Alice Springs doesn’t need a ‘solution’. Our children need agency

I was just five years old when my agency, my voice, was taken from me. I was the second youngest of my mother’s eight children when she passed and the government and “welfare” swooped in.

Some of us who were deemed suitable candidates for white society were placed in homes to assimilate, while others were sent to missions, such as Croker Island where I was taken. But whichever way you look at it, at the hands of colonisation, we were all displaced from our home, community and family and forced to become something we were not.

I remember my brothers and I would sit there and cry uncontrollably on Croker Island, without ever knowing why or what we were crying about. We felt empty. No one told us what was going on or why we were there. By denying us the truth, we were denied any aspirations to have agency.

This goes back to a whole process of assimilation, which left us asking, who the hell are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? And even if we do belong somewhere, is there room for us?

Aboriginal people historically learnt very quickly that to survive one had to be quiet. To be safe within your silence. If you spoke up you would be identified as a troublemaker, you would be branded and denied opportunities for employment, for rations, for basic physical safety. At the end of the day, we would acquiesce, shut up, follow the walls, sit at the back of the room and do anything not to be noticed.

It took me years to find my voice and reclaim my agency. I was shy as a child; my foundations had been shattered. Now, I have a good command of English, but to this day I have no fluency in the language I was born into. I was denied my right to stay with our father. He would have taught me my language, my identity, and he would have given me the cultural wherewithal to live, not simply survive.

This is something I never want to happen again to our children or any children, and that’s why Children’s Ground — a First Nations-led organisation creating new pathways for children and families that celebrates Indigenous languages and culture — was created.

For the past few weeks, the media has descended on Mparntwe (Alice Springs) like vultures, blaming our youth, and alcohol, for the ongoing youth crime. While this may be true, and while we know the situation is serious, governments are yet again meeting to “find a solution”, using the same short-sighted political strategies of the past that offer little hope for real change. 

We see the children learning, not only literacy and numeracy but also about their culture, learning on country, says Arrernte leader Edmond Doolan (Image: Supplied/Children’s Ground)

There are multiple factors that contribute to the despair many are feeling in Alice Springs. It is critical to understand the complex history and reality to enable a solution.

I spent my life in institutions, having to make life-and-death decisions without understanding why, left to my own devices to survive. I watch our young people today face the same risks, the same threats, the same forces working against them, denying them love, care, inclusion, belonging and safety.

The harsh reality is that our young people see no future for themselves. They are just the next wave. Their parents felt the same. We have deep generational trauma, and day to day our families live under persistent stress, fear and hardship.

The recent media storm highlights a contest of space. There is no room to be an Aboriginal person. We are only accepted if we assimilate. If we step off the line drawn for us to follow, then we continue to be punished. Today repeats our experience of yesteryear; we have been displaced, we have been under surveillance our whole lives, denied financial, social and cultural inclusion.

Our children are growing up in an environment neglected and fragmented by the lack of real commitment and attention by state and federal governments. Racism and human rights violations are sadly the norm. Substandard everything — from housing, to education, to employment opportunities and basic infrastructure — is accepted with complacency. Rather than interrogate a failed system, we interrogate our young people and prosecute them for acting out against a system that violates them.

Fifteen years ago, we realised that if we were to shift from a state of trauma, survival and resistance to empowerment and life, we needed to exercise our agency. We realised that waiting for the government was only going to see another generation die in front of our eyes. So we began an audacious strategy, based on evidence, knowledge and practice, and led by our people. In response to the failed systems damaging our children and young people, we turned to the strength of our First Nations systems.

The result was a 25-year strategy to achieve long-term change and a First Nations solution: Children’s Ground, designed from our experiences and knowledge. We are strengthening our whole communities and reforming learning so that our children can succeed in all walks of life while holding the strength in their identity. We intend to stem the flow of our children into jails, welfare and out-of-home care, and are creating jobs and economic opportunities for families who have been chronically and intergenerationally unemployed.

We are empowering our families in their health and well-being, reviving our cultural identity, laws and practices, and strengthening our languages while combining this with the power of Western skills and knowledge. We are creating a foundation that will allow our children to exercise their brilliance, rather than lower their voices in fear. Watching them grow in confidence, we are seeing hope in our families as they find their voice and are given the space to lead, make decisions and enjoy the freedom to engage their cultural expertise in employment.

At Children’s Ground our children are being taught in contexts and languages they understand. We want to walk alongside them for the next 25 years, ensuring that the forces of oppression do not undermine them. The next generation of young people must have a sense of future, hope, opportunity and freedom — and they must understand their responsibilities while showing respect and experiencing respect, something fundamental in our culture.

Children’s Ground is about building this foundation through the governance systems of our people. This foundation must be built within family and community and through our culture. This foundation will allow our children and young people to find strength in their identity, confidence in their voice, and skills and pathways for their future. It’s how they enjoy agency and control over their lives.

We have a brilliant system of knowledge that we are placing at the centre of all that we do, while complimenting and emboldening this with critical Western and global knowledge.

I invite the prime minister to sit down with me, our Elders, our families — the people most affected by government policies. Our community leaders are the people with the solutions, whose voices are the most important.

We do not see the future of our young people as dodging bullets, paddy wagons and prisons. We see their future as young people celebrating their inherent talent in an environment of possibility, freedom and justice.

We need the support of the people of Australia.

Come and walk with us at Children’s Ground.

Children’s Ground has been recording the final tracks for our five new Arrernte songs: ‘Merne Mwerre’, ‘Eight Skin Names’, ‘Aherre Atere’, ‘Alkere’ and ‘Werte’ (Image: Supplied/Children’s Ground)

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