Steven Adams’ motto, Mara Ba Kumba, meaning “take hold of tomorrow”, sums up what he is working to achieve. Christopher Niesche reports.

    Steven Adams FAICD has spent much of his adult life helping indigenous organisations run and manage themselves better.

    Now he is working to assist indigenous organisations around the country improve their governance standards ahead of what could be a major policy change by the Abbott government.

    Adams is chairing the Central Coast Committee of Empowered Communities, a new national reform to change how indigenous policies and programs are designed and delivered, and the way governments and indigenous people work together. He is also a director of Hunter Primary Care north of Sydney and Indigenous Communities Alliance.

    In his work with the Australian Institute of Company Directors over the past few years, Adams has been investigating what is working and what is not in governance of indigenous organisations.

    Many directors of indigenous organisations need to be better informed about director liability laws, he says. “The vast majority of directorships within Aboriginal organisations are voluntary,” he adds. “People take on a director position in good faith through their own personal connections, family or community to make tomorrow a better day and they don’t understand the liabilities they’re placing themselves in personally, which consequently can then affect their family if any issues came up.”

    Part of this is because of the way many indigenous organisations came into being. Often they started as community initiatives and then, on receiving some small amount of funding, became incorporated organisations, but without the required background knowledge about directors’ training, liability insurance or public indemnity insurance.

    Improved governance will enable indigenous organisations to better deliver their services and develop their capacity to deliver a wider range of services. But there is also another imperative – the developing Empowered Communities initiative.

    Empowered Communities arose from a national Jawun forum held in June last year on the NSW Central Coast where Adams lives and in which he has been involved from the outset as a director. Responsibility for developing the new model is a joint effort by indigenous leaders from eight regions across Australia including the Central Coast, in collaboration with federal and state governments and corporate Australia.

    “Empowered Communities is a bottom-up approach so it’s a review that’s driven locally by Aboriginal communities that want to contribute to a change,” says Adams. “And that change is around how the federal and state governments work with Aboriginal communities to develop reform – not to impose reform.”

    A final submission on the Empowered Communities initiative is due to go to the Abbott government cabinet in September for consideration. “Underpinned with that will be a commitment from those regions to continue to improve the structure and development of corporate governance in their communities and organisations, to ensure that our community organisations have the capability, structure and capacity to deliver an expanded a range of services,” says Adams.

    The organisations will not be starting from scratch. State and federal governments have progressively increased corporate governance requirements for indigenous organisations over recent years and the Jawun initiative has also helped improve governance standards.

    Jawun is a corporate secondee program, where men and women from corporate Australia are seconded to work with indigenous organisations to help them improve their operational capacity. Jawun also has an Emerging Indigenous Leaders program of professional development. Organisations including Westpac, KPMG, Wesfarmers, Leighton Holdings, Qantas and Telstra are corporate partners. Federal MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Alan Tudge took part when he was at Boston Consulting Group prior to entering politics.

    “One of the great things that comes out of Jawun is the appreciation and understanding of corporate Australia of what a lot of the day-to-day issues are that we’re facing [and] the whole issue around a stolen generation,” says Adams.

    Adams has his own experience of the stolen generation. He never got to know his own grandfather who was killed in a mining accident. This came about because he had been a station hand and Adams’ grandmother a housemaid on a property in the Liverpool Plains in NSW. As Aboriginals they were at risk of having their children taken away from them by the government under the Aboriginal Protection Act and they had three options – lose their kids, move to an Aboriginal mission or move into town and take “a white fellas’ job”.

    Adams’ grandfather chose the latter, took a job in a mine and as a result was killed in a cave-in in the early 1950s.

    “It’s an issue for kids that don’t know who their grandparents are because of the stolen generation. So, it’s having that appreciation and understanding,” says Adams. “But, if we can then take a lead on reconciliation by strengthening the capacity and capability of our Aboriginal organisations through corporate governance, we’re actually contributing towards reconciliation across Australia by showcasing that we can deliver our services, not only to our own communities, but we can deliver services to non-indigenous communities as well.”

