Tag Archives: Aboriginal Issues

NCIE nets the Sydney Kings

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“Growing up in the Virgin Islands, I was told that I could never be a basketball player,” said Leon Trimmingham, Sydney Kings basketball legend. It is this kind of negative message that a new partnership between Sydney Kings and the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) seeks to challenge by opening doorways for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to pursue their dreams.

Despite what “Neon Leon” was told, the boy from the small island followed his dream and became a professional basketball player for 14 years, having just recently been named in the Kings’ 25th anniversary team. “Dreams do exist,” Leon said. “I’m a living example that dreams exist.”

Under the partnership, made official on October 15, Sydney Kings players train regularly at NCIE’s extensive sporting facilities. Players also help run local school clinics, holiday programs and afterschool programs where they assist children with reading and homework before going out on court to teach them basketball.

The benefits of sport are both physical and emotional. “When someone’s playing sport, they can’t be out getting in trouble,” said NCIE General Manager, Rohan Tobler. “[Sport is good for] health, fitness, lifestyle, getting outdoors, exercising … but it also teaches structure, responsibility, commitment and sometimes, competitive edge.”

More than that, the partnership is about sharing Aboriginal culture with the Sydney Kings to enable them to best cater to any future Aboriginal basketball stars.

Sydney Kings Administration Manager, Lorraine Landon, welcomed the prospect of having an Aboriginal person playing in their top-10 team. In laying out the career pathway, she said, “It’s important that we understand the culture. It’s not one-size-fits-all. So it is about making sure we understand what’s important to them, how they’re thinking, and allow them to grow at their pace rather than pushing them into something when they’re not ready,” she said.

Rohan Tobler recognised the difficulties faced by young Aboriginal athletes when having to leave family structures to pursue professional sporting careers. “Part of the partnership is about being able to educate the Kings on [Aboriginal culture],” he said. “Together, as partners, we can only strengthen, not just for Indigenous Australians but for all Australians.”

Leon, Rohan and Lorraine all agreed there is a real opportunity for an NCIE kid to become a professional player. But, with the understanding that professional sport is not everyone’s destiny, the dream goes beyond basketball with the broader aim of encouraging kids to make the most of their talents.

“We try to give them a well-rounded experience that shows them that sport is not always the answer,” Rohan said. “Indigenous Australians tend to push towards sports because that’s where most of our role models lie. But the possibility for kids to become a carpenter or a doctor is a lot higher than becoming a professional sportsman if they’re committed. It’s about getting them exposure to different things, showing them what’s out there, how to get fulfilment in life and how to make a living.”

Sydney Kings and NCIE ran a 3on3 basketball tournament for 12-17 year olds on November 2. The finals will be played at the Sydney Kings home game against the Cairns Taipans on November 8 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 16, November 2013.


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Restoring Redfern’s 40,000 years mural

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In 1983, Redfern residents created the iconic 40,000 years mural. Thirty years later, the paint is peeling and graffiti blemishes the cracking wall. But recently, residents have united in a movement to rejuvenate the historical artwork.

Artist Carol Ruff played a key role in planning, designing and painting the 40,000 years mural in 1983. She explains how the now faded original images pay tribute to Redfern’s powerful Aboriginal history of abundance, tragedy, perseverance and accomplishment.

The salient message, “40,000 years is a long, long time/ 40,000 years still on my mind …” is inspired by Joe Geia’s song, “40,000 Years”. “We were trying to say that even before Redfern, Aboriginal people have been there, have been in that area, have known this country, this place,” Ms Ruff said.

The story begins with two Aboriginal feet, symbolising the first feet to ever step on this continent. The following images of spear-hunting, fishing, footsteps, the boats, the woman with a coolamon on her shoulder and the hunter all represent 40,000 years of Aboriginal people walking this country.

With the arrival of the first Europeans, shown by the ship and Aboriginal figures dying, the tone of the mural shifts. “Redfern to The Rocks were probably the first and worst hit areas in Australia of white settlement and people very quickly died from smallpox and other diseases that Europeans brought,” Ms Ruff said. “The Aboriginal community was decimated.”

What follows is a deeply confronting image of a young Aboriginal boy, standing in front of the first church built in the area. “That little boy represents the stolen generations and children being institutionalised,” Ms Ruff said. The image was a particularly powerful statement in the 1980s when many people had not heard of the stolen generations.

