Country’s voice is loud & clear: are designers listening?

For our mob, we listen not only with our ears — but with our eyes, with what we smell and with what we touch,” says Kat Rodwell.

Listening lies at the heart of so much of what designers do, but listening to what Country and Culture is telling us means connecting deeply and meaningfully with the land and its people.

How well are designers — and organisations, individuals and communities — listening to these voices?

Together with Landscape Architect Hannah Galloway, we wanted to explore the topic of Listening’ with First Nations Consultant, Cultural Advisor and Storyteller Kat Rodwell to recalibrate and share the practical ways that individuals and organisations can better connect, and support, and learn.

Listen to Parts 1 & 2 of Hannah and Kat’s Epic Yarn below — or search for Hassell Talks in your favourite podcast app.

Hassell Talks

Season 6, parts 1 and 2


Hannah Galloway, Hassell


Kat Rodwell, Balert Mura Consultancy


As a professional walking into this space — as a designer and architect or whoever — we don’t want to offend. We don’t want to say the wrong thing,” says Hannah. 

Kat reminds us all that this learning journey is one we walk together, and it asks us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Prepare yourselves for raw truth telling. 

She reiterates the importance of asking questions, and asking permission. 

We say, don’t walk on eggshells, because you’re holding back,’” Kat explains.​“If you really want to learn something, ask. And if it is wrong the way you’re putting it, then we will talk through it.” 

In Part One, Kat and Hannah discuss the​‘eggshells’ of engagement — the role of understanding that each project, situation and engagement is a unique opportunity to understand the land from the beginning. 

Throughout this conversation, Hannah and Kat explore the nuances of cultural protocol and etiquette, and the systems of Country that still speak loudly — even in crowded city centres — if we stop to listen.

Bird and insect sounds, followed by theme music.

Hannah Galloway introduces episode: 

From global design practise, Hassell, this is Hassell Talks. Welcome back. I’m Hannah Galloway. I’m a landscape architect in Hassell, Perth Studio. And I’m your host this episode. I’m joined by Kat Rodwell.

Kat’s a First Nations Consultant, Cultural Advisor and Storyteller. And Kat is someone we at Hassell and many organisations turn to on projects, to educate and guide us on our journey to knowledge.

Where I am, I’d say kaya, which is hello. I’d say Kat welcome, which is Wanju and that’s in Noongar language.

Kat Rodwell:

Yuma, which is hello on Ngunnawal country. But I’m in on Wadawarrung country.

Hannah Galloway:

Thank you. So before we go any further and before we make any further introductions, which I can’t wait to do, I’d just like to acknowledge and respect the Noongar Whadjuk people and the Wadawurrung people as the original custodians of the land on where we are recording today. And acknowledge their unique ability to care for country and heir deep spiritual connection to it.

We honour elders, past, present and emerging, whose knowledge and wisdom has and will ensure the continuation of cultures and traditional practises.

Hi Kat, how are you and who are you and can you tell us a little bit about you, yourself?

Kat Rodwell:

I love, who are you? I don’t know half the time who I am. I’m still learning who I am. I’m guided by ancestors of past and all the elders from past and elders today. I’m so lucky that I’m guided by them in everything I do, which is amazing.

Where do I start? Well, proud Ngunnawal Woman. Grew up on Dharawal country and La Perouse, as everybody would say, swimming with anything and everything in the ocean. I’m a water baby. Absolute water baby. And a shark fanatic I should say.

Hannah Galloway:

And thank you so much for joining us today and it is lovely to see you again.

Kat Rodwell:

Well we’re going to have an epic yarn, I call this. And I always start off these by saying let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that means me as well. And we walk this together. So the questions that we talk about, it means that let’s be truthful, that raw truth telling. And this is what we’re going to do today.

Hannah Galloway:

Kat and myself have worked together before. We met back in 2021, deep in the midst of Covid. So we’ve only ever spoken online. I’ve never actually met you in-person because I’m over in Perth and you are over in Victoria. So if you could just explain to us a little bit, Kat, about what it is that you do?

Kat Rodwell:

A lot. In a nutshell, I suppose what I do is I act as a go- between or the old-fashioned sifting. You put your flour in and sift through everything, all the information, so it comes out properly.

I help to work with traditional owners, elders and community, work with projects and work with architects and design teams and other facets of that project, to make sure that their voice is heard. That they have a seat at the table. And not just the seat every now and then, that they’re like project managers, that they have the ability to say, hey, we’re not happy with that. Can you change this? What about this?

So they’re included in their own home, which is effectively what the projects are, on someone else’s country doing their home. I also help the project teams and architects to be able to understand country, the culture, the protocols, to understand the history, cultural mitigation, but also take the team on a cultural journey.

And when I say, that’s not death by PowerPoint, it’s taking them on a journey, where you can ask any question you want for fear of saying, oh, have I asked the wrong question? Oh my gosh, is she going to be angry with me? I’m here to help, I’m here to bridge that, to make sure that we all work together, we all walk alongside together, so that the outcome is this beautiful storytelling through the building, through the structure. And that country has a voice loud and clear. And that everyone hears it, sees it, smells it, and can feel it.

The other things I do is have a look at, as I said, my Bush Tucker, Bush medicine classes. So you get to immerse in culture. And the other part I do is I fix the mistakes, like a sweeper. I’m good at sweeping, so people say. So helping people to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, but work with us.

Hannah Galloway:

Yes. To just introduce myself as well. So I am a landscape architect with Hassell. I’ve been working with Hassell now for nearly 20 years. Gosh, is it that long?

I have had the privilege of during that time working on so many different projects in so many different sectors. And since moving to the Perth office over the last 13 years, all of those have had wonderful engagement processes with First Nations people. So they’ve ranged from St. John of God’s public and private hospital. Perth, Optus Stadium, Boola Bardip WA Museum, Roebourne District High School, which was a wonderful process. And that’s ongoing at the moment.

And I’ve also lectured and tutored modules with Curtin University in some of the work that they’ve been doing with the Healing Centre for the Stolen Generation Mission, out at Wandering. So I personally have a deep respect for First Nations people and a huge interest in culture and the spiritual connection to the places that surround us. And that is where I come from in regards to those really interesting discussions.

Which leads me, I suppose into what the intent of today’s chat is all about, is I think for wider context to people all around the world who may be listening, I wanted to first touch on why it’s so important to have these conversations and these discussions with First Nations people in Australia. As traditional owners, the cultural connection that you’ve had over 1000s of years with place and the understanding of systems and that spiritual connection to Australia itself.

I just feel as though it’s so imperative and so important that any change to place or any further understanding of place is done in a discussion with First Nations People. And that helps us as landscape architects and architects and designers of spaces for people, to better understand the places and the systems and the spirituality and the connections, to be able to move forwards together in partnership and create better spaces for everyone. What’s your understanding of engagement Kat?

Kat Rodwell:

For me, we talk about the term listening, and this is about engaging. We need to listen and for us, our mob, our people all around Australia and probably like every other culture, is we listen not only with your ears but with our eyes, with what we see, with what we hear, with what we smell, with what we touch. That’s how we hear.

So it means that we are grounded with country because mother is our country. She looks after us and we look after mother in turn. She nourishes us, we nourish mother. So we’ve got to listen to her with all those senses. So for me, engaging is using all those senses when we speak, when we talk to our traditional learners, when we listen to them, when we listen to our elders, because they are the caretakers of country, they’re the ones that tell us the stories of the past and bring them to the present.

They’re the ones that share all the knowledge of the 100s and 1000s of years. They’re the ones that show us how to live with mother, with country. How to learn from country, how to respect country, so that we can coexist together. That’s engaging. That’s the short version.

Hannah Galloway:

That’s so beautiful and so beautifully put. And so it is a full sensory immersion in a way. And somebody once described it, a traditional, he described it to me as an exchange of energy as well. That connection is something that can be literally felt through an exchange of energy. The more people that are in a place, the more the energy can build up as well. And the exchange of energy between the ground and the country itself resonates and builds up. Is that correct?

