The 2020 National Indigenous Youth Empowerment Summit was supposed to be an “uplifting” event for people in Cairns recently, however, some say they left feeling “spiritually, emotionally and mentally drained.”
Around 250 people from around Australia attended the four day conference held at the Shangri-La Hotel to hear more than 80 community leaders talk about child safety, youth justice and the social and emotional well-being of Indigenous young people.
However, after the event, many attendees have expressed their concern about the event organiser, Akolade, saying the company did not cater to Indigenous people.
One of the presenters who attended was Kevin Yow Yeh from Brisbane, who told NITV News that it was “a culturally unsafe environment”.
“The conference was positioned and was shaped as the place to be if you were working with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country,” said Mr Yow Yeh.
“The first thing that I found concerning was that, upon arriving at the conference on Tuesday morning, there was no Welcome to Country organised.
“You had mob from all corners of this continent converging onto that country and wasn’t a Welcome to Country done and everyone was just really confused by it."
Mr Yow Yeh said Akolade used the profiles of Indigenous speakers who had a “reputable standing within community" as a "drawcard”, but he soon realised “something was off.”
One of the Chairs of the event, Wiradjuri man Joe Williams, also told NITV News that he was concerned about the company’s agenda and said he agreed with Mr Yow Yeh.
"Lack of payment to some speakers, the absence of Welcome to Country, and event organisers not knowing who the local Traditional Owners were, and not knowing correct pronunciations were concerning aspects of the event, said Mr Williams.
Mr Williams also said some of the event attendees had to sit on the floor on the last day when they were eating lunch.
“Don’t get me wrong, companies put conferences on...you know if companies are getting contracted to do these sorts of things, they’re a business, they’re entitled to make money, no one is questioning that," said Mr Williams.
“But when you’re not paying speakers, you’re not paying for people’s accommodation and flights, where’s the money going?"
Former Victorian Greens MP, Lidia Thorpe, was also one of the event speakers and told NITV News she held concerns about the "heavy content" being discussed – such as suicide rates, child removal rates, and Indigenous incarceration rates– without the appropriate cultural awareness.
Ms Thorpe said she spoke to Akolade's managing director and told him how the conference was run “really badly” and suggested employing Indigenous people to help run and shape conferences involving Indigenous people.
Company rejects criticisms
In a statement from Akolade to NITV News, a spokesperson said the company was transparent with speakers about payment for their services, which they said included flights, accommodation and registration for the event.
Akolade also told NITV News they had not organised the conference on behalf of a client, but had taken the initiative to run the event from research and consultation with Indigenous communities.
“Akolade strongly rejects suggestions that the 2020 National Indigenous Youth Empowerment Summit was used as an opportunity to profit from First Nations' disadvantage,” said the spokesperson.
The spokesperson said the company took full responsibility for a “small number of logistical issues,” which included not organising a Welcome to Country on the first day.
Prior to the conference last week, Akolade had no formal cultural awareness training but said it was in the process of doing so.
“Akolade has signed up for the entire office to undertake cultural awareness training, something that was arranged at the end of last year,” said the spokesperson.
Akolade regularly organises and runs large Indigenous conferences across Australia, with the upcoming National Housing and Homelessness Forum on April 28, which focuses on closing the housing gap for Indigenous people.