In Redfern, indigenous voices are being heard and a popular community sports center is being saved

In Redfern, indigenous voices are being heard and a popular community sports center is being saved

The impact of what a national Indigenous voice could achieve for Parliament was demonstrated in a real-life example this week at Redfern in Sydney.

There were tears, cheers, relief and cautious celebration on Friday as the immediate closure of the National Center for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) was averted.

Federal ministers Linda Burney and Tanya Plibersek heard the voice of the people who had gathered for five days after being told Monday their workplaces, sports facilities and cultural programs would have to close within a week.

Rugby league players, boxers and wrestlers met with local Indigenous children and staff at the centre, which has been a community magnet for 16 years, to hear the news.

“Here’s the bottom line,” said Minister for Indigenous Australia Linda Burney.

“I want to see the tenants that work out of NCIE are permanent… I want to see this place stay open and more importantly, people keep their jobs.

“I’m going to say this very clearly to the people who are making decisions about this place: you have a week to sort this out.

“It can’t go beyond people getting together and negotiating in good faith, because that connection is important.

“Voices need to be heard for that and the fact that you have so many people here, hundreds of people, is a very loud voice.

“To the parties involved, get together and work this out.”

A group of people gather around a stage in a hall
Community members gather during a meeting on the future of the National Center for Indigenous Excellence.(AAP: James Gourley)

Regular users of the NCIE gym and sports facilities include NRL players from the Rabbitohs, the Governor General, members of the Police and Air Force, but primarily members of the Indigenous community for whom the NCIE has become a center and cultural sanctuary.

NCIE also provides essential after-school care, pre-employment programs, health and culture classes, and swimming programs for infants through the elderly.

From the shadow of the 2004 Redfern riots, with disputed facts surrounding a bicycle and police car that led to the death of teenager TJ Hickey, an idea was born to improve community relations, with the “NCIE’s sole purpose to create long-term improvements in well-being”.

For 16 years it has been doing just that, making a positive contribution to bridging the gap and improving community relations. Crime rates and arrests trended down, while education and self-confidence tended to increase.

The former Redfern Public School was bought by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC), but the land on which the center was built was sold to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) in June, with the ILSC holding the license for the Operation of the school retained Center.

A basketball stands in an empty hall with an indigenous flag hanging in the background
The sports facilities of the National Center of Indigenous Excellence are used by a broad cross-section of society.(AAP: James Gourley)

Tenants, staff and community leaders were shocked when they were told Monday the center would remain operational for another week, with all staff being offered layoffs and one-off payments to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Her silence was not bought. They rallied instead and next Monday declared a sit-in on the premises to prevent the facility’s gates from being permanently locked.

“This place is for our local community,” local MP and Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told those gathered at Friday’s rally.

“I remember when it was a school I was against the school closing. And I remember when the proposal was… the ILSC will buy it and it will be for the community forever.

“That was the promise and that is the promise we expect to keep. This place has to be for the kids… but it’s not just the kids, it’s for the whole community.”

When measuring success, the community yardstick is at odds with a traditional, profit-oriented business model.

Tanya Plibersek holds a microphone and speaks to a crowd
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek speaks at the National Center of Indigenous Excellence.(AAP: James Gourley)

NCIE costs money and it doesn’t make money. It currently has a $2 million deficit that will be covered for now.

Strategic projects consultant Indu Balachandran worked at NCIE for five years.

Part of their work was to measure the social impact of the organization.

“The question we need to ask ourselves today is… what do we need to do to make this place work for the common good?” Ms. Balachandran said.

The first Social Return on Investment (SROI) report found for every dollar spent on NCIE created triple the value for community members, according to Ms. Balachandran.

“[That was] in terms of health, wellness, culture, meetings…we had a technology program, we were ready for the job…we built a really beautiful organization,” she said.

“After I left, the SROI was done again, using an Aboriginal framework. The SROI was actually three times as high [than originally reported].”

Cody Walker kneels as he poses for a photo with two children at the National Center of Indigenous Excellence.
The NRL’s Indigenous round started at the NCIE in May.(Facebook: NCIE)

Western business models do not value the same outcomes as the local indigenous community.

“If you ask Aboriginal people what is important about that place and then appreciate that – culturally, socially, educationally, sanitaryly, collecting value, value of the people, the value of having a place for people to come together in Redfern – is that worth 2 million dollars? That’s the question you have to ask yourself.”

Judy Jarratt is a local grandmother who relies on the after school care center provided by the community group RYC (Redfern Youth Connect).

“My grandson is 13, he lives with me, he’s been with me since he was two,” Ms Jarratt told The Ticket.

“He attends after-school care here for cultural programs, mentoring, they are fed, they do sports and I would be lost without that.

“I have two jobs…that’s my big concern. They have nowhere else to go, it’s like an extended family, they take care of Junior. If I work late they pick it up and hold it for me until I can get home.

“They do everything they can to ensure the children are taken care of.”

Six-year-old Kyeh attends NCIE regularly.

“I come here to play with my 10 cousins ​​and swim in the pool,” he said.

He has ambitions to be an Olympic swimmer and, as he puts it, a zoo doctor “because my father is worried about all the animals dying”.

Children hold a sign that says
Children show their support for Redfern Youth Connect.(ABC Sports: Tracey Holmes)

For Kyeh and hundreds of other children, NCIE provides regular community connections and sports activities.

Dean Widders, 22, is a trainer and studio manager.

“I grew up in the Redfern community since I was a kid,” he said.

“My mom and dad, my grandfather, my grandma, we’re all a big part of the community here… it was such a great turnout… to see everyone who supports us and to see how much this facility means to Redfern.”

A worker at the fitness center is a refugee from the Middle East. He gave the ABC his full name, but to protect him we’ll call him Farhad.

He describes NCIE as his home, his family have worked there for five years since being released from immigration detention.

Anthony Albanese stands and speaks to a seated crowd.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke at Garma over the weekend.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“NCIE is like a home to me — not a second home, but my first home because I’ve spent more time at NCIE than I have in my own home,” he said.

“I’m a refugee from another country but I don’t feel that, I feel like I belong to this community…they’re really warm to me, they really respect me a lot.

“Since Monday when we heard the news I can see and feel with my own eyes how bad it is [closure] can be for the community.

“As soon as we got the news, people got tears and started crying. I was like a lost person. I had a flashback to what happened to me, I lost everything when I had to leave my country. It will definitely have dire consequences for the community.”

This threatening danger has been averted for the time being.

A man holds a microphone while speaking to people gathered at an indoor basketball court.
Gym manager Dean Widders spoke to people protesting the NCIE’s closure.(delivered)

Community elder Aunt Margaret Campbell understands the sense of loss felt by Farhad and others.

“It’s almost like there’s another Terra Nullius,” she told The Ticket, noting the failure of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to reach an agreement on NCIE’s long-term future.

“We need to figure out how we can work together and develop a program and governance to make that happen [NCIE] viable.

“We feel stuffed through the whole process, so our trust has been shaken by them … but I’m also kind of excited because it took this community to make them realize that all of these voices are there.”

Your feelings are echoed by others. There’s a shared sense of frustration, the feeling that every time they build something, it’s being snatched away by others below them.

While Monday’s closure is temporarily off the table, there are some in the community who know it takes more than words to guarantee the long-term future of their cultural hub.

They’ve been burned before, but now there’s a glimmer of hope that those responsible aren’t just hearing their voices, they’re actually listening.

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