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Growing wealth for First Nations clients

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First Nations Foundation CEO Phil Usher (right) with VRGF’s RAP advisor Rod Jackson and VRGF’s director of Prevention Sharin Milner.

By Patrick Gallus

The First Nations Foundation seeks financial prosperity for First Nations Australians.

When developing their innovative My Money Dream financial education and wellbeing training, which is specifically for First Nations Australians, the team uses a culture-first approach and a lot of humour. All the trainers are First Nations people, so they can share their lived experiences.

Stolen wages and cashless debit cards … have prevented First Nations people from managing their own money.

‘We work with the emotive and behavioural parts of lived experience, so we have conversations in our training sessions about participants’ perceptions of money growing up,’ says Phil Usher, the First Nations Foundation’s CEO and a proud Wiradjuri man.

Program sessions include discussions of the ways that First Nations people have been historically excluded from the economy, leading to the financial disparities seen today. Stolen wages and cashless debit cards are examples of policies and practices that have prevented First Nations people from managing their own money.

My Money Dream

To help address this, My Money Dream discusses the unique cultural components that influence the financial experiences of First Nations people.

‘We have an open dialogue around what it is to be Aboriginal, and to want to acquire wealth, while balancing cultural obligations,’ continues Phil.

More First Nations people are employed and have higher-paid jobs than ever before, yet the First Nations Foundation reports that most don’t have a trusted source of financial information. Others feel too much shame to engage with the financial services sector.

‘We have an open dialogue around what it is to be Aboriginal …’
- Phil Usher

It’s a multi-generational handbrake on securing wealth.

‘Often First Nations people grow up with a sense of financial responsibility towards others in their family,’ says Phil. ‘But there’s no value in telling people not to do things. We pass on the lesson to lean into the things that make you happy. That may mean buying a special pair of shoes while tightening the belt on other things you don’t value so highly such as cancelling streaming subscriptions.’

The unique experiences of First Nations people and gambling

The cultural link between First Nations communities and gambling is complex.

Until the 1980s, many First Nations people in Victoria were excluded from ordinary community activities. At the same time, many traditional cultural activities were restricted because participating in them was used as a reason to remove children or relocate families.

Playing cards and bingo with family and friends became a ‘safe’ and valued social activity, and gambling remains a cultural activity that many First Nations people enjoy.

While gambling can provide an opportunity to gather and connect, it’s risky, and it often leads to harm for individuals, families and communities.

Phil points out that, like with any expense, spending money on gambling is all about prioritising, and thinking about where it fits into personal budgets.

The cultural link between First Nations communities and gambling is complex.

‘Once the basics like housing, food and bills are covered, people might allocate $50 to play cards with the family every other Friday,’ he says. ‘But if the priority is to save for a holiday, then gambling will slow down the process of achieving that goal.’

Research suggests that when a First Nations person experiences harm from gambling, it can negatively affect up to 15 family members and friends.

Support for all life stages

Helping address this harm is why the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation has partnered with the First Nations Foundation to distribute My Money Dream more widely.

The latter organisation has helped First Nations Australians with their money since 2006, and in that time has helped locate more than $24 million in lost First Nations superannuation. They work across 21 communities, so that’s more than $1 million in super saved for every community they support.

Designed by First Nations people, for First Nations people, My Money Dream has supported more than 800 clients through both the facilitator-led training and an online portal.

‘We find there’s a difference in financial literacy between generations.’
- Phil Usher

The program is for people at all stages of life and financial needs, equally supporting those who need help getting out of debt or to balance a budget, and those wanting to get the most out of their super.

‘We find there’s a difference in financial literacy between generations,’ says Phil. ‘Younger people are keen to talk about super and tax because they weren’t brought up to see themselves as a deficit. They’re able to earn with pride and confidence.’

As a CEO, Phil recognises that he plays a significant leadership role in his community.

‘But I don’t use my expertise to shame people or make them feel guilty or overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘Of course, I recognise that others have knowledge and insight where mine might be lacking. I listen to auntys and uncles for advice in the area of social justice, for example, and feel grateful to draw on their perspectives.’

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