From Stationery to Indigenous Storytelling
29 July 2015 at 10:52 am
A Melbourne office supplies company traditionally known for its environmental credentials plans to leverage its broad educational customer base to share the stories of Indigenous Australians, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Executive Insight.
OfficeMax has recently joined forces with The Teter Mek Foundation – an organisation set up to support programs that promote, preserve and share Indigenous Australian culture.
In collaboration with Jasmin Herro, a Torres Strait Islander descendant and advocate of Indigenous business and supplier diversity, the office supplies company has launched the Tjindgarmi range, comprising of more than 50 products adorned with Indigenous art.
Proceeds from sales of the Tjindgarmi range will support The Teter Mek Foundation, which will also produce educational materials and lesson plans for schools to teach about Indigenous culture.
The company says it already has one of Australia’s largest corporates committed to purchasing the Tjindgarmi range. In March, the Federal Government announced a three per cent target for Commonwealth procurement with indigenous suppliers by 2020, equating to $1.17 billion, up from $6.2 million in 2015.
Off the back of OfficeMax’s lodgement of a Statement of Commitment to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) with Reconciliation Australia, General Manager of Products and Solutions, Gerald De Lacey, told Pro Bono Australia News how the new program will support the company’s goals around Indigenous procurement as part of their broader CSR and social change objectives.
Forming A Partnership
Gerald De Lacey explains how the Teter Mek partnership was formed as the result of a synergy of values – and a desire to go beyond what was expected.
“Depending on what the initiative is, it’s really about mobilising a team within the company that’s passionate about putting it in place and really a strategic initiative and making it get to the point,” he says.
“It started a little over 12 months ago, where as a company we were wanting to do a lot more when it came to Indigenous engagement and really looking at what opportunities were there.
“As an organisation we had a record when it came to ethical sourcing and matters of the environment, and we’d won a number of awards…[but] we felt there was a lot more we could be doing when it came to supplier diversity and Indigenous engagement.
De Lacey says OfficeMax explored different opportunities, including membership with Supply Nation, a Not for Profit organisation that attempts to grow the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business sector through the promotion of supplier diversity in Australia.
“[We began] meeting with quite a few different Indigenous business owners, and getting a better understanding of their business but also starting to share where we felt we wanted to go,” he said.
“We just had that synergy, that big picture vision of where we wanted to get to. [That was] really creating a solution that could be incredibly scalable, therefore creating a big impact.
“With Jasmin we formed a very close partnership, not in any legal sense – in that we don’t own any of her business and vice versa – but it’s a partnership in more of the spiritual sense. We knew we wanted to work together as two organisations, we had some great values we could bring to the relationship, and she could bring some great value to it too.”
Sharing Indigenous Culture
Teter Mek has certainly proven the ideal fit for OfficeMax, given its beneficiaries align with the company’s core customer base. The organisation aims to foster a sense of pride and empowerment amongst Indigenous Australians through the sharing of their stories in schools – a simple act that has in past been fraught with complications, De Lacey explains.
“We knew from engaging with teachers that there really was a gap and a lot of teachers really wanted to make children in the classroom a lot more familiar with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture but they were nervous about where to start,” he says.
“They weren’t too sure about the accuracies of the information they held, they didn’t want to cause offense, but at the same time they wanted to do something. So they’ve had a lack of resources to do that.
“We thought, how do we share elements of Indigenous culture that people are really proud of with children, to make children much more aware of them – and how do we create a format where we can provide this?”
The concept creates a vehicle, allowing children to share stories of their background and their culture that they are proud of, and then selects some of those stories and engages with the appropriate people in the community to validate and verify those stories.
“We then provide some resources into that community to turn that information and those cultural elements into curriculum compliant lesson plans so that teachers could teach all of the standard curriculum that they do today but incorporate within those subjects, elements of that particular community’s culture so all the children in the classroom, regardless of their background, become more familiar with that particular community’s background,” De Lacey said.
“It breaks down the stereotypes, raises acceptance, and raises pride about the background and the history of people from all around Australia.”
The entire program is also self-sustaining. The education materials can be licensed to schools with some profits from those lesson plans go back into the Foundation as well.
“We wanted to do something was very robust and would have a huge amount of credibility. We didn’t want anyone to feel we were just ticking a box. We wanted something that as an organisation we could be very proud of,” De Lacey said.
“We felt that we had relationships with a huge amount of schools in Australia and, that there was also a huge opportunity to do something that reached out and helped schools and help children as a result of that.”
De Lacey says that both elements of the program – the product range and the educational initiatives – have been well-received. It is in part he believes because the projects are sustainable and commercially-sound.
“We wanted to make it self-sustaining in its own right. [Jasmin’s] an artist herself and the artwork on the products is her art. What we wanted to do was ensure that those products would be commercially viable for customers of any [purchasing] size to engage with,” he said.
“The reception that it’s had with a wide variety of customers has been incredibly rewarding as well. It’s amazing how many people really do connect with what could be achieved and how much they actually like the designs on the product, and how much those products provide an opportunity for them to start a conversation in their workplace.
“It really is a key part of it as well, for our customers to engage with the product range without them seeing it as charity or a handout….with them being commercially viable, they’ve got the opportunity to support the product range without feeling like they’re making a donation, as such….[but] there’s always enthusiasm there.
“As with creating any program of this complexity, there’s a lot of work to get there. We could have taken a softer approach but it wouldn’t have had the same outcomes, you wouldn’t have generated the sense of pride or enthusiasm for our customers.”
The Teter Mek program joins A Day Made Better, an existing program recognising outstanding teachers. People nominate teachers who they believe have gone above and beyond the call of duty and have really made a difference to the lives of their children.
It has seen rapid growth – in the four years it’s been running, nominations have jumped from 100 the first year to 23,000 this year.
De Lacey forecasts a future where CSR only becomes bigger.
“[Among] the people that we engage with, there seems to be a growing recognition for the role that enterprises can play in supporting great community outcomes and I think that’s been demonstrated by the way in which organisations have approached the programs,” he said.
“A lot of organisations are certainly looking at how can they utilise what they are doing today to try and tie tighter with community outcomes. It’s a positive trend, and I expect it to continue.
“What has been incredibly valuable has been the amount of passion it has generated within our company. It’s amazing, the enthusiasm and pride people have right around the company. That we’ve created something that is so powerful in what it could achieve. That’s been great.”