Multicultural service amplifies call for the Voice

Posted on 13 Sep 2023

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

SSI Town Hall Springvale Aug
Multicultural organisations and representatives packed out Springvale City Hall as part of a joint event by Settlement Services International and the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria. Picture: SSI

One of Australia’s top providers of support for new migrants and refugees has used its diverse connections to reach multicultural groups on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Over the past 20 years Settlement Services International (SSI) has developed its expertise and strong relationships with people from every cultural and linguistic background in the country. It knows a thing or two about the power of diversity.

As an organisation used to working with vulnerable people, the organisation considers that advocating on issues of equity and community is central to its mission, which is why it is pushing for a “yes” vote at the coming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

SSI’s head of strategic relations, Dane Moores, has been heading up the organisation’s efforts in advocacy, including on the Voice.

Community Directors Intelligence caught up with him soon after he addressed a workshop by the Allies for Uluru coalition of more than 100 community organisations (including Our Community).

Dane Moores
SSI's head of strategic relations Dane Moores

Why SSI sees supporting the Voice as part of its mission

Mr Moores said the organisation had developed its position and rationale for supporting the Voice in a process involving the whole organisation, from the CEO and board down, and from frontline workers all the way back up.

“When we looked at this issue, we asked, ‘How does it further our purpose and our mission as an organisation?’,” he said.

“We've taken a principled position on the Voice as a social justice organisation, as an organisation committed to reconciliation, and as a settlement services organisation as well.”

That’s because one of the main roles of a multicultural organisations like SSI is “to welcome people from all over the world to this country”.

“We're welcoming newcomers to a place where First Nations people have had a continuous connection to this land for millennia but their contributions and custodianship has not always been acknowledged, including in our constitution. We have an opportunity to change that this year.”

SSI knew from hard-won experience, Mr Moores said, that social services worked best when “designed with the communities they’re meant to serve, and that is fundamentally what the Voice is about”.

One of its roles as a multicultural organisation was to transmit information on key national issues, he said. In the same way it spread important health messages and “busted myths” during the pandemic, it again saw for itself a role of providing “trusted information” to communities.

“For all of those reasons, we see raising awareness about the Voice referendum as intimately tied to our purpose as an organisation.”

He said for any organisation it was essential to have “a consistent, shared understanding of the purpose of advocacy across all levels of an organisation, grounded in its purpose and mission.”

Violet Roumeliotis
SSI chief executive Violet Roumeliotis

SSI’s approach to the Voice, like its approach to other strategies, started with “a clear mandate from the CEO [Violet Roumeliotis] to explore our role in this space.”

From that point, SSI consulted with staff, beginning with those who had lived experience of the issue, in this case First Nations staff.

This enabled SSI to refine its position and seek the support of its board for a position statement, “for a clear directive and mandate tying our position closely to our mission as an organisation”.

Following this, SSI engaged with other staff, then client communities, wider networks, and finally the wider public.

He said advocacy organisations should remember that while external awareness was important, internal engagement with staff was “critically important” at the outset.

This engagement included “lunch and learn” sessions to raise awareness about the Voice and a dedicated internal web page with Q&As and other resources.

From there it began to reach wider afield, starting with compelling blog posts and opinion pieces from Ms Roumeliotis, and culminating with large scale “town hall” meetings drawing up to 500 people in key multicultural centres in three states.

One has been hosted in Springvale in Melbourne, with others scheduled for Logan in Brisbane late this month, for October 5 in Bankstown in Sydney.

Mr Moores said that so far each of the events had been characterised by “a lot of energy and optimism, and great engagement from across diverse groups”.

Thomas Mayo
Thomas Mayo, one of Australia's leading proponents of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, addressed the Springvale gathering.

The Springvale gathering, for instance, which was co-hosted by the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, pulled together an array of communities including Hazaras for Yes, and saw performances from Cambodian and Sudanese dancers and the national launch of Multicultural Australia for the Voice.

Voice advocates Thomas Mayo and the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, both delivered passionate keynotes, but for Mr Moores, the highlight was a speech by SSI board member Tharani Jegatheeswaran.

He said Ms Jegatheeswaran summed up the feeling of the people present when she shared a conversation she’d had with her mother about their own migration journey, and when she said it was time to repay First Nations people for their hospitality.

“When we had no country, they welcomed us and shared their country with us. Now it is our turn to stand with them.”

The benefits of a diverse, inclusive agenda

Mr Moores believes that community leaders not yet serious about diversity and inclusion are missing out.

