From humble beginnings to empowered communities

11 Dec 2014 10:33 AM - Publication: Reconciliation News - Andrea Mason

Andrea Mason is the Co-ordinator for the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council who won the Indigenous Governance Awards in 2012. Andrea is committed to delivering long term positive change to the communities across the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands. This is a responsibility she has been delivering since joining NPY Women’s Council in 2008. In April 2010, prior to a seven months acting period, she was appointed permanently to the position of Co-ordinator. 

Andrea’s relationship to the NPY Lands is strong, both professionally and personally. Her mother’s people are Karonie people in Western Australia and her father was born in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands between Jameson and Warburton. Andrea believes her role as Co-ordinator is one of being a custodian for the hopes and dreams of the women of the NPY Lands and so she is committed to doing all she can to see those dreams realised. Cast your mind back to the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and the moment 330 women from the desert region of Australia, most from the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands, entered the Olympic stadium. It is these women with whom I work: the members of NPY Women’s Council. 

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In 1980, Mantatjara Wilson (dec.) propelled the idea of starting a Women’s Council in the NPY Lands with a cassette tape, on which she recorded a message which was copied by the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs. Her message was sent to women across the NPY Lands, inviting them to come together, sit down and talk. Around forty women came to that momentous first meeting. The reasons why NPY Women’s Council was formed are best explained in the words of Tjunmutja Myra Watson (dec.), a senior woman at that time and our inaugural Chairperson: “We must sort out our problems and we must speak out strongly… If we don’t talk up for ourselves, our rights, we get nowhere.” 

Thirty-four years later, the need for strong Aboriginal voices still exists. Here in the NPY Lands, many Anangu and Yarngangu feel that their voices are still not heard by governments. It is therefore with great passion and belief that we are one of the eight regions participating in Empowered Communities. The Empowered Communities initiative seeks to create a genuine and balanced partnership between Indigenous organisations, governments and corporate Australia, where everybody is working together on a level playing field and towards a shared strategy. Since the first meeting of the Empowered Communities Indigenous leadership group in June 2013, we have been working together (as well as with other leaders and organisations in our regions, corporate partners and government representatives) to design a new model of governance and engagement for our communities. In October this year, we presented our report and recommendations to the Australian Government. 

The primary aim of Empowered Communities is to increase individual responsibility, or as Noel Pearson puts it: to assert our right to take responsibility. For me, Empowered Communities aligns and brings together under one framework the key components of Indigenous led governance: self-management (organisational led responsibility), self determination (family and community led responsibility) and determining-self (personal led responsibility). I believe these ideals galvanised together under a broader framework of social, cultural and economic rights and responsibilities will enable Anangu to achieve the best kind of country and the best kind of future.

Our vision for Empowered Communities in the NPY Lands is to increase the capacity of our people to lead healthy and meaningful lives, in safe communities, where people are meaningfully engaged and have improved life choices in all areas that matter in our communities, including: education; law and culture; health and wellbeing; training and work; access to justice; housing and accommodation; social, economic and community development; and where the needs and aspirations of young and vulnerable people such as babies, children and the elderly are met. For true empowerment to occur, improvements in these areas must be meaningful, long term and sustainable.

Collaboration, the glue of Indigenous-led governance 

Central Australia has a long and proud history of Aboriginal activism and action. Some of the first Aboriginal organisations in Australia were formed in our region, many with the aim of providing a stronger voice for community members, and NPY Women’s Council itself is founded on a collaborative model, an approach that has given us many successes. For example, in 2005 NPY Women’s Council, General Property Trust and the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS – a unit of Tangentyere Council) formed the ‘Opal Alliance’, which brought about the introduction of Government-subsidised Opal fuel in Central Australia to overcome the scourge of petrol sniffing. As a result of this work, the Opal Alliance was awarded the 2007 National Drug and Alcohol Award for Excellence in Prevention. A 2008 study reported a 94 per cent reduction in inhalant abuse in the southern region of the Northern Territory and inhalant abuse in the region remains low. 

In my experience, Aboriginal women in these remote communities are hardwired to collaborate. It is therefore no surprise that the members, directors and staff of NPY Women’s Council take a united cross-border approach, working together to maintain and build a better future for all individuals in our communities. My hope is that Empowered Communities will prompt governments to join with us and other Anangu organisations to look past these borders, to break down bureaucratic silos and to address systemic issues. Just as we need collaboration at an organisational and governmental level, I believe we also need collaboration at an individual and grassroots level. The challenge here—to use a camping analogy—is that no one wants to be the first person out of bed, because that person ends up doing most of the work themselves for the group: collecting the firewood, starting the fire, heating up the billy and so on. In contrast, when you have a critical mass of people, the work is shared (the raging campfire and hot cups of tea come more easily). We must apply this collaborative approach to all areas where change is needed, for example: building a critical mass of parents in our communities who actively support their children every day to be ready for, and to participate in, school; or supporting cultural enterprises to succeed locally and to collaborate on regional partnerships.

