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Weaving the Cultural Thread

Cherie Johnson is a proud Gamilaroi and Weilwum woman who calls Newcastle home. From dancer to artist, teacher to businesswoman, Cherie has worn many professional hats, but none more important than her current role as founder and managing director of her transformative company, Speaking In Colour.

Behind the unassuming gate of a weatherboard house, surrounded by gardens on the main road in Adamstown, is a place where magic happens daily. As I’m warmly greeted at the front door of the offices of Speaking In Colour, a business that specialises in training, cultural experience and educational resources in the Newcastle and Hunter region, it is immediately clear that this is a unique venture that holds Indigenous women especially at its core.

There is a gentle hum of activity, in a calming, serene space filled with women of all ages so Speaking In Colour HQ feels more like a light filled home adorned with intricate artworks, than a thriving, multi-faceted business. I sense a feeling of optimism and purpose within these walls and when the business founder, Cherie Johnson, walks through the door ready for a chat, I learn that it is this determined woman that has planted the seed, allowing so many around her to be agents for change.

Born in Mount Gambier, SA, Cherie moved to Newcastle when she was four. Her Aboriginal Nan was born on Country in western NSW, and was removed when she was fourteen, then landed in Newcastle as a twenty-year-old.

Cherie’s mum was born in Newcastle, so the connections to the area run deep. “I’ve been very much a part of the Newcastle community for such a long time. I grew up always strongly identifying as an Aboriginal person, and spent my childhood growing up in community, playing netball and learning to dance and things like that,” says Cherie.

Ready to stretch her wings at seventeen, Cherie moved to Sydney to dance with NAISDA Dance College. “Learning a cultural repertoire through NAISDA was an amazing experience and its often a pathway to perform with Bangarra Dance Theatre, but life had different plans for me,” says Cherie.

“I’ve been very much a part of the Newcastle community for such a long time. I grew up always strongly identifying as an Aboriginal person, and spent my childhood growing up in community, playing netball and learning to dance…” 

Whilst in New Zealand for the World Indigenous Youth Conference, Cherie was involved in a serious car accident that changed her outlook on life. “I had a pretty profound out-of-body experience and I remember making this conscious decision that my time wasn’t up yet and kicking myself out of the car wreck,” remembers Cherie. “Then when I was twenty-three, my heart actually stopped and I flatlined after a terrible experience with an ectopic pregnancy. These two near-death experiences made me decide that I needed to make my life worth living and do something important with my second chance at it.”

Mentoring by NAISDA artist Joe Hurst reignited Cherie’s passion for art and encouraged her to fall deeper into her weaving work, a practice she first learnt as a teenager. “I was fifteen when I went on a cultural camp up to Gumbaynggirr country on the mid north coast and an Aunty showed us how to make rope from stringy bark,” remembers Cherie. “She then taught me how to make a dillybag and I literally sat at my Aunty’s feet for the entire day and soaked in these teachings because I was hungry for culture.”

Cherie happily reflects that from that moment on, she became a prolific weaver – making dillybags, baskets, jewellery, animals – anything and everything from natural and recycled materials. Cherie began working in community engagement, was awarded her diploma in teaching and all the while, was weaving in the background. It soon became clear that throughout her life, there was a common thread of culture, community, and purpose and guided by these clear ideals, and a desire to leave the world a better place, Speaking In Colour was born.

With two young children, Cherie balanced the demands of motherhood, with starting her own first business. “I worked when the kids napped and was a sole trader for six years. Things just kept getting busier and busier, so I went back and studied courses in business to learn it properly,” says Cherie. “Then I was offered permanency with the Department of Education as a teacher. I took the position because it was the one tick I hadn’t achieved yet, but I still had this pull towards Speaking In Colour, so I kept that up on the side.”

A PHD and a three-month art residency at Uluru later, Cherie felt the time was finally right to throw herself into her business wholeheartedly. “I took the plunge and started writing educational products and got down really deep with systems and processes. My business took off and I’ve been chasing my tail ever since,” says Cherie. 

