Archive for the ‘community’ category

lifestyles of the not so rich and famous

March 12, 2015

Yesterday, in supporting the forced closure of over 100 remote communities in Western Australia, the PM said this:

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”

#%$& !!

So I stayed up late and wrote him a letter. Maybe the staffer who reads it will think it’s too long and won’t get to the end; maybe they won’t like my stories. Deep down I’m not counting on any change of approach on the part of the PM, but in the face of deceit and oppression, we shouldn’t stay silent. (letter below)

DSC_0079

Dear Mr Abbott,

I am writing to you regarding the comments you made yesterday about remote communities. I was moved to write because it seems to me you just don’t understand.

There have been many responses to your comments – anger, derision, disbelief. I feel many of those too, but mostly I feel sad. Sad that Australia’s Prime Minister can have so little understanding of what being ‘on country’ means to so many Aboriginal people, sad that in the midst of criticism you congratulate yourself for taking your office to a remote place for one week, sad that this seems just another episode in a long line of policy decisions and statements which negatively target people in Australia who are already vulnerable.

I trained as a primary school teacher, and my first teaching position was in a remote community called Tjukurla, a community in the tali (sandhill) country in the far east of Western Australia, not far from the Northern Territory border. I taught there for a couple of years, and have returned numerous times, to visit again with people who so welcomed me when I ventured there as a young teacher. Tjukurla is one of a number of communities, including Warakurna, Mirlirrtjarra (Warburton Ranges) and many others, which are part of the Ngaanyatjarra lands. The Ngaanyatjarra lands include parts of the Gibson, Great Sandy and Great Victoria deserts and cover over 250 thousand square kilometres. It is striking country – dirt tracks stretching to wide horizons, ranges and desert oaks and rock-holes, stark blues and reds and golds.

And it is home to over 2000 people. Let’s repeat that word: ‘home’.

These are Mums and Dads, health workers, artists, school students, hunters, community leaders, custodians. These are people whose language is alive, when so many others have perished. These are people who have a long and enduring connection to their land, a connection which fosters identity, well-being and sustenance. As somewhat of an outsider, I don’t have the words, or the conceptual knowledge, to describe this connection properly, but there are many members of communities all over Australia who can and have, and continue to do so. If we pay attention, we might start to understand what this means, at least a bit.

Tjukurla and the other communities in the region where I lived were not without their challenges – intermittent power supplies; rough roads; a government education service usually staffed by inexperienced teaching graduates (as I was); health services not well enough equipped for the challenging circumstances in which they worked; lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. These and other challenges, many of which still persist, are ones that require complex and long-term policy responses. They also require listening to the people for whom these challenges are most real. The blunt instrument of removing people from their ancestral lands, and all the associated grief and disruption that will bring, is what I would consider the complete opposite.

As one journalist commented today, maybe your idea of ‘closing the gap’, is that Aboriginal people just become more like white people. While this is not said out loud, that is the implication and that is profoundly disturbing.

In February 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke these words on behalf of the Australian Parliament:

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.”

You were in the parliament that day, and I imagine, like most of us, you would have applauded those words. Let’s not make those same mistakes all over again.

Prime Minister, the criticism your comments received from around the country should serve to you a warning, that there is an enormous amount of listening to be done, especially to Aboriginal people and their plans and worries and hopes. Instead of backing the closing down of communities which are people’s homes, I would think that as the ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’, meaningful listening and a genuine attempt to understand would be the best place to start.

Yours sincerely

Cameron Tero
Belmont, etc

Imagination, affection and preservation

May 2, 2013

Well sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.

So said Wendell Berry’s grandfather after his trip across Kentucky into Tennessee; one of the few trips he took very far from where he lived. Berry’s recollections about his grandfather begin his 2012 Jefferson Lecture: “It all turns on affection”. The printed copy I have of his speech still loiters in the bottom of my work bag, and I read fragments of it over again when I have some spare minutes on the bus.

Berry still lives on his family property, as his ancestors before him have done. He tells stories of his grandfather, like when he would return from the market with nothing, having taken in the hard won tobacco crop, and been forced to sell at a price which left them “without a dime”. This was because of the way crop prices were controlled by a monopoly called the American Tobacco Company, which having eradicated market competitors could pay what it liked – an immense benefit for the profits of the corporation, and a source of pain for those who laboured to plough and grow and bring it to the market in the first place. He tells too of how his grandfather stuck on the land to repair and heal the damage he’d done when he ploughed a field on the lower part of a long slope and it was seriously eroded. Others may have left the damage behind, but his obligation of care for the land was deeply held.