Kat Rodwell:

Exactly. So I’m thinking of… What’s the movie with the blue people? Avatar. When I was watching Avatar and how they were talking about they were all one. With everything they saw, they were all connected with that same energy.

That is the same with us. And when I saw them, how they were saying that there’s this energy that the ground, the trees, the animals, they all work in sync together. That’s how we feel about country and the energy. And when I saw that movie I went, oh wow, bang on, bang on. That’s what it’s like, our connection to country, all those senses.

And you’re right, it’s like being… Sometimes the more people we have at our celebrations and properties, your rock concerts. You’re rocking on and all this energy builds and builds and builds because you’re all sharing that time, that space, that moment with everyone, and grounded on country. Once again, what you see here, smell, touch.

Hannah Galloway:

And I suppose that if we’re understanding, and I suppose taking the example again from Avatar, it’s just expressing in that way all of how natural systems are all in interconnected and interwoven. And if we change one element, so that as architects and developers and the sectors that we’re in, you’re changing one aspect of it and it has such a detailed and knock-on effect, to the balance of all of those systems. So again, it’s having these conversations to go on that journey together, to understand impacts to all I suppose.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, one cannot exist without the other. That’s why we say water for all of us is the giver of life. And it is for anyone, without water we cannot survive. So that’s just an example of it. So yeah, anything, we all exist.

A famous uncle, who’s passed away, was saying… He’s now in the dreaming and he always said, we don’t own the land, the land owns us. Nothing is older than the land. And that was how it was said. It was beautifully said. That’s our connection.

Hannah Galloway:

It is beautifully said. The different cultural backgrounds are what makes these discussions so fascinating because it’s just a continuous absorption of learning. But I think that what some people might find difficult is to connect to something that’s very natural in the systems when they’re stood in the middle of central business district.

Do you know what I mean? So that you’re surrounded with buildings, the systems are not visible to you, the connection is not obvious and literal. So I imagine there’s still a connection there for yourself. And can you explain how you listen to country still in say for example, the city centre?

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, we call it living culture. So it’s living cultural heritage, because it is seen everywhere. It is heard everywhere. We can touch it everywhere. Unlike, let’s just say where you are from, in your country. Give me something that’s… What’s one of your main big cultural features in your country? What are something everybody knows?

Hannah Galloway:

You can go landscape features, but originally from the UK you probably end up with somebody saying The House of parliament, Big Ben, do you know what I mean? There’d probably be landmarks or Stonehenge or something like that.

Kat Rodwell:

Thank you. Stonehenge. So places like that, our culture, we just touch the ground and we’ll have artefacts come up, our middens, et cetera. The landscape itself is our culture.

So having said that, what we say, our culture still oozes through the cement and the concrete and everything. It is still there because our connection is so strong, the spiritual connection.

So another question, this is building it up to it. When you fly, you’ve been into Melbourne I gather.

Hannah Galloway:


Kat Rodwell:

Okay. When you’re coming in on the aeroplane, I think I’ve asked you this question before, you’re just about to fly into the airport, when you’re looking down over Melbourne, what do you really see?

Hannah Galloway:

But when you’re that far up and that high up, you see landscape, you see systems. I see the tops of the hills, the valleys and the difference between where country starts and city starts and the details are gone. For example, a landmark that I was describing is not visible from an aeroplane but a larger geographical region or whatever is.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah. Because a lot of people will say I see buildings and not much greenery and we always use this. And for me I see it differently, it’s like an in-built system within us, our connection to country, that’s spiritual. I see, immediately I’ll go to the waterways, I’ll immediately find a bit of green so to speak. I see beyond, below the concrete jungle so to speak, because country is still speaking through it, speaking to us. Sky country, star country, the trees, the wind.

So when I go into places, in Melbourne for example, when you walk through it and we call it the Pentridge Jail look, which is the blue stone walkways, which is just… Oh, it makes you feel enclosed, but always find that connection coming through it. So usually I get people to stand there and to close your eyes and the first thing is okay, everyone’s seems to be able to use ear, listening first, it’s the first thing of connection.

And we take that time to just stop, because Melbournites really don’t stop, they just keep going. So we say stop, breathe, connect. So stop, breathe, connect to country the first step. And we say listen, what do you hear? And when they’re really listening, it’s amazing. 

(Breeze sounds play)

Kat continues: Most will say I can hear the wind, I can hear some of the wind, you can hear it sometimes in the trees, and the leaves. And I go, that’s our ancestors talking to you, the wind and the leaves.

Every now and then someone will go, oh I can actually hear people walking. I go, that’s good. Our ancestors are walking with you. And some will say, depending on where we are, I can hear a bird or two, which is quite rare in the city. And they go, how good is that? Our ancestors are talking through the birds to you.

(bird sounds play in background) 

Kat continues: And I go, okay, what else can you see beyond the buildings? And some people say the trees and the movement of the trees, swaying. I can see the sky, sky country. Doesn’t matter whether it’s blue or black, you can see it. I can see the clouds. At night I can see the stars, star country. Or they’ll see some birds fly over. Or sometimes they will see people laughing, people talking. That’s the connections all coming through.

They’ll see the Birrarung, the Yarra River. And I say okay, what do you smell? And someone goes, all I can smell are the cars and that. And I go, okay, connect. What can you smell? And it’s quite amusing because then people block out the car smells and they start to think of some of the food smells and go, okay, what else? And every now and then someone will go, I can actually smell some of the leaves coming through. It may not be the eucalyptus leaves because there’s not many left in the city, but it’s the smell of country. And it’s okay if they say I smell different foods and that. That’s the smell of country as well.

Then we go walk around a bit and let’s have a look. And when you find some of the trees and that, I get them to touch. Because that’s our ancestors as well. And the trees are grounding, they’re strong and their root system is strong and connects us to country. And with all the leaves and that, they can hear and the ancestors are talking and the birds are talking through it. And then all of a sudden the branches are there, we say maybe our ancestors are there sitting there watching over you.

And then they start to go, I’m starting to realise there’s more depth to connecting to country, to what your spiritual connection is to country. It’s not one dimension, it’s many, many. And that’s why we say our connection is unique. It’s on many levels and where one is affected, it affects us deeply because we say it is our soul, it is our mother. So when mother is not well, we’re not well.

So that’s how we start off with that. Getting people to have a look at the area they’re in, connecting with what is around them through the many sensors. So it’s more, paint by numbers. We’re starting to layer the story, the narratives. That you need to know where you are first, so to speak. That’s the start.

Hannah Galloway:

That is so amazing. Thank you so much for that. I just feel as though I’ve been transported. I was fully immersed in that and it was just beautiful. So thank you. I find that it is about reminding ourselves, and just like we all talk differently about wellbeing, that is part of wellbeing as well, just reminding ourselves to stop.

And everything is hurrying by and we see what’s just in front of our noses. Like you say, the cars and the fumes and the buildings and the whatever, and the people and the buses. That’s there, it’s obvious. But if we stop for a moment and listen as you’re saying, I love your description of the layers and it is, it’s the subtle layers that are still there, doesn’t matter where you are. Beautifully described, thank you so much for that.

Kat Rodwell:

You’re welcome.

Hannah Galloway:

I just feel a little bit more zen for that discussion there. So I think that, that’s so important, as one step of understanding place and connection to place. And as you were describing, listening to place.

And so I suppose now, I just wanted to understand a little bit about how best to listen to voices as well. So when I’ve gone to many different meetings… And over here it’s affectionately termed as Noongar time because there should be no timeframe to a discussion.

And that’s the beauty of it, because it’s a huge amount of respect that you give somebody, if you dedicate time and enough time to have that conversation. So that you’re not driven by an agenda, and I’m here till this time and have to leave then and we need to discuss this and this. It’s not about that. It’s about the connection, isn’t it? It’s about stopping and listening and immersing in that. And that should not be driven by priorities other than that conversation.

