Mt Druitt Knows How to Say “No” Even to Ice

Uncle Barry Towney put it very simply. The ice epidemic, he said, is “tearing Aboriginal families apart.”

But the Aboriginal family is one of the most resilient institutions on earth, and Aboriginal grandmothers do not take threats to the well-being of their loved ones lying down. Aunty Jenny Ebsworth of the Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation was sick and tired of the harm that substance abuse is doing in families throughout the community, and she decided to do something about it.

Something positive. Something to bring the whole community together and give it a new strength and unity for the battle against ice. But also, at the same time, a day off from all the stress and strain ice brings. As Aunty Jenny put it, “I just felt, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get our families together, have a day out, get our minds off it all.” And so the idea of a family fun day at the Mt Druitt pool was born. Saturday 28 February was the day, and a very good day it was too.

Behind the scenes, a committee had been formed. About a dozen knowledgeable people had put their hands up at an open planning meeting held at Marrin Weejali, Blackett, on 12 February. Many of them made comments about the need for ongoing initiatives. They will shoulder much of the responsibility for making sure that the family fun day is only the beginning of the Mt Druitt initiative against ice and other substance abuse.

The family fun day launched the initiative in the most positive way. The 1,200 people who came through the ticket gates did not let the day’s serious purpose spoil their enjoyment of the entertainment, of dips in the pool, and of the sheer pleasure of taking time out with the family and coming together as a proud Aboriginal community with an ancient culture to sustain it.

But they didn’t forget the serious purpose either. Even in the queue for the sausage sizzle, people were heard talking about the ice epidemic and what the community can do about it. People know the problem’s real, and they are concerned.

The report that follows is divided into three parts. First we tell you about the family fun day (part 1). Then we allow the voices of people who were there to tell us more about the impact of the ice epidemic in the local area (part 2). Finally, we let those voices tell you their opinion about what the Aboriginal community can do to stop the ice epidemic.

Part 1: Family Fun at the Mt Druitt Pool

Imagine a swimming pool in attractive grassy grounds with lots of happy children taking a dip in either the main pool or the separate pool for juniors. The older people look on, socialize, contribute to the running of the event and listen to the speeches. Superb entertainment is provided by Radical Son and Sean Choolburra. There are information stalls representing a number of organizations that offer our community important services—for example, the Marrin Weejali Aboriginal Corporation, Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation, Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation, Aboriginal Employment Service, Aboriginal Medical Service, Close the Gap Aboriginal Health Program, Richmond PRA, Wentworth Community Housing, Western Sydney Community Forum and, of course, the host organization, the Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation. Koori Radio is there in the eye-catching black and orange van of the Gadigal Information Service Aboriginal Corporation. Everyone is in a good mood as they make the rounds of the stalls, picking up free information leaflets and meeting up with old friends.

Some of the happiest young people at any given time were the ones who had just performed to an enthusiastic audience and knew that they had done a good job. Nothing drew larger audiences than the sound of the didges, the clapsticks and the singing accompanying the amazing Doonooch Dance and Cultural Group, heirs to the proud legacy of the poet Bobby McLeod. Since last year, the male dance team has been joined by a bevy of young girls, with ages ranging from nearly nine to nearly fourteen. The whole team, male and female, danced with great skill and perfect control, while life shone in the happy smiles on the young faces. It was a stunning sight, with the bright red loincloths of the two men and the one young boy contrasting with their green leaf twigs, the girls’ black dresses, and the white face- and body-paint that everybody wore. At the end of each performance session, the leader, Andrew McLeod, invited the children in the audience to watch how one particular dance was done, and then join in. A good number of both boys and girls accepted the invitation. It was wonderful to see how quickly and enthusiastically they picked up the steps.

Another unforgettable sight were the children of the Mt Druitt Indigenous Choir, spick, span and deadly in their black and red tee-shirts, arranged in rows according to height and singing in Dharug, gently conducted by an elder who was sitting on the ground in front of them. The choir sang beautifully, to the accompaniment of a guitar and a keyboard. Before they started, their leader, Pastor David Armstrong, explained what the choir is all about—how they started up in 2010, have already given 150 performances, represent various tribes and are beginning to teach Camilaroy language as well as Dharug. He spoke about the choir’s commitment to creating “a better day” for local families, of the joy of family togetherness, and of the choir’s insistence that parents get involved with the choir along with their children. He made the point that although the choir has sung in places “from Cape York to Canberra,” its favourite place to sing is right here in Mount Druitt.

