A hand up not a hand out – meet Kaurna woman Kelly Rioli, Naval Group Australia’s Indigenous Engagement lead

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this article contains images of a deceased person.


Just like her favourite AFL players, Hawks fan Kelly Rioli knows teamwork is the thing that talks, especially when you’re the Executive Assistant to three senior directors. Despite the fast pace, with a CEO award under her belt for demonstrating hard work and courage, as well as being newly appointed as the Chair of the Naval Group Australia Reconciliation Action Plan working group and the Business Lead for Indigenous engagement, Kelly is certainly striving towards success. And how does it feel? According to Kelly, too deadly.

What is your role and what are some of your responsibilities at Naval Group Australia?

Within my role as Executive Assistant I work with the key [Future Submarine] Program areas; Program, Project Management Office (PMO), and the team behind our next contractual phase of the program, to maintain meeting schedules, workshops and logistics as well of course maintaining executive administration tasks. This has been my first experience within Defence Industry and it’s an experience I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I love the diverse atmosphere and the ever changing pace.

I was humbled to receive a CEO Performance Award in 2019 (I still pinch myself that I was nominated), and my family was extremely proud of me. It means everything to be able to show my children that no matter who you are, or where you’ve come from, you can be successful if you work hard with honesty and integrity.

We would love to know more about you and your heritage.

I am a Kaurna woman through the bloodlines of my grandmother, Rosemary O’Brien, and I was born and raised in Adelaide. Sadly my grandmother’s heritage was never recognised, and we never knew her story or what she’d been through until she passed away. Today I honour her memory by telling her story.

Rosemary O’Brien was born at Point Pearce Mission on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. She was a Kaurna woman and the eldest daughter of Gladys O’Brien. Rosemary was part of the Stolen Generation.

Kelly’s grandmother, Kaurna woman Rosemary O’Brien, was part of Australia’s Stolen Generation

My grandmother maintained she was Irish to cover up that she was an Aboriginal woman during a terrible time in life. It was hard, unfair and unjust, however this did not define who she was as a person. She did the best she could to survive, and she was strong – always encouraging me to follow my dreams.

I moved to the Tiwi Islands (Pirlangimpi) when I was 22, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Pirlangimpi Community, Melville Island Northern Territory. I was only meant to stay for two or so weeks, but I ended up meeting (and marrying!) a Tiwi man. We now have three Tiwi/Kaurna Children, and we teach them about their culture daily.

Kelly and Jeremy’s wedding, with family

My husband Jeremy and I travelled all over remote Australia. We both worked in the Community Service Sector – Jeremy is a youth worker and mentor, and I worked with teenage mothers and babies at risk as a parental skills coordinator. 

In what ways has your family and other experiences ensured you continue to learn about your history, heritage and culture?

It’s up to us to share the knowledge, teach our children to speak their language and dance their story lines. This still continues today, but not enough to ensure our culture and language will last forever. We all have to do our part in keeping this rich history alive. We do this by sharing and bringing others into our lives to give some insight and understanding of Australia’s first people.

Children follow their father’s Dreaming. In our case, my children are turtles (as all Rioli’s are) and they follow and learn from my husband Jeremy, who is also known as Alarmini, which means Barramundi in Tiwi.

Kelly’s daughter with cousins, honouring tradition

They dance turtle dance and Yoi (to Yoi means to call to your ancestors so they hear you) at times of celebration, mourning, ceremony and business, and it is an ongoing learning process. The complexity of differing Aboriginal culture is something that cannot be learnt from a text book or by going to university. By participating in ceremonies and living and working in an Indigenous society has enabled me to have an understanding of traditional values and strong leadership from the elders.

You’ve recently been appointed the chair of the Naval Group Australia Reconciliation Action Plan working group, as well as the business lead for Indigenous engagement, tell us what this entails!

To be appointed in such a role is one of my greatest achievements to date. I have worked extremely hard for the last 14 years in the Indigenous engagement space, and I have lived and worked in many remote communities around the top end of Australia, the Northern Territory working in the Community Service sector. 

I have experienced all of the extreme highs and lows of community life, and I have learned so much from my family in communities. Experiences I will cherish for the rest of my life. 

The appointments confirm to me that Naval Group Australia is committed to providing opportunities to Indigenous businesses and individuals for our generation and many more to come, and I’m very proud that the organisation I work for is taking action in this area. My family is proud of me for standing up and being counted, especially in Defence which is typically a male dominated space.

To implement positive employment and training pathways for Indigenous Australians is so important, and approaching such initiatives without radicalisation is incredibly significant. To deliver clear conscience, cross-cultural awareness with real outcomes is what we at Naval Group Australia are striving to achieve. 

This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is In This Together. What does that mean to you, and how will you be commemorating this year?

To me it means let’s get in there and get the job done together! It’s the only way to close the gap.

This year will be very quiet in comparison to other years, however we will be celebrating with our family. We will also take the time to remember some very important people who we have lost too soon, and take comfort knowing their legacy lives on in us.

In what ways would you like to see reconciliation improve, not only for your own children, but for Indigenous people all across Australia?

As Indigenous Australians, we strive for initiatives like employment, education, mentoring, health initiatives and legal programs to provide consistent futures for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. We recognise the past but move forward together as one.

A hand up, not a hand out! Equality for all. This is Reconciliation. This is the way forward.

“The boys”, some of the young men in Kelly’s family honouring tradition

What’s your advice for people in Australia wanting to improve reconciliation, but who aren’t sure where to start or what they can do?

My advice is this: don’t be shame, be game. Get your face out there by going to different community groups, art centres and service providers and simply introduce yourself and explain what you are trying to do. There is nothing better than sharing a good ‘yarn’ and a laugh with as many as possible, and remember it’s all about personal connection when it comes to Indigenous engagement strategies.

With a surname like Rioli you must be into footy! Our readers will want us to ask – who are you related to, and what team do you barrack for?

I am actually a Hawks supporter! My favorite player is Cyril Rioli #33 from Hawthorn, my brother-in-law. He made me learn to love the game of footy!

We can’t forget Daniel Rioli from Richmond (#17), my nephew, and Willie Rioli (former West Coast Eagle) is my brother-in-law also.

There has also been the legendary Uncle Maurice Rioli in the 1980’s who played for Richmond Tigers and Dean Rioli (another brother-in-law) who played for Essendon in the 1990’s.

Who’s your tip to take out the next Premiership?

The mighty flying Hawks!