Indigenous empowerment at work: Beyond the buzzwords

March 2, 2023
Indigenous empowerment in the workplace

Diversity, equity, inclusion.

By now, you’ve probably heard almost every company promote these values. 

But if you belong in an underrepresented group of any kind, these values aren’t just nice-to-have perks – they’re a necessity to building a productive, rewarding, and satisfying career.

And when you’re with an organization that truly adopts such values – along with all the changes that come with it – then you know you’re in somewhere special.

Kirsty Bell found such a place at South East Water, and she’s helping the company become a true ally for these values as it builds a workplace where everyone can feel like they belong.

As an Inclusion and Diversity Coach and its Acting Senior Aboriginal Advisor, Kirsty knows all about advocating for change and building a better, fairer workplace. She taps into her cultural heritage and diverse life experiences to help guide the company’s policies, operations, and philosophies across the organization. 

But unlike most companies she’s come across, she found in South East Water an organization open and hungry for change.

“This is the first time in my working life that I’m working with a company that ‘walks the talk’ of its company values. We put safety first, we care, we’re real, we’re bold, we discover, and we deliver sustainably.”

Here’s how she’s helping transform South East Water and making it a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace. 

Sparking a lifelong passion for advocacy

Long before she joined South East Water, Kirsty was already passionate about helping people and inspiring them to become their best selves.

This passion was sparked by her own struggles growing up and the many challenges she overcame in her life.

“My tumultuous upbringing really impacted my confidence and the belief I had in myself. I learned a lot along the way through support, training, the people I work with, and a great mentor. It really taught me a lot about myself and the people around me.”

Little did she know that this would be the catalyst for her career and a central part of her life’s work.

“Because of all that, I hope to inspire others to overcome their challenges and find that sense of belonging we all deserve.”

Drawing from her experiences, Kirsty realized the life-changing benefit of having the right support system empowering your growth. 

And in the same way that her life changed for the better with the right support, so too does Kirsty hope to improve others’ lives by ensuring they get the support they need to flourish in the workplace.

Years later, this passion is burning stronger than ever. And she’s using it in her biggest and most impactful role yet.

Becoming an agent of change

“I joined South East Water in 2021 as the Aboriginal Cultural and Employment Advisor. But my career journey has been as diverse as the people I work with. I have worked in retail, banking, education, community services, and, more recently, Aboriginal education. All of these roles have provided me with extensive knowledge and experience to take on the role of Inclusion and Diversity Coach.”

And all that experience paid off, particularly when it was time to challenge the status quo.

“A month into starting my first role, things didn’t feel right from an operational and cultural perspective. I had to have some really difficult conversations about my role and the way we were doing things.”

But instead of being brushed off by management, she found a response that was the complete opposite.

“My people leader and management above were great. They were open-minded, and they respected me and the knowledge and experience that I bought to the table. We worked through it together.”

At first, Kirsty was worried about ruffling feathers so soon. But for her, fighting for the right thing has always been worth it.

Indigenous empowerment in the workplace

“I was worried about speaking up so early on in a new job. But I’m glad I did! This led to an Aboriginal employment and engagement review, and we are now implementing recommendations from that – which is great.”

Kirsty is proud to work with a company that truly listens and values what she brings to the table. And she feels even prouder that it has continued to support her through all the challenges they faced together.

A professional, personal, and social ally for Indigenous employees

From the moment she joined South East Water, Kirsty knew there was something different about the company.

Indigenous empowerment in the workplace

“I received a calendar invitation to a welcome lunch just for me! We met at a local cafe, and everyone was so lovely and positive. They shared their experiences and were genuinely excited to have me join the team.”

And the support kept coming.

“They helped me take up learning opportunities such as coaching for performance, undertaking leadership studies, and, most recently, entering the Barring Djinang leadership program, which is designed to build skills and support Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees to take on leadership roles.”

With its inclusive and anti-discriminatory culture, flexible work arrangements, and career development support, South East Water actively empowers people of different cultures and backgrounds.

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The company’s flexible working arrangements have also been incredibly valuable for Kirsty, as she balances her work and home life.

“I am very fortunate that South East Water offers hybrid work and flexibility for its employees. This taught me how to better balance my personal and professional responsibilities.”

She adds:

“They offer flexible working arrangements in the truest sense of the term.” 

“I work a compressed week, as I have caring responsibilities for my child with a disability, and I have my own challenges. My Mondays off allow me to attend appointments or meet with specialists, etc. Sometimes, things fall outside of this, which isn’t a problem since I can schedule my workday around the needs of the business (and my own when needed).”

But what truly made the company extraordinary for Kirsty was how they worked closely with her through the challenges of building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace.

“I am extremely proud of my work initiating a review to transform how we as an organization support and empower Aboriginal people and their communities towards self-determination.”

The thread that binds us

Kirsty’s ultimate goal for South East Water is to build a place where everyone feels empowered to grow and advance in their lives.

“I hope that by harnessing the wonderful passion and energy of our employees, we can continue to make South East Water a place where openness and honesty are welcomed, where we can be our authentic selves, and where we have a sense of belonging and find true satisfaction in our work.”

Because at the end of the day, our differences connect us more than divide us. 

“There is so much we can learn from each other.”

With motions for change already underway, Kirsty is hopeful that tomorrow will be even better than today.

Want to learn more about the benefits of a career at South East Water?

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About the Author

Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

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