Big ideas – Beyond the main stage of Indigenous politics

2017 has been a big year in the Aboriginal political landscape. Old wounds, new dreams, big ideas. 50 years since the ’67 Referendum to first count Aboriginal people in the Census. 25 years since the Mabo decision acknowledged Australia was not empty land when the British arrived. 25 years since the Bringing Them Home report revealed the trauma of the Stolen Generations. More recently, the Uluru Statement and a politically-charged Garma Festival 2017 that called for a dramatic shift away from Constitutional recognition to a Constitutionally-enshrined First Nations Voice and Makaratta Commission for agreement-making and truth-telling. They are vital orientation points in the relentless struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights since 1788.

Meanwhile some big ideas are driving the battle for practical change off the radar, deep in remote communities. Our Foundation, the Nangala Project, works on the frontline, and the wins are coming. In our case, one book, one kick of the round football at a time. At its most obvious, the battle is about disease, alcoholism, substance abuse, violence and unimaginable overcrowding – like twenty six people living in a two bedroom house queuing for a single shower from 5 in the morning. And beyond what is visible, there is much more, and it is vastly more challenging than even the stats suggest. Intergenerational illiteracy, some of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world, hunger and shocking poverty. The hopelessness often boils over, with lateral violence from intra-community tensions, a tragic by-product.

Then there is the less obvious truth of discrimination that continues under the surface, and it deeply informs our Foundation’s strategies. It’s the dispossession of the unique worldview of remote Aboriginal people, of how they see things differently, how they think, learn, relate, live and function socially. It’s hidden behind isolation and lost on policies that treat only the symptoms. We are finding success by going deeper into that cultural frame. We approach change from the child’s perspective out, with the family around the child, the community around the family, and the nation around the community. On the ground, that manifests as Indi Kindi early learning for babies to 5s for global school readiness, and John Moriarty Football (soccer) for 6-16s for wellbeing and sporting development; employment and career support for 80% local staff; and Sydney scholarships for talented athletes as role models.

Building on thirty five years working throughout Indigenous Australia with Balarinji, we’re five years on the ground in remote Borroloola and Robinson River NT, as a child-focused not-for-profit. We’ve been building and piloting a model. It’s a long story of embedding our work 24/7 for a local, organic response. We are not essentially programmatic. Both programs are a way to channel our central driver – giving families and communities the tools to improve wellbeing – because physical and mental health is the first step. Programs can only work when wellness is at the centre. And only when it is locally led. Our board member, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann from Nauiyu, the NT’s first qualified Aboriginal teacher, sums up the challenge and the opportunity. She calls it dadirri, and describes it as inner deep listening to the Aboriginal world view.

Our goal is to be a think tank spearhead, fast tracking learning for the sector, at the same time enabling our local staff and families to deliver real, quantifiable results. Few doubt the need for radical change in the heartland where we operate, and no-one claims it is easy. Agility is our most valuable tool. Curved balls come in a barrage. We juggle challenges like a training oval without toilets, snake-high grass and no running water. Or an exodus of families, taking their children with them, like the week-long walking Journey West last week, from culturally significant Manangoora. The whole community was invited and it was the first time in 30 years families had walked this track, singing and dancing stories at each overnight camp. Beautiful.

It is positivity – through an asset, not a deficit conversation – that is propelling our grassroots breakthroughs with more than a hundred children a year in the bush. And we’re finding a refreshing “sweet spot” of learnings in the experiences of seven bright, engaging 12-15 year old JMF scholarship holders we’ve brought to Sydney for school and football. They are reinforcing what we knew – that business as usual is futile. As Law woman Annie Isaac Karrakayn told me a decade ago, “I’m thinking we see it different”. Success lies in methodologies that are cognitively, emotionally and culturally adaptive.

At the start, our young scholarship athletes are shy and desperately homesick. Our four partner schools – Waverley College, Westfields and Endeavour Sports High Schools, and SCEGGS Darlinghurst – have a formidable commitment to diversity and Indigenous opportunity. When we open a conversation with them, we thank them for the investment they will make in Australia’s most marginalized children, and let them know we are deeply grateful. We also say to them, that our students’ unique view of the world and way of being will disarm, amaze and enrich their own students in ways they cannot even begin to imagine.

The Sydney families who take these children into their homes and their hearts are very special Australians. They are supporting teenagers who rarely have even the basics of a foundational education. They’re behind, not by a year or two, but by five or six years. We are seeing thirteen year olds testing academically as seven year olds. Yet we know these kids are quick, intelligent, aware and creative. They are extraordinary. We see them as talented and gifted, deserving of the fast track strategies they need. Then there is their standout athletic ability.

And here’s the revelationary point. We are proving it is possible to close the academic differential surprisingly quickly. We see a difference in weeks in fact, through intensive tutoring and tapping into the unique way many Aboriginal children learn – one-on-one, short intensive bursts, stimulating content, creative delivery, momentum in sessions and a leaning towards the creative arts, maths, science and technology. It’s even more effective if they’ve had training or a run prior. We draw from both elite sport and international emotional self-regulation methodologies. To suggest we have all the solutions would be wrong. Sometimes the questions are just as important as the answers, as are the collaborative partnerships we are forming to work together to open up possibility. Tight, supportive and culturally-informed relationships with host families and schools are imperative and take time to develop. The children’s own families back home, who recently came to Sydney to shadow their children at school, at their football clubs and with their Sydney host families, play a critical role. Their belief gives their children the confidence to weather the storms of navigating two worlds. To hold onto the best of both, and grasp the lasting change that can radically redirect their life trajectory.

Ros Moriarty is volunteer Managing Director and Co-Chair of the Nangala Project, and Managing Director of Balarinji. Ros is the author of the awarded memoir “Listening to Country” (Allen & Unwin 2010). She was named Business Enterprise Winner in Australia’s 2015 Westpac/Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards, and was a finalist in The Third Sector’s 2017 Volunteer of the Year Award. Nangala Project is grateful for financial support from our major donors: Australian Government, the MRM Community Benefits Trust, St George Foundation, Fulton Hogan, Cages Foundation, Patterson Pearce Foundation, and generous individual and corporate donors.

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