Cherie says there has been a distinct change in the way Aboriginal perspective is dispersed into the broader community and it is all about providing people with the right information, then educating and encouraging. “We’ve gone from having an Aboriginal version of something… to an Aboriginal product that is unique and valued,” says Cherie. “With Speaking In Colour, we are starting to see Reconciliation Action Plans coming into place in businesses and schools having the quality and proof of planning to really embed Aboriginal perspectives into every aspect of schooling. We’re looking at government getting the Indigenous Procurement Policy right so they can do a direct spend to an Aboriginal provider based on eligibility – it’s fantastic.”

At the heart of Cherie’s work are the key questions: How do you equip people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are hungry for cultural knowledge and how do you encourage allies of change? She says making changes within schools, businesses and within society in general is hard and exhausting work but providing important services and education so that people can be on the right side of history and make authentic change is worth it.

“We’re living in an interesting time where people aren’t conscious of their bias or their privilege,” says Cherie. “But thankfully there’s a growing awareness of injustices within our country and so many Australians are shocked at the real level of racism, systemic disadvantage, and disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, including here in Newcastle. Generally, I’ve found that people are really wanting to know how to be a part of the solution.”

“Thankfully there’s a growing awareness of injustices within our country and so many Australians are shocked at the real level of racism, systemic disadvantage, and disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”

100% Aboriginal owned and operated, and with 90% of the staff women, Speaking In Colour supports eight full time staff on salary, as well as countless other Indigenous contractors and suppliers. “We have a couple of token blokes who work for us,” laughs Cherie, “but I’m proud of the fact that we support so many Newcastle single mums or women who are juggling so many things in life because they’re the best multi-taskers in the world. They have so many natural, pivoting problem-solving skills and are professional in getting work done.”   

Besides the education arm of the business, Cherie and her team also facilitate cultural awareness programs to corporate organisations. “That’s helping businesses do everything from reconciliation action plan development, cultural team building and wellness sessions and being apart of their journeys towards inclusion,” says Cherie. “We have so many amazing clients who are leaning in, listening, and wanting to do things well. That’s when our goal here at Speaking In Colour is successful because we really want to infiltrate the ‘business as usual’ mindsets of the everyday Australian to empower people to progress Aboriginal people’s culture.”

As I soak up the passion and commitment to the cause that flows from every ounce of Cherie’s being, I can’t help but ask about her love of weaving and whether she still finds time for one of her first artistic outlets. “Hell yeah!” says Cherie. “We even have a women’s weaving group that meet once a month. These local Indigenous women started out just making stuff, talking about pigments and the projects they’re working on and now most of them are suppliers for Speaking In Colour.”

With a respected platform to sell Aboriginal art, Cherie says Speaking In Colour helps these women and others sell their wares whilst also learning about how to run a business of their own so they can be empowered to work independently and sustainably. “At the moment we are working with thirteen different potential Aboriginal business holders and my aim is to help support 140 business owners and watch them flourish.”

Through education and inclusion, Cherie believes all Australians can thrive and that relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can be positive and respectful. With exciting plans to expand the Speaking in Colour education umbrella, a record number of corporate companies on their books, several art exhibitions in the pipeline and winning the naming rights to the 2023 Women’s Surfest event, there’s no slowing down for this thriving local business and its managing director Cherie.

“Society is asking to be changed but sometimes people don’t know how to do that and Speaking In Colour is working hard to bridge that gap,” says Cherie.

“Society is asking to be changed but sometimes people don’t know how to do that and Speaking In Colour is working hard to bridge that gap,” says Cherie. “Change really starts at home, where people can have those ‘Ah-ha’ moments. It comes from listening to a podcast or audiobook by an Indigenous creator or reading something by an Aboriginal author – just broadening your perspective so we can all be empathetic and look at the world through a different lens.”

As I leave the Speaking In Colour offices, I have a renewed sense of hope, particularly with someone as passionate and driven as Cherie helping steer the ship towards systemic, lasting change.

Words: Odette Tonkin | Photography: Alex McIntrye

As seen in Swell Issue 17.

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B: Body Length 66 69 72 74 76 78
C: Sleeve Length 19.5 20.5 21.5 22.5 22.5 23.5