Muru Mittigar: Q&A with Peter Chia

An Indigenous social enterprise is fighting for the often overlooked and underrepresented Aboriginal people of Greater Sydney, and personally they’re not getting the recognition they deserve.

Based in the Darug heartland of Penrith, Muru Mittigar, lead by CEO Peter Chia, is a community driven, country focused, cultural organisation that puts the Indigenous people of Sydney first and fights for their future.

The Indigenous communities of western Sydney are often by-passed when it comes to substantial, long lasting policy. When the 2017 Closing The Gap report, on Indigenous standards of living, was handed down the results were scathing.

The report said, “After 10 years, and despite closing the gap being a national bipartisan priority, it is clear that Australian governments at all levels are, in key respects, failing Australia’s First Peoples.”

Despite this the CEO of Muru Mittigar, Peter Chia, is determined to fight through the politics to shine a light on what is important.

Les Daniels and his granddaughter on Apology Day. Source: Muru Mittigar.

KEEGAN: In your own words, for people who are unaware of the organisation, what does Muru Mittigar do?

PETER: First and foremost we’re a community organisation that aims to build the capacity of local aboriginal groups and individuals. We have three main focuses: community, culture and country.

Community involves our community finance, like our NILS (no interest loan schemes), and our workplace training programs. This is the majority of our surplus and it is spent mainly on improving lives of people in the community.

Our cultural elements involve cultural tourism and cultural awareness programs. So we have 15,000 school children who will come and do a program as apart of our cultural awareness program. We also have a professional learning program, so teachers can benefit from leaning more about Indigenous culture and heritage in Australia, because it is important for teachers to know about the culture just as it is important for the children to know. These programs are run by 5 or 6 local Aboriginal people for 5 days a week so we’re helping them get real world job experience.

Finally the country aspect is our main money side. It is our contracting part. The country has everything to do with our contracted services, so things like bush regeneration, civil work, nursery plant production, green army team sort of arrangements and a few other things.

KEEGAN: How many people work with Muru Mittigar?

PETER: There are about 90 people who work and volunteer with us. Of that is about 40 odd full time jobs.

We really strive to create an engaged and healthy environment for Indigenous people looking for work or work experience. I can happily say that about 85 percent of our workforce is of Aboriginal heritage.

Bush Regeneration. Source: Muru Mittigar.

KEEGAN: You’ve got a pretty massive project in the pipeline, can you give me the details?

PETER: We’ve got a Lendlease partnership, and that is exciting, so we’ll be down in Shell Harbour working to build the ecosystem and we’ll be working with conservation efforts. It is a big deal because it is a 99 year lease meaning we’ll have jobs for many years to come.

This deal in Shell Harbour will mean people will be trained up on the job, they’ll be given experience running their own business, and eventually the project will be given over to a local Aboriginal business.

We’re talking 30 or 40 jobs a year for Aboriginals from now until forever.

KEEGAN: You’re working in a unique sector. On my last count there isn’t many people doing this kind of work in the country. What are some of the issue your sector is facing?

PETER: The core issue with this industry is that there isn’t enough people with project management or simple management skill sets.

We don’t rely on government run programs, like the Green Army for example, because often they’ll start, end and get rebranded as something else. We sort of rely on them when they’re happening but it can become rocky when you have a change of government and all of a sudden the program is cut and stopped.

We need to run more self-determining work so we can continue. That is why we chase contract stuff, like the Lendlease partnership, and work which can bring in bigger benefits.

KEEGAN: According to the ABS, in 2001, 46 percent of all Indigenous peoples aged 15 to 64 years were not in the labour force. This figure dropped to 44 percent in 2011. Going back to the employment numbers here at Muru Mittigar, can you talk me through those number?

PETER: It is always hard to find people with great administration skills of Aboriginal background, so we aim to up skill the Aboriginal staff. People of Aboriginal background here will receive training in project management, business development and administration.

Dancers with Uncle Wes and Aunty Edna. Source: Muru Mittigar.

One core issue is that there aren’t enough people with that skill set. There are a few people out there, who’ve usually come from government backgrounds, but they still don’t have the skills in sales or project management. We could go out an hire a whole bunch of white fellas to do the job but that isn’t the point.

We will use those people (white people) in the effort of building the Aboriginal workforce, but it is a big problem across the country. We can train people up to tradesperson level but there are other elements to work that we have to think about.

One interesting statistic is that Aboriginal run, or Aboriginal owned, businesses is 100 times more likely than a non-Aboriginal business to hire Aboriginal people. That is a pretty powerful thing.

KEEGAN: In 2011, 44 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 15 to 64 had attained Year 12 or Certificate level II or above, according to the ABS. Why is it important to keep training and pushing employability of Aboriginal people in Australia?

PETER: They become sought after assets. Apart from being a normal resource to a business, that Aboriginal person becomes a leader and a mentor in their own right.

More Aboriginal people are more likely to come and want to work under another Aboriginal person who is in a management or senior level.

Targeted roles, positions kept open exclusively for Aboriginal people, can create an isolated environment. They’re not supposed to be tokenistic, but they are. It is a lot more productive if you have more Aboriginal people embedded organically into a company.

The last time I checked, across Australia the figures show that one third of the Australian GDP goes back into welfare. If we can help cut the number of people on welfare we help support other sectors.

I mean, why shouldn’t Aboriginal people be offered the same opportunities as other people?

To donate to or volunteer at Muru Mittigar, please visit their website.

Originally published for The QUO.

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