Interviewed by Sasha Sarago Photography by Eliza Harris
Jirra Lulla Harvey is the Founder and Director of Kalinya Communications, an Aboriginal owned communications company, specialising in public relations strategy, brand development and event design. Collaborating with Aboriginal consultants and purpose driven businesses: “We believe in the power of story, conversation and connection.”
In the language of the Yorta Yorta people of Northern Victoria, kalinya means good, beautiful and honest. I take a glimpse into the innovation, inspiration and strength that drives Jirra Lulla Harvey.
I started Kalinya for two reasons. One reason was for my community, and one was for me. I think as Aboriginal people we are always trying to strike a balance between the individual and the collective.
I wanted to contribute to changing the narrative. So much time is spent identifying our problems, naming our challenges. In order to apply for grants or acquit funds I was reciting statistics day in and day out.
“I am forty-five times more likely to be the victim of domestic violence.”
“I will die seventeen years before my non-Indigenous friends.”
“I was more likely to go to prison than finish high school.”
These statistics became like a mantra, and when you hear or say something over and over again you start to believe it. I felt like statistics were defining my cultural identity and that was not how I was raised. It was having a negative affect on the way I viewed my world, and I was worried about the rhetoric of disadvantage governing the lives of young Aboriginal people. And so I dreamt of a small, agile business, where I could work on fun and inspiring projects that showed a different side of Aboriginal life: the beauty, the wins, the hard work, the love and resilience that make us who we are.
And secondly, I wanted a different life for myself. Working nine to five, paperwork that I found numbingly boring, red tape and traditional hierarchical business structures, it didn’t work for me. I wanted freedom, and passion and adventure.
The Summit is one of my proudest achievements. It’s a partnership with the Koorie Youth Council, a gathering of young Aboriginal people from around the state to talk about what’s important to them. Essentially, we try to create the kind of events we wished we’d had growing up. We push the envelope in our yarning circles and talk about the topics that other leadership courses won’t approach, such as social media as a tool for activism, decolonising your music choices, and LGBTI rights within cultural contexts. It’s a vibrant space.
I went to a branding workshop in Miami and the message was to go ahead and embrace all of your interests, because it is your values that keep your brand strong. I sighed so loud. I like to do a lot of different things and people often suggest I reel it in a bit to make sure Kalinya has a clear focus. Our focus is in gathering, valuing and sharing Indigenous knowledge, and the Indigenous Round guernseys are a way to do this with massive national reach.
I was asked to design the first ever Indigenous Round guernsey for Richmond Football Club and I’m very proud that all the clubs are now on board. Indigenous Round has become like a competition to see which club can celebrate culture in the most engaging ways. It’s so fun to be a part of.
I have designed Hawthorn’s first two Indigenous Round guernseys. On the first one I had the pleasure of working with Aunty Joy Murphy, a Wurundjeri Elder, to represent the lands of Hawthorn, and on the second one I worked with the players to tell their stories of cultural connection. I loved seeing the pride that the boys felt; I loved seeing Aboriginal kids wearing them and really valuing the opportunity to connect with fans who might not know how to access Aboriginal knowledge. The only problem is that I am not a fan of my own artwork, so I spent the whole week cringing.
Pushing stereotypes to the side and being unapologetic in our celebration of who we are, that’s what Kalinya is all about. Aboriginal people have distinct knowledge about how to live happy, healthy lives on this land – our people did for countless generations. We know about local foods for nutritional health, drought resistant plants for environmental health, mindfulness techniques to Connect with Country for emotional health. This event was a discussion about how critical this knowledge is for the future of our city.
I sure do. My dad is Lionel Bamblett, and for my whole life he has run VAEAI, our peak Victorian organisation for Koorie education.
My grandmother is Lulla Morgan, a Yorta Yorta woman from Cummergunja Mission, and my grandfather Alfred Bamblett is a Wiradjuri man from Narrandera. Together they had fourteen children, many of whom have become community leaders, CEOs, Chairs of Boards, so I grew up with an absolute expectation that I would continue this legacy.
My mum has English and Irish heritage, and my great-grandfather was a famous Irish rebel so I think I was born with fire in my belly. Mum was very active in the women’s rights movement in the 80s, setting up the first women’s refuges and fighting for the rights of street workers.
