenge for MDWg is sustainable funding to drive their ideas and achieve their vision. MDWg sees several things they can do to better position themselves for a strong future, and since 2013 have been working with Jawun to do just that.

Approach

The partnership has seen 21 Jawun secondees placed at MDWg since 2013, from organisations such as NAB, Fortescue Metal Group, Herbert Smith Freehills, Woodside, RAC and Australian Public Service, each strengthening the organisation’s capacity.

In 2017, the MDWg Board and Manager began to focus on developing tools to better articulate what they do, how they do it and importantly why they do it. The aim was to raise awareness of language and showcase MDWg success, to attract funding, and to build a coalition of supporters to join MDWg in achieving its vision.

Manager, Knut Olawsky (KJ) worked with Jawun Regional Director for East Kimberley Michele Pucci to achieve this. KJ recognised it would be vital for secondees to not only possess the skills but also the attributes to build trusting relationships with MDWg Board and staff. Secondees would need to rapidly understand not only what the centre did but also what made it unique and special – to the organisation, its stakeholders, and the community.

As a start, the MDWg team and secondees Jane Quinlan and Jane Humphries (Herbert Smith Freehills and Fortescue Metals Group) reviewed the organisation’s vision and values against the current direction, purpose and goals of MDWg. Both agreed MDWg had an incredible story to tell and worked to capture that in a refreshed vision.

In 2018, Paula Beattie and Troy Hicks from NAB then assisted the Board and Management with a strategic planning process which resulted in the development of an operational plan, plus identified areas for MDWg to strengthen such as governance and succession planning. That plan laid the foundation for development of resources and tools to tell the MDWg story.

Melanie Houlahan from Herbert Smith Freehills, a corporate graphic designer, initially felt daunted to articulate MDWg’s vision and success graphically, and to somehow convey the heart, soul and passion of MDWg and its dedicated staff. But she worked closely with staff, board and other stakeholders to produce an infographic that all were very proud of: http://mirima.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/MDWg-Infographic.pdf

Following this success, Lauren Daykin from NAB developed an animated video version of the infographic so MDWg could connect with its audience in modern, powerful way: http://mirima.org.au/

This approach demonstrates Jawun’s Indigenous-led model at its best: MDWg planned and guided a series of skilled secondees to deliver on a strategic priority, and they worked in sequence to build on each success. Regional Director Michele Pucci uses a ‘pieces in a jigsaw’ metaphor to explain to incoming secondees how their efforts fit into a bigger picture, and secondee Troy Hicks was pleased to see this match his own experience:

“I’ve been in touch with the secondees who followed me in their secondments to MDWg, and to hear what they have done really makes me proud. I have also been in contact with staff at MDWg, getting regular updates on the outcomes of work I did and what’s come afterwards. Each time it makes my day, and makes me feel like my ‘one jigsaw piece’ really made a difference.”

Outcomes

The infographic provided MDWg with an illustrative tool which they feel truly captures and represents their vision, their lines of work, and their strengths in a way that is transparent, informative, and convincing. As KJ envisaged, being able to succinctly and effectively communicate MDWg’s work, mission and values is an enormous asset in efforts to raise awareness and funding for language revitalisation projects.

Over recent months MDWg has showcased the infographic on its website, as well as using elements of it in regular social media campaigns. To date, the organisation has 1874 Facebook and 1042 Twitter followers, so this is an excellent platform to showcase its work.

The video has been incorporated into presentations for visitors to the centre and is on the website and Facebook homepage as another resource to articulate the story of the centre. It received 1,259 views on Facebook since being uploaded in December 2018, and 141 views on YouTube. MDWg Communications manager Kirsty Wager has seen a marked increase of visits to their website and Facebook page because of the video and the infographic.

The organisation has won a number of awards over the last 12 months. Through the strength of its growing network of friends and supporters, it received an Australian Ethical Community Grant. It was named a finalist for the Curtin University Teaching Excellence Award in the Western Australian Regional Achievement and Community Awards. Jo-Beth Winton, a member of MDWg’s Miriwoong Language Nest team, was also announced the Younger Leader of the Year at the 2018 Third Sector Awards and is a finalist in the 2019 Seven News Young Achiever Awards WA Flying Doctor Service Regional Service Award.

Meanwhile MDWg’s programs are gaining in strength and reach. At the end of last year, the Language Nest reached over 400 children weekly in its language program. A Save the Children Youth Worker commented, “What MDWg is doing is invaluable for these children, to teach them language is to connect them to country, spirit and themselves. I believe this is the way to healing for these little ones and it brings such pride and strength to the families.” The success and importance of this program was acknowledged by education leaders at an educational forum in Kununurra, hosted by the Empowered Communities backbone BBY.

MDWg’s weekly Miriwoong Public Language classes saw 51 students participating in term 1 and 2 in 2018. Miriwoong Bright Futures – a weekly Public Library-based children’s Miriwoong Language and Culture experience and an initiative created by Jawun secondee, Troy Hicks from NAB – also enjoyed great success in term 1 of 2019, with around 20 children taking part each week.

Finally, Jawun’s mission to create two-way understanding and connections means there is impact for secondees too. Being exposed to Indigenous community, culture and country creates new learning, knowledge and friendships, in what has been described as a ‘practical contribution to reconciliation’. Home in Melbourne, NAB secondee Troy Hicks reflected on his experience:

“I really wish the East Kimberley wasn’t so far away, so I could visit Mirima [Language Centre], Kununurra and friends, but I also think that is what made it so special. My time up there was a life-changing experience.”

Next Steps

Now that MDWg has much improved promotional collateral, and is using this to drive community impact, the board and staff are now focused on operational and governance aspects of the organisation. They are working with Jawun to plan a cohort of secondments over the next 12 months to bring their strategic objectives to life. This is likely to include development of a succession strategy for the manager and the board members, and skills exchange processes to support board members oversee the organisation’s strategic operations.

Charged with keeping an Indigenous language alive, and with it people’s connection to culture, country and history, MDWg’s mission is precious to the Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng people, Australia, and the world. This small but visionary Indigenous organisation in the East Kimberley is masterfully using partnerships with corporate and government Australia to achieve its goals, and to make long-term plans for sustainable programs and impact.