Danièle Hromek: How can we collaborate with Country?

Danièle Hromek: How can we collaborate with Country?

Danièle Hromek: How can we collaborate with Country?

Danièle Hromek: How can we collaborate with Country?

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the Traditional Custodians of this land, past,  and present. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Dr Danièle Hromek is a Budawang/Yuin and Burrier/Dharawal woman and the founder of cultural design and research company, Djinjama. Djinjama means to make, complete, produce or build something in Dhurga language, one of the languages from the South Coast of NSW.

Djinjama's Country-centred approach is based on how Danièle's grandmother, Gloria, connects with Country. Combining with Danièle's own experience and research, Djinjama recognises the multiple perspectives of Knowledge Holders to design in collaboration with Country.

In this interview, we listen deeply to Dr Danièle Hromek, to understand what Country really means to her, how we can design with a Country-centred approach, and how we can create genuine and respectful collaborations that prioritise Country and First Nations communities.

How do you describe Country? What does collaborating with Country mean to you?

Country is everything we know and everything we don’t know. It’s not only what you see,touch, or the tangible or material parts of the world. It’s also the spirit of the place, the stories that belong to the place and the knowledge to care for the place.

Countryis the non-humans and more than humans who belong to a place. It’s our ancestors, spirits, the wind, the sunshine—who we understand in our ways as being our Grandfather.

Countryis how we identify ourselves as Aboriginal peoples. We don’t own Country. We belong to Country. That’s very different from Western understanding of land and property. We don’t have a piece of paper that says we ‘own’ Country like you might a piece of land.  

Country is part of Aboriginal Law.It was given to us from deep history, not laws that came from across the ocean. Aboriginal Laws are complex, beautiful, and genuine entities, and they are everything. 

Collaborating with Country is a bigger way of thinking, part of an approach that I call a Country-centered approach. It’s about starting with Country, knowing Country and understanding the messages it’s sending.  

This is the challenge for non-Indigenous people who are trying to work in this space without having done the groundwork. You have to first understand who you are in relation to Country and where you are. You can then collaborate with Country, because you start to have a relationship with it, and you continue to sustain and maintain it.

What is a Country-centred approach?  

In design, we often talk about the human-centred approach. But a human-centred approach privileges humans above everything else, and doesn’t consider holistic ways of seeing the world.  

As humans, we are one part of a big ecosystem that is an interconnected network. The last few years of flood, fire and pandemic have shown that we don’t have agency over everything.  

A Country-centred approach recognises that we share this blue planet. When I was  setting up Djinjama, I spent time with the Elders, asking them about what core values we needed to have. They gave me five values:  

  • Always show respect  
  • Acknowledge  
  • Never be greedy and always share  
  • Don’t take too much from the water or the bush
  • Always listen

When we put these values into a design process, they inspire us to act differently. Starting with respect as a value, it makes us question how we respect Country; how we respect humans, non-humans, more than humans, natural landscapes and places.

Acknowledging who we are and how we behave. We're not the owner of knowledge; we’re one entity within a big ecosystem. There are always others that know more than we do, and some of those others might not be human.

When we bring values about sharing and not being greedy, we don't over design or take too much. We keep our work simple and honest. And we make sure everyone has equal access and opportunity to what we're creating.

By not taking too much from the water or the bush, the Elders tell us not to overuse one part of an ecosystem. In the past we didn't stay in one place for long because we didn't want to overuse resources. Rather, we used it for a while, then gave it a rest. In the context of design, it means using a diversity of materials, rather than just a few.

Listening is a key value. It means listening to Country, and the needs of the community. Show respect and get permission from Knowledge Holders. For example, when we have to cut down a tree, we get permission from the Elders and do it in the right way.

How do you integrate the Country-centred approach into your design?

We start with Country, bringing it all the way through, and normalising it as part of our process. It's extremely hard because Western systems don't have space for that. However, in our team, we genuinely do our best to make our processes respectful of Country, culture, community, kin, including non-humans and more than humans.

In past times, our families used to plant trees, knowing their children or grandchildren were going to benefit from them. It raises the question: How can we live in this place forever?

We asked the Elders, how do we connect with Country? How do we know Country? How do we connect with ancestors including in cities? We want to know the deep history, not just the last 20 years. We integrate learning in our methodologies—for example, how we connect with Country, preserve the stories and include non-humans inherently in our design.

We take storytelling seriously. Aboriginal cultures have oral histories. Our stories are knowledge, wisdom and contain Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Properties.

Stories come in many ways. They can be personal stories, or stories that come from a deep history. There are stories in the Sydney basin that are thousands of years old, and they are still preserved. We listen to those stories deeply, but we keep those stories with the person who shared them with us.

The Elders also talk about there being a lesson in every story, and Law about Country. There's almost always a secret.

We never try to work out the secret. We'll try and understand if there is a universal Law we have to obey? What lessons do we need to learn? And that's what we integrate into our design.

We don't own the stories. If we're allowed to share the story, we only do it verbally, unless it's written down somewhere else. Our obligation is to learn from it, and integrate the lessons learnt into our design.

How can we address the harm we’ve caused to Country?

We've caused trauma because we haven't addressed ourselves. People have become disconnected from their heritage and the place they originate from. They go about their world, over-consuming, seeking religions, spirituality or other things that don't belong to them.

Part of truth-telling is to acknowledge and address ourselves. Where did I come from? What trauma do I carry? What trauma have I inflicted on people and places? We have to address the reasons why we’re here, then we can start associating ourselves with a place.

As Indigenous peoples, we have to deal with our own trauma. Our trauma is still extremely raw. Despite this, a big responsibility is being lumped on us to lead the way, but we don't have the opportunity to do it realistically.

We've opened the door saying 'welcome to our community', but everyone shuts the door in our face and says, no, welcome to ours.

We're all on Aboriginal land. Non-Indigenous people should come into our circle, not the other way around. To acknowledge Aunty Jacinta Tobin, who says, as long as you come into Country in the right way, there is a place on Country for everyone.

But you have to first acknowledge where you've come from and what you're carrying with you.

How can we have ‌meaningful and respectful collaboration with First Nations Peoples?

If you genuinely want to come to our circle, first consider the wellbeing of Country and address who you are to Country, community, culture and kin. Then build a relationship with Country. Build a relationship with the community and learn your place in the complex systems.

Be a part of the solution to change by:

  • Listening and creating space.
  • Slowing things down so that ‌collaborative work can be done properly.
  • Respecting Indigenous cultural practices.
  • Implementing protocol to protect Indigenous Intellectual Property and Cultural IP.

Show up, come with a different mindset and join our circle—not just inviting us when you need a Welcome to Country performance. It can start with showing up in protest on Invasion Day, or working on Invasion Day instead of taking the day off. If you keep showing up, you’ll learn, and you won’t need to ask people how to do it.

Eventually you build relationships with Country and communities. As the Elders say, there's a place for everybody. But you have to come to it in the right way.

Learn more


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at: reco.net.au/circular-sydney

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Interviewed by Danling Xiao. Edited by Lina Wood.

Lina Wood is a science communicator and writer, graduated from a master degree of science communication at The Australian National University. Connect with Lina on Linkedin.  

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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