But the story does not end there. The street signs of Lawson and Eveleigh Street signify present day Redfern with the boomerang symbolising Aboriginal perseverance. “We’ll never go away, we’re here, we’ve come back, we haven’t lost our culture and we have survived,” Ms Ruff said. Featured in this section are Nana Williams surrounded by land rights colours, the 1983 Redfern All Blacks and an Aboriginal cheerleader. At the end is the tail of the Rainbow Snake, which weaves throughout the whole mural as a symbol of the long surviving history.

Over time the mural has been a significant part of the Redfern landscape. “For years, it was in immaculate condition,” Ms Ruff said. “Everybody respected it and knew if they went near it or made a mark on it that they’d be in big trouble.” It was the weather that started to take its toll on the mural. In response, “people used to go out there with pale blue paint and yellow and black paint and touch it up, not very well, but that was a really nice thing to see,” Ms Ruff recalled.

Now, residents are working to officially refurbish the fading mural. The movement started early this year when the pop-up Redfern Station Community Group (RSCG) set out to beautify Redfern with a community garden and two new murals at Gibbons Street and Redfern Station Platform 10.

Upon approaching NSW RailCorp, who owns the land for these projects, RSCG was told that RailCorp wanted the existing Lawson Street murals rejuvenated before any new murals could be created.

Key RSCG organiser, Desley Haas, accepted the reasoning of RailCorp as “common-sensical”. Residents must consider: “Why are you asking for something new when there’s something old there that you haven’t looked after properly?” she said. RSCG is currently formulating a proposal and seeking funding, preferably from Council.

Though the paint fades and the wall cracks, Aboriginality lives on in Redfern. Now, many South Sydney residents are hoping the iconic 40,000 years mural will also live on as a profound symbol of an ancient and living culture.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 4, November 2013.

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Aboriginal Housing Company – 40 years and best yet to come

SSH_AUG13_05July 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Housing Company and its long-term commitment to the provision of affordable housing for Aboriginal people.

Forty years ago, being Aboriginal meant being discriminated against in the private rental market. When conflicts arose between Aboriginal squatters in Redfern and the local authorities, Aboriginal activists were inspired to set up the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) in 1973. The AHC began purchasing land at The Block using a $500,000 grant from the Whitlam government.

The next 40 years were marked by highs and lows, struggles and disappointments, roadblocks and accomplishments.

In the 1970s and ’80s, The Block became a new urban home where Aboriginal people could belong. CEO of the AHC, Mick Mundine, recalls a “very caring and sharing” time. Music would fill the air and kids would play on the streets.

But the good times did not last.

In the 1990s, the Redfern community was slammed with drugs and alcohol, which preyed on deeper mental issues. “A lot of people get onto drugs because they’ve got no life for them,” Mr Mundine said. “[They wonder] where else to go? That’s when they turn to grog and they turn to drugs.”

A “vicious cycle” was begun and the AHC’s land was transformed into a safe environment for criminal habits, he said.

Mr Mundine blamed the government for perpetuating a “welfare mentality” amongst Aboriginal people. But he also emphasised the need for Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their actions.

The community was deteriorating and the AHC had to face the hard decision of whether or not to demolish the beloved Block. The 2004 Redfern riots sealed the deal: “Enough’s enough,” Mr Mundine said. Tenants would be relocated, The Block would be demolished and, ultimately, redeveloped.

Over the years, the AHC has had to fight hard to keep the Redfern land. Disagreements with the state government meant that it took ten years to gain Concept Approval for the $70 million Pemulwuy Project. Mr Mundine said the state government had tried to “crucify” the AHC because they wanted the land. “That land is prime real estate,” he said, pointing towards The Block.

Today, The Block remains in the hands of the AHC. A business plan is currently being written up by KPMG and the DA approval in December last year gives the AHC five years to complete the Pemulwuy Project. Outside Redfern, the company owns 41 houses across metropolitan and country areas, which will continue to be leased to Aboriginal people after The Block’s completion.

It has been a 40-year struggle but the passion of Mr Mundine and the AHC has not waned. More than simply providing affordable housing for Aboriginal people, its redevelopment projects are about self-determination and building a new community. Mr Mundine’s hope for the future envisions a brand new community with good housing, good parents, healthy kids going to school and tenants that work to make sure the vicious cycle of the past does not return.

Many non-Aboriginal people have also shown their support for creating a better Redfern. Not only was Mr Mundine thankful to his own company, but also to the several non-Indigenous supporters such as the City of Sydney, REDWatch, Superintendent Luke Freudenstein and the recently passed Col James. “I think it boils down to respect. We’re all working together, all want to achieve that one goal,” he said. Mr Mundine paid tribute to Col James, calling him a “legend” and a “brother”. “He had a good heart, he was strong in what he believed in. He was a man that looked after disadvantaged people in housing, especially Aboriginal people.”

