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Treading lightly and with respect

9 September 2020 at 6:35 pm
Cindy Mitchell
Cindy Mitchell shares some thoughts on Indigenous social enterprise, and her belief that our social enterprise movement grows stronger when we are willing to hold a mirror to it and identify where we can do better.  

Cindy Mitchell | 9 September 2020 at 6:35 pm


Treading lightly and with respect
9 September 2020 at 6:35 pm

Cindy Mitchell shares some thoughts on Indigenous social enterprise, and her belief that our social enterprise movement grows stronger when we are willing to hold a mirror to it and identify where we can do better.  

Social enterprises that claim Indigenous impact should be held to a higher standard

Several years ago, I made the decision that I would stop using the term beneficiary when referring to the focus of a social enterprise impact narrative. 

I don’t always get it right, and bad habits die hard. However, I believe that referring to the people you want to help as beneficiaries, infers that the role of an entire group of humans is to benefit from the benevolence of others passively. A beneficiary smiles beatifically towards the viewer on the glossy cover of an annual report. They do not question, debate, demand or insist. They do not participate in their advancement. They are silent.

My clients struggle with this, as well. I see it every day. I have had many consultations that go something like this: 

Social entrepreneur: I want to use my business to help Indigenous people.

Me: That’s great! You do understand that there isn’t one Indigenous people, but many Nations? So, which ones in particular? Why? Do you know any? Which Indigenous-led business or NFP do you intend to partner with?

Social entrepreneur: (silence)

I could write this essay about any disadvantaged group targeted by do-gooders of all kinds including, “at-risk youth”, migrant and refugee women or people living with disabilities just to start. Don’t even get me started on “the elderly”, or when they answer in letters of the alphabet: CALD, LGBTQI etc. Turning what I call impact mythology into a measurable program logic designed to intervene in the lives of real people is harder than it looks.   

However, I want to focus specifically on this concept of Indigenous social enterprise.

Before that – as per protocol – an acknowledgement. No, not of Country, but my standpoint. 

I am a Black American woman who is passionate about the ways that business is used as a tool of resistance to white colonial hegemony. I am a student of how oppressed minorities play the game by attempting in any number of ways, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to control the means of production. I’m about to start a PhD on Indigenous leadership and entrepreneurship. I even did a TEDx talk about it (clang!).   

Being a non-Indigenous person who speaks up and out about Indigenous issues means I get whacked from time to time. Indigenous Australians have questioned my motives and suggested that I should “stay out of our business”. I’ve had White people accuse me of being an angry Black woman.  

I have also been validated, supported Indigenous friends and mentors who help me to tread lightly and respectfully on the path I have chosen. I get no greater satisfaction than when one asks me, “Hey Cindy, what do you think about this?”

Lately, the questions they and other allies are asking concern social enterprises that claim to be for Indigenous benefit but are not Indigenous-led.  

Let’s start with the good.  

Social enterprise practitioners in Australia do more than utilise the tools of the marketplace to sustain meaningful and attributable change. 

We question the tools themselves – their fitness for purpose. We concern ourselves with the unintended consequences of our interventions. The best of us examine the ways that our enterprises might replicate the asymmetrical power relationships and structural inequities that exist in society. We view capitalism like a fire that can decimate and obliterate or heal and refresh the land as in Aboriginal fire management.

Lately, the conversations that used to inspire me are challenging. They have been punctuated with more sighs, more protracted and painful silences. 

“Why do you think it’s easier for a white social entrepreneur to get funding and support for a project in an Indigenous community, but my proposal was ignored or saddled with so much extra administrative complexity?”

“Why is that social enterprise that is supposed to be for mob, using non-Indigenous suppliers and contractors when there are so many Indigenous-owned businesses capable of the work?”

I’m going to be honest. My reflex is nearly always to defend the social entrepreneur; to look for some mitigating circumstance. But this is how gaslighting works. This is how Black and Brown people are left questioning and hurt. This is how potential partners become critics, how the fire goes from a source of healing to a deadly threat. 

Holding a mirror to our movement, I see a dangerous co-opting of Indigenous social enterprise by non-Indigenous people. Sometimes in environmental management, caretakers have to limit access to a location by tourists to protect the ecological character of a place. I’m starting to think that might be the case for Indigenous social enterprise.

Should Indigenous social enterprise be a no-go for non-Indigenous founders?

The academic in me won’t allow me to continue without a set of clarifying definitions. I frequently see people muddle up three distinct asset classes.

  1. Indigenous business. This is mainstream business, but always where an Indigenous person controls a majority of the capital. Social benefit is often a positive externality of these businesses.
  2. Social enterprise. Intentional, measurable social innovation sustained by trade. 
  3. Indigenous social enterprise. Social enterprises (as per above) that claim a specific contribution to the advancement of First Australians; not necessarily Indigenous-led. 

Not all Indigenous business is a social enterprise. Nor should it be. Just like we allow mainstream entrepreneurs to decide if they want to use the social enterprise asset class, Indigenous entrepreneurs have every right to determine how to run their businesses. However, I’ve observed a tendency by some in our movement to foist that impost on to Indigenous entrepreneurs. That’s not on. 

“What’s rotten in the state of Denmark, is the unwillingness to look more closely and critically at Indigenous social enterprise – those that claim to operate for Indigenous benefit.” 

Too often, I see Indigenous social enterprises that are not led by Indigenous people. They have no Indigenous people in positions of management or governance. Where there is a proportion of the income from trade, the businesses are not in partnership (and often compete directly with) Indigenous companies. 

This violates the prime directive of social enterprise, which is to use trade in a way that does not exploit, subjugate or relegate others to the role of the perpetual beneficiary. A not-for-profit (NFP) social enterprise with deductible gift recipient (DGR) status based on “Indigenous advancement” should always have Indigenous membership and board representation.

Social enterprises that use photographs of Indigenous people or quotes as evidence of impact without the informed consent of those people should stop and apologise publicly. Those in government and philanthropy who fund them should be called to task for their role in perpetuating the same disadvantage they are trying to address. 

It isn’t enough to expect the person who once posed for a photograph and now finds themselves in the role of a de-facto spokesperson or “Black cladding” to speak out. The power dynamics in these relationships are too lopsided for that to happen. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that an Indigenous social enterprise would use Indigenous suppliers. Indigenous contractors and employees should be appropriately remunerated on time, every time, and provided with opportunities for training and advancement where this is possible. When these organisations wind up (with DGR), the assets should be entrusted to an ATSI-controlled NFP.  

We all need to think harder about how we consume items linked to Indigenous cultural heritage, especially art, fashion and bush foods. Spend money? Yes! But, tread lightly and with respect on this Country. We, who are not First Australians but desperately want to ally ourselves, need to remember that our role in their nation building cannot be as the star of the show. We can only be supporting cast members and that’s after being invited to join. I, for one, am still auditioning.

Cindy Mitchell  |  @ProBonoNews

Cindy Mitchell is the CEO of the Mill House Ventures in Canberra.

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