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A reflection on volunteering in an Indigenous Australian community

Bagot Community in the heart of Darwin

While my plans to visit Darwin began with the desire to visit a friend I soon realised it was the perfect opportunity to get involved in an area of my Social Work studies that I really feel passionate about. Learning about the history, life conditions and values of Indigenous Australians at University made me realise how little I really knew about the traditional owners of our country. Let alone the reality of a population that has a much shorter life expectancy than other Australians, suffers higher levels of disadvantage in health, education and employment opportunities and is over represented in our criminal, welfare and child protection systems. I might have a lot of new knowledge from books, as well as a greater understanding about the complexity of issues that Aboriginal people endure, but I really wanted some face to face experience.

After contacting an Indigenous organisation in Darwin, run almost entirely by local Aboriginal people, I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer my time in whatever capacity they thought would give me an idea of how they help people in their wider community.

Delivery beds via the Homeless Outreach support team

Thanks to Larrakia Nation I spent time sitting with female elders who come together every week to catch up within the Bagot community, drinking tea, playing cards and bingo, but mostly talking. Through their stories I had the privilege of listening to what life was like for half caste children who were taken away from their mothers, bought up by well meaning missionaries, but ultimately separating the women from their life in the bush and the culture and language that had been passed down for almost 50,000 years. It is impossible to really understand how their life experiences have shaped them, but knowing that today they are back in their community and willing to share a smile and natural generosity of spirit with a non-Indigenous person gave me a positive sense of possibility.

I also spent time on the road with a ‘white fella’ who has learned a few local languages and spends his days supporting the homeless people that live in the long-grass around town. He works alongside people who need temporary housing as well as the families that he settles in to basic accommodation within the Indigenous communities around Darwin. Seeing the reality of life for the ‘long-grassers’ that live without shelter, often separated from their community because of substance abuse, petty crime or domestic violence was the most confronting experience of the week.

Knowing that many Australians from all backgrounds are currently homeless is one thing, but understanding and seeing the everyday conditions that people live in is heartbreaking. People suffering from the intergenerational cycles of poverty are getting help but we have a very long way to go to bridge the enormous divide between comfortable and living below the poverty line. Seeing food, mattresses and emotional support delivered and arranged entirely via community fundraising and hard work is humbling and it makes me realise how disconnected we can get from the things that really matter in life for everyone. Surely we can do a better job as a country at providing basic shelter, clothing and food.

Traditional weaving

Thanks to my previous work experience in the creative industries I was also able to offer some real support to the arts area of Larrakia Nation. As a community organisation they need funds for all the services they offer, including food, social support, housing assistance and security via a night patrol. They raise money by supporting Indigenous artists and selling their traditional artworks. I was really happy to offer my time to photograph a couple of hundred paintings, carvings, hand made jewellery, weaving work and screen prints; ultimately organising much needed files for their online shop.

Overall, while I felt like an unskilled spectator at first, I was soon made to feel very welcome. Many of the community workers shared their stories with me, how they came to be supporting the team, what it meant for them to be proud Larrakia people, how empowering it is to help and how much they have seen improvements in their community as a whole through their work.

I couldn’t recommend offering support to an organisation such as Larrakia Nation enough. The only requirements are an open mind, the desire to really listen, a non-judgemental perspective and a willingness to do whatever is required for the benefit of everyone. Knowing how hard people are working to help each other gives me so much hope, but mostly a greater desire to really offer time to my own community back in Brisbane.

If only all Australians could spend a few days experiencing the reality of people less fortunate, then imagine how much less racism and divisiveness there would be in our society?

Kris

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home – Aboriginal Australian Proverb

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