And then there was the most significant solo performance of the whole day. A young mother from our community bravely stood up in front of everyone and told the story of her own battle with ice. In a clear and audible voice, she spoke of the devastating impact of ice on her life with her son, for whom she suddenly had neither time nor money. She spoke of her relationship with a male partner who was taking ice and how she began to suffer from domestic violence because of the drug’s effects. Then she lost her son, when his father’s mother took him away; although she fought hard in court and got him back, her life went on being “slowly and painfully … taken away from me all because of one drug, ice.” The turning point came when she admitted that she was using and had her first experience of rehab. After that, at first it was a case of two steps forward, one step back: she used half-way through her time in rehab and was asked to leave. Slowly, slowly, she began to realize that “I needed to step up and be the mother I once was and be the woman I used to be before the drugs came into my life and ruined me.” When she went back into rehab she “knew that this time it was what I wanted to do.” And so she stood before our community at the swimming pool, proud holder of a certificate of successful completion of the rehab program, having learned “the skills I needed to be able to stay clean.” Her advice to anyone fighting addiction now is “Yes you can get the help and support you need to get clean; just know that there are support and help out there. You’ve just got to want it, and trust me, things will get better.”

Jeff McMullen, the renowned journalist, brought the messages of all the performances together in a ringing affirmation of the enduring vitality of Aboriginal culture and the Aboriginal community and family. With all those priceless assets, not to mention the blue sky thrown in for good measure, young Koori people already have everything they need for fulfilment and happiness. Aboriginal culture is stronger than ice, which is nothing but the latest “white man’s poison.” And the Mt Druitt Aboriginal community is the trailblazer, “showing Australia the way” as the whole country begins to mobilize to deal with the ice menace. “I am convinced,” Jeff told our reporter afterwards, “that the key to changing these white poisons that are inflicted on communities” is “the community voice” and “community action.” With their “community, family-based approach,” the people of Mt Druitt have obviously done the right thing to launch a strong campaign!

Part Two: What is This “White Poison” Doing to Our Community?

Many true stories were told during the day about how ice “tears families apart,” and the damage that it does to the next generation. Ice has many victims, but the ones highlighted by many grandparents were the young children who suddenly discover that their mother isn’t caring for them in the way she used to. Further down the track, the kids may have to go and live with Nan, but what does that extra responsibility mean for Nan? And what is it like to live in the same house as a family member who is taking ice? One interviewee spoke of the anger that people taking ice experience, of their crazy behaviour, their “acting out.” What kind of strain does that put on the other people in the family? How does it feel to be “verbally abused” by your own son when he’s on ice? How does it feel to watch him destroying his own life?

For Andrew McLeod, leader of the Doonooch Dance and Cultural Group, the matter was “emotional and personal.” He had brought the group up for the day from their home in Nowra, but he had grown up in Mt Druitt. The good part was “to be able to come back and share culture” in his old home town. This meant something—it wasn’t just an ordinary performance. But this visit there was something different in the catching-up. Some of the people he had grown up with didn’t look the same this time. He could see the damage ice was doing in the way they looked. And so, the day gave him mixed feelings. “If you come back to the community where you grew up and see how ice does affect people, it’s depressing. But it’s good to come here and give something back because I love Mt Druitt.”

Representatives of the different organizations that were present on the day offered another perspective. One spoke of the increased workload—for example, all the telephone calls from family members needing support, not knowing what to do when someone in the house was acting out and potentially violent because of ice. Extra work is harder to absorb when so many organizations have had their funding cut.

But the ice epidemic is harming the Aboriginal community in more insidious ways. Helen Edwards of the Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) explained how the immense effort that has gone into changing employers’ attitudes towards Indigenous people is being undermined because of ice. The problem is not just that people taking ice become ineligible for employment; some people with skills, experience and qualifications are able to seem highly employable at interview, but it does not take ice long to take away their jobs. The cycle is simple, and the same person can go through it over and over again: the first payday—ice—a couple of days away from work—the sack. It causes heartbreak to the parents watching helplessly.

What about the employer who has bent over backwards to give a chance to someone who has made a good impression but, unbeknownst to his new boss, is taking ice? The employee takes ice and does not show up for work; the employer becomes disillusioned not only with him, but also with the Aboriginal community and Aboriginal employment services. It is strategically important for valuable community organisations like AES to build relationships with open-minded, supportive employers so that these organizations can create opportunities for Aboriginal people through employment. This is made doubly hard when they are faced with the challenge of supporting people who have drug addictions.

