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Creating a legacy and Aboriginal-led solutions for impact

21 October 2019 at 8:35 am
Maggie Coggan
As the CEO of Saltwater Country, Yawuru and Bunuba woman Cara Peek is creating a legacy of Indigenous-led solutions to improve the social, emotional and economic wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 21 October 2019 at 8:35 am


Creating a legacy and Aboriginal-led solutions for impact
21 October 2019 at 8:35 am

As the CEO of Saltwater Country, Yawuru and Bunuba woman Cara Peek is creating a legacy of Indigenous-led solutions to improve the social, emotional and economic wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

As an Indigenous woman with a strong sense of inbuilt justice, Peek always knew she wanted to do something that made the world a better place.  

The legacy of the Aboriginal cowboys and cowgirls in remote Australia is strongly linked with the freedom of Aboriginal people and communities to find their own way.

It was this that sparked the idea of Saltwater Country, a charity based in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia that provides at-risk youth with culturally appropriate skills and employment opportunities via rodeo and camp-drafting events the charity runs. 

Trained as a lawyer working predominantly in native title, Peek is also a fierce advocate for land rights and delivering culturally appropriate, community-based solutions for Indigenous people.  

She was recently selected for the Churchill Fellowship to inform her leadership practices and create a fairer Australia. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Peek discusses the challenges of running a small organisation, the legacy she’s leaving behind and her hope for the future. 

What drew you to the social sector? 

I’ve always been socially conscious and aware, and an advocate of some description throughout my life. I am a Yawuru and Bunuba woman from the Kimberley region in north-western Australia and have always had an affinity with trying to make the world a better place, and in particular for Indigenous people and people of colour. 

I always thought that I should use my opportunities and my successes, which haven’t come without hard work and support from other people, to benefit other people and do it in a way that I find interesting and mentally stimulating to enable me to sustain that as well.

Why did you think starting Saltwater Country was a good way to make a difference and impact people’s lives?

[The aim of] Saltwater Country is to develop and improve the social, emotional and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal people starting in the Kimberley. The legacy of the Aboriginal cowboy and cowgirl or stockmen and stock women is tantamount to the freedom that can be afforded to Indigenous people in a colonised nation. I believe, and I have seen and I have been told by my people, that it is culturally appropriate and it is also regionally relevant and appropriate as well to use the sport of rodeo and camp-drafting, but also to use the pastoral industries and pathways into different regional industries as a conduit for change. It is something that Indigenous people enjoy and they will turn up for, and instead of trying to impose a new concept to effect change, why not do something that you already have buy-in for and that needs Indigenous people at all levels of the industry. Traditionally that’s not been the case in a variety of industries and this is one that we can have the buy-in to change.

What challenges have you faced as a leader from the start of your career to now? 

Finding initiatives that are culturally relevant and also offer genuine outcomes. Being able to navigate the different communication styles and methods for all of your stakeholders that you need to create change, from the top tiers of government to local government to industry to the community that you’re actually working with, and having the same conversation but in a different language with each of those people so you can bring all the pieces of the puzzle together. 

People also don’t want to fund you until you’re successful. And so, therefore, you are burdened with success before you have a dollar in the bank. It’s a challenge to get people that do have the ability to fund social change projects, to listen to what needs to be funded to create change rather than coming from a mindset or a preconceived mindset of where their money should go.

Why is it important for you to invest in your development as a leader? 

I need to continue to develop my mindset and my understanding of the world to effect change. I don’t pretend to know everything, and because of my workload, it’s really important for me to work smarter and not harder. I need to discover what has been done before, what has and hasn’t worked and how it can then be brought back to Australia to effect change in a way that’s meaningful for my community and our nation, because the successes of Indigenous people in Australia are the success of all Australians.  

What are you hoping to achieve through Saltwater Country and your other projects? 

I’m hoping to achieve a legacy peace for Indigenous people in Australia where they can reach their potential – whatever that might be. Saltwater Country may well connect people to the sport of rodeo and campdraft and the agricultural and pastoral industries, but we also run a program called Saltwater Stories that is based around the creative element of the rodeo event we host. Saltwater Stories trains our participants in photography and film because like any big event we need it to be documented. So it’s about carving off the things that we know how to do and treating everything as a teachable moment. What we do at Saltwater Country may be just the beginning. It may be the stepping stone where people learn what they want to learn at the time and then look for another opportunity afterward. If that’s the case, we’ve done our job.

Do you worry about the sustainability of your organisation? 

Well, I come from a commercial mindset so of course, it’s something that I worry about and also because I want to build and grow and sustain for generations to come. This is not about me having a job, it’s about creating an opportunity that is creating a rite of passage for people in the Kimberley. I want people in 50 years’ time to say to their kids or their grandkids, that our rodeo was the first event they worked at, and it was the first opportunity they got to be a photographer. It’s a legacy piece and it’s a rite of passage that is Aboriginal-led and managed.

What do you like to do to wind down? 

Music is my saviour. I can’t sing to save my life but I love dancing and I love music. I come from a very big family and I love spending time with nieces and nephews in a space where I’m disconnected from any kind of device. One of the things that I’ve always loved to do is learn about other people. I do that through travelling and cooking and talking to people to learn about other cultures and their lives.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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