And there are certain protocols aren’t there. When we start a discussion with elders and with traditional owners. I wondered if you could just touch on it for our listeners, just to understand some of those protocols. When we first walk into a room to start a yarn, start a discussion.

Kat Rodwell:

First up I say to people, know whose country you are on. And for people who go, you’re in Australia. Yes, the country. For First Nations people, we have many countries within Australia and we say that is… You could could say it’s like going into Europe and you’ve got many countries within Europe.

That’s like our mob here. Each country is different. Each country will have their own protocols, their own lore, L-O-R-E, that is. Their own, what you call a flag. They could have a totem, not totem poles. Their own ways of dealing and engaging. And that’s important to know first. So whose country are you on? You’ve identified Noongar. I’ve identified as Ngunnawal people.

So to know the protocols is, I always say we need to ask permission to walk on country, which is the old ways. In the olden days, way back past, they would’ve sent someone forward, and it’s not necessarily you see a gate or anything like that, go ring a doorbell or whatever, it’s country. We knew where the so-called boundaries were. We would send a message and go across.

And it’s different in each mob. So you’d go there and maybe have a smoke via going and now you announce you’re coming and you’d ask permission. Let’s just say I’m coming from your country or country, Noongar country to the elders, traditional owners and say why we want. Because sometimes we need to come on country to discuss business, to trade, to arrange marriages. Not anymore, thank God.

But to celebrate, to have celebrations. And it was a time where for example, giving a gum leaf, dipping it in water and sucking on it, saying, I abide by your lore, I come in peace. And I will tread lightly on country. And by them saying, well come on in, you’re welcome then. Come and share all our resources, let’s do trade, let’s talk, let’s celebrate. And you then walk through country and you do that trade.

So I still do that, practise that whether it be a phone call or email announcing the intention of the project and the companies and the people asking permission to walk on country and a brief about what the project’s about and where it is. So therefore, we’re starting that respectful dialogue, respectful relationship and they go, cool, that’s great.

From there protocols would be, you’ve got to remember a lot more people are starting to engage traditional owners, elders. So there’s that overload, you call it cultural overload. So we need to give time. And you brought it up, we never used to sit back and go, I’m hungry, when is our mother is going to be here, at 12:00 by the sun dial. I think by 12:10 they should be here, by 12:30 when the sun’s almost little bit changed, we’re going to eat by this time. And possibly skin a kangaroo by 1:05 according to the sun.

So, we don’t do that. As I said, the idea is we come to yarn, to talk. It may not be business, it’s an announcement, it’s just a talk. So we’ve got to give time. And I always say make sure, minimum these days, four weeks, and most will have forms to fill out, to say what the project’s about, what we’re looking at, why we need to have that consultation.

And then they may say, give a few times and dates. And then they’ll come back to you usually and say, well this suits us. So it’s not about you telling us what time you want to meet. It’s about you saying, could we meet? We would love to talk to you more. We want to know more about your culture, this time and this place, when it’s best for you.

That’s that reconciliation, that’s that respectful dialogue happening. So even in the pre-meeting I will usually meet with the team to give them an overall background of the area of whose country it is, just so you’re a bit more aware of what to expect as well. And sometimes I’ll give you a bit of language. So on the Werribee Project, we did met with Wadawurrung people, Wadawurrung Traditional Aboriginal Corporation.

And we also met at other projects and we always used a bit of language to start off with. So on Wadawurrung country, nyurra, which means hello in Wadawurrung language. And that was respectful, traditional owners love that. And then we might have said at the end, kun gadji, which is, thank you go and peace, see you later.

Simple things of using a bit of language. When it’s appropriate, use. We ask permission, whoever is there, do we call you auntie and uncle? Is it okay if we do? Ask permission first. I always say the term I want you all to think about and keep in mind is two words and it’s going to help you out a lot. Ask first. If you’re not sure, ask.

Hannah Galloway:

One of the other things I wanted to touch upon was the fact that walking into a room, if there are First Nations people in the room that haven’t necessarily met each other, I think as consultants we need to remember that there is that process and that protocol. We need to just step back for a minute and let the First Nations people in the room talk about where they’re from, understand their family backgrounds.

Am I correct in that understanding? Because when I’ve been in meetings and things, it’s been my name’s such and such, oh your surname is X, you must be from this area. I know your auntie. And it’s almost like they learn each other’s family tree within the discussion, to understand who each other are as part of that cultural protocol. Am I right in that understanding?

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah. Not one person makes decisions in the group. It’s a communal. So there’s many people that have that decision. But some groups don’t like to meet together in a meeting. So we’ve got to be very wary. Is it appropriate to have various, I call them mob, because that’s from what I was taught for mine, in the same room together. Is it more respectful to have separate meetings?

And that’s when I say ask first, because some may feel uncomfortable and that’s natural. So when we come in I will usually tell each mob who’s going to be there. So it gives them the opportunity, if they want to engage or if they don’t want to.

So when the time happens, yes, you’re right, let them do that. But a lot of the times they may not want to talk about more family business, where they’re from. So we say don’t presume they’re going to tell you where they’re from and everything like that. They may not want to.

Hannah Galloway:

No, no.

Kat Rodwell:

But you’re given the opportunity if they want. You’re right.

Hannah Galloway:

Yeah. And it’s something that I personally have never asked of anybody. It’s just allowing, I suppose if that happens through a natural conversation, just stepping back and then letting that all occur.

Kat Rodwell: Yeah. We have many uncles and aunties and as I said, they may not be what you term is by blood, but as I said, it’s a community.

Hannah Galloway: Yes.

Kat Rodwell:

And that’s the funny thing, we all walk in and go, yeah, I know you, I know you, I’ve walked over to Victoria and they go, I know you. You are Senate, up at the Northern Territory, and ACT. And they go, oh my gosh, I come to Victoria and there’s Senate Street everywhere, they go, didn’t know we were here.

Hannah Galloway:

When we’re talking about people and understanding people and mediation within a space and reading the room and all of those things, I think one thing that sometimes forefront in people’s mind who do care, they do care as a professional walking into this space as a designer and architect or whoever, that we don’t want to offend. We don’t want to say the wrong thing. We are sometimes nervous and treading on eggshells as such, that you say something, a cultural faux pas, you get something wrong.

Should we be nervous or should we be conscious? But truth tell, I think that’s a term we’ve used before, so that we can then learn from each other? And if it’s an open and authentic conversation, we can help each other learn the better way through the conversation.

Kat Rodwell:

Exactly. Look, as I said, when we came down and sat together, the reason why we talk about yarning circles, which run exactly 360 degrees, the thing of, we’re facing each other, there’s no one behind our backs where the truth telling can come forward.

That’s how we want to sit with you, by saying… You won’t know everything. We won’t know everything. So we say don’t walk on eggshells, because you’re holding back. If you really want to learn something, ask. And if it is wrong the way you’re putting it, then we will talk through it. We’ll tell you. We’re not going, nope, we’re not talking to anymore. You can’t pronounce that right.

That’s not how it goes. When we on this learning journey together, we walk together, it means, raw truth telling. Ask those questions, because it’s the only way we’re going to move forward. When we have our epic yarns or we have our co-design sessions, you are brought into that conversation, whereas in the past, people kick you out of it.

You get here at third hand, we bring you into that conversation, where you are there with everyone that needs to be there. Where you are free in a safe cultural environment to ask those questions. You mightn’t get the answer you want, but it’s a culturally safe space, because we set that scene. We invite you into the conversation.

So please ask those questions and don’t feel afraid to do so. When I do my Once Upon a Yarn Series, I do them online because then people can type in their questions, because they feel more comfortable doing it that way. At the same time, if you are in a meeting then you can probably give questions ahead of time as well, if you feel that uncomfortable. So preempt us, these are the questions we really want to know.

Hannah Galloway:

So one thing I wanted to ask was, by having these discussions and trying to promote engagement, which is so important, is there a risk that we are not going to have, with the timelines of many projects, enough people to engage with?

