Russell Reid, proud Gamillaraay man of the Kamilaroi Nation, is a grassroots person. Working at the coalface alongside community, Russell uses the principles he has developed through experiencing the struggles for employment, education and support services to increase Aboriginal Peoples’ participation in the business.
From a small country town in northwest New South Wales, Russell’s working life began with an apprenticeship as a panel beater – which he saw as his ticket out of town. Heading to the big smoke of Sydney, Russell ended up living and working in the suburb of Redfern.
“Coming from a small town, Sydney was a culture shock, but I learnt to adapt, and this time started me on my life’s journey,” Russell explains.
I was brought into the construction industry where I could see that there was more opportunity on the ground for young Aboriginal people. I started to see positive outcomes from policies and practices when they were properly put into place.
“I spent 25 years in Redfern involved with Aboriginal legal and medical services. In addition to working at the Aboriginal Legal Service, I was involved with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“Now at WSP, I am the national RAP Lead and this is where my passion lies. Seeing recommendations that were proposed 30 years ago at the royal commission finally coming to fruition – more employment for young people, more recognition on projects and more education opportunities through better engagement.”
The Gamillaraay Nation is of vast expanse, lying within northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, stretching as far as the Hunter Valley in NSW through to Nindigully in Qld and as far west as the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran in NSW, sweeping across the Liverpool Plains. Centres within this nation incorporate Quirindi, Tamworth, Narrabri, Walgett, Lightening Ridge, Moree, Boggabilla, Gunnedah, Mungindai, Muttutundi, Singleton and Nindigully.
“I have always been involved with helping people,” says Russell. “I was brought into the construction industry where I could see that there was more opportunity on the ground for young Aboriginal people. I started to see positive outcomes from policies and practices when they were properly put into place.”
Russell recognised that his skills and experience could make a difference when the New South Wales Government brought in its 2015 Aboriginal Participation in Construction policy. This policy requires a minimum of 1.5 per cent of the total contract value for construction contracts over AUD1m be directed to Aboriginal employment, goods and services, and training. This led to his employment at WSP working on the Woolgoolga to Ballina Upgrade Project managing Aboriginal participation.
“Seeing the outcomes on WSP projects filter down to communities helps to make these healthier and happier. Empowered. And away from the revolving door of poverty and handouts.
“When I landed at WSP I took on the firm on its word that it would proactively do something to make change. And the firm has been true to its word.”
Why is it important for WSP to connect to Country?
“Because it’s respectful to the original Custodians of this land,” says Russell.
“WSP is forward thinking and forward planning – it’s future ready. It has addressed the disparity from a corporate perspective. We have introduced policies and processes that generate positive outcomes for Indigenous communities such as employment, training and business opportunities as well as empowerment through the co-design process.
“As a good corporate citizen, WSP can do this out of respect for the disparities of Aboriginal people – out of their suffering through wrongs such as the stolen generation and deaths in custody.”
What has been your standout moment working for WSP?
“There has been many!” exclaims Russell.
“But what is really important to me is the recognition of the work we are doing in the Indigenous Specialist Services. How this is rippling through WSP and colleagues throughout the country are learning about it.
“It’s so exciting to see something like the Indigenous Specialist Services team and its role across other disciplines at WSP. If someone told me 20 years ago that a global company the size of WSP would take this affirmative course of action, I would have said they were dreaming!
“The amazing projects the team has done – incorporating Aboriginal art and yarning circles in our offices for example, this just blew me away.
“It is just wonderful that we can offer a sense of culture to the business. And this from a person who was nine years old before I was recognised as a citizen of Australia.”
Russell also nominates his role on the Woolgoolga to Ballina Upgrade Project.
“I worked on that project for three years,” explains Russell. “The Aboriginal participation goals we achieved are now the blueprint for other projects to aspire.
“Although the participation policy required a minimum of 1.5 per cent, I was able to lift the engagement level to nine per cent. This has now become the benchmark for other major projects.
“The best part of it though was seeing the young Aboriginal people on the project get a kick start and now see how their future has developed because of this.”
What is one thing we all can do to understand Country in the context of place?
Russell’s response is, “Participation is key.
“WSP has an obligation to take the Australian Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy percentage from one and a half to two per cent of procurement that is specifically set aside for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement. The only way this is going to happen is to employ more Indigenous people.
“We also have an obligation to undertake the actions we have set out in our Reconciliation Action Plan.”
Russell believes that by undertaking these obligations, more people will become aware of the positive outcomes for all.
Find out more about the Indigenous Specialist Services team.