Aboriginal communities have great strengths to draw on that can be used as a bedrock to build on and a source of empowerment, Victorian Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm tells Insight editor Kellee Nolan.
If Aboriginal communities across Victoria are to become fully empowered, it is time to start looking at building on the strengths they hold, and stop focusing just on the disadvantage they face, Victorian Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm says.
Because while it is important to tackle the serious health, justice, education and employment gaps that exist, it is also important to realise they alone do not define the Victorian Aboriginal community. As a whole, the Aboriginal community forms a vibrant and diverse part of Victoria. Within it there is a disproportionately high number of people for whom overcoming severe disadvantage is the urgent priority if they are to fulfil their potential. However the majority, while still often likely to face a range of social and economic challenges, are well on the road to fulfilling a whole range of positive aspirations.
And it is also important to realise the gaps and disadvantage that do exist are symptoms of a culture stripped of its place in society and its confidence. Until that sense of place and confidence are restored by focusing on the strengths and opportunities of Aboriginal culture, the causes of disadvantage will never truly be healed, the symptoms never truly eradicated and the gaps never truly closed.
“One of the key issues around any of this is to stop looking at people as just purely disadvantaged, purely at the bottom of society all the time,” Hamm says.
“Too often it’s easy to talk about the bad things, not about the good things. Because we measure the bad things, unemployment, health, all those ‘gappy’ things, but we don’t talk about what are the good things about being Aboriginal and the Aboriginal community, and what are the strengths we can use as a platform to build off, to alleviate those said disadvantages.”
The Victorian Government Aboriginal Affairs Report 2014/15 outlines the gaps. There are more than 51,000 Aboriginal people living in Victoria, representing 0.9 per cent of the state’s population. Non-Aboriginal people have an average life expectancy of around 10 years longer than Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal unemployment rate sits at 18.6 per cent and a there is gap in income, with only 22 per cent of Aboriginal people earning over $800 a week, compared to 40 per cent of non-Aboriginal people. The homelessness rate is five times the rate for non-Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people are more likely to have experienced family violence, and the rate of confirmed instances of child abuse has skyrocketed, from 31.4 per 1,000 in 2009-10 to 52.2 in 2013-14.
So the gaps are there, and they are serious, however there are also strengths. Hamm says among these, and among the things most important to Australian Aboriginal people, are their culture and identity, and their great sense of connection to community. These form the bedrock for building the future and unless that bedrock is sound, the gaps, the symptoms of disadvantage, will persist. And for the bedrock to be strong, it needs to be understood and valued by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
“Aboriginal Australia needs to have a confidence about itself and a surety about itself,” Hamm says. “You’re not going to get great leaps in health or economic participation or the legal system or any of that, without first ensuring that the bedrock is strong.”
Hamm is involved with several Victorian Aboriginal organisations, including the Korin Gamadji Institute, interim chairman of the Koorie Heritage Trust, chairman of both the First Nations Foundation and Connecting Home, and deputy chairman of Aboriginal Housing Victoria. All of these organisations, he says, are building on Aboriginal communities’ strengths and opportunities, rather than only focusing on vulnerabilities.
First Nations Foundation acts as a bridge between Aboriginal people and the financial services sector, provides people skills to navigate the financial services system, and identifies Aboriginal people’s financial needs through research, development and leadership.
Chief executive officer Amanda Young says “power is something that’s inherent in Indigenous people, and it’s just about giving the tools and opportunities for that to flourish. When that flourishing happens, it’s quite profound.”
Young says Aboriginal people were the only group in society who were prevented from handling their own money, creating a dearth of money management skills, and that these practices continued in some parts of Australia right up until the 1980s.
“And of course living in a collective culture, any money that came in was just shared.”
First Nations Foundation addresses this with a program called My Moola.
“It helps Indigenous people try to bridge that gap, to go from a collective culture where everything was shared, to reframing their relationship with money, so that they can achieve their goals and still honour their culture. Now that’s a really critical important step … It really helps people to make a personal choice and to create that relationship, and with that choice that is made, comes power.”
The Koorie Heritage Trust is also building opportunities and awareness of Aboriginal people’s strengths and culture. It has moved from premises on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD, to Federation Square, positioning itself prominently in the city’s heart, physically and culturally. Hamm says this sends an important message that Aboriginal people are central to Melbourne and Victoria, not fringe dwellers at its edge.
“If Federation Square is to be the social and cultural hub of Melbourne, then it is only right fitting that there is an Aboriginal entity at the heart of it. So that sends a significant signal about how we as Aboriginal people see ourselves.”
The Trust offers a Koorie art and culture collection, an oral history program, a library, cross cultural awareness training, and a Koorie Family History Service. Koorie Heritage Trust chief executive officer Tom Mosby says the Trust is about celebrating Aboriginal people’s successes, and not always looking at the negatives.
“The move to Federation Square was about reflecting that we’re part of a contemporary urban city, that we have a contemporary community, that we have a lot of community members who are aspirational, who are wanting something better for themselves, for their children. They’re wanting their kids to finish high school, go to university, and have career pathways, the same ambitions as any other members of the broader community.”