Do you know what I mean? People are becoming so stretched. Because we’ve got key elders and key traditional owners that are willing and happy to have these conversations. And there’s a concern that with everybody wanting to do it and we’re all working and moving in the right direction and it’s all a 100% positive, how are we perceiving this working in the future, when we’ve got all of these projects going at the same time and everybody wanting to meet and talk and yarn and things. Are we going to get burnout from a lot of people?

Kat Rodwell:

We already are. It’s overload. You’ve got to remember a lot of our younger ones are not stepping up to traditional ways anymore, because of money. When I was speaking to mobs about this, I was giving them an idea of how we can try to help them and what the companies can do to help, to speed things up, but also to make sure, to lessen the cultural overload and cultural burnout.

Hannah Galloway:

And I think that part of asking that question is understanding that when we have spoken with different, whether it be aboriginal consultancy and engagement firms or whether it be just with elders or respected members, it’s all about having more and more and more conversations, as in engagement earlier, continuing the conversation. Having many touchpoints throughout, so that we’re all on the journey together.

But that’s adding more load, that’s adding more requirement for having many, many more conversations. And there is just that concern of how we’re going to manage that within regards to not getting burnout within the cultural groups and just having somebody from nine-to-five, having to meet, meet, meet.

Kat Rodwell: On one hand it’s great to see a lot more projects and people engaging us to be part of the projects and to want to put cultural narrative and elements within them. But on the other hand, we’re 3%, 4% of the population. It’s hard because there’s that cultural overload.

A lot of our elders cannot cope with everyone’s demands of time and everything. It means, still engage where you can, be reasonable about the timeframes, be reasonable about the requests, be reasonable about if you would like a language. There are protocols that you have to go through about that. Does the language fit the project?

A lot of us are saying, why are we just naming rooms and doors our language? It’s disrespectful, it gives no reverence. Look at phrases. And don’t forget boundaries sometimes change, which is what happened over here. And we had the RAP boundaries change. So sometimes that language does not belong in that country now.

And the other thing is, we were saying, well what can we do? And this is from some traditional owner groups who were asking and were saying that, perhaps can your company donate something? We’re not talking about money. How about you have experts in IT, in admin, in accounting, et cetera. Can you donate 10 hours of your accounting time, of your IT time to these groups, to help them out? So all of that gets sorted and gives the elders more time to do these engagement processes.

A lot of our elders who do this within rigid aboriginal parties, native title holders, is people tend to think, oh, they must be earning a fortune and they’re not. And that’s the sad part. And the other part is, you’ve got to remember, there’s elders too, that may not know all the knowledge you require. Stolen Generation comes into it.

You’ve got to remember, it wasn’t that long ago that we were then allowed to speak our language. We were allowed to share our culture, our stories. So pre-colonisation we had 300 and something different languages and we passed down these stories and we shared all of this responsibility. Colonisation, we were being eradicated, and that’s the term, eradicated.

So we weren’t allowed to speak our language, we weren’t allowed to talk about our culture. We were taken away. We were not stolen, we were kidnapped and taken away from family, our culture, our comfort, to assimilate into the white culture.

So a lot of our stories and language was lost. And some people tend to think when they go into these meetings, come on, you’re aboriginal, you’re from here, you must know all these stories and we need to know everything. And we say, please be respectful, because they may not know that, because of what was taken from them.

Hannah Galloway:

So Kat, how are you coping? How are you coping with cultural overload and what gives you hope?

Kat Rodwell:

For me, I am so lucky. I’m surrounded by elders and traditional owners from all around Australia, where I do projects where, when it gets really tough and very emotional and I hear stories of country and how hurtful they can be, or I hear, we call them throwing spears at our back. Or we have people that just cannot get over that reconciliation bridge. And I have to remain businesslike, but not show too much emotion where it does hurt. Because then I’m not speaking for community.

I can go and talk to my elders, which is bonus, and sit down with them to what you would call debrief. But I can sit down and have a yarn and that’s me offloading, by saying, I really need to talk this through, this process. Am I doing the right thing? Am I still on that right path? Because as I said, a lot of people call me a wandering auntie, because I travel all over Australia and get privy to these stories, to connections to some of these horrific stories.

But I have to tell them, because that’s what they’ve asked me to do so. But I also have to offload them as well, because keeping them inside too much means that I can’t perform or do my role by speaking for community. On behalf of, sorry, on behalf of, not for community.

It’s big and you’ll probably find a lot of people in my role don’t last. I’ve been doing it for a very, very long time. Many will come into it thinking, oh, it’s just listening and doing this. And it’s not, because you’ve got to have thick skin, because not everyone wants to hear that story. Not everyone wants to be part of a cultural journey. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

Hannah Galloway:

And it’s also exhausting for you, I imagine.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, very.

Hannah Galloway:

Absolutely exhausting.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah. One of the biggest thing is, people tend to think we do this for free and we don’t, because you may do a session, but it’s all the prep beforehand, or after hand. Having a conversation or setting up an event can take something like 20 hours just back and forth with the elders or traditional owners to set it up.

People don’t see the behind the scenes. When I do my epic yarns, which I love performing, as you would see it, takes a lot out of you. But it’s the knowledge, how you want to engage the audience. It does. It’s a lot to take in. Energy-wise and the fact that people don’t see your role as worthy of being paid and paid properly, which is quite heartbreaking.

Hannah Galloway:

Well totally empathise with the fact, that one of the hardest things to do, and I think as we grow professionally, I’ve found that, you learn your skills, et cetera. One of the hardest things to learn is people. Dealing with people and everybody is different, everybody has different trigger points like you say.

So learning to be able to be so empathetic in the position that you may must sit in, to mediate at some points between all people in the room and ensure that a process runs smoothly, that cultural protocols are understood and adhered to, that people are protected as well through processes.

And also, like you say, this potentially aftermath of discussions, where you might have to then follow up and ensure everybody is okay. There’s so much that must go on in your brain when you’re trying to read the room all the time. And then before and after, that we don’t even always…

Kat Rodwell:


Hannah Galloway:

It’s not transparent.

Kat Rodwell:

You get to go home from your job. I’m in my skin 24/7. And that’s the part people don’t understand. And if I do something wrong within culture, that’s my role, my job gone. Because bush telegraph spreads. And that’s pretty hard.

So you’ve really got to be mentally, physically on the ball the whole time. And it does get extremely tiring. But I love doing this. And I know this is what my ancestors have asked me to do, so I love it. And Jeff works with me too, so we bounce off each other. It’s like brother and sister role, but just lucky.

And we’ve got lovely people like yourselves who want to learn. And I feel very comforted by the fact that the hope is I’m seeing more and more people like yourselves and architects who are leading the way and wanting to participate, wanting to do things the right way, wanting to really engage, not the tick box, but do it for the right reasons.

And sometimes, as I said, the opposite is I see people in my role who are not in it for the right reason, which is a shame, but that balances it out. Sometimes I go, that’s okay because I know there’s hope out there, that there is more people going to come up.

Hannah Galloway:

Well, you just see so much of it more occurring and so much more positivity around these discussions and people being passionate and willing to learn and wanting to be there and share and take the journey together.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah. And they’re asking more questions. They feel they can, which is amazing. I go onto a work site and it’s really quite funny, where it’s one of the big bosses who’s head of a project wants to meet with me every two weeks. We go have breakfast and have a yarn. I’ve never had that before in my life. That’s the respect.

And we have a great yarn. He wants to learn more. And then everyone giving me a hug and go, you’re my Kat. And they come up and give a hug and this gives me hope, because they want to connect. They value what I can bring. They value the role, but they value the cultural input.

Hannah Galloway:

That’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s perfect.

Kat Rodwell:


Hannah Galloway:

I want to hug when I go to work. 

Both Kat and Hannah laugh.

Music plays

Hannah says:

I’m going to interrupt this epic yarn, because we’re cutting the episode in half. As you can hear, Kat is an incredible talker and we just kept talking and we really didn’t want to cut too much out. So it’s now going to be two episodes.

