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Ruth Cardier is working in the Northern Territory. She left her job in Sydney to support Aboriginal youth in education and skills development, and has been there since December 2010.
Here she shares her experiences .
Tuesday, and our regular day to take a charter flight to a remote Indigenous community as part of our companies’ contract for joint service provision, an ongoing initiative following the intervention in the Top End of Australia.
For our part, it is an opportunity to assist 12 to 18-year-olds to re-engage with education or training for future employment.
After our regular briefing with the white GBM (Government Business Manager) of the community, we walk to the Youth Centre. The houses and streets are deserted and the community shop, normally a hive of activity, is also closed.
We then walk to the Centrelink remote servicing outpost situated between top and bottom camps. It appears that most of the community members are in the local park attending a community meeting.
Thieves disturb the community
This is a rare event and we understand that respected members of the community have called this meeting in order to address some very recent events.
Late yesterday there was a large disturbance in the community, a fight had broken out near the Arts Centre in bottom camp and it had moved through the streets for around half a kilometre drawing in a large number of people as it moved through the community. It finally abated outside the community store.
Later that evening the store was broken into and petrol and food items were stolen. The shop was closed ‘until further notice, and until the police had completed their enquiries’.
The community gathering was an attempt by the community members to break the deadlock, to identify the offenders, to address issues related to the fighting and to allow the shop to open.
This is the only outlet for food and general provisions for hundreds of kilometres, and with the early arrival of the wet season rains, the surrounding roads are already impassable. The only way out is via a $1200 charter flight. These people will not be able to purchase anything to eat until the offenders have been identified and handed over to the police.
It is culturally inappropriate for outsiders to remain in the vicinity of the meeting and although we can see many of the young people with whom we would like to meet and assist with literacy and numeracy, we leave, walking the kilometre across community to the school and prepare for our afternoon engagement with a class of junior girls. We have been delivering a 10-week program to help raise the self-esteem of those who attend our class.
Just prior to moving to the classroom to deliver the session, we discover that the water supply to the school has been disconnected and therefore the headmaster has closed the school and is sending the students home.
Too few houses, too many people
During our earlier meeting with the GBM we learnt that there is a major rebuilding project underway in the community and 52 houses are being replaced. Displaced families need to move in with other families, as there is no vacant housing in the community.
This has meant that this community now has the distinction of having five times the Indigenous national average of people living in the remaining housing.
After attempting to negotiate improvements in opportunities for non-school attendees to be able to gain access to a small space in one of the air-conditioned school rooms, and enable us to assist identified 17 and 18-year-old boys to move beyond the reading level of a year one student, we walk the kilometre back to the town centre.
“I cut my brother down last week”
The meeting [has] now concluded [and] those involved in the fight have apologised to each other, and those responsible for the break in have been identified and the shop is again a hive of activity.
We make contact with several more young people, attempting to give them some level of hope and an opportunity for change.
We engaged with a young 16-year-old male who was signed up with our program, but who we had not been able to contact in many months. He was extremely reserved and initially reluctant to share his thoughts on what he would like to do.
After a long pause he then held his hands up and said fervently, ‘I want to go back to school.’
He hadn’t attended school regularly for several years and we explained that for him to be accepted in a boarding school outside the community, he would need to show that he was willing to participate regularly and attend the local school first before being given a place at the boarding school of his choice.
As there are only a few weeks left of the school term, I wanted to offer him some other learning opportunity before next year so I explained the upcoming 2-day Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) course that I am currently planning to deliver early next month in the community.
I explained that this was to help people assist family and friends who may be depressed or have a mental condition.
Our young man sat motionless in his chair and didn’t say a word for over a minute.
My highly valuable Indigenous staff member broke the silence with ‘It could help with people thinking about suicide.’
Still no response.
‘Do you know anyone who may have considered suicide?’
Another very long pause, then finally, ‘Yes, I cut my brother down last week, I helped to get him out of the tree, I took the rope off his neck. And I revived him.’