In my community, kids come to work with their parents when they are not at school. So I spent much of my childhood listening to political debate while drawing under boardroom tables, or attending university classes my mum was teaching.
For so many reasons. I think somewhere in my bloodline there has to be someone from the tropics, because I just feel at home in lush, humid environments. But there are creative, political and artistic reasons also. I get frustrated with complacency and in the Caribbean there is this feeling of urgency, a history of revolutions. I like that celebration is viewed as an essential part of life, and that you are never too young or too old to be a part of the celebration – music, dance, food, and art should be enjoyed as often as possible with loved ones and family.
I am excited by the Miami arts scene that has blossomed in the last five years. It feels new, free from established ideas about how things ‘should be’ and open to possibilities. In Melbourne, it is very normal to go to a contemporary arts or creative event and realise you are the only person of Colour in the room. I feel limited by this. Like I can’t express myself freely. I like that the Miami contemporary arts industry is multicultural across the board: artists, marketers, Gallery Director and funders. The Pérez Museum of Contemporary Art is the only major art institution in the US with a Spanish name, and it’s because Jorge M. Pérez – a Cuban man – donated $40 million for naming rights. It must feel good as a Cuban American walking into that building. These are places where being of Colour doesn’t automatically equate to being marginalised or disadvantaged.
And I like that you can have a social conscience and be fabulous at the same time.
Because every woman deserves to feel inspired by new experience, to be struck down by beauty, to rub their eyes with disbelief at a spectacular view, to feel tiny next to a volcanic mountain or massive gorge, to feel brave and adventurous, to experience their body coming alive to the beat of new sounds and unfamiliar music.
Because it makes for good media. Its interesting and isn’t that what we all want?
I was watching Cleverman the other night and there was a little girl called Jirra; she had my complexion, and looked just like me at about ten years old. I don’t know if white Australians can feel the significance of these moments because they have always had images of themselves reflected back to them. How many Koories watched the first season of Redfern Now and cried and laughed at the same time, our senses going into overdrive because we were seeing ourselves being mirrored on television. Unless you know what its like to be deprived of images you can relate to, to live in a country where almost everyone you meet questions your cultural identity, forces their ideas onto you, has strange and foreign imaginings about your home life – unless you know how isolating this can feel – I don’t think you can truly imagine what it’s like the first time you see a reflection of yourself in the media. It’s magic, it’s freeing, and it’s long overdue.
It’s surreal to say this, but Kalinya is my dream project. I used to carry around a gammon briefcase when I was a little kid and fill it with home-made business cards. All I ever wanted was a leather ‘boss chair’ like my Dad, and a Frequent Flier card.
When I first saw the images we created for the new Kalinya website, of our four ambassadors including Ascension founder Sasha Sarago, it hit home. I am creating the images I wish I’d had as a teenager. So often people would say to me, and they still say to our young ones: “I thought there were no Aboriginal people left in Melbourne, except the ones drinking on the streets”. And I look back and wish I could have said, go and sit with the Parkies and have a yarn about their journeys, and then go to this link and see Aboriginal people making serious innovations in the arts, media, and sport industries. And then realise that the people in these glossy photos are the daughters, cousins, and nephews’ of the people drinking on the street. That’s our community, that’s Aboriginal life: a mix of pride and sorrow, achievement and hardship.
Running Kalinya is hard work and most certainly not all fun and adventure. There are too many twelve-hour days to bother mentioning, moments when I am terrified I have done the wrong thing, mistakes I have to wear and a pressure to do right by my community that can make me feel like I am about to explode.
But Kalinya, travel, inspiring projects, this is what I have been working towards. Fifteen years ago I entered my Media and Communications degree and I am finally here. I never wanted Kalinya to be a big, full service agency, because I like how agile you can be as a small business. So for right now, I just want to work to deliver better, smoother, more beautiful outcomes for clients and for my community.
I truly believe that we, as members of the oldest living culture in the world, have unique insight to share. It feels like there is a shift in consciousness happening, new conversations will be had and as knowledge keepers, Indigenous people globally have a critical role at the table. I don’t see my role as being a speaker at that table, my role is to organise the dinner. My role is to create moments of discussion, to curate what I hope will be meaningful experiences, and to share the conversation with new audiences.
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.