Warren Roberts on Talking, Yarning and Deadly Collaborations

Ahead of our NAIDOC Week celebrations, Kate Johnston from FoodLab Sydney talks with Warren Roberts, founder and director of Yarn Australia, about the complexities of post-colonial food culture and the importance of willingness in collaboration.

Image courtesy of YARN Australia.

Kate Johnston: As the founder and director, could you tell me a bit about how and why you started Yarn Australia?

Warren Roberts: Yarn Australia started with a group of people at the University of New South Wales. At that time, I was in an Aboriginal class, and while it’s great to be talking about Aboriginal history and complexity, it is more than just the talking. So I said, why don’t we catch up and have a yarn about it, do something. Basically, we formed a group of students and started opening up a space where people could ask questions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture, history, things we didn’t know about. I believe [Yarn Australia] is about having a deep intentional conversation about some more home truths and connection to the story that motivates someone to do something or that they connect with, that is more meaningful.

That’s great. I love that you make this distinction between yarning and talking. And why do you think these conversations matter, why does yarning matter now?

The Australian way of doing things is that when there’s a problem, let’s run to the solution and get the job done. But with this way of thinking, there is no room for being able to sit in the moment. So, it’s about sitting in tension, asking why is it that we’re in this space, what are some of the things that have taken place to get us here. Sitting in that moment, not necessarily wanting to find the answer or discuss what the solutions may be. I think we rush too much to the solution.

The theme for the Yarn event on the 8thof July at the University is about creating inclusive food communities. I’m wondering what the significance of food is for you and the communities that you are a part of?

I think it’s about consciousness of relationships. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a relationship with our country, with the plants and the animals and the environment, and so it’s very hard to shift or not engage our particular connections with our country and the things that we’ve been brought up on. When you’re introducing this whole different culture, you know, around colonisation and tea and sugar and flour and all these things, that’s now a big symbolic thing in our community — like damper and Johnny cakes. The simplicity of that flour and water, if you’ve got some jam and maple syrup, and just knowing that, oh if we don’t have a certain thing, we can still use these ingredients to make something.

So do you think Sydney, or this neighbourhood is an inclusive food community?

I think the complexity of an increasing interest in Aboriginal/native foods is that there’s a whole bunch of folks who want to know, but there’s also a whole bunch of our mob who are like, should I share that knowledge? I think it speaks to the intention of Yarn Australia; how do we build relationships so that knowledge can be shared, how can we have a fundamental conversation about what trust looks like when it comes to sharing culture and identity and our knowledge around the landscape and around the food.

I think we have to be conscious about those complexities, but we need to create a space where those conversations can be had, and then explore and celebrate these deadly collaborations around food together.

Speaking of those deadly collaborations, we’ve had to work hard to overcome some barriers at the university to collaborate, right? For this event, Aunty Jennifer Quinlin, Aunty Agnus Ware and Kate Jackson are collaborating with the chefs from USU. What’s the significance of that collaboration to you and your community?

It’s like any new relationship with any groups of people, to have an opportunity for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to go hey, we can go into this big commercial space, this kitchen and work with the chefs there, together, on preparing the food for the event, and just thinking outside the box, you know. There are some complexities around the University policy when it comes to catering, but we have to be optimistic, looking at different ways we can do things. I think the more collaboration the better, because people are just wanting to be part of something.

So, on that note, I’m interested in why you wanted to work with the University in particular on this event, and what kind of relationship you would like to see built with the University?

I think my interest in working with the University is in making sure that the relationship we are trying to build is a long-term relationship. It’s actually about slowing it down and having an intentional conversation, allowing our elders to meet and come in and have a yarn and just feel comfortable to come into the space.

I think a commitment to host an event that talks about our history and culture and food is a big thing in our community. The impact of how colonisation has affected our connections with food and with the land means it’s not so simple; yes we want to celebrate more of our native foods but it’s not as simple as going oh yeah here are some native plants or ingredients. How can we have a conscious conversation about the impact of colonisation? What does this look like for Australia, what does this look like for the world? It’s like any vision or anything you set out to do, you know. I sit down with my elders and I say, I got an idea, and they say, oh yeah. Some of them can see it and some of them can’t see it, and then they go ‘oh this is nice, I enjoyed tonight or today or the event and I met some lovely people’. It just opens them up to the idea we can do other deadly things in our society with a wider audience, not just within our own community.

What Yarn Australia is conscious about is building an intentional relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. And the only way that can happen is if we do create spaces, and if there’s a willingness of participants to be involved, a willingness of partnerships. And [by making] it creative, using the arts, using food, music and culture. This is the way we can really enjoy the experience of sharing stories and song and connection in a different way, but also in an intentional way.

Warren Roberts is a proud Thunghutti and Bundjalung man who founded YARN Australia in 2007. He has extensive experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having worked for NGO’s and universities, as well as local, state and federal government. Warren has been fortunate enough to work alongside esteemed elders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which has encouraged him to reflect on the importance of respecting cultural protocols.

Kate Johnston is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit. Her research interests include environmental/food justice, sustainable food systems, sustainability discourses, environmental/food governance, blue humanities, experimental and interdisciplinary methodologies. Her professional experience includes roles in communications and events within the food industry in Sydney and Italy. She is co-founder and co-editor of Counter Magazine (forthcoming).

On Monday July 8 Sydney Environment Institute and FoodLab Sydney have partnered with YARN Australia to bring together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander with non-Indigenous communities for an evening of ceremony, performance, meaningful conversation and the sharing of food and stories. As part of 2019’s NAIDOC Week celebrations, the evening will include a light dinner (soup and damper), a smoking ceremony, performance, and a circle yarn, where the audience will be invited to participate in a cross-cultural conversation about respect, community resilience, environmental justice and enabling inclusivity in food cultures. For more information to registration please see Culture in Conversation: Creating Inclusive Food Communities.