We have two vacancies for caseworkers at the present time. I have been at least one case manager short for over half the time that I have held the position of Youth Services Coordinator here in the Top End.
Staff burns out and resigns
Several months ago, my over stretched first line manager had a large meltdown, has been on part time work then off for many weeks with burnout. My exceptional case manager has struggled on valiantly throughout the year, attempting to carry the casework load of over 60 troubled young people with my help.
By late November, she crumbed to burnout and resigned.
Just prior to resigning, this person had acted as a mentor in case management to a very capable Indigenous lady who had come to us through our short lived Trainee program. Her cultural knowledge and experience assisted her to made great progress with troubled youth.
Why “marvellous role models” miss out in interviews
With the resignation of my only case manager, my only Indigenous staff member was keen to apply for the full time role.
This person has had the most amazing journey. She has worked underground driving a range of large equipment in the mines, has been doing station work since she was a young girl growing up in Kununurra.
However like most Indigenous youth, her schooling opportunities were limited and so as an adult she continues to struggle with her literacy and numeracy.
She was very nervous prior to the interview and I supported her in as many ways I could in the lead up to the interview.
I was on the selection panel and was advocating for her in the post interview discussions.
However, it was felt by the others on the panel that it would be too difficult for her to make the leap, and unfortunately I had to accept that her responses to some of the questions supported their decision.
There is virtually no opportunity in a standard interview for this person to demonstrate the importance of being an indigenous person, working with and for indigenous youth.
The depth and breath of her cultural understanding, her ability to connect immediately in a number of indigenous languages, her ability to act as a marvellous role model, and everything else that she would be able to bring to this position, did not make a lot of difference in the scheme of things.
‘Snappy’ and ‘succinct’ is what I was told was missing from her responses to questions and these are not generally adjectives attributed to Indigenous people.
Humble, reserved, respectful, passive, hopeful and exceedingly patient is closer to the mark.
At the end of the interview, each candidate is asked to nominate one of our company’s values with which they most identify.
A white candidate who grew up on the east coast of Australia nominated ‘Celebrate’, as she loves to celebrate whenever she gets the opportunity.
My Indigenous candidate nominated ‘Perseverance’ because that is what she has needed to get through her life.
Sadly she and her fellow countryman have had stuff all to ‘Celebrate’.
Shortly after the interviews were completed, I drove to Darwin as part of my work.
While checking in to our company’s preferred provider of accommodation in Darwin, I overheard an Indigenous couple ask the other receptionist for a room for the night.
The receptionist asked them if they had a room booked already, to which they replied ‘No’.
The receptionist stated that they were fully booked and had no rooms available and the couple left.
Around an hour and a half later, while dining at the hotel I was speaking to a person who had had a few drinks, was from out of town and felt unsafe to drive the 32 km home.
He said he would book a room at the hotel and stay the night. I told him about the conversation I had witnessed an hour or so earlier, and I said that he might have problems getting a room.
On enquiring, he was immediately offered a room, …. without hesitation.
Welcome to 2011, to ‘Stronger Futures,’ and just two days in November.
What has happened since?
When Ruth send me her story she also provided a short update of what has happened since:
In early December  I was notified that the new state NT government had withdrawn funding from many programs which had supported the most disadvantaged in our communities including one of mine.
This meant that I would be out of a job by the 1st March this year .
The state government is redirecting the funding into placing more police on the street. Lets not assist youth with building self worth, life skills and provide them with programs that support them throught the difficult teenage years etc, lets just wait for them to stuff up and then use the extra police to process them and lock them up.
Thankfully I have many tools in my work experience and training, tool box and I am hopeful of staying with the same company and moving across to their Literacy and Numeracy Program where there is also a huge need and thankfully ongoing federal funding (at this time at least).
I have recently returned to Sydney to pack up all my possessions and put them in storage and to rent out my home there.
I don’t see myself returning to live there long term in the foreseeable future.
There is so much work to be done out in remote Australia and while I have the health and passion to make a meaningful difference to the most disadvantaged in our country I will continue to pursue this path in the Top End.