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Rona Glynn-McDonald

“While I had some success in philanthropy early on, I realised pretty quickly that that was because of the proximity I had to Melbourne, to privilege and to whiteness — these things that so many [other] First Nations people don’t have access to,” says Rona Glynn-McDonald, a Kaytetye woman and founding CEO of Common Ground, an online not-for-profit organisation that amplifies and shares Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and stories. At 27 years old, Glynn-McDonald is also an award-winning filmmaker, musician and activist.

Although many of Common Ground’s early funders came from networks Glynn-McDonald had developed at university in Melbourne, when she tried to extend those networks to people from her hometown in Alice Springs, it was challenging. “I came to understand that philanthropy is a very colonial system. It’s all about relationships and power. And the way that non- Indigenous folk give is based off their visions of impact rather than our community’s vision of impact.”

Seeing the large spike in donations that Common Ground and other First Nations community spaces received during the Black Lives Matter movement was a turning point. Glynn-McDonald started to question how philanthropy could be redesigned to better include and empower First Nations people.

“We had a huge influx that came in through our donations page, a donations page that rarely gets people redistributing wealth — well, back then it didn’t,” says Glynn-McDonald. However, the generosity was short-lived. “After a week, it just completely dried up.”

It made Glynn-McDonald question where donors were now directing those funds instead. “Where was that money going? Who determined where it was going? Why did it stop? And what opportunities were there to explore ongoing mechanisms?”

It was these questions that inspired Glynn-McDonald to co-create First Nation Futures. It’s a funding platform that enables anyone, whether business or individual, to be able to co-invest and redistribute a portion of their wealth back to First Nations people and projects, through the organisation’s communitydriven partners.

But no matter which business ventures she champions, at the heart of every role Glynn-McDonald takes on is the passion to create future systems that support and centre First Nations people, knowledge and cultures.

A bull at a gate

Glynn-McDonald remembers being determined and “hyper-focused” as a child. At eight years old when she was growing up in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), she was saving for an apartment and writing a “10-year-goals plan”. “Mum always described me as ‘a bull at a gate,’” she says, laughing. “I was always trying to move faster than my body could keep up with sometimes.”

Raised in a family of filmmakers, Glynn-McDonald always understood the value of good storytelling. Her paternal grandmother was the co-founder of the central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, the first Aboriginal media organisation in Australia.

“I grew up in a family of storytellers, specifically filmmakers, says Glynn-McDonald. “And from a young age, I saw the power of cameras, lenses and stories, to shine a mirror up to Australia and create space for our communities to tell our stories in our own ways as a form of feeling and a form of resistance.”

Finding Common Ground

While studying business and economics at university, Glynn-McDonald completed a long-term internship at Central Land Council in Alice Springs, which allowed her to further connect with the local Indigenous community and gave her insight into how policy worked.

She went on to be the Director of First Nations at YLab, a social enterprise that brings young people with diverse lived experiences and partners together to co-design solutions in the health, employment, and education systems. It was a role where she developed skills like facilitation, problem solving, communication, all things which she feels have been essential in making her a success today.

In 2016, Glynn-McDonald started developing the idea for Common Ground. “I saw the need to create more spaces for First Nations communities to tell our stories,” she says. “And to be resourced to tell stories on our own terms.”

Common Ground officially launched in 2018, starting small with a collection of written content, the organisation soon grew, working with a range of partners, collaborators and communities to record cultural stories in new ways, expanding to mediums including audio, film and imagery.

One project that Glynn-McDonald is particularly proud of is The Creators Circle. Each year, Common Ground support a group of eight First Nations storytellers and creators over 12 months, running expert workshops and paying for them to create and share stories through the platform.

“Having an individual [creator] say, ‘Before this program, I didn’t see myself as a storyteller, but now I feel it, and embody it completely,’ is such powerful feedback,” says Glynn-McDonald, reflecting on the program. “What we’re trying to do with this work is that we want all First Nations people to feel strong in themselves, strong in their culture, and strong in their stories. Storytelling is a mechanism for that.”

In 2019, Glynn-McDonald also received The Diana Award for her work with Common Ground in creating and sustaining positive change for Australia, and in the same year she was named one of the Women of the Future by The Australian Women’s Weekly.

First Nations Bedtime Stories

Common Ground is focused on creating change in the education and legal systems, creating resources for schools, running campaigns and backing advocacy work. One of their education-based programs that Glynn-McDonald thinks is particularly impactful is their First Nations Bedtime Stories. This annual project maps five dreaming stories from different contexts and communities to the school curriculum each year.

“The mindset shift that’s happening in classrooms of primary school and early learning spaces is so powerful,” says Glynn-McDonald. “[The program] has about 100,000 students across Australia that take part in it each year.

“We hand over power and resources to a local director and producer to record stories from their own community. Then they get broadcast across Australia to schools. We provide teacher resources so they can bring these stories into classrooms in a way that’s safe and completely guided by the framing that the owners of the story want to be centred in the classroom.”

Tapping into classrooms so that children can learn about First Nations’ culture from an early age could help shape the knowledge and understanding for the next generation. According to Common Ground, 91 per cent of Australians feel the relationship between non-indigenous and First Nations people is important, but only 34 per cent believe they have a high level of knowledge about First Nations cultures.