The next episode, part two, we get to ask the questions that our listeners have sent in. You wanted to ask Kat about project timelines and logistics, what Indigenous or First Nations people want to see in their built environments. About the fetishization of culture, about balancing cultural heritage and contemporisation, as well as questions on research, agriculture and planting.

I really loved Kat’s approach to these questions, her answers and insights, and I know that you will too. So check out part two on Hassell Talks.


You’ve got to remember, there are elders too, who may not know all the knowledge you require. Stolen Generation comes into it,” Kat explains, reminding us that many connections were lost when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and displaced from Country.

Sometimes some of my people may seem angry or they may seem confrontational, but it’s not, it’s the passion of saying, Well now our voice is starting to be heard. We want to tell you things, we want to share things, but we also need you to acknowledge the past first.’ ”

In this​‘Epic Yarn’ with Kat, we pose questions from our listeners.

You asked Kat questions about the dangers of fetishisation, about agriculture and contemporising culture, and the danger of Traditional Owners (TO’s) and First Nations consultant groups becoming overwhelmed and burnt-out. Kat also answered questions about reconciling project timelines, to the ways we can regenerate Country. 

These two episodes serve as a reminder and resource for designers, organisations, and individuals that we can listen and learn much – from Country – and each other.

Recorded on Lands of the Noongar Whadjuk people and the Wadawurrung people. Produced on the lands of the Wurundjeri people.

We pay our respects to the original custodians of the lands where we practice, and acknowledge their unique ability to care for country and their deep spiritual connection to it.

Bird and insect sounds are heard, fading into music.

Hannah Galloway introduces the episode: 

From global design practise, Hassell, this is Hassell Talks.

Hi everyone. Welcome back to part two of our epic yarn with First Nations consultant, cultural advisor and storyteller Kat Rodwell. I’m Hannah Galloway and I would like to acknowledge and respect the Noongar Whadjak people and the Wadawarrung people as the original custodians of the land where we recorded this yarn. We honour elders past, present, and emerging, who’s knowledge and wisdom has and will ensure the continuation of cultures and traditional practises.

This is Part Two. If you haven’t listened to Part One, I very much recommend that you do. It’s a really big conversation about listening and about respect and connection, protocols, engagement, loss, and the experience of voices and country not being listened to for so long. Kat also identified ways we can all help to reduce the overload traditional owner groups and consultants are feeling. Do go back, check it out. If you are already across it, this episode is where we get into the questions our listeners have sent in. There’s some really great pointy stuff here, so let’s get back into it.

(music fades in and out) 

Hannah Galloway says: 

We had a series of questions that we asked through our social media channels before this podcast and recording. One of the questions was, what do indigenous people and communities really want to see in our built environment? How do First Nations people want their culture, values, art and knowledge to be translated into architecture?

Kat Rodwell responds: 

I’d say it’s genuine, cultural, meaningful elements within the built form and also elements that contribute to everyone’s wellbeing and health because the buildings and structures become a part of country, make them live as part of country and we want them to represent community, not the same for everything. We don’t fit into the same round or square hole. We are all a different mob, as I said so don’t presume where one group says, oh, we are like this, the other group’s going to be the same. Make sure it has a connection to country and it builds curiosity. It doesn’t have to be in your face. As I said, is it that you can see country smell, country feel country touch country? Those elements, that’s all that has to happen. That’s all they’re asking for. But mainly they want to know what are you doing on country? What is it you are building on country? How is country going to change? Because once you change country, it affects us deeply.

I always say plan out the meetings. Probably, with me, I have probably four with the traditional owner groups, the elders on each project because I think after that it’s too much overload. But we always come with purposes well to say what is it that you really want to know so that we’re not going to take up too much of their time? Ask questions while you are there. That’s why you have facilitators like myself to help that conversation and to draw out what you need to know. But also you don’t have to be that, I call the unclear, as I said to you, unclear, everyone seems to think you’ve got to have all the bits and pieces, all the fangdangle, whistles, the kid in the candy store. You don’t listen to the stories of country. It doesn’t have to always have a massive yarning circle. It doesn’t always have to have a totem. It doesn’t always have to have an aboriginal painting or anything. People are still treading on eggshells about when they’re engaging us, what they can and can’t do and they’re afraid to do, especially with the design. I’ve had a really good conversation last week with a couple of elders on where you call designing with country is going?

Hannah Galloway says: 

As you say, every conversation and every situation is going to be unique so never presume that you can have one conversation and reuse that somewhere else. We cannot translate. We are asking for the privilege of hearing these stories and showing respect for receiving the sharing of stories and knowledge. We come up with suggestions and we take those back and we look for approval on the way that we are translating and work through that together.

Kat Rodwell responds: 

Yeah, and you want to be able to understand it. For us people sometimes what you may hear from an elder traditional learner is not necessarily what they’re saying. This is sometimes where people like myself will come in and say, well actually this is what the story or the language is what is being shared with you. It’s like that great dividing cultures and sometimes language. Does what you build and the narrative, is it easy to understand or is it so far out there they go, that doesn’t look like a Murnong? Murnong is not blue, Murnong’s yellow. We need to be able to understand it as well so it gives respect to culture. We’re not asking for a lot really.

Hannah Galloway asks: 

Should we do one of the pointy ones, Kat?

Kat Rodwell laughs and says: 

Yeah, come on, let’s do it. Yep.

Hannah Galloway reads a question to Kat from the audience: 

This next question from online, a question about the fetishisation of indigenous culture. The idea that simply because something is rooted in indigenous culture that is necessarily good, better or sustainable. How do we acknowledge a culturally safe way that no culture has ever gotten everything right nor ever will do?

Kat Rodwell answers: 

Ooh, I’m looking at the word and really it’s saying, well an unreasonable amount of attention really given to indigenous culture. The thing that stands out in this question is I say, well who says we never got it right? Just because it wasn’t written down. We’re oral traditionalists and some may argue, well we did get it right. We lived in harmony, we were sustainable, sustainable farming, sustainable living. We looked after country, we nourished country. We only took what we had to until Captain Crook, we call him, and fellow explorers came along and came onto country and changed country. Then things started to go pear-shape, as you would say it. That’s me being nice. We had law, we’ve lived in harmony and today, this day and age, maybe we are getting it wrong as a culture in some ways because we’ve lost our cultural ways, cultural elements from the past that have disappeared.

We’ve lost being part of a community sometimes, being misinformed, people make mistakes. The question is how do we acknowledge it in a culturally safe way is well, we work together, we work together and that’s how we do it. No one is perfect, there is no expert. We look at the now and how we can resolve or solve things. When we talk about our cultural practises, a good example would be we lived off the land and the waterways, which as I said were the giver of life. These days now because of loss of a lot of that practise because culture has changed we now go towards a bit of your way of agriculture.

Hannah Galloway asks: 

What correlation can we bring between agriculture and native bush agriculture?

Kat Rodwell answers: 

I do a lot of bush medicine, bush tucker sessions, which is really good and I always have gin at the end because juniper is in gin. We talk about this, that country was our chemist, it was our hospital, it was our supermarket. It’s really funny how it’s all been revived. This bush medicine, bush tucker is being used in a lot of ways now and it’s being used in ways of being farmed agriculturally, which is interesting. That’s what I’m saying, the sea asparagus, which is on, I had a note here, [inaudible 00:09:14] tribe country where it’s very high in certain vitamins and it does taste like asparagus, it does and you need in the salt water areas.

Now we’re starting to farm it westernised ways. An indigenous plant though something that we just used to pick from the waterways et cetera, that we’re farming it sustainably now. The two cultures are coming together to revive some of our bush medicine, bush tucker and being able to practise their culture with agriculture and merging them together. It’s using the old ways with the new ways, working with country, with the new climate. That’s why I said, it’s not giving it unreasonable attention. We never had the attention, we weren’t allowed to practise culture, but now we can. It’s a hard question, but I love it, I love it.