The four Rs: Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution and Reconstruction

I recently re-read a book by American civil rights activist John Perkins, in which he describes his theory of the ‘three Rs’ of effective community development: Relocation, Reconciliation and Redistribution. Perkins’ environment is far removed from my work in the NPY Lands. Nonetheless, his experiences of working in communities have resonated strongly with me and, together with a fourth R: Reconstruction, they offer me ideas on which to reflect given this current discussion.

The first R: Relocation

To me, this principle speaks of relocating to a new optimism of determination and direction. For example, at NPY Women’s Council, our early years were focussed on advocacy and working with our members in areas of highest need and disadvantage. Today, we see the importance of relocating to other places, such as working with and empowering people long before they ever reach the cliff’s edge of requiring crisis intervention. In regards to this principle of relocation, Indigenous governance and cultural rights must be consistent with cultural safety as well as a person’s individual safety. Certainly I have seen the pride that exists in our communities when all these aspects are respected in ordinary community life.

However, if there is inconsistency and a person’s safety is under threat from other rights, whether from domestic and family violence, child abuse, financial abuse, seeking employment or receiving an education, then individual safety is the paramount right, and it must be respected. For those (like myself) who are committed to the principle of relocation, this prioritising of rights is essential, not just morally, but because of the evidence we have today explaining the short and long term harmful effects on individuals of domestic violence, child abuse, lack of educational attainment and lack of meaningful engagement in the community including unemployment.

The second R: Redistribution

Whilst redistribution sounds like a concept more at home in economics theory than community activism, the type of redistribution I believe we need is one where there is a greater balance in the investment of services and programmes working to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I understand that 80 to 90 per cent of non-Indigenous organisations investing in Indigenous initiatives are investing in opportunities that are based in non-Indigenous organisations. So why is this occurring?

The Indigenous Governance Awards, co-convened by Reconciliation Australia and BHP Billiton, offer many examples of Indigenous incorporated and non incorporated organisations leading positive change in their communities. NPY Women’s Council is proudly on this list. 

Based on information collected by NPY Women’s Council, between 2000 and 2008 the deaths of 15 Indigenous women in our region were directly linked to domestic and family violence, whereas there has been only one such death since 2008. In recent years, there has been a significant coordinated, cross-sector and cross-border response to domestic and family violence in Central Australia and NPY Women’s Council has played a significant role in this effort to reduce the number of deaths in this area. It is my belief that NPY Women’s Council could substantially increase the impact of its work in reducing violence in our communities. However, to do this, we need a significant investment by organisations and individuals with significant means. Surely as a starting point, a 50/50 distribution between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations of Indigenous related investment funds is a fairer balance than the current distribution?

It is difficult to ignore the positive opportunities that could flow if we reduce both the severity and incidence of domestic and family violence. In addition to the obvious benefits for women, families and communities living in a safer and more supportive environment, we would also be able to redistribute time and money spent, for example, on developing safety plans for victims of violence towards more life affirming initiatives, like resilience-building activities with families or towards ventures to increase economic opportunities so that more people have an opportunity to work.

The third R: Reconciliation

There have been many Australians over the years who have called for true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: the campaigners of the 1967 referendum; Australians who walked across bridges in 2000; and the ongoing call to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. To create an environment where the Empowered Communities vision can become the reality, there must be a rebalancing of responsibility between governments and Indigenous people that puts into effect the prioritising and resourcing of Indigenous led leadership and responsibility. If this could happen, this would be a very modern and practical step in regards to reconciliation in action.

Hope, action and the fourth R: Reconstruction

The interconnected principles of Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation can only lead to change if they are put into action. To be effective, I believe this action must be led locally, by Anangu. This year, a number of NPY Women’s Council members have been leading a mental health literacy project: Uti Kulintjaku (‘to think and understand clearly’), an idea they developed in the first place. One of the lessons shared by a mental health professional as part of this project was that ‘hope and action’ are the antidotes to trauma, and so armed with this advice the women are developing resources to help community members address trauma as well as to build hope.

My hope is that with the support of developments like Empowered Communities, we will see many more local initiatives like our Uti Kulintjaku emerge from our communities in sectors such as employment, enterprise, child health and education. These ground-up initiatives in my view will be evidence that this new governance model is reconstructing a new kind of hope and action in individuals, communities and organisations across the NPY Lands and in the seven other Empowered Communities regions. I believe if this was supported to occur, then a child born into the post Empowered Communities world would have better life choices, and that is surely something worth supporting.

Andrea Mason is the Co-ordinator for the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council and Empowered Communities leader for the NPY Lands region.

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