Protect, preserve and honor Indigenous heritage to reimagine a brighter future for all

A girl with her dad and Microsoft leader Steven Worrall
Steven Worrall, right, with Mia Leech Morrison, a student at Rosemeadow Public School in New South Wales, Australia, and a participant in the Mini-Digital Custodians program, and her proud dad. The illustrated images are connected to Indigenous heritage and were designed by Mia and her peers using Paint 3D and Minecraft.

The Cammeraygal people are the traditional custodians of the land where I’m writing this. They are one of the many tribal groups who have occupied the Sydney basin district for tens of thousands of years along with the many other First Nations tribes across the Australian continent. The Cammeraygal are the stewards and the storytellers of this place and their rock art, adorning a cave in a nearby park, serves as a constant reminder of this fact.

The rock art connects across generations, reminding me how fortunate I am to live in the country with the oldest continuing civilization. At the same time, it highlights the obligation we all have to protect, preserve and promote Indigenous heritage both here and around the world.

By protecting, preserving and honoring our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island heritage in Australia and Māori heritage in New Zealand – Aotearoa – we foster the sort of inclusive and respectful environment that allows us to reimagine a brighter future for all of us.

This November, recognizing Indigenous Heritage Month at Microsoft offers us all the opportunity to reflect on the identities, cultures and traditional knowledge systems of all of the world’s Indigenous peoples. These cultures and systems are vital to harmonizing our relationships with nature and each other. While November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States, we know Indigenous populations pre-date governmental boundaries, and they span geographies across every continent. We take a global perspective at Microsoft and lean into this opportunity to connect with and learn from communities across our company and the globe.

The learning component is key. Over the last five years I have been focused on gaining perspectives from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders themselves about how we at Microsoft can play a role in protecting and preserving culture.

I make no bones about the fact that at the outset I was naïve about so much, and downright embarrassed at the gaps in my knowledge and understanding. And while I acknowledge that my learning has just begun, it’s an area I am passionate about as I’ve come to realize that Australia won’t be the nation it can be until we truly acknowledge our often-painful history so that all Australians can live together as equals. Around here, we might describe this as ensuring everyone has a fair go.

I am striving to learn both about Australia’s Indigenous heritage, and following our recent integration with Microsoft New Zealand, I have the opportunity to also learn about Māori culture and heritage. One thing I have learned about this process of building awareness and empathy in order to inform action is that it is ongoing. And we can also go further in our learning no matter where we start from. It is an intentional, continuous process of discovery.

A few years ago, I was privileged to be invited by Jawun – an organization that fosters strong economic linkages between Indigenous communities and commercial enterprises – to travel to Cape York, a remote and beautiful part in the very far north of Australia.

I learned so much and developed a clearer understanding of the complex issues associated with delivering quality health and education services as well as economic opportunities to Indigenous communities. I also grasped how important Indigenous self-determination and constitutional change are and will continue to be, and the critical need for Microsoft to work as an ally. We are making inroads:

  • We have invested externally. Our work with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, to combine Indigenous knowledge with modern science, artificial intelligence and cloud computing to protect and preserve the environment has attracted global attention and signals the impact that we can have when we come together. We are playing a role in groundbreaking programs to protect country and cultural sites, to preserve threatened species such as turtles and magpie geese in Kakadu, and to create economic opportunities for Indigenous communities at the same time.
  • We are investing in the future. This year’s Indigital Minecraft Education Challenge attracted more than 6,500 students from 160 different schools around Australia. We worked on the challenge with Indigital, an Indigenous edutech business, and schools to combine local Indigenous knowledge and Minecraft Education Edition so that schoolchildren could create virtual worlds that respond to the 2021 National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) theme, “Heal Country.”
  • We are proud to be part of the Business Council of Australia’s Raising the Bar initiative, and to work in partnership with Supply Nation to engage with and buy from Indigenous businesses.
  • We have invested internally. Last year I was delighted to become the global co-executive sponsor of our Indigenous at Microsoft Employee Resource Group, which helps to amplify Indigenous voices and raise awareness of the importance of Indigenous heritage.

While I have been focusing my learning within my own “backyard” in the region where I live and lead a team, I believe we can all build our awareness of the Indigenous communities and cultures all over the world, not only to address and prevent the marginalization of Indigenous peoples, but to ensure Indigenous communities thrive.

I was honored recently to host a discussion with Indigenous leaders Noel Pearson and Dean Parkin and explore in more detail the opportunity and appetite for constitutional reform. Part of this process is also to acknowledge and confront the muted progress in terms of closing the statistical gap that exists in Australia between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in many areas such as life expectancy, incarceration, health and education.

There are clearly deep complexities in terms of developing and delivering the services that are needed to effect abiding transformation, and we can learn much here in Australia from other countries including our closest neighbor New Zealand. Issues associated with inter-generational trauma and disadvantage are complex and multi-faceted and are not going to be addressed by government or any one organization alone – it will take us all working together.

Microsoft stands ready to play our role as a digital ally as we acknowledge and embrace Indigenous identities, cultures and traditional knowledge. Interweaving that knowledge with modern science and technology, skill-building and education will allow us to reimagine a future where every human can experience equality and respect.

Learn more: In this video, University of Waikato Professor Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith discusses the ways that organizations can make the conversation around diversity & inclusion and the workplace more inclusive of the Indigenous community. Dr. Smith also highlights stigmas and workplace policies that impact the community.  

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