Hannah Galloway:

I suppose it feeds into that idea of it’s good sometimes to have hard conversations and discuss things that are confronting because that’s how we understand each other better.

Kat Rodwell:

Oh definitely. As I said, we were told, Cover your mouth”, we weren’t allowed to say anything. Now we can. I suppose sometimes some of my people may seem angry or they may seem confrontational, but it’s not, it’s the passion of saying, Well now our voice is starting to be heard. We want to tell you things, we want to share things, but we also need you to acknowledge the past first”. Sustainability, we’re fabulous at sustainability. If we weren’t, we would never have survived. But we would need to bring some of those practises again to the forefront, and now so we say with our voice, we need people to listen to us more how we worked with mother and it’s not designing with country, it’s learning with country.

Hannah Galloway:

Okay, another question we’ve had is do we lock it in a glass cabinet or let everyone have a paintbrush?

Kat Rodwell:

I love this one.

Hannah Galloway:

Yes, it’s great, isn’t it? It goes on to further say how do we balance respect for cultural heritage and preservation with enabling an ancient culture to contemporize?

Kat Rodwell:

We are not a museum. We do not belong in a museum or behind glass. We are the oldest living culture in the world. It is, as I said before, living cultural heritage. I’m not saying to give you paintbrush but to listen, but we need to grow together on this, to still show respect. You want to do immersion into culture and have that experience of the immersion. For it to be in a glass cabinet just means you just get to look and probably tap on the glass. For us, the balance is to be able to immerse yourself in that experience. Once again, see hear, touch, smell. People want to be able to feel our spiritual connection. They want to learn more about the history of our past and our present.

Putting in a glass cabinet, no. It just means telling those stories but at the same time, showing respect, preserving them as well. Listen and understanding as we grow together. We’ve got to remember some of these stories may change over time because they involve when more comes forward because I said other the times we weren’t allowed to share our stories. For example, in the Truth-Telling treaty here in Victoria, stories were emerging about the treatment, but more stories have been shared about how we lived, et cetera, and the culture.

Hannah Galloway:

I think that statement leads into the next question quite well because there is another question, is posing research or engagement, these may be conflicting, how do you progress the design intent? Is every project case by case? In other words, through the conversation we always find potentially as you were saying, new things and things are brought to the forefront through the engagement but how does that work when it’s conflicting?

Kat Rodwell:

Okay, both go together. Let’s just give an example of this research. When people want to research something, let’s say they go onto Google or whatever they may say, do aboriginal people like the colour yellow? You put that criteria in and you probably get, yes they do. Then probably come back and bring up the aboriginal flag has yellow in it. Do aboriginal people do dot paintings? Yes, all aboriginal people do dot paintings and all these dot paintings will come up. But you get a generalisation when you do your research because you are putting in the criteria you want to know. When we do the engagement, we’re narrowing it down, getting that firsthand knowledge from the traditional owner, from the elder, from community. It’s like saying you’ll find what you want when you do your research, but you’ll know more of the truth and add more richness by doing the engagement. Is that narrowing it down?

Hannah Galloway:

One hundred percent and I’d explain it as well as a designer, if you’re trying to represent place, then yes you can, I’m in Perth, then you can create a space or something that reflects Perth. But if you engage and you understand exactly that specific place in Perth and as you were talking earlier about listening and understanding, deeper understanding of that place and then having the stories that relate specifically to that place, then you’re not going to learn that off the internet or research. You need to have those from … and it is an oral history as you noted before and so without talking and without having these conversations, we’re never going to understand the specific nature of the space that we’re designing in.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah. It’s case by case. As I said, when you talk it outwards, people go, Kat, can you do a dot painting?” I go, If I hear that one more time, I’ll do a dot painting on your head in a minute” because it’s not relevant to Ngunnawal people, it’s not relevant to people in Victoria where it’s more linear lines. And things like they talk about, Oh you must have this certain gum tree, you got to have a gum tree here”. And you go, Well this gum tree did not exist in this place, in this country”. Or they’ll go, When I go and see people do presentations and they put it to traditional owners and I go, I wish I’d saw that first” because they’ll put up a picture of Uluru and I go, But we’re not there. Uluru is not in Victoria, I’m sorry”. Or they’ll put, what is it? The Twelve Apostles, they used to call the Piglets or something and they’ll put it in, and I go, That is on someone else’s country, Eastern Maar”.

It’s time, it’s place so we narrow it down and learn stories of this particular place from the traditional owners, elders and community. Definitely as I said, you type researchers, you type in what you want to hear, what you want to see.

Hannah Galloway:

I think in projects that I’ve worked on before, it goes down to that level as well that if you are trying to represent a place, particularly if you are trying to help a connection to that space, if you then bring in stone from China or you bring in a stone from a different country, it could just be like you say literally only a few kilometres away, but it’s a different country, then you’re not enhancing and working with developing a connection to that specific place. Likewise with plants, if you’re using native plants, you could be using a native plant, but it could be from the other side of the country. Therefore, to be endemic, to be of place, we need to be a lot more careful about how we use our native planting to be more specific and more endemic and looking at how we can incorporate that within our process.

Also, like you say, ask if it’s all right to use a different stone, ask if it’s okay to bring sound. We created a dance circle in a project, a dancing circle for celebration and coming together and it also formed a bit of a yarning circle as well. And we were looking for the right sand to put in it. We literally got different bags of sand and sent it to our engagement group for them to feel and touch and we drew a map to say exactly where the sand was coming from to confirm it was from country, it was from the right country, the right place and it had the right texture, it had the right feeling. I think it’s about the level that we go to sometimes in trying to engage and create that connection to place and country, but also the respect that we go through that process so even checking the materiality that we are using.

Kat Rodwell:

Thank you. That is so important because by you taking a part of country and putting it on someone else’s country, you are taking their ancestors off that country, putting them on someone else’s country and this is what we’re trying to get you to think about. It’s as simple as that. When we say the plants, people go, oh, your native plants and they go be aware you have native plants, indigenous plants, so plants that we use as … the country is our chemist it’s our supermarket, it is our university, it is our Bunnings, et cetera. We only took from country, news from country because that’s our spiritual connection. When you take it to someone else’s country, it’s hurting us.

Someone said to me in the city, well how do we know what sort of things? And I go, one of the best things you can do is if you’re somewhere where they’re doing a big dig excavation, go and have a look if you can see that how deep it is and you can see all the different, you might get to see different ochres, colours of country in that and what it looks like in that, and gives you a bit of a clue to what to look for as well.

As I said, ask first, we know a lot of now our indigenous plants do not survive on country because climate change. We work together where we get hybrids or something that’s similar. Sometimes we say is there a similar colour? But once again, always ask first because it’s different for each country and what they expect. But I like how you’re saying, please ask about bringing from another country what you bring on country. We did that for the Werribee, we sourced boulders from country and then another project we asked permission so that transport, even if you get permission, the transporting should be done respectfully.

Hannah Galloway:

Yeah, and it is, it’s about asking, having that conversation. There might be a process or a protocol that you can do to transfer. It may be a smoking ceremony in regards to respecting the ancestors from one place before it’s moved to another, et cetera. We’ve done that. I’ve done on projects or I haven’t done it, I’ve witnessed it done on projects here when transplanting trees that have just come from one place to another to help that tree reestablish because you’re taking it, as you were describing before, it’s rooted in the ground and you are lifting it and you’re moving it and that’s that spiritual connection and that ability to bring in a process that aids in the health of that tree. But also the health and the connection and the spiritual connection for the traditional owners and the elders that were involved in the project.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, and have a think about it, the in-thing now is to do an indigenous garden with bush tucker bush medicine, which is what I do a lot of. But when people ask me to design one for a project, I’m always thinking what is the purpose of it? Why do you really want one? For educational, fantastic. For the new buzzword, what is it? I can’t even think, it was entertainment with education. And I was going, What?” I’m going, We don’t want just to put plants in there for them to die because that’s hurtful”. They want to have a purpose so you don’t want to plant like a hundred chocolate lilies just because the smell comes every now and then they go, Oh cool”, but to have them die.

