CHERIE Johnson recently received a call from a girlfriend who asked whether her family was a part of the Stolen Generation.
"She said, 'Why didn't you tell me?' and I said, 'Well, what was I meant to do? Invite you over for a wine and say, by the way...'. The majority of people aren't ready to hear the truth, they are too busy being defensive, thinking they're to blame. But people have the ability to be a part of the solution if they want to be."
Born in South Australia, Ms Johnson is the daughter of a Scottish father and Aboriginal mum with Irish blood, and a Gamilaroi and Weilwan woman. Her mother was born in Newcastle, her nan at the Beemunnel Aboriginal reserve at Warren.Both were removed from their families under the Aborigines Protection Act.
Raised from 10 in Windale by these two "strong, formidable black women", Johnson is the CEO of Speaking In Colour. The wholly Aboriginal-owned and run company provides indigenous education resources and "cultural capacity training" to school children, teachers and corporates.
On Monday, it will mark a decade of operations with an event at Newcastle Museum.
After a turbulent 2020 including a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement ricocheting around the globe, Speaking in Colour has cause to celebrate.
A large Department of Education contract the company won in November 2019 allowed it to stay afloat during the lockdown.
"We lost 100 per cent of our billable hours. I didn't know what was going to happen so ... whatever I didn't have to pay I got rid of and whatever I had to do to keep my staff I did," she recalls.
The contract was delayed by bushfires then COVID but greenlighted when Ms Johnson confirmed she could take it virtual: "It saved our business because it allowed us to keep our staff and we've gone totally online," she says.
A second event was also vital: Speaking in Colour won a $230,000 Boosting Female Founders grant that will allow it to develop a new suite of Hunter-specific digital resources.
"It was astounding - a cash injection to supersize the business," Ms Johnson says of the federal government initiative to support women-led businesses.
Ms Johnson left Newcastle High to enrol at NAISDA Dance College in Sydney. She completed a Fine Arts degree in Western Sydney and worked as an artist and performer before returning to Newcastle.
Completing a diploma in education, she began teaching and curating and participating in art exhibitions. Asked by Newcastle and Lake Macquarie art galleries to write Aboriginal educational resources to give context to exhibitions, she saw its impact. When her school teacher colleagues began asking her for an Aboriginal perspective, she saw a niche for her business.
"At the gallery I could see what worked, so if I could help teachers know what to say, give them context, know how to say it in lessons and link it to outcomes, of course they would do it," she said. "That's how we change society: we indigenise our teaching and learning and that's how we normalise hearing about Aboriginal people and culture in a positive way. Most people want to they just don't know how to."
As the Speaking in Colour website launched in 2010, she was offered a permanent arts teacher position.
"I was a full on crazy lady. I would have a child on my breast as I typed over him," she recalls. "My education colleagues were saying, 'I'm uncomfortable [about teaching Aboriginal issues], I don't want to get it wrong. I knew there had to be more resources."
Speaking In Colour began by educating teachers and with cultural enrichment workshops in schools and art galleries, including weaving. It then turned to businesses.
"You have pivotal people in life, for me its often women. An ex-boss encouraged me, saying 'Cherie, if you can teach naughty Year 8 boys you can teach corporates," Ms Johnson laughs.
The business has worked with the likes of Hunter Water and NIB, offering cultural capacity training with a historical overview and a "good solid Hunter lens".
With its new funds, Speaking In Colour has 10 products ripe for development, from online training to a book and an "onboarding" tool that is a virtual walking tour that businesses can use to communicate their commitment to reconciliation.
Ms Johnson believes strongly in the need for Aboriginal-owned and run businesses employing indigenous staff and encourages companies to diversify their supply chains in tandem with indigenous procurement policy.
"We need more Aboriginal businesses because I see what an impact it can bring - quality cultural products to the business and educational sectors while providing stability and jobs for our community," she says.
She hopes that her business will become a national and possibly global umbrella organisation, producing "resource after resource" to empower educators.
"I don't want to keep doing this in the corporate space but we have to because they have no idea. If they learnt it in school it wouldn't be a conversation later. This is how we become the agents for change."