In some senses Berry felt that in an age when urbanization and industrialization were taking hold, his grandfather was ‘the wrong kind of man’. Still, there is a great deal to learn from their ability to be stickers on the land, and their knowledge of and affection for it. From these stories emerge other questions about the opposite of affection, of exploitation, the role of agribusiness, the demise of small landholders, and the ramifications of a loss of intimacy with the land and its people.

In modern times we are largely all participants in this ‘absentee economy’ as Berry calls it; very often unconsciously. We may have comparatively little wealth, nor power, but we are more like the industrialist than the small landholder. This is so because we are largely removed or at least distant from the roots of much of what we consume. It is this distance, and a lack of imagination, that allows us not to see the suffering of a small landholder bankrupted at the mercy of the agricultural corporation. We may not see the small shifted to make way for the big, the vulnerable brushed away by the strong. We may not see the village downstream from the polluting factory. I do not see the seamstress who stitched my shirt, the boy harvesting my tea leaves, a long way from my home, and a long way from his. Or we may not even imagine the future, where the soil is degraded, the trees downed, the gullies eroded, the water cloudy.

Berry describes how the tobacco corporation, in the case of his family, exerted an oppression that was entirely economic. It wasn’t political in that it wasn’t personal or intentional; it was simply oppression because the corporation was following its ordained purpose of making a profit. And their family and those around them were the side effects.

Imagination is the idea on which much of this rests; it may even be what rescues us. By imagination Berry doesn’t mean make believe, or any suggestion of a lack of reality, but instead the idea of imagination is built around the sense of the root word – image – ‘to see’. Imagination, in its true sense, enables us to see what is real, even though it is not in front of us.

Imagination, real imagination, enables sympathy. Sympathy enables affection, and affection, Berry argues, is the key to a neighbourly and conserving economy.

He explains sustainability by two cycles – the cycle of nature and the cycle of culture. Nature being that of fertility and growth and the circle of life which sustains living things and the soil and the water. The cultural cycle is the passing of knowledge, between the young and the old. These things work in tandem to sustain our life on the earth. This speaks of a need for sustainable living that is based on connection, and in turn affection. Connection and affection is required in moral family and other relationships. And connection and affection are required for a sustaining and moral treatment of the land and landscape. Together, the passing of knowledge and the cycle of the natural world, are the means for survival and constant reinvigoration. Again, they are the keys to a neighbourly and conserving economy.

It is the imagination and affection concepts that stay with me – the idea that if we nurture that imagination, and that imagination turns to affection and preservation, an economy might grow which does actually ‘see’ – see the future, see the far away labourer, farmer, factory worker, and see them as a neighbour.

The whole text of the lecture can be found here:

http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture

CCF02052013_00000

1945: My mother (left), with her mother and young brother on their farm, north of Albany. That year they had to leave the farm and move to the city when my grandfather died.

What they really need

September 13, 2010

A Kenyan bloke I studied with was telling me about some women who had recently arrived from Somalia, and now lived in and around Yokine in the northern suburbs of Perth. A local council was keen to be involved with them, and some community workers got together to cook up some strategies to help these ladies who were still settling in to a new place, far away from home, and having had some dreadful experiences along the way.

They decided a walking group for the women would be good – it would help everyone keep healthy, and help them get to know the places that were around their community. And it would help people form new networks and relationships, with each other and hopefully others. Plans were made, funding sought, and brochures and posters done. Nobody came though. Even with a bigger promotional push, interest was very low.

A number of conversations later, the reasons became much clearer. These women were refugees – they had been walking all their lives. After years of trauma and travelling to escape violence, the last thing they needed or wanted was to walk some more.

Slogans and bumper stickers

August 6, 2010

Sick of ignorant slogans, bad policy and blatant lies by national leaders, a mate and I have written some slogans of our own in an attempt to add our voice to the current public discourse, if you can call it that, about asylum seekers and the Australian community.

I am appalled at our nation’s leaders inability to speak fairly and compassionately about refugees and displaced people. Australia has the resources and the responsibility to take a lead in helping some of the most vulnerable people in the world. As the third wealthiest country on the globe, the wealthiest in our region by a substantial margin, and as a country that has been continually strengthened by various waves of immigration, a welcome rather than a rejection is entirely reasonable.

The bumper stickers are now printed and ready to go, and welcomerefugees.org is up and running.

As well as a place to order bumper stickers, the website gives a valuable perspective about people who are refugees and the way we can respond as an Australian community. The fact sheets provided by GetUp or the Edmund Rice Centre for Social Justice are a good place to start in being more informed, and so are the stories on the SBS “How far we’ve come” website.

 

Sorry

May 28, 2010

It was Sorry Day on Wednesday – the day in Australia we remember the sorry business that was the forcible removal of Indigenous children over many generations. We had a festival here in Perth to mark the moment.