We are going to put them where you’re going to actually use it. Is there a café or a servery that they can actually use it? Is it an educational piece that people will get to see, touch, smell and even taste it. Don’t just bring it on country just as a tick box say, Look what we’ve done a native or an indigenous planting”. Make sure it’s got purpose, spend money elsewhere on a community.

Hannah Galloway:

There’s so many connections I think that we don’t even understand that isn’t even a possibility sometimes before you start these conversations. For example, a lot of locations and sites on country are sometimes female or male, you know what I mean? If you have objects within that space, say for example, I don’t know whether it’s the same across the different mobs as you say, language groups or countries, a women’s site here, if you put an emu in that area would be seen as that’s a male symbol, and a female location there are different plants as well that are more associated with women’s business if you like because they had medicinal purposes for women culturally.

I think it’s about as long as we’re having those conversations, those things will be discussed and teased out and as long as we’re sharing our decisions and our processes and it’s about just, even if you don’t think it’s something that somebody might have an interest in, still talk about it because you’ll suddenly find out that thing that was not related to this at all is totally culturally inappropriate because it’s a male totem or something within a traditionally women’s site.

Kat Rodwell:

Exactly. This is where we are saying where that open dialogue and the question of ask first comes into it. In these co-decide, I say co-decide design meetings in those, ask those questions. Is it okay if we can do this? If the elders are not too sure, they’ll go find out. That’s the whole point of that cultural journey you take with us when we have those sessions. But you bang on about that, people forget women’s and men’s business and how different elements pertain to culturally similar women’s business, culturally similar men’s business and initiation and everything. If you really want to be respectful, then you need to know a bit more about what you’re putting in there. Is it going to be disrespectful to the culture, to the people? You don’t want to do that. It’s just the simplest things and people just think it’s just a tree. No it’s not to us or it’s just a boulder, no, it’s not just to us. Different elements have, and every mob will have something different, ask.

Hannah Galloway:

I’ve got a couple more questions I’m going to read now. They’re taken from I suppose, more of a perspective of logistics looking through engagement within a project. The first one I’ve got here is how can we make space to meaningfully design with country in the context of a bed or design competition when often a huge portion of the design is locked in before meaningful engagement with the traditional owners? Or is this asking too much? It seems like it shouldn’t be too much to ask for some of our biggest, most important public projects.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, this comes up a lot and especially when I’m on tenders and it’s hard because I always say we need to engage first. How do you design something when you don’t even know about country or protocols or what we can and can’t do? And the timeframes within construction and infrastructure are just so out there that there’s no room really for proper full on engagement. When I’m on a project and it comes to where they’ve got to put a design in before you even have contact with traditional owners because you’re not allowed to for competition phase, it’s being able to engage with people like myself who have been privy to so much beautiful stories and knowledge of different cultures of different mob around Australia where we can give you snippets of what we’ve been told so it’s more like a bit of a background first. It’s like that paint by numbers.

We can give you a few of those numbers to paint in. We give that design so that the design can be layered once we have that contact, that true traditional owner engagement so that things can be built within it as well. The storylines can be built within it, certain changes can be built within it because we understand that some of the structure has to already be in the tender before it even goes to traditional owners. We get that. But there’s certain things you can add to give it that cultural narrative, to give it that cultural input.

Hannah Galloway:

We’ve also done it in a different way as well where we’ve done as an art workshop. We’ve invited artists for a workshop scenario, spent a day sharing ideas and talking, coming up with suggestions so that there’s a plethora of opportunities even if it’s not necessarily, you know you’re going to develop it further through the process and the project.

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, but make sure you not just throw it in at the end just for the hell of it.

Hannah Galloway:

No, absolutely.

Kat Rodwell: Yeah, think about how you can layer your design up from that and that’s where you get the paint by numbers and in the end you go, oh it’s a fruit basket. Good, now we know what it was supposed to be. A friend, an architectural friend said, It seems like it speaks to you”, and I go, It does”. The building or structure will speak to you what it wants to become because it’s part of country, it is a living thing on country, it’s an extension of country now. That’s where sometimes people fall over, they just go, Nope, it’s just a structure, just a building”. It’s not, so interesting. I like that. That’s a good question and it’s really hard for us people like me to come in to try to fix some of these things up because I’ve come in at a stage where they’ve put all the plans in and had no engagement whatsoever and they’ve gone, Oh crap”. And I go, It’s okay, you’ve now admitted that yet we haven’t done it. Let’s put that to the past. Let’s work out how we can move forward and give some respect to your structure, to your building”. There’s always a way so just don’t think, oh, we haven’t done it, we’re not going to do it. Please still engage.

Hannah Galloway:

The next question we had is very similar when it comes to listening to Australia’s First Nations people and fostering genuine engagement towards advancing reconciliation efforts, the phrase, nothing about us without us, is important to remember, practise and embrace. However, this place is quite a burden on First Nations people. A big ask for less than 4% of the population. How can non-indigenous listeners better respect the time, energy, culture and tradition of First Nations people on the journey to voice, treaty and truth?

Kat Rodwell:

Once again, ask first. Think laterally and in a partnership way, and this is something that always comes through. Oh, I suppose not every community will want to participate. We must be respectful. Remember our knowledge has been lost and we’re starting to regain, retell and share. When I say not everyone wants to participate because it brings up the trauma again of the past sometimes and not all want to engage, to share that because there are some stories and cultural elements that in our culture we don’t share, not even with other mob.

Sometimes as you said, we share things with women within our mob, women’s business only. Sometimes the men will share men’s things with men so when it comes to how do we respectfully listen and about that raw truth and treaty, give us the time to voice what we want to say because we haven’t had that before, to listen. As I said, listening is not just with your ears and sometimes you brought up before, it’s not going to take 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes it may take months to really understand and get that truth telling and the voice and the treaty to come through.

We didn’t have that the clock to tell us when, those timeframes. We sat down and it could have been for days, for months till things were resolved. Some things never get resolved. Different mobs, different elders have different experiences to share.

Hannah Galloway:

And different sites as well have different impacts as you were saying earlier, like different association with different trauma and for one group over another or for one family over another. Yeah, respectfully listen and understand that.

Kat Rodwell: It can be a burden because I think too many people assume we’re going to have those answers for you and have them there and now we’re a collective. Not one person makes that one decision and sometimes it’ll go back to the board to discuss and they might meet till the next two weeks, three weeks, and even then it mightn’t be resolved so then you have to wait longer.

Hannah Galloway:

The next question is, is it an oversimplification to suggest there is a huge crossover with caring for country and environmentally sustainable design? Or is this an opportunity to leverage already well-established sustainability aspirations on projects to broaden to include caring for country?

Kat Rodwell:

It’s a real big thing. Everything is, every meeting I go to, every tender I’m on, it’s like the eggshell fact. Everyone goes, we’ve got to care for country. How do we put this in our design? How do we put this with the green star indigenous principles or the green star rating, caring for country, healing country. Guess what? We really can’t heal country because she’s too fractured.

When we say we cut ourselves by accident and we go, Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?” You have to get it stitched up or banned, put a bandaid on it and after a while they go, Look, it’s healed”. We go, Oh yeah, it’s back to normal”. Can we do that to country now? Sadly. We can’t so we have to look at ways of working with country, our mother, collaborating with our mother, learning from mother to say this caring for country needs to be more sustainable. 

Are there projects out there that are being more sustainable and using sustainable practises, meaning working with country? Yes, there are. Yes, there are. They still have a long way to go. You’d say they’re trying to work with country, trying to solve some of the issues that we’re having, that we’re adding to countries’ woes, so to speak. So we can talk about simple things such as the use of colour and texture within buildings, within houses, et cetera. Because colours can sometimes give you that warmth and that cooling effect. We can use different types of materials, but materials that are sourced sustainably.