One consequence of the ice epidemic that hurts especially deeply is the loss of hard-earned respect. As elders like Aunty Jenny know best of all, society is very good at labelling and stigmatizing people. “As Aboriginal people, we’ve been labelled and stigmatized all our lives,” she said. And now, in spite of all the positive change that visionary leaders such as Gary Foley worked so hard to bring about, a new generation is acquiring a new stigma. One of the things you have to get used to if your children are on ice is that they’re being talked about, labelled as “junkies,” stigmatized. It’s very painful.

Part Three: What Can Our Community Do to End the Poison?

One of the most impressive things about the strategy of the committee that planned the family fun day is that they weren’t going to impose an agenda for change on the community. As Sandra Kelty of Western Sydney Local Area Health explained, their plan was to sound community members out on the day, get their ideas, take the ideas back to the committee, think about them, and then set up some working parties to “develop initiatives” from the ideas.

And ideas had not been slow in coming. Some had been what we might call “institutional,” meaning that they would have to be delivered through institutions of some kind—but the community could still play a crucial role in making them happen. An example is education at the high-school level, which could be made much more effective if, for example, people whom Marrin Weejali has helped went and talked with school students about the impact of ice in their own lives. A video about what ice does to you would be a great educational resource, and it would also be “very empowering” (Sandra’s words) for members of the Aboriginal community to be involved in making it. Aboriginal people could help train police officers in Aboriginal issues, while lobbying for such training to have a larger place in the police curriculum. It would be good to have more Aboriginal community workers out there in our community. And there is the vision of an Aboriginal rehab somewhere in Western Sydney: a place where Aboriginal people would feel at home with staff who understand Aboriginal culture and the issues Aboriginal people face, and who know how to make Aboriginal residents feel cared for and supported.

Other people focused more on psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects. A theme that came up repeatedly was the importance of bringing the topic of ice and other substance abuse out into the open, instead of letting shame and stigma put up walls around it. Aunty Jenny made the point that breaking down the wall of silence is one way of helping the ice-users, who carry their stories around inside themselves, not wanting others to know. Hidden away inside, the stories become toxic. However, by reaching out to each other and ending the taboo, families are creating an environment in which it is OK to talk, to get the story off one’s chest, to open oneself up to more hopeful possibilities. Also, of course, once the community is discussing the problem, it can begin to work towards solutions.

One thing that could be done is ask why users use and sellers sell. We may be inclined to demonize drug sellers as people who make big bucks by destroying other people’s lives, but how do we know that economic pressures aren’t persuading some quite ordinary people to sell simply in order to keep their families afloat financially? And what if the person labelled as a “junkie” is using because of a feeling that it is too hard to face reality except when abusing a substance? These two questions, both arising from comments made by community members, point towards the need for deeper understanding to help shape our community response and make sure that it is well targeted. Again, open conversation is crucial.

Andrew McLeod and Helen Edwards both affirmed the importance of on-going discussion so that, as Helen put it, “our strategies will come from one another.” Both also expressed ideas for creating the environment in which good things can happen. Andrew put his emphasis on culture. Asked what role he saw for Aboriginal culture, he identified it as “the absolute solution to the problem.” People may turn away from culture, but it is still there, a resource for Aboriginal people to look at face-to-face, one that demands that they “confront it, acknowledge it, respect it.”

Helen reflected on the fact that ultimately the desire for change has to come from the ice-using individual. The family fun day might be just the space for some seemingly tiny event that helps to nudge the user towards the big change—simple, healthy things like “sitting under a tree, having a cry, talking with an Elder.” It was a “lovely day,” with “positive change” in the air. Perhaps during the coming weeks a “smile of recognition” or other “non-verbal connection” arising from the shared day at the pool will be that helpful nudge for someone. That was her suggestion, and it all made perfect sense.

Let’s give the closing words to Aunty Jenny. Reflecting a week later on the feedback she had heard about the day, she could say confidently that it had been a success in bringing people together and meeting a need for “happier, brighter days to give people a lift in their lives and celebrate who we are.” As she spoke of her own emotions, she sounded some of the key themes that came up over and over again on the day—the best antidotes, we might say, to the stigma and shame and the ice itself and everything that hinders Aboriginal people in Western Sydney from moving forward.