Published in the South Sydney Herald, front page, August 2013.

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Who Should Tell Indigenous Stories?

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To represent a story truthfully is a complex task—particularly when unravelling something that remains a “great mystery” to many Australians. In reporting on Aboriginal issues, I’ve often wondered if I, as a non-Aboriginal Australian, have any right to tell their stories.
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Racist or Just Ignorant?

Published in Vibewire, 29 May 2013.

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A young spectator’s racist slur to indigenous AFL player, Adam Goodes, has sparked debate about racism in society.

13-year-old Collingwood fan, Julia, shouted “Way to kick the ball ape” before being escorted out of the MCG stadium in Melbourne. Goodes said at a press conference that he was “shattered” by her remarks. “It’s not the first time on a footy field I’ve been referred to as a monkey or an ape, ” he said. “It felt like I was in high school again, being bullied.”

For many people, the fact that Julia is only 13-years-old has proved to be particularly shocking. Adam Goodes said, “When I saw it was a young girl, I was just like ‘really?’. I was just like ‘how could that happen?’”

North-West indigenous footballer, Kent Jackson, told The Advocate: “The fact that the slurring came from a 13-year-old girl really hits home and shows you how deeply ingrained into our culture this sort of thinking is”.

Those who defend the young girl argue that she was unaware of her actions. Among her defenders is Adam Goodes himself. The Aboriginal AFL player said: “It’s not her fault. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, it’s the environment she’s grown up in that makes her think it’s OK to call people names.”

In defending the girl, many have pointed to the complicity of her environment in fostering her ignorance. The girl’s mother, Joanne, told Nine News, “She’s only a 13 year old young girl that lives in a country town, that doesn’t really get out that much, going to the cities”.

Collingwood president, Eddie McGuire, told ABC radio that he had spoken to the girl; she “didn’t even know that it was racist”, he said.

It is questionable, however, whether ignorance can always be used to excuse racism. As a young girl, perhaps she did not know any better. Perhaps she is merely the product of a society that never told her that calling Aboriginal people “ape” is unacceptable.

But at what point are we as people to be held responsible for our own education? After all, racism itself is often rooted in ignorance and a misunderstanding of other cultures. Would the public reaction be different if it had been an adult who called “ape” from the stands? What if this adult grew up in the same environment as the 13-year-old girl?

It is true that you will not learn anything if no one tells you. But at the same time, you will not learn anything if you do not look and listen.

Goodes points to the broader picture: “It’s not a Collingwood issue. It’s not an AFL issue. It’s a society issue”, he said.

Goodes and Jackson say parents should be held accountable. Jackson told The Advocate: “How is anyone expected to penetrate the heart and minds of children more than parents can at the family table?” He said that better schooling could help address the issue but ultimately, family values needed to change.

Collingwood president, McGuire, points to politicians, the media and our own situation in revving up racism. He particularly blames political rhetoric on issues such as asylum seekers. “Politicians set the tone for the type of country that we will get and the voters go along with it. We all have to decide whether we’re going to be a red neck, hick country, or we are going to be a country that is very much involved in tolerance, ” he said on ABC radio.

Undoubtedly, all of these groups play a role in shaping society. More important than playing the blame game, the question stands: are webuilding a society that listens to other cultures or ignores them?

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All Blacks the team to beat

Published in the South Sydney Herald, back page (p. 16), 1 April 2013.

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Ada Lee

REDFERN: Lisa Williams, the first female president of the Redfern All Blacks (RABs), is optimistic that 2013 will be a better year for the proud rugby league club. The first match of the season kicks off on April 7. According to Ms Williams, with a lineup of local, young and committed players as well as some more experienced players, the RABs will be the team to beat in 2013.

In recent years, however, the All Blacks have been struggling to maintain a strong presence in the South Sydney Junior District Rugby League competition. “Due to the Club contending with the changing face of rugby league, the All Blacks have had to reassess how we operate,” Ms Williams said. “We lost a lot of players to other clubs in the competition [that] looked like they were more organised.”

Since becoming president about eight months ago, Ms Williams has utilised her background in project planning to add more structure to the club. “I think now players feel like they can go and play football and feel very happy that they are going to be supported.”