Connecting Home was established in 2010, to support survivors of the Stolen Generations across South Eastern Australia. It works collaboratively across the Aboriginal and mainstream service sectors to respond to survivors’ varied needs.
Hamm says Connecting Home empowers people by meeting the needs they identify for themselves, bringing a sense of coherence for many who over their lifetimes may have been through a range of different systems and service providers.
Aboriginal Housing Victoria, a not-for-profit registered housing provider, offers affordable housing to more than 4000 low-income Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is working with the Victorian government to receive transfer of title of the properties it currently manages, to try and gradually provide more housing for those in need, but also with a long-term view of potentially being able to encourage more people to aspire to home ownership.
Chief executive officer Jenny Samms says it is important to take a strengths-based approach, while foremost supporting people in need.
“Pathways to home ownership is a really good thing. It does provide people with the opportunity to build assets, build wealth and go into old age with the assets they need, and that is fantastic,” Samms says.
Another program developing strengths is the Korin Gamadji Institute’s Richmond and Emerging Aboriginal Leadership (REAL) program. This program gives Aboriginal teens the chance to spend several days at a camp run out of the Richmond Football Club.
Those who attend are not the highly talented sportspeople who make the AFL, and not those facing severe disadvantage, but the “kids in the middle”. The camps build their leadership skills, health and wellbeing, personal and career pathways, and a positive sense around being Aboriginal.
Korin Gamadji Institute director Aaron Clark says REAL tries to build the teenagers’ strengths, their confidence in culture and identity, and aspirations.
“For the majority of our Indigenous kids they lack the opportunity. So their aspirations may become limited, they might have an aspiration to be a plumber when they could be a doctor. Unless you raise those aspirations you put a lid on these kids, and KGI provides that platform.”
In building Aboriginal people’s confidence, and non-Aboriginal people’s understanding, of culture, identity, and the importance of community and connection, Hamm hopes Aboriginal people will begin to form a new view of themselves, where they are comfortable about their culture and identity, and their relationship with non-Aboriginal people, and can build a strong and self-assured future from it.
“I’d like to see a future where the word Aboriginal is thought of as an advantage in a social sense; that people’s sense of Aboriginality is a positive one.”
“The Aboriginal community has an incredible sense of community, for example, far greater than many other communities have. An understanding that you exist as part of a collective, not as an individual. That’s something that’s really strong and that we don’t talk about very often, maybe because we don’t realise it. It’s a fundamental strength that we have, so how do we use that as a platform for social and economic advancement?”
Another strength is Aboriginal communities’ young demographic. The average age of Victoria’s Aboriginal population is 22, compared with 37 for the non-Aboriginal population. Almost 60 per cent of Victorian Aboriginal people are aged 25 or under, compared with 32 per cent of non-Aboriginal people.
“I think that’s another opportunity,” Hamm says. “These young people are viewing their Aboriginality as a strength and they have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as anyone else.”
Helping these young people to mould a positive future will help develop the bedrock of identity and culture to empower people to overcome the gaps and disadvantage that exist. And Hamm says while there is a great challenge before us, the opportunity has also never been greater.
“There is a sense of goodwill. There is a sense of ‘how do we bring a balance to our society?’ And I think we have to seize the moment, but recognise that it’s an awfully hard moment to seize.”
The moment is also one that must be seized for the long term and at all levels of national, state and local leadership, with plenty of “hard yakka” to be done.
“You have to do everything, all at once, properly, over a long period of time.”
There will be debate, discussion, and disagreements, all of it valid. Hamm says Aboriginal people have a great talent for persistence.
“Our whole history has been one of adapting to our environment and adapting our environment to us. In the past 200 years, we have been under enormous pressure, greater than the ice age.”
He supports constitutional recognition, as a statement of fact in the preamble, setting the scene. But he says it must be recognised as just one step, not the silver bullet that will redress everything.
Structurally, he says, we have gone down paths that must be reengineered to open up Aboriginal communities’ potential contribution, with the “classic example” being what people expect the government should do for them. Hamm says people should expect no more from government than they would expect from themselves, and in fact, should expect more of themselves than they expect from government.
“Communities have got to own our own future, which is why the notion of self-determination is moving beyond a rhetoric, to asking ‘what’s that really look like? What does it mean?’
“As Aboriginal people we have to consider what that means, and non-Aboriginal people have to think about what it means too. It is complex stuff and it’s difficult stuff and it’s challenging for everyone, but if we don’t at least try, then we won’t get anywhere.”
That’s why Hamm is so focused on the importance of building a foundation of a strong culture and identity, and the value of connection to community, as the recipe for a more empowered future.
“Get those two confident as the bedrock, then you’ll find that issues such as health, such as overrepresentation in the justice system, such as employment gaps, they’ll kind of diminish.
“You’ll still need to put some work in, but you’ll find that a lot of those problems will diminish in their own right.”
That is his vision, one where Aboriginal people are confident in themselves, as a community, and in their relationship with the wider world, and where there is equity across the things we measure now as ‘gaps’. Where the word Aboriginal isn’t thought of and spoken about in terms of disadvantage, but as an advantage: economically, socially and culturally.
Feature image of Victorian Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm: Photo by James Henry