By ERWIN CHLANDA
Proponents of a national indigenous culture centre in Alice Springs would be well advised to check out the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) in Redfern, which has “advancing culture and the arts” as part of its objectives.
Just five years old, the NCIE has some remarkable runs on the board and like the Alice proposal, possibly in different proportions, is focussing on cultural as well as social aspects.
There is still no coherent process for planning what any such centre in Alice Springs should be like. But when we finally get ’round to it, this may be a worth-while question: Should it be a look-but-don’t-touch kind of place, where the exhibits and the viewers are kept at a safe distance, or should it be a celebration of the world’s oldest living culture that extends to this very day, immersing the visitor in a live experience, “open to the public,” as the sign says on the NCIE gate.
Both centres are likely to be very similar in physical size, cost, annual budget and management style.
The new CEO, Kirstie Parker (pictured), makes an inspiring case for NCIE and says Redfern is “the heartland of contemporary Aboriginal Australia”.
Hey, that’s the Spiel of Alice Springs!
Ms Parker, a descendant on her mother’s side from the Yuwallarai people of north-western NSW, is a dynamo whose busy CV includes journalism (editing the Koori Mail), advising a minister (she worked for Robert Tickner at the time he put a stop to damming of the Todd in Alice Springs, a moratorium that has now expired), heading up the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, and co-chairing the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
With infectious enthusiasm she talks about continuing NCIE’s development as a place of pride for the erstwhile notorious Sydney suburb, now in the grip of trendy gentrification (a bit like what real estate sales people are saying is happening in our Gap), a cornerstone for Indigenous improvement and a manifestation of Aboriginal presence.
Ms Parker says 30,000 plus people have been to the site in its five years.
The $50m complex, on two hectares of what has turned into prime Sydney real estate, incorporates the old Redfern Public School, a place of fond attachment for many locals.
It encompasses fitness facilities (including a gym, basketball stadium, swimming pool, and oval); a campus centre with conference facilities and 110-bed dorm-style accommodation; and administrative space for NCIE staff as well as three “pathway partner” organisations – the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy (NASCA), the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), and the Tribal Warrior Association – which collaborate on a range of programs.
Ms Parker says the NCIE aims, through its enterprises and facilities, to deliver life-changing programs around health, education, culture and the arts, as well as to promote progressive ‘thought leadership’.
These activities have a commercial purpose as well as a social one, reflected in the NCIE’s finances: The $5.5m annual operating budget is made up of a mix of fees (gained from the gym with its 1600 plus members – half of them Indigenous – the pool and oval, the conference centre, and accommodation), training subsidies, and program grants from government, corporate and philanthropic sources.
To date, the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), of which the NCIE is a subsidiary, has contributed around 40% annually.
In 2013, KPMG conservatively estimated the social value of NCIE’s programs at around $26m on an annual investment of $5.5m – a return of between $4 and $5 for every $1 invested.
Ms Parker says the NCIE will strive to increase its earnings over the next five (or so) years as it works towards divestment of the site from the ILC into the hands of a yet-to-be constituted Redfern-based Aboriginal body, which will first need to “demonstrate financial and operational stability”.
She explains the word “excellence” in the centre’s name: “Excellence already resides in our community. Harnessing it, capturing it, building it, and celebrating it is what we’re all about.
“While we certainly have many high-achievers in our midst, we’re not about just the top echelon, not an elite walking amongst our community.
Excellence is about supporting our people to become secure and the best they can be in every way – culturally, emotionally, socially, economically, educationally.
“It doesn’t mean they need to be financially rich – not that that’s a bad thing – but fulfilment comes in many forms.”
She says Redfern is still battling “crappy indicators in terms of health, education, employment, incarceration levels and so on.
“In some way, with many people, we’re starting from a very disadvantaged base, but everyone has the potential for growth, growth in resilience, to have a secure home, a safe environment.
“When people are doing okay, and are in pretty good shape, they can make more of a difference.
“I was reading the other day that people who are happy are much more likely to volunteer.
“Once you’ve got your own family on an even keel, your kids are going to school, and you’re healthy, happy, and there are no immediate safety issues, then you’re able to contribute to the world around you.”
Ms Parker says Aboriginal people have a great sense of belonging, not just along cultural lines, but being part of a community.
We put to her that can that be a hindrance – there can be a lot of humbugging.
She says: “People couch it as individualism versus collectivism. I don’t see why we can’t have both. We need healthy, functional relationships with each-other.”
How can that be achieved? For example, over-crowding of public housing is a problem also in Alice Springs.
“Many in our community face huge challenges. We experience high levels of chronic illness and there are some estimates that 50% of Aboriginal people have some form of disability. We form around this and support each other, and it’s a wonderful thing.
“It is also important to look after ourselves, to value our personal health and wellbeing so we’re in the best individual shape to support family and others. If stress or the demands of others squash your aspirations, the balance might need to shift.”
The centre has kicked off a round of talks of all providers – state, Federal and NGOs – to pinpoint gaps as well as overlaps in services.
The police are part of this, saying their well defined functions can take care of many problems, and they are now discussing with the other providers where they can fit in.
