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Indigenous voices are heard in Redfern and a beloved community sports center is saved

Written by Javed Iqbal

The impact of what a national Indigenous vote for Parliament could achieve has had a real-life example in Sydney’s Redfern this week.

There were tears, cheers, relief and cautious celebration on Friday as the immediate closure of the National Center for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) was averted.

Federal Ministers Linda Burney and Tanya Plibersek heard the voice of the people who had rallied for five days after being told on Monday that their jobs, sports facilities and cultural programs would be forced to close within a week.

Rugby league players, boxers and wrestlers joined local Indigenous children and staff at the centre, which has been a community magnet for 16 years, to hear the news.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told them.

“I want to see the tenants that work out of NCIE get permanency… I want to see this place stay open and most importantly people keep their jobs.

“I say very clearly to the people who make decisions about this place, you have a week to fix it.

“It cannot be beyond people to sit down and negotiate in good faith because this stage is important.

“Voices need to be heard on this, and the fact that you have so many people here, hundreds of people, is a very loud voice.

“To the parties involved, get your act together and fix this.”

A group of people gather around a stage inside a hall
Community members gather during a meeting about the future of the National Center of Indigenous Excellence.(AAP: James Gourley)

Regular users of NCIE’s gym and sports facilities include NRL players from the Rabbitohs, the Governor-General, members of the police and air force, but mostly members of the Indigenous community for whom NCIE has become a hub and cultural safe space.

NCIE also offers essential after school, job readiness programs, health and culture classes, as well as learn to swim programs for toddlers to seniors.

Out of the shadow of the 2004 Redfern riots, with disputed facts surrounding a bike and a police car that resulted in the death of teenager TJ Hickey, an idea was born to improve community relations with the NCIE’s sole purpose of creating long-term improvements in well-being” .

For 16 years, it has done just that, contributing positively to closing the gap and improving community relations. Crime rates and arrests went down, while education and confidence levels went up.

The former Redfern Public School was purchased by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC), but the land on which the center is built was disposed of to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) in June, with ILSC retaining the license to operate the centre.

A basketball sits in an empty hall with a native flag hanging in the background
The sports facilities at the National Center of Indigenous Excellence are used by a large cross-section of the community.(AAP: James Gourley)

Tenants, staff and community leaders were shocked to learn Monday that the center would remain operational for one more week, with all employees offered severance payments and lump sum payments for signing a non-disclosure agreement.

Their silence was not bought. They rallied instead and declared a sit-in at the site next Monday to prevent the gates of the facility from being permanently locked.

“This place is for our community,” local member and federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek told those gathered at Friday’s rally.

“I remember when it was a school I was against the closing of the school. And I remember when the proposal was … ILSC will buy it and it will be forever for the community.

“That’s what the promise was, and that’s the promise we expect to be kept. This place is going to be for the kids … but it’s not just the kids, it’s for the whole community.”

When it comes to measuring success, society’s yardstick is at odds with a traditional business model focused on profit.

Tanya Plibersek holds a microphone and speaks to a crowd
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek speaks at the National Center of Indigenous Excellence.(AAP: James Gourley)

NCIE costs money and it does not make money. It currently has a deficit of $2 million, which will be covered for now.

Strategic Projects Advisor Indu Balachandran worked at NCIE for five years.

Part of her job was to measure the organization’s social impact.

“The question we have to ask ourselves today is … what are we going to do to make this place work for the well-being of the community?” said Mrs. Balachandran.

The first social return on investment (SROI) report found for every dollar spent at NCIE created three times the value for community members, according to Balachandran.

“[That was] in terms of health, wellness, culture, assembly … we had a technology program, we were ready for the job … we built a really beautiful organization,” she said.

“After I left SROI, SROI was redone, starting with an Aboriginal framework. SROI was actually three times more [than originally reported].”

Cody Walker kneels as he poses for a photo with two children at the National Center of Indigenous Excellence.
The NRL’s Indigenous round was launched at the NCIE in May.(Facebook: NCIE)

Western business models do not value the same outcomes as the local indigenous community.

“When you ask Aboriginal people what mattered about this place and then valued it – culturally, socially, educationally, health, gathering value, people value, the value of having a place for people to meet in Redfern – it’s Worth $2 million? That’s the question you have to ask.”

Judy Jarratt is a local grandmother who relies on the after school center provided by community group RYC (Redfern Youth Connect).

“My grandson is 13, he lives with me, he’s been with me since he was two,” Jarratt told The Ticket.

“He goes to post-secondary school here for cultural programs, mentoring, they get food, they do sports activities and I would be lost without that.

“I work two jobs … that’s my big concern. They have nowhere else to go, it’s like an extended family, they look after Junior. If I work late, they pick him up and keep him for me until I can come home.

“They go above and beyond to make sure the kids are taken care of.”

Six-year-old Kyeh is a regular visitor to NCIE.

“I come here to play with my 10 cousins ​​and swim in the pool,” he said.

He has ambitions to be an Olympic swimmer and what he calls a zoo doctor “because my dad is worried about all the animals dying”.

Children hold a sign that says 'What does RYC mean to you?'  at the National Center for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern
Children show their support for Redfern Youth Connect.(ABC Sport: Tracey Holmes)

For Kyeh and hundreds of other children, NCIE provides regular community connections and sports activities.

Dean Widders, 22, is a trainer and gym manager.

“I’ve grown up in the Redfern community since I was a young lad,” he said.

“My mum and dad, my grandad, my nanny, we’re all a big part of the community around here … it’s been such a great turnout … to see everyone supporting us and seeing how much this facility means to Redfern .”

An employee in the fitness center is a refugee from the Middle East. He gave his full name to ABC, but to protect him we’ll call him Farhad.

He describes NCIE as his home, with his family working there for five years since he was released from immigration detention.

Anthony Albanese stands and talks to a crowd of people sitting.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke in Garma at the weekend.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“NCIE is like a house to me — not a second house, first house, because I’ve spent more time at NCIE than my own place,” he said.

“I am a refugee from another country, but I don’t feel that, I feel that I belong to this community … they are really warm to me, they really respect me a lot.

“Since Monday when we heard the news, I can see with my own eyes and I can feel how bad it is [closure] can be for the community.

“Immediately after we got the news, people got teary and started crying. I was like a lost person. I had a flashback of what happened to me, I lost everything when I had to leave my country. It will definitely get bad consequences for society.”

For now, the imminent threat has been averted.

A man holds a microphone while speaking to people gathered on an indoor basketball court.
Gym manager Dean Widders spoke to people protesting the NCIE’s closure.(Delivered)

The community’s oldest aunt Margaret Campbell understands the sense of loss Farhad and others felt.

“It’s almost like there’s another terra nullius,” she told The Ticket, pointing out that the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council failed to agree on the long-term future of the NCIE.

“We need to figure out how to work together and develop a program and governance to do that [NCIE] viable.

“We feel overwhelmed by the whole process, so our confidence has been shattered by them … but I’m also thrilled in one way because it’s taken this community to make them realize that all these voices are there. “

Her sentiments are echoed by others. There is a shared sense of frustration, the feeling that every time they build something, it gets ripped out from under them by others.

While Monday’s closure is temporarily off the table, there are those in the community who know more than words are needed to guarantee the long-term future of their cultural center.

They have been burned before, but now there is a glimmer of hope that the authorities are not just hearing their voices, but actually listening.

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Javed Iqbal

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