    Indigenous organisations have a corporate responsibility just like any other organisation would, but Adams says they also have a responsibility to protect their culture.

    “People are driven by a want to make things better and that’s no different for non-indigenous not-for-profits,” he says. “But it’s also about protecting culture and things around how we restore language and the knowledge of our history, how we empower young people to have a want to learn and how we empower our elders to actually openly give that knowledge.”

    This can range from the formal acknowledgements of the traditional owners of our lands at meetings and community events to elders and community members actively going into schools and running cultural programs to enable the preservation of the language and culture. It also encompasses raising awareness about physical culture, such as rock art, engravings and cultural sites.

    Adams notes that in national parks within the Central Coast alone there are more than 7,000 registered Aboriginal sites. Culture also involves the repatriation of Aboriginal remains from overseas and the preservation of the language.

    Another priority for Adams is to bolster the next level of management below CEOs and chairmen, as the capability of the second tier of management can often be lacking. This is in part because many organisations have relied on the same management for many years, perhaps since the organisation was founded.

    Fortunately, improving educational standards among younger Aboriginal people means that many are better equipped to undertake the sort of studies required to improve their leadership and governance capabilities.

    “We also now have a lot of our students that are going through into tertiary studies then picking up cadetships and positions within corporate Australia,” says Adams.

    “So we are now starting to see a larger representation within the percentage of graduates that go through into positions within the corporates and government which is a positive, but traditionally there may have been people that came through into community organisations and then worked their way up.

    “We wear out a lot of our leaders through overwork so we need to, through the likes of Jawun, bring an awareness in of how we better manage our own time and the time of our staff and the professional development that is coming with it.”

    The health sector is also a major focus for indigenous leaders. There are established indigenous health organisations, but many health organisations that serve the broader community are seeking indigenous directors to help guide them on indigenous-specific health issues.

    Adams, 52, had a roundabout path to his involvement in indigenous organisations.

    He grew up in Gunnedah in north western NSW, then Lake Macquarie on the Central Coast. He left school at the end of Year 10 as most local boys did and won an apprenticeship as a technician fitter machinist at a power station. He then worked in the engineering and construction industries, eventually moving into owning and managing a training organisation (with five years as a Tip Top baker in the mix as well).

    His interest in the stewardship of community organisations came at age 17, when he joined the board of his local surf club and he has continually served on a wide range of boards and committees since then.

    Adams, who is proud of his Aboriginal heritage, which comes from his mother’s side of the family, first joined an indigenous organisation when he was asked to help out with an Aboriginal community support group at the high school where his wife was a teacher.

    Then through his training work, he developed an indigenous apprenticeship program, which won a state training award. He was also a founding director of the New South Wales Indigenous Chamber of Commerce.

    These roles involved helping indigenous sole traders become proprietary limited companies, supporting them to win government contracts and employ other Aboriginal tradesmen and apprentices. After the government and Aboriginal organisations, Aboriginal businesses are the largest employers of Aboriginal Australians and need this recognition to continue to create more employment.

    Adams still lives in Lake Macquarie, with his wife and 17 year old son, who is hoping to study civil engineering. He tries to do some sailing when he is not fulfilling his various board responsibilities. His motto is Mara Ba Kumba, a phrase from the Awabakal language meaning “take hold of tomorrow” and it sums up what he is working to achieve.

    “It’s a bit of a personal motto of how can we collectively support more indigenous Australians to take hold of their own tomorrow. Through that comes ambition and self-belief, through that comes prosperity, through that comes self-determination,” he says.

    He says he loves what he does, because he can see he is making a difference. “It’s a bit corny, but you run into someone that you helped get an apprenticeship that’s now a tradesman, that’s got an apprentice sitting in the ute beside them or you see a business that has announced that it has picked up a state or federal contract... It’s that knowledge that what we’re doing is making a difference now, but is also going to have a dramatic effect on the future through opportunity.”

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