The proof is in the numbers, with old players returning and new players signing up for the increasingly competitive team. Whereas in the past few years the All Blacks would be lucky to have people show up two weeks before competition, Ms Williams says they’ve already had around 30 people at training every Tuesday and Thursday for four to six weeks before the season kicks off. “We also want to be a club that provides a platform to nurture our young talent through sports development and mentoring,” she said.

Former Parramatta Eel, Dean Widders, is the A Grade captain/coach this year and is currently working with the National Rugby League on youth sports development.

With a deep family history in Redfern, Ms Williams describes the RABs as the “cornerstone of the [Redfern] community”.

Ms Williams sees sport as one avenue to help individuals tackle social challenges. “The football club is one place people can go to escape,” she said. “One of the things that the Redfern community had to contend with for a number of years was that it was infamous for drug issues and alcohol issues. So, over the years, there were a number of people who were involved with the club that have worked really hard to remove that element from the club. The club now is the space for the promotion of health and fitness.”

The RABs might not have a lot of money or even their own home ground – often a key source of revenue for teams – but, Ms Williams says, “It’s not about the money [for Redfern players]. They have commitment to their community … Lots of games have been won on the back of [that] pride and loyalty compared to getting money.”

Emerging officially in 1944, the RABs is the oldest Aboriginal rugby league club in Australia. Ms Williams said one reason the RABs was originally an Aboriginal-only club was because Aborigines “couldn’t get a game anywhere else. So they didn’t want to open it up and then have Aboriginal people miss out.” But today, and for quite some time now, she points out, you don’t have to be black to play for the All Blacks.

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A Decision to Discriminate: Book Review

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 12, 2 April 2013.

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Ada Lee

Michele Harris (ed.)
Concerned Australians, 2012

Throughout Australian history, the government has often been accused of paternalism, of imposing policy in respect of Aboriginal entities. A contemporary equivalent can be found in the scrutiny exercised towards Howard’s NT Intervention, now Labor’s Stronger Futures legislation.

Trying to grapple with complex political issues such as this when bombarded by a multitude of statistics, reports and testimonies all claiming different things, with the government telling you one thing and activists telling you another, it’s often difficult to know where you stand. This book adds another piece to the puzzle.

Condemning the government’s consultation process as a failure, A Decision to Discriminate (which focuses on the Senate Committee Inquiry into the Stronger Futures legislation) aims to shed light on the unheard voices, the stories ignored and lost in the sea of political rhetoric and government policy.

Edited by Michele Harris, the book is a sequel to This Is What We Said (February 2010), Walk With Us (August 2011) and NT Consultations Report 2011: By Quotations (February 2012). It is a compilation of testimonies from a wide range of Aboriginal communities directly impacted by the Intervention and Stronger Futures. These personal stories are accompanied by helpful explanations of government consultations, complex legislation and the parliamentary process.

Views expressed are overwhelmingly critical of the government’s approach. Many testify to the disempowerment of Aboriginal communities under measures that are said to be punitive, blanketing and a severe impediment to self-determination.

At times, the book can seem repetitive – perhaps an expression of shared frustration. However, the book isn’t completely one-sided. Most notably, some people expressed support for income management.

A Decision to Discriminate is an easy read in terms of its well-structured format, accessible language and helpful summaries at the end of each section. Where it gets uncomfortable is in the way it forces Australians to re-evaluate government rhetoric about reconciliation, consultations and self-determination.

Non-fiction books can often be harrowing. They invite confrontation with reality.

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Stronger Futures ‘fundamentally racist’

Published in the South Sydney Herald, front page, 4 March 2013.

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Ada Lee

On March 21, Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) plans to rally outside Tanya Plibersek’s office in protest against Labor’s Stronger Futures legislation and the expansion of income management.

On February 13, the House of Representatives passed the Act of Recognition, a symbolic move to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia’s first peoples. Sydney Labor MP, Tanya Plibersek, expressed her support: “Aboriginal rights should be an election issue for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples is an essential next step in our journey towards reconciliation.”

On the ground, however, the detrimental effects of the controversial Northern Territory Intervention and now Stronger Futures legislation are felt by thousands of Aboriginal people.

In June 2012, the Gillard government passed the Stronger Futures legislation with a 10-year funding commitment of $3.4 billion, which Ms Plibersek said, “will help close the gap”.

According to Ms Plibersek, Stronger Futures “repeals in full” John Howard’s NT Emergency Response Act 2007. “Unlike the Howard government’s approach, the Stronger Futures legislation does not suspend the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.”

