by Lauren Mackenzie
Each year, western Sydney comes alive when a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, including teachers, academics, public servants and community workers, meet at Parramatta Town Hall to discuss the big issues facing Indigenous people in today’s society. They are issues that are often overlooked by the media.
The event, called ‘Building Bridges’, was launched in 1998 by the community activist group Reconciliation for Western Sydney, and aims to recognise the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and encourage healthy discussion.
Speakers at this year’s event included Donna Meehan, a member of the stolen generation, Dr Rosalind Kidd, of Griffith University, and UNSW lecturer and health specialist Megan Williams.
The three-hour sessions, held during August, brought to light serious events such as stolen wages and injustice in Queensland and the heavily debated Northern Territory Intervention.
Lyn Leerson, a member of Reconciliation for Western Sydney, says this year’s event was particularly focused on current important issues through a dynamic conversation with community members.
“We asked them to note which particular issues struck them most keenly and what didn’t they know previously. The Northern Territory Intervention comes up fairly consistently,” she says. Another was the issue of stolen wages.
Rosalind Kidd spoke about her quest to track down $500 million of missing money owed to Aboriginal workers in Queensland, misappropriated by police and government officials.
As Ms Leerson says, “Most people now know something about the stolen generations but they aren’t aware that governments and employers held in trust the wages of Aboriginal workers, and that those people and their descendents are still trying to get the Government to hand over some of that money.”
Steven Ross, Parramatta Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Project Officer, says Building Bridges is an effective way to combat common misconceptions about Indigenous people.
“It is invaluable for local communities to discuss issues in a safe environment and to build understanding of our common histories and shared futures,” he says. “We need more locally driven projects like Building Bridges and resources for local groups to hold similar events, highlighting positive role models in Indigenous community and the reconciliation movement.”
Despite the efforts and achievements of community groups in building awareness of Indigenous affairs, there is still a lot yet to be done to improve living standards for Indigenous people.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Indigenous Australians born in the period 1996-2001 are estimated to have a life expectancy of 59.4 years for males, and 64.8 years for females, approximately 16 to17 years less than the overall Australian population born over the same period.
Despite some improvement in employment over recent years, The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the current Indigenous unemployment rate stands at 16 percent, over three times the non-Indigenous rate.
Lyn Leerson believes the Government and media have a lot to answer for when it comes to covering Indigenous affairs. “I think the reality is that the media doesn’t particularly want to focus on it. We are talking about 2.5 per cent of the population who are affected by past government policies and it’s not a big deal as far as they’re concerned; it’s really only programs like ours that bring such issues to the forefront,” she says.
However, she says the Building Bridges campaign is having a positive effect.
While the sessions largely attract an older audience, Lyn says more young people are being encouraged to get involved through higher education and community attention.
“There are younger people coming from Oakhill College (in the Hills district), for instance. I go there every October and take one or more elders to talk to Year 10 students. The teachers are keen to get the kids on board. We are slowly bringing the age down,” she says.
Mr Ross and Ms Leerson both agree that better community awareness and greater understanding of key issues through programs such as Building Bridges are critical in moving towards a better future and promoting the good work of Indigenous peoples.