“Not factoring in diversity is just a fundamental failure of understanding your audience. The fact is, Australia is incredibly diverse.

“On the Voice referendum, for example, the more we engage the full diversity of the Australian population in debates like this, then the more inclusive and democratic our country can be.”

“There are great benefits from embracing diversity, whether it’s on boards, among your employee base, and in every sphere of life. Diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of backgrounds just makes us all stronger.”

“Diversity is core to the DNA of an organisation like SSI, because we are inherently a multicultural organisation, but beyond that we are championing the importance of diversity and multiculturalism into mainstream organisations and conversations. Engaging diverse audiences should be done by everyone.”

As well as being committed to “continually learning and evolving” in its own practice, SSI provides diversity training for not-for-profits in three states through its social enterprise SSI Diversity Training.

Many of the resources on the SSI web pages are provided in a plethora of languages.

Mr Moores rejected suggestions that any organisation could be “too diverse”.

“That’s almost like saying ‘Can you succeed too much?’, because diversity is a strength. Embracing diversity just makes businesses better, communities stronger, boards more effective.

“It's about doing what's right, but also what's smart.”

Mr Moores also believed it was important to “get the balance right on embracing all forms of diversity”.

Some organisations could risk focusing too much on one area at the expense of other areas, he said, while it was also important to understand what your organisation was able to achieve.

“There are limits to your capabilities, but there's no limit to your awareness.”

The challenges of working with diverse communities

Organisations wanting to work well with diverse communities will need to do their homework and rely on the experts – those communities themselves.

As SSI acknowledges, every cultural and linguistic group comes with a unique background, history and knowledge.

“The key to engaging diverse groups is tailoring communication to them based on that unique cultural, linguistic, social, economic background,” Mr Moores said.

He said SSI had learnt that organisations should be strategic in the way they allocated resources to the task and likened the approach to the “train the trainer” model used in many workplaces.

“What works best is engaging firstly with the leaders of those communities and equipping them with the tools and knowledge to speak to their respective community members.”

Any communication was more powerful coming from trusted leaders, who were already part of “existing social capital and networks”, which made communication efforts “much more streamlined because you don't have to create these mechanisms from scratch”.

“If you can bring community leaders on board, you can often bring that whole social network on board with them.”

He said any effort to reach diverse groups should involve them “from the outset”, before any thought went into translations or other outreach.

He drew comparisons with SSI’s work on communicating health messages during the covid-19 pandemic.

“Both are big issues of national importance that require tailored, accurate information so communities can make informed decisions.”

He said SSI’s engagement strategy for the Voice is based around a “four Ts” method of communicating and draws on lessons learned during the pandemic. The “four Ts” are:

  • trust
  • tailoring
  • translation
  • tapping (into networks).

Trust means using voices that were trusted in particular communities to convey the necessary information.

Tailoring that information means understanding that communication mustn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, but requires understanding the unique situation, background and context of a particular group.

Translation means providing information in the appropriate language for communities that are hard to reach.

Tapping into existing networks, structures and social assets allows organisations to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

He said the four Ts methodology and tactics had been successfully applied in the Voice campaign.

Allies for Uluru
CEOs and representatives of hundreds of social sector organisations have joined forces under the Allies for Uluru banner to support a "Yes" vote in the upcoming referendum.

Requirements for successful engagement

Speaking to other pro-Voice advocates in the Allies for Uluru coalition, Mr Moores said he believed SSI’s successful campaigns came down to three factors: leadership, coherence and a value proposition.

On strong leadership, he said SSI was lucky to have CEO Violet Roumeliotis “champion the Voice, and give us a mandate to act, and to prioritise this work”.

He described coherence as the ability to speak with a united and consistent voice across internal and external communications, and with diverse stakeholder groups.

Finally, he said organisations involved in the campaign should “focus on their value proposition” or “value add”.

“There's a lot of activity going on, a lot of work on the Voice, so where can you as an organisation make the greatest difference? For us it was focusing on engaging multicultural communities. That's where we have value and that's our strength as an organisation.”

Mr Moores said working with diverse groups, especially those with strong connections through the community, was extremely rewarding.

“I marvel at the richness and depth of those connections with local community leaders. It's a beautiful collaboration to be part of.”

More information

Settlement Services International: Research into cultural diversity and disability | Diversity training | SSI’s formal position on the Voice referendum | SSI CEO’s statement on the Voice

Read our "People with Purpose” profile of SSI’s general manager of newcomers, settlement and integration, Yamamah Agha

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