However, President of the Amoonguna community near Alice Springs, Marie Ellis, has called Stronger Futures merely a “fancy new name”. “All the racist policies are still in place,” she said in a STICS press release.

Under Howard’s Intervention, government statistics show increased Aboriginal incarceration, increased suicide attempts and self harm, decreased school attendance and a loss of jobs. 

Ms Ellis has passionately testified to the damaging effects of the Intervention on her community. “Minister Jenny Macklin has us stuck in the welfare days, treats us like children being breast-fed by the government,” she said.

Under Stronger Futures, there are total alcohol and pornography bans on Aboriginal land. The phasing out of Community Development Employment Projects continues, blamed for the loss of thousands of jobs. Kids who miss school more than five times over two terms can cause their family’s welfare payments to be suspended under the expanded School Enrolment and Attendance Measure.

Founding member and organiser of STICS, Paddy Gibson, accused Stronger Futures of holding Aboriginal people in “apartheid conditions”. Mr Gibson says the mindset behind this legislation is “fundamentally racist”. “They’re essentially saying that Aboriginal people can’t take care of themselves,” he said.

In particular, the STICS rally will denounce the expansion of income management to five trial sites outside the NT including Bankstown, NSW.

Introduced under the Intervention, the government says income management is designed to help people manage their money to meet essential household needs and expenses. Welfare payments, stored on a BasicsCard, disallow purchase of certain goods such as alcohol, tobacco, pornography and gambling products. It can be compulsorily implemented on people deemed vulnerable by a social worker or child protection authorities.

Mr Gibson called on all people to join the protest against Stronger Futures outside Ms Plibersek’s Chippendale office on March 21. STICS condemns “punitive” methods and advocates for the self-determination and empowerment of community-run organisations through larger funding. “If things are going to change on the ground in those [Aboriginal] communities, it’s going to be the people themselves that actually lead those initiatives,” he said.

Ms Plibersek said, “The government is considerably increasing the number of local Aboriginal people we employ as Indigenous Engagement Officers.”

Click here for the follow-up story.

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Stronger into the future – Yabun 2013

Published in the South Sydney Herald, p. 11, 5 Feb 2013.

Click here to see it online.

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Ada Lee

On January 26, Survival Day, over 10,000 people united at Victoria Park to celebrate Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. Yabun is the biggest one-day Aboriginal festival in Australia and it proved the best place to be for the national holiday.

“The whole Sydney community was invited,” said Bianca Williams of Gadigal Information Service. Yabun aims “to say to the rest of the world that Aboriginal culture is surviving … We’re heading even stronger into the future.”

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore attended to pay her respects to Australia’s First Peoples. Quoting Paulo Coelho, she said: “It’s what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future.

Victoria Park buzzed with friendly faces, cultural pride, and, of course, the music. Kids got artsy in the Jarjums Tent and played in the Corroboree Sand. There was rock climbing and jumping castles. People gathered amid stalls and in the Speak Out Tent to discuss Aboriginal Australia’s future. The food was truly multicultural and I got the chance to try crocodile.

Yabun translates to “music with a beat”, and in this regard, did not disappoint. Families and friends gathered to witness some of the greatest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander upcoming and established talents. It wasn’t your typical perfectly timed concert with hyperventilating fans and idolised celebrities. The line-up ran half an hour late and the wind knocked things over but it didn’t matter. It was perfectly imperfect. It was the feeling of community.

On the Main Stage, MCs Constantina Bush and Redfern Now actor, Alec Doomadgee, provided the perfect mix of comedy and seriousness. Musical highlights included JPoint’s soulful hip hop, the elegant Thelma Plum with an indie voice that felt like floating, Dizzy Doolan’s feminine ferocity and seeing Vic Simms and the All Star Band of 50-somethings rocking out like teenagers. But regardless of what musical genre tickles your fancy, it was the heart of the festival that proved most captivating.

The crowd favourite was undeniably Archie Roach – not just because of his ARIA awards and iconic deep voice but more because he embodies perfectly the Indigenous survival story and the meaning of Yabun. When his voice dripped with regret and longing as he sang “Old Mission Road”, you saw him as a 3-year-old Aboriginal boy, stolen from his parents. And when he got the crowd dancing to his upbeat, soulful new release, “Song to Sing”, you saw a man who had survived and inspired. Roach told the crowd: “No matter how insurmountable things might seem, we’re going to rise above it.”

Yabun Festival 2013 was a day of exceptional talent, entertainment and sharing. Most of all, it was a day of remembrance and hope.

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