The woman forging the path for Indigenous economic independence
15 July 2019 at 8:32 am
Amanda Young is the CEO of the First Nations Foundation, an organisation fighting to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders achieve economic independence. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Working as a corporate lawyer for many years, it was dealing with the Indigenous stolen wages litigation in Queensland back in the early 2000’s that first sparked Young’s interest in Indigenous economic freedom.
She witnessed firsthand how after Indigenous communities received massive compensation payouts, there was no understanding of how to manage their money, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation from loan sharks and finance groups.
After taking over the First Nations Foundation in 2016, Young is now fighting to educate and empower Aboriginal people to take control of their economic futures and improve their rates of financial literacy, which are some of the lowest in the country.
She is also currently preparing for the organisation’s biggest event of the year, the Big Super Day Out, where mobile finance stations will tour the Northern Territory and Western Australia, running workshops which will reunite hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost super with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In this week’s Changemaker, Young talks about the struggle to keep a charity afloat, her personal motivation for being a sector leader, and why she loves her job.
Was there a specific moment you realised you wanted to work in the sector?
I have always worked in the sector because of my heritage. I come from the South Sea Islands, and my family was all dragged to Queensland in the 1850s to be slaves. There we encountered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were getting the same treatment. I naturally have always lived and breathed the reality of being a brown person in a colonised country.
And what drew you to the area of economic independence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
It’s been a long path to get to. I started off as a criminal lawyer defending Aboriginal people. In the early 2000’s I became involved in the stolen wages litigation, representing the Queensland government when they first tried to settle the case. During this case, I realised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had not received their wages, it was just paid to the government. So they never learned the skills of managing money.
I found that we were rolling out these compensation payments in Queensland and people were using it for both good and bad reasons, it wasn’t just a happy story. It actually created a great amount of stress in the communities, and financial predators, like consumer lease people selling their goods, [took advantage] and communities had no protection. When I came to this role 20 years later it felt like a closing of the circle, where I can finally start to build the knowledge and skills of Indigenous people to manage their finances in a way that best serves them.
When you came on board, the First Nations Foundation turned a profit, how did you manage that?
We changed our value proposition, became nationally more strategic, created a vision of Indigenous financial well-being and decided that we had to change the way we do business.
We were previously doing face-to-face training programs which are expensive and don’t have a lot of scale. In about six weeks from now, we’ll be launching the first digital Indigenous financial literacy training that anyone can do from a phone or computer. Having said that, we don’t have financial security at all and we’re still trying to keep the doors open. Charity work is hard work and securing resources is always challenging.
What would you say you’re trying to achieve in your time as CEO of First Nations Foundation.
I wanted to lift what we were doing to help more people faster and at a lower cost. I wanted to create a model where we were a bridge between financial services and the Indigenous community, giving each other safe access. I think we’re achieving that because we’re achieving the good relationships. What we’re not achieving is a steady flow of resources so we can help Indigenous people to get to a place where they’re okay.
Our 2019 research report found that only one in 10 Indigenous people are financially secure and one in two are in severe financial stress. So we’ve got a huge job ahead of us to really create the proper economic settings for Indigenous people. My aim is to do that.
What are your strategies in place to make sure that the organisation does remain financially sustainable?
We’ve really been using that report as a way to flag that this isn’t just a small issue, it’s actually a financial emergency that is affecting Aboriginal people. A lot of the focus is going to be on the political arm which is the voice to Parliament. A lot of eyes are on that and that’s an important piece of work. A lot of work is done in the social space as well, $33 billion a year is spent there, but in the economic [area], there is hardly a voice to be heard. So we’re trying to make as much noise as possible to flag that this requires philanthropic, government and industry financial services support.
What do you love about your job?
I love getting out amongst community members and helping them with their money. We’re heading up to Darwin on Sunday to kick off the Big Super Day Out, and then we move onto Broome. There is nothing better than the experience of watching Indigenous people discover for the first time that they have thousands of dollars superannuation they didn’t know they had.
There was a woman in APY Lands who was working as a teacher who had completely forgotten that she had two superannuation funds because she’d lost one. In the fund account, she’d lost, there was $120,000. The only reason she was still working was that she was over 60 and wanted to get enough money to buy a house and retire. She had it all along, she just didn’t know. When we told her, she was so happy she knew that she could retire immediately and it changed her life.
How has your perspective changed while working in this space and doing the things that you do every day?
Some of the biggest changes only happened to me in the last couple of years. I self-funded myself to go to Harvard and Stanford and was lucky enough to be awarded an Atlantic fellowship in social and economic equity from the London School of Economics. I have been able to lift my gaze from the Australian context to the global context of what is driving poverty. It is fascinating to see how much worse poverty is in the global south than the global north and it really refreshed my perspective on the systemic drivers behind social and economic disadvantage and poverty.
So for me, what’s really changed is that by being able to have access to these amazing thought leadership opportunities, I can see a much larger picture of what would need to happen for Indigenous Australians to meaningfully participate in the economy. That is the stuff that changes systems as opposed to just changing one or two lives.