It had made her deeply happy to see “all those little Koori kids playing in the water,” to see “so many Aboriginal people in the pool enjoying themselves” at any given time. She had closed her eyes to listen to the splashing and the happy voices. In watching the Doonoch Group dancing, she had “felt proud.” “It gives you a feeling of pride,” she explained, “to know that there are still people continuing the Aboriginal culture, the spirituality, the stories.” She also had high praise for the Mt Druitt Indigenous Choir, which she described as “wonderful.” She was proud that so many young people had stepped forward to serve on the committee, and pleased that leadership was coming from these young community members—“our future leaders.” And, while acknowledging the roles of others, she was clear and firm about her own identity and loyalties: “I just love our Aboriginality, our culture, our people—that’s who I am.”

The way forward? “People are waiting for things to happen,” she said; they are already asking when the next event will be. The committee will continue to meet and plan initiatives, and there will be some focus on getting out the message that help and support are available to people struggling with ice and its impacts.

But perhaps more important than the specific initiatives is the spirit that drives them. “We will do whatever we can to do more things in more ways for this community,” said Aunty Jenny. And who is “we”? The Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation—that goes without saying—and all the organizations with which it partners. Unity in face of a big challenge.

P.S. Saying Our Thank-yous

We thank the following organizations that sponsored the day either with financial support or with contributions in kind:

Aboriginal Medical Service

Bidwill Community Church

Blacktown City Council

Department of Family and Community Services

Josephite Community Aid

Mission Australia

Partners in Recovery (Department of Health)

Red Cross

Relationships Australia

Richmond PRA

Ted Noffs Foundation

Wentworth Community Housing

Western Sydney Community Forum

And special thanks to Mary Kerr of the Western Sydney Community Forum for all the work she did behind the scenes to make the day successful


A Healing Centre in Western Sydney

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Western Sydney is the largest urban Aboriginal population in Australia and over time has been enduring numerous socio-economic issues and disadvantage, including poor education, low employment, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, high incarceration rates, a prevalence of domestic violence and child protection interventions. These issues are a direct result of the intergenerational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people due to past government policies that resulted in the stolen generations, and the loss of culture and identity. All this trauma has been suppressed and will only be resolved through a healing program to break the cycle of disadvantage, which the existing service system has not been able to effectively resolve. Breaking the cycle of disadvantage will have far reaching benefits for the Aboriginal community in Western Sydney and well as for the wider community in general.

Baabayn’s vison is to create a Healing Centre that will give Aboriginal people in the Western Sydney community a place to meet and reconnect with their cultural and spiritual identity. They can work on healing the intergenerational trauma, improve self-esteem and get on a positive path free from drugs, alcohol and the other issues of disadvantage synonymous with this community. It will provide support to individuals, families and carers and provide culturally appropriate counselling, mentoring, advisory work and cultural healers. The relevant service organisations will be able to come together to work as one.

It will also provide a unique connection between community Elders and young people (including parents) through various groups, talks and cultural events, which will pass on the cultural wisdom and knowledge.

The centre will help heal people’s spirits through cultural identity, and be a place where Aboriginal children can grow up strong and live in their culture.

The centre will be a unique, safe and culturally appropriate space where people feel they belong and can heal their spirit by participating in a wide range of Aboriginal cultural activities and events.

These events will re-educate the greater community about Aboriginal culture and spirit and will include:

· “yarn ups‟ and sharing stories around the campfire to learn about culture and lost knowledge

· cultural music, and film nights

· storytelling events

· language restoration

Lisa Charet, District Director Western Sydney, NSW Department of Family and Community Services says “The Baabayn women are an inspiring group of Aboriginal Elders who receive no funding, yet work tirelessly providing enormous support to younger members of the community, are fantastic role models and are actively building community resilience and healing. I have worked with the Baabayn women for many years and admire how their work encourages cultural participation of the Aboriginal community in Western Sydney”.

Ideally the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural and Healing Centre will be an environmentally friendly purpose built centre that will include a large space for cultural gatherings and smaller spaces for individual support and healing purposes. Important cultural features will include a large campfire space, tracks, photo library facilities, healing and bush tucker gardens and a nursery for the cultivation of traditional bush healing plants. The outside area will be a bush landscape providing a sense of connection to the land. A large welcoming kitchen and seating area will allow people to come for a cuppa and a chat. A number of smaller rooms will be used for a wide range of culturally appropriate services and a reflective healing room will be available for individuals and families to use when they are experiencing trauma in their life, such as loss of a family member known as “sorry business”. The centre will provide Aboriginal people with a place of their own, where people of all ages can gather and participate in cultural events, and seek support from Elders and services to heal.

StoryMotive supports Baabayn’s dream to create a Healing Centre that will give Aboriginal people in the Western Sydney community a place to meet and reconnect with their cultural and spiritual identity.