Over here in Victoria, I noticed that I always see now a lot of log trucks come through and I always go, Oh, my heart aches,” because we must be cutting down so many trees. Because I’ve never seen it before in my travels. And I go, Oh, sustainable agriculture.” But are we up-cycling material? Are we reusing material?

You have the use of water, recycled water, rainwater. And I sit on a few projects, on a project with Hassell at the moment where it’s not only a cooling effect, but it also captures the rainwater to make rain gardens. So when we have those big days of rain, it fills up these beautiful rain wells. But also, you can have plants in there that are tolerant to all that. And then when we have days without any rain, it slowly drains out. So it’s utilising recycled rainwater, but also using the rainwater’s cooling effects.

Another big thing some companies and buildings are doing really well is lighting. And this is something that we need to get better at though because lighting, we tend to be like, Everything’s up in lights, so many lights everywhere.” And everyone goes, Oh, yay. Wow.” What you’ve forgotten is it does affect migration patterns of birds and other wildlife, and they’re starting to die out as well because of all this unnatural lighting. Have a think about what can we do to minimise that, to even stop it if possible.

Wind, as I said before, wind, we use wind as a cooling effect as well within buildings, within that natural airflow coming through. We use the sun where we face our buildings, where we face our plant life, where we face people in the building. The sun can play a major role in heating and in natural lighting.

And the biggest step I think a lot of people in design are looking at now is the use of the roof space whereas we fly over in Melbourne and other cities and all we see is these grey buildings and nothing there. Using roof space, using these gardens and using biophilia to act as cooling, to act as heating as well so, which is what we used to do. We used to use whatever we had around us to keep us warm, but also to reflect the sun.

And for one project, I know with Hassell, we did that one train station is we put in a sort of a biodiversity section up top of the station where it was encouraging the golden sun moth a new habitat for it because it was dying out, so it’s encouraging it to come back. And the Bogong moth, which everyone says, What’s a Bogong moth?” And I go, Bogong moths come from Ngunnawal country, ACT, comes all the way down to here and all the way into New South Wales, was a staple diet and it’s been there thousands years. They’re not like that anymore.

So we’re saying without the biophilia, without the trees we start to plant in our designs, things start to die out. When you start planting trees in there, you’ll probably notice, oh, I can hear a bird. We didn’t hear birds before. Oh, wow, we’ve got cicadas. Oh, we’ve got the bees. It’s great because you’re giving them back their homes, their habitat. So maybe when we’re designing what we take from a country, we give back as well. So we may not be able to do that within the built form, but somewhere, we can then plant more trees, plant more native, more indigenous plants that suit the climate to keep country healing, what you term as healing.

So there are great examples out there. Passive house is a really good one to look at. And even just small architectural firms doing housing and now taking advantage of our ways and how we learned from country, how we lived with country, coexisted, and putting that into their housing now. Living in caves and stuff like that is just phenomenal, but taking those ideas of how nature provided for you, cooled you, heated you, that’s what we should be doing. Healing country, what you deem as healing country does need to be number one at all times. Sustainability needs to be number one at all times. They go together.

Hannah Galloway:

Yeah, that is a whole, other podcast.

Kat Rodwell:

Oh yeah, it just was like mother is talking to us in so many ways, but once again, we’re not listening. In design, when they say how do we put caring for country in design, listen to country with every sense and how do we make it part of country? It works with country, it’s not going to damage it in a further, what materiality can we use that can be repurposed. For example, on one of the projects, unfortunately some trees had to be cut down. We go, everyone on that team is fabulous. We say, What can we do Kat? These are your ancestors”. I go, They’re not mine, but they Wathaurong people, some of those trees we repurpose and built yarning circles in different areas where people are coming together and they’re talking now about things. We hand them back to different areas as natural habitats. They’re not just, think about what you’re doing before you throw it away.

Hannah Galloway:

A hundred percent I’m a great believer in no tree should leave site. It either stays in place or it even, like you say, it’s habitat, it’s mulched. It then contributes back to the ecosystem of that place and will find its way back into the system.

Kat Rodwell:

I love it. I love it. As I said, sustainability never was like the Mickey Mouse thing. Now, it’s so important in all designs. We need to find that has to be number one, how you design, how is it sustainable, how does it keep that heartbeat of country going?

Hannah Galloway:

Okay, I think we’ve got a final question here. Kat, in your job, you must have lots of challenging conversations, which we have touched upon how we can have these different conversations, some of them will be challenging. On topics that have the potential to get quite heated, which from my experience I can say some do, how can you help us and better have these conversations? But also how to have conversations with relatives as well so that we can take our learnings from you. There’s an old generation out there who have very different understanding and around topics like the voice, which is a prevalent issue right now and in the forefront of people’s minds and it may be discussed around the dinner table on a Sunday afternoon or whatever. How can we have some of these conversations and what advice would you give us?

Kat Rodwell:

Yeah, courageous conversations. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was always taught to always show respect, but truth telling and people, we always say we used to, our ways were sitting down where we faced each other and we could talk about anything. You may not get things resolved, but we speak from the heart as well. In my role, I have to try to remain factual, not emotional because I have a cultural role to play, a business role to play. Sometimes the two headbutt and it breaks my heart that sometimes I have to think about business before culture because culture’s so important to me. When discussing the voice, which comes up a lot, I always say to people, it’s like anything new people fear change when they don’t understand it or where they don’t have the facts in front of them.

There’s plenty of factual information out there about the voice and what it is. As I said, I sit back and I go, sometimes it’s hard for me to understand because we’ve never had the opportunity to say how we feel, the opportunity to manage our lives, so to speak, and what’s important to us and how it’s going to affect us. Really, you are always going to have people who will put up that barrier and the only way I see forward is be honest, be truthful, and to be aware that some people are just not going to understand and will not vote based on facts, but on fear. That’s the hard part.

All through the generations or the different things. The first one, referendum 1967 for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders being able to vote, that was just diabolical. Not all referendums get a vote so we were lucky to get that. Before that we were previously on the flora and fauna list. That’s what we were called. We weren’t human. But yeah, it’s just keeping it open and honest. As I said, it’s a hard one, but maybe direct them to factual information where they can read up and make that informed choice for themselves. But as I said, people have their own opinions, they’re entitled to those rights as well.

Hannah Galloway:

Thank you. Yeah, I a hundred percent agree in the respect that yeah, just tell your own truth and you can’t always change somebody else’s mind so read the room.

Kat Rodwell:

That’s in my role. You get called a lot, you got to have thick skin in what I do, but at the same time it’s the smallest winds, the baron bow, the which means many footprints so one big foot beyond many footprints, but one big one can change.

(Nature sounds fade in to indicate the conversation is coming to a close.)

Hannah Galloway:

This conversation is also an extension of the journey we are on as part of the reconciliation action plan that we’re doing and part of our commitment to respectfully listen to, learn and advocate for Australia’s first people. This has been a wonderful step on that journey as well, having this conversation. I think what some of the things I’ve taken from this conversation is truth telling and speaking from the heart is something you’ve just said, Kat, and that is so important. Just staying in the room together, just talking and having the conversation. I know we keep using that term, just keep talking, but it’s as simple as that really, isn’t it?

Kat Rodwell:


Hannah Galloway:

There are complexities to it, and do not get me wrong, we all understand that. But the simple takeaway is that we should just keep talking and move forward together.

I would like to make a personal thank you to Kat for your generosity and participation in this incredibly important topic. Thank you.

Kat Rodwell:


Hannah Galloway:

Thank you to our listeners, wherever they might be around the world, and thank you for their feedback and all of the questions that they so kindly sent in prior to our conversation today.

I’m Hannah Galloway and you’ve been listening to an episode of Hassell Talks. This episode was produced by Prue Vincent and myself in collaboration with Hassell’s Cultural Engagement working group. With particular thanks to Robina Crook, Kirsten Thompson, Adam Davis and Liam Cridland for their time and guidance.

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