Kimberley conversations: the value of listening

Host: Rangelands NRM
Written by Grey Mackay – Kimberley Program Manager, Rangelands NRM.

Having spent most of my life in Perth, I always yearned to be out of the city. I grew up in a fairly large family with three older sisters, an older brother, and later 13 nieces and nephews. I have always had a strong connection with the Kimberley. My sister lived in Broome in the early 80’s and I remember quite vividly coming up to spend time with her as a kid. I remember being taken out fishing with the Fong family and collecting cockles along the beach and then coming home and spending all afternoon preparing a big feast for all the friends and family.

The first time I visited with my own family was in 2003 and once again I fell in love with the place. My wife, a paramedic, put her name down on the roster for a permanent position in Broome. It took eight years before we had the opportunity to move up with our four kids. Then I was a new kid on the block and my work involved connecting with people to make a difference in the Kimberley. This was what had the biggest impact on my Kimberley life. I immediately felt a sense of peace working with, and in most cases, befriending genuine people who had a completely different perspective on life to what I had experienced in the city.

3.1 copyMe (Grey Mackay) and colleague Kira Andrews on one of our many adventures in North Kimberley.

3.2 copyEnjoying the best time of the day after a busy day in the field.

My first challenge was to connect with the Kimberley pastoral community. I spent a lot of time out visiting and getting to know as many people as I could from as many different backgrounds. I met plenty of characters in both the Kimberley and Pilbara and underneath the sometimes harsh exteriors, all were genuine and generous with their time and hospitality.

3.3 copyRangelands NRM crew with team from Myroodah during a planning workshop.

There was a time when I felt I needed to talk a lot and try to demonstrate expertise in something for people to listen. I wasn’t much of a talker. When I came up to Broome, this seemed to work in my favour. I certainly wasn’t an expert in the Kimberley and I didn’t have a clue about station life. So I found myself listening, just getting to know people and the more I listened the more people started telling me about their lives and what the real issues were. I’m sure it wasn’t all straight talking, but putting myself in their shoes, I did start to hear some common themes.

On a personal level, I was starting to find that could make a difference with the people in the Kimberley. On a working level, I was also aligning Rangelands NRM objectives with what the community needed. One of our work mantras has always been to “Keep it real!” and having spent time with “real” people who are dealing with “real” problems, I understand the importance of this. It has almost become part of my daily challenge to try to make sure decision makers try to keep things real. I was reminded of this on a recent teleconference with a couple of pastoralists as we discussed the merits of managing the land through grazing and fire. We were conscious of keeping the discussions about what actually happens on the ground, rather than drifting into theoretical or conceptual notions of what it should look like and how it might or might not work.

This is one of the unique benefits I have found working for Rangelands NRM. We have adapted our direction over the years by listening. Our official purpose is to work with land managers, local groups, and stakeholder organisations to enhance the sustainable management of the WA rangelands. We have always approached this through learning from and supporting leaders and champions in our communities. We have found that in order to achieve this, there needs to be a degree of changed behaviours, not changed opinions or values, but just trying something a bit different. We try to create an environment where land managers have the confidence and capacity to adopt change and then encourage them to take the action.

3.4 copyRangelands NRM crowd learning from the experts down in the Pilbara.

It has always been important to share our experiences with each other but to really shift it up a notch in what we can achieve, we are moving beyond simply engaging people and sharing stories, to helping people work together to agree on priorities and actions, supporting each other to actively participate, measure progress, and build on the positive impacts of others.

This is really the next challenge for us in the Kimberley. To identify common goals and pool our expertise to bring about positive changes. As we know, there is a lot at stake.