Embedding reconciliation in space and place – a Q&A with Kate Spencer and Peter Thomas

Embedding reconciliation in space and place – a Q&A with Kate Spencer and Peter Thomas

FORWARD, RMIT’s Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation recently commissioned Aboriginal artist Troy Firebrace to transform their CBD workspace.

The Centre’s refurbishment was commissioned as part of the FORWARD Reconciliation and Place project for RMIT’s College of Vocational Education. We spoke to co-designers and curators of the project, Kate Spencer and Peter Thomas.

paperbark ‘Paperbark’, 2022, acrylic on canvas, by Troy Firebrace. Commissioned as part of the FORWARD Reconciliation and Place project for RMIT’s College of Vocational Education.

What is FORWARD and how did the Reconciliation and Place project come about?

Thomas: FORWARD is RMIT’s Centre for Future Skills and Workforce Transformation. Our remit is to explore and reimagine the skills and workforce transformations needed for the future of work.

FORWARD’s role is to explore some of the key issues around what skills people will need in the future and look at the effects that will have on individuals, on businesses, on the economy and the nation as a whole.

When it came to designing the new place to work for FORWARD, it was natural that it should provoke new ideas about what the future of work could, and should, be.

Guided by Dhumbah Goorowa, RMIT’s second Reconciliation Plan, we also wanted to create a workspace that challenged our thinking and called on us to bring the principles of reconciliation into our everyday work – which is how FORWARD’s Reconciliation and Place project was born.

We could have chosen any theme in our workspace. We could have chosen any style or type of art or chosen any kind of artefact to fill our workspace. But it seems to me that reconciliation is incredibly important. Not just reconciliation in the sense that we understand it in Australia, but also the idea it’s about building stronger, more compassionate and understanding relationships with each other, which as we all know, is the essence of all work.

How did you bring the project to life?

Spencer: Our vision was to create a workspace that, for our team and our visiting colleagues and industry partners, promoted curiosity, sparked conversations, and challenged us to re-evaluate our relationship to the past, present and future.

With this vision in mind, we started on a journey of learning and relationship building.

As an emerging and entrepreneurial artist with a strong connection to education and a passion for sharing knowledge and championing unity and reconciliation, Troy Firebrace was a perfect collaborator for this project.

Troy is a proud Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung man. Alongside his practice as a professional artist and managing his business Firebrace Designs, Troy also works as an Aboriginal Education Officer for Catholic Education Sandhurst.

The principles of education and sharing knowledge to enact change are intertwined in every aspect of Troy’s life and work. He sees each interaction with a potential client as an opportunity to share knowledge and understanding of his culture to advance reconciliation in Australia.

We felt incredibly privileged to collaborate with Troy on this project. 

TROY Proud Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung artist, Troy Firebrace in his Bendigo studio

How has your workspace transformed?

Spencer: As you enter FORWARD’s new workspace in RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, you immediately encounter a juxtaposition.

Once a computer lab, the ceiling is a matrix of industrial air-conditioning ducts, but the furniture, equipment and layout of this space is far from the static, inflexible spaces characteristic of workspaces of the past 50 years.

White walls have been transformed by colour, organic shapes and form, and the space has been infused with Country and story.

Yet the transformation goes much deeper than replacing white walls with colour.

The space is now filled with a series of artworks by Troy, complemented by a fit-out of custom pieces by WINYA - a majority Indigenous owned and controlled furniture business.

Within each artwork is an invitation to share and learn, and in doing so, it forms part of our reconciliation journey at FORWARD. As a team, we are continuing to learn through working with Troy on this project and being surrounded by his artworks.

The space helps to embed reconciliation into our everyday work.

BIYALA ‘Biyala’, 2022, mural by Troy Firebrace, with furniture by WINYA in FORWARD’s new CBD workspace.

What’s next for FORWARD’s Reconciliation and Place project?

Thomas: One thing we are keen to explore are the boundaries of hybrid work and our reconfigured relationship to place. With Troy’s art, we have recast our physical space as part of our team’s, and our organisation’s, reconciliation journey and not just an ‘office space’ or ‘work space’.

Like Troy, we want the space to spark conversations and support others on their reconciliation journey. We want to ask questions, to reflect, to connect and to change the way they see Aboriginal culture — because only then can we transform ourselves and make genuine steps towards reconciliation in Australia. As Troy says:

“I want people to see Aboriginal culture with the same importance that myself and the rest of my family community see it. That’s the importance of Country and how it is important for us to look after Country. Whether that’s in Aboriginal education, or how we utilise education in schools. And in particular, our nans, mums, dads, cousins, nieces and nephews, the importance of their future, their legacy, their aspirations, as well as their ancestors. How we uphold them with the most honour. I want that to be a familiar feeling to be found through our community, regardless if you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous.”

In truth, we don’t know what this project will achieve.

We hope that those who visit the space – be it face to face or virtually – will be prompted to reflect more deeply on reconciliation as an everyday lived experience once that is integrated into our new world of work.

But for us, it’s about showing up — as individuals and in our work — to listen, to learn, to take action, and to build relationships and collaborate so we can imagine a different future together.


The Reconciliation and Place project was co-designed and curated by FORWARD Director, Dr Peter Thomas, in collaboration with Kate Spencer, award-winning creative director and FORWARD Development Partner. 


Story: Maddy Pattison


  • Indigenous

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.