For example, the Tribal Warrior Association whose operations are run from the NCIE site works with the local police command to run the innovative “Clean Slate, No Prejudice” boxing program, running in NCIE since June 2011, which sees local Indigenous youngsters sparring with local cops in the NCIE gym at 6am three days a week.
The results were nothing but amazing, says Ms Parker: When the program started, juvenile crime in the area – burglaries, thefts and so on – dropped by more than 80%. These offences are still around 60% below the rate they were at when the program began.
The program has some well-placed supporters, says Ms Parker. One regular gym user who asked to join in trained with the participants for several weeks before someone realised he was the Governor of NSW, General David Hurley.
“But he made no fuss,” Ms Parker says of Hurley. “He just wanted to join in something positive, as a regular community member and he did.”
Another contributor to the NCIE “business” is hospitality and related training.
A string of courses under what has become NCIE’s Job Ready program have turned out more than 1000 skilled workers in the hospitality industry and, previously, construction. Some hospitality graduates have found a job in the Yulara Resort near Uluru (Ayers Rock), also owned by the ILC.
Each four-week certificate course has an average of 15-20 participants, and several have gone on to work in the NCIE in a large commercial kitchen and accommodation block, catering to visiting school and other groups from around Australia.
The centre can provide meeting facilities and cater for meetings, conferences, workshops, launches and other functions for up to 100 people.
The dormitory accommodation is fairly basic – rooms with two to six beds including bunks – but in a city of shrill entertainment it can offer the opposite: A perfectly safe, appealing place with “zero tolerance to aggro,” no smoking, no drinking, no drug taking.
Recently a group of kids from Papunya, Ntaria and Yuelamu visited the centre.
What would she say to them about their future, we asked Ms Parker.
She says the “pragmatic view” of some people is that in some bush communities there are no opportunities for them “and so the kids have to leave”.
She vigorously disagrees with that: “It’s a matter of harnessing what’s possible. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the industries that are possible through technology.
“While access to the web might be limited in some communities, on the other hand some of our kids intuitively use an iPad from age five. One of our flagships, in partnership with the Telstra Foundation, is the Indigenous Digital Excellence (IDX) initiative.
“That’s part of the narrative of NCIE, opening up people’s minds. Plant a seed, tend it, give people information, support them, build people’s confidence and self esteem and absolute magic is possible.
“That’s part of our conversation about excellence, to not always talk about what you can’t do – using ‘deficit’ language and focussing on problems – but what you can.”
We put to her that in Central Australia we have hundreds of people who have pieces of paper saying they attended dozens of courses yet they don’t have a job.
“It’s really not rocket science. Where are the jobs, what’s in our reach now?”
To do nothing for generations until perfection may be achieved “is throwing generations to the wind,” she says.
“You may never even get to perfect. But if you can deliver something that has some benefit, even if the potential market is huge and you’re only meeting part of it initially, at least it’s a start,” says Ms Parker.
“And you start to build it. You don’t say ‘we’ll wait until everything’s one hundred per cent ticketyboo’ because we lose generations.
“We have lost generations. Our current one is in a very vulnerable place. It can be really overwhelming but you put one foot in front of the other, do what we can, get better and better over time.
“If you start with someone who is physically and emotionally healthy, then they are in a pretty good shape and quite resilient to take the knocks and challenges that will inevitably come, particularly to Aboriginal people.
“What is excellence? People who are healthy, happy and functional. I’m not talking about building a super race. I’m talking about people, in the first sense, who are emotionally and culturally vital and we go from there.”
Building family fiefdoms with taxpayers’ money, not uncommon in Alice Springs, is not on the agenda of NCIE. What you know, not whom you know, is a guiding principle in the management.
Ms Parker says the ILC has appointed a “stellar board” chaired by prominent designer and architect Alison Page.
The other members are intellectual property solicitor Terri Janke; Kelvin Kong, the first Aboriginal Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons; Tim O’Leary, Telstra’s Chief Sustainability Officer; Redfern-born Aboriginal rights advocate Shane Phillips; Kyle Vander-Kuyp, the fastest sprint hurdler in Australian history; Anthony Ashby, the deputy chair of Indigenous Business Australia; and Dugald Russell, CEO of a food services company with annual revenues of more than $560m and employing some 9000 people.
Ms Parker says local Gadigal elders play an important role: “They provide guiding advice how we use this site, how we incorporate cultural elements, provide Welcome to Country, talk about connections to this place and their challenges.”
The future divestment of the NCIE is intended to be “to the Redfern Aboriginal community which of course includes traditional owners,” she says.
“People look at this place and think sport, health, education, jobs but we’re also here to advance culture and the arts.”
The NCIE’s initiatives range from cultural performances, weaving workshops, elders telling traditional stories about the immediate area as well as the wider region.
Dance workshops were held by troupes such as Bangarra and performances by groups such as the Gondwana National Indigenous Children’s choir are under consideration, as well as painting workshops by artists such as Bibi Barba.
The conference facilities, including the courtyard, may be adapted to serve as a gallery.
“We’d like artists to put their mark on that space,” says Ms Parker.
PHOTOS courtesy NCIE.
Hands-on in the rebirth of a community
By ERWIN CHLANDA