The First Nations Bedtime Stories are not just for students but are available for free on the Common Ground website, mapped by region, and offer accompanying educational resources for families to use at home.

Reimagining philanthropy

Although storytelling is one of Glynn-McDonald’s passions, she never lost interest in economics and was inspired to use her knowledge to challenge the mainstream systems of philanthropic giving, a sector that’s been typically dominated by nonindigenous people.

“The way that I was learning that economic systems work just didn’t make sense to me in how I knew the world to work,” says Glynn-McDonald. “For example, our relationships in my family are really built on balance and reciprocity. This is how First Nations people have remained balanced with Country and each other for thousands and thousands of years … It’s this community-, relational-based way of existing. When you have success, you get energy or privilege, or when you have opportunities, you’re always redistributing that privilege or that opportunity back into the community.

“I’m interested in how those systems work and how we could capitalise off them for our own benefit in our communities, because we’ve been historically cut out of those systems, and from building intergenerational wealth and economic prosperity.”

Seeing the way capital shifted during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was the catalyst for Glynn-McDonald to question whether there was a better way to facilitate philanthropic giving which empowered First Nations people to redistribute wealth their own way.

“That’s really where First Nations Futures was born,” says Glynn-McDonald. “It took two years of cocreation and lots of conversations. We spoke to over 50 First Nations people from across the continent — elders, young people, community members, established leaders — to talk about this big story of wealth and to talk about what it might look like to create a new way of addressing it.”

Investing in First Nations Futures

Alongside friend and co-creator Louis Mokak, a Djugun man from the West Kimberley, First Nations Futures was created and launched in August 2023.

“It’s been an amazing reception so far, particularly given the context we were launching in, there was a lot of noise around the [Voice] referendum,” says Glynn-McDonald. “The things that we’re funding at First Nations futures are areas that are critically underfunded, and supporting that work is so important for us to build up our next generation of leaders, so that they’re strong in their stories and strong in themselves, and they can have their voices amplified. Redistributing wealth and power is a really important part of that equation.”

Glynn-McDonald also says that people using the platform appreciate that the money is being directed to the right places. “We know our communities best and they trust us to be able to determine that on our own, rather than needing to determine where they think the impact is.”

One organisation that First Nation Futures has partnered with is Brother to Another. This Darwinbase not-for-profit organisation supports young people and families experiencing or at risk of experiencing the Northern Territory youth justice and policing systems. They do this by providing support and workshops on matters such as employment, identity and culture, and emotional wellbeing.

“An example of projects we’re supporting in Alice Springs is The Pertame School,” says Glynn-McDonald. “Pertame is an extremely endangered [Indigenous Australian] language. A few years ago, they only had a few speakers left. They are running the most amazing program with their elders and young people. It’s a master-apprentice [program] where you are essentially creating complete language immersion.

“They’ve had speakers go from not being able to speak words of Pertame at the start of the year and being completely fluent by the end of the year.” The impact of the work extends beyond just the language itself, helping new generations connect with their culture, family history and elders.

Synthesised stories

When she steps away from the office, Glynn-McDonald also leads a second life as a DJ and musician under the name Rona Ngamperle, known as RONA. She has supported the likes of Rüfüs Du Sol and Jon Hopkins on tour and has performed at events including Splendour in the Grass and Falls Festival. Glynn-McDonald’s music combines soundscapes of Country and place with synthesisers, and she uses her music as a vehicle to explore her experiences and connection to place.

“Music has been a huge part of my life since I was young,” says Glynn-McDonald. “I played in bands and played as a classical musician when I was a kid. I’ve been producing electronic music the last few years.

“I feel like music is an amazing way of telling stories as well. A lot of my work outside of music, like with Common Ground, has been about supporting other people to tell their stories, and music feels like a space where I get to tell my own.

“My music is really drawn from my experiences growing up in the desert and the relationship that I have to Country there. In my music, you’ll often hear sounds of Country. I build a lot of the recordings around different sounds of birds or wind on Country, and a lot of the work is about relationships to self and place, and each other … More recently, the music I’ve been writing has been responding to different things like the referendum or new experiences that I’m having.”

While she’s achieved so much before hitting 30, Glynn-McDonald has rarely taken a moment to pause and truly understand the impact of all her work. But when Common Ground was a finalist for the 2023 Human Rights Awards in the Media and Creative Industries category, the awards ceremony was a moment of reflection for her.

“We didn’t win the award, but they played a highlights reel of all the work that we’ve done, with voices from different contributors and myself. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, we’re here, on this national stage, platforming the importance of First Nations storytelling.’ I just really took stock. But when I’m hearing from our community members and from mob who are just so thankful for the opportunities that we’ve provided, they’re the moments when I feel the impact.”

Article Featured in WellBeing 210

Jo Jukes

Jo Jukes

Jo Jukes is a British-born freelance writer based in Sydney. She loves waking up to the sound of the ocean and writes about travel, health and wellbeing. Find her on Instagram @what_joey_did_next.

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