The connection between community and commercial, grounded in culture and in touch with Country, Maree Ansey is the Indigenous Affairs Lead at international engineering firm, Laing O’Rourke.

Ansey is a proud member of the Yawuru and Karrajarri people of the Kimberley region and the Meriam people of Torres Strait. She was born and raised on Country in Broome.

“I was very blessed to grow up on Country, and that was something that I realised pretty early in my teenage years.

“Very much saltwater people, all about the beach, always fishing, hunting and camping with family and friends. That’s my childhood, and sport of course,” Ansey said.

Falling in love with basketball, she gained a scholarship to attend high school in Perth to pursue her sporting career.

After high school, Ansey enrolled into a degree of physical education teaching and began working for Role Models WA, now known as The Girls Academy.

“I was one of the mentors running the basketball program, so we’d go out to remote communities and run workshops about healthy life choices and decisions that we want our young people to make and sharing stories about our journey.”

Taking a break from studying, Ansey’s partner was drafted in the AFL which saw the pair move to Victoria. Ansey picked up work within a HR team where she gained an interest in business.

Moving home, she enrolled into Commerce at the University of Western Australia and was working with Kimberley-based organisation, Garnduwa.

“They wanted to implement a program in Perth as they saw a lot of young kids leaving home to do exactly what I’d done a few years before. They approached me … [and] I set up that program [Kimberley Klub]. Looking after around 200 kids who were in Perth for further education or pursuing their sporting career.”

Her incredible passion caught the attention of CPB Contractors, who offered her a role managing their Aboriginal programs.

“[I was] learning [about] the lack of representation of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people alone in that stage of my career, which was heavily focused on the mining and resources sector.

“Along with having a look at all those mines that are impacting Country and community, being involved from the corporate side was morally challenging as you are digging holes, disrupting Country and going into communities and having some not so positive conversations … proving some of the negative sides of it. But on the other side there are opportunities.

“If this is going to go ahead, how do we ensure the inclusion of Traditional Owners and maximise the opportunities for the betterment of those local people?”

“Having a role to play in that excited me, I realised I wanted to be a voice and an advocate for my people. It was also a moment I asked myself, well if not me at the table then who? And if not now, when?”

At this point in her career, Ansey was working on projects within the Pilbara region, and so established strong relationships with local people as well as those in the boardroom.

“You connect, engage, consult and you have a conversation, you invite people to the table, you invite them to speak and then you sit and you listen … that saw me move into more of an education/advocacy role focusing on influencing the internal processes of a business and how they connect to the external.

“You’re in a unique position when you are the only Aboriginal person often at all of those tables, you are trying to make sure that people understand you don’t represent the collective voice of all Aboriginal people.

“You are there in solidarity advocating for what is best practice and what is the most respectful and right thing to do so businesses can make better informed decisions.”

Resigning from CPB in Sydney, Ansey was offered Laing O’Rourke’s Indigenous Affairs Lead position.

Laing O’Rourke was the first major construction company to launch a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). With Ansey’s leadership, the company released its third RAP in late 2019.

“For us, it’s our employment strategy and having a real look at the internal recruitment of Aboriginal people in our company.

“How do we develop them all the way through so that … one day our most senior Aboriginal person isn’t the Aboriginal Manager in an identified role. I’d love to sit across the table … and see an Aboriginal Project Leader or even CEO or Managing Director – I believe it’s possible!”

Although having huge success within the company, Ansey recognises it wasn’t without hardship.

“You are dealing with non-Aboriginal people majority of the time … and trying to navigate the waters around those that are naive to [the Aboriginal Affairs] space, so they don’t know what they don’t know. [There are] those that want to know and learn more about how they can get involved but need direction, and then there are those that blatantly don’t want to know and  have particular views.

“I’ve definitely seen and dealt with my fair share of racism and discrimination … but also lateral violence from community as well. These roles aren’t easy, they are challenging so you learn to grow thick skin over time.

“I’m lucky I come from a very culturally strong family that support me and keep me grounded and connected. I know who I am and where I come from and I’m very much unforgivingly proud about that in everything that I do, especially at work.”

Ansey will be stepping away from the desk for some time in 2020 due to the birth of her first child, but she is secure in knowing that whilst her life is about to change, her role will be there when she’s ready to return.

With a winding road from fishing and hunting in Broome to sitting in boardrooms in Sydney CBD, Ansey is paving the way for mob to thrive in the commercial and business world.

By Rachael Knowles