Despite its roots being in sadness, it was a wonderful day – beaut music, some storytelling and speeches by some Nyungar elders, a smoking ceremony, and lots of activities for school kids to join in on too. There was a fantastic turn out of schools, which was a real positive of the day – a young generation that is hearing lots of honest talk about some of Australia’s darker history, learning some Indigenous culture – both old and new, and sharing ideas about walking along together and healing hurts from the past. I was struck by the gentleness of many of the people who spoke, people who have felt much pain in the past, but who show an enormous capacity for forgiveness and wisdom.

I was reminded though, that for many Indigenous people in Australia, life continues to be a struggle for all sorts of reasons, and that the ongoing feeling of being shafted, of being treated second best, is still ever-present for many. There is still a long road ahead, and days like Wednesday can be an enormous force for good. These public occasions have their limits though. The everyday actions and words exchanged between us and our neighbours, and whether government policy can be genuinely fair, will determine how well we can walk along together as a society too.

A while ago, I visited a friend in Alice Springs who has a close up view of life in a number of Northern Territory communities, and what impacts the 2008 Federal Government ‘Intervention’ has had on the life of people it was designed to help – from where she sits and especially for many of the Indigenous ladies she knows and works with, it’s been negative.

Like a lot of knee-jerk, politically motivated major policy changes, it just alienated more people, peddled misinformation about the nature of many Indigenous people and did little to provide any help for the many deep rooted problems that these people face. There were lots of new blue signs though, on many of the roads leading in and out of town, detailing the perils of bringing in alcohol and pornography – pity most of the writing was so small you couldn’t read it from the car, and that many of the folks from the communities wouldn’t be able to read most of it anyway.

Long-term, patient projects that are based on listening and respect are sometimes hard to find, and don’t get talked about all that much anyway. A comforting thing is that there are many people, Indigenous and not, who do great work in communities to bring about positive change. If only they were given more support.

Still, Wednesday was one of those special days – a background of sadness, but an inkling of hope. Worth holding on to.

Part-time work

May 24, 2010

 

watching the waves

 

Recently I found a poem that my then eight year old daughter had written to me for Father’s Day a couple of years ago. Most of it was heart warming and predictable – “he tickles me, I love him, he fixes things.” I remember though, it was the last line that caught my attention the most – “my Dad works part-time and I love him”.

I know people who regularly work at least 60 hours a week, often on Saturdays and Sundays and only ever see their children on occasional days off or for a quick sleepy cuddle at night if they’re lucky.

They are not alone. According to Australian researcher Hugh Mackay, more than one fifth of Australian workers work more than 50 hours a week, and about a third work regularly on the weekend. Australia is second highest on a list of industrialised countries who’s citizens work consistently long hours.

I remember another piece of research, from the Australia Institute a few years ago, which interviewed children about family life and parent’s work hours. They seemed to understand that parents need some paid work, but also expressed a longing for more time together, rather than to be compensated with having money spent on them. The wonderings of a young bloke called Eddie, aged 12, said it best:

 He misses out on seeing us. He wants to see us heaps and heaps and to make up for it … he buys stuff and he can see you feel sad”

 A cycle of pressure to earn and spend, to provide bigger houses, more up to date gadgets and fancier holidays could well play a role in the sad end result. As wealth and income increase across a society, the ability of people to derive satisfaction from their economic gain is reduced – a bit like the way a $100 is worth much more to someone who only owns $100, rather than to someone who’s income is much higher. Therefore, those seeking satisfaction from material wealth need to accumulate more in order to be satisfied – feeding a cycle of acquisition as well as dissatisfaction. In a society such as ours where material acquisition is a major goal and pastime, this rings particularly true, and makes the need to find ways to scale back consumption more urgent.

Just this week, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released a study about the time children spend with their parents. This included research about time fathers spend alone with their children, and it showed that Australian fathers spend on average less than hour a day with their children, and often as little as half an hour. Even on the weekend, the time alone with a father was still fairly low – on average about an hour and half.

There are complications of course, like family structures and changing work demands. However, it is also true that many children are spending less and less time with their fathers, and in many cases they’re unhappy about it.

Not everyone can work part-time. Not everyone can share parenting and household duties. Not all children can have a dad at home. However, there is wisdom in a little girl’s observation that something good is going on when a dad chooses time with them over other pressing demands, and keeps on doing it.

Home and away

May 6, 2010

 

 

Last night I read a picture book by John Marsden and Matt Ottley – Home and Away. I suggest that you do too. Borrow one, find it at the library, or buy it and keep it. Read it to your kids if you think they can handle it.

It only takes about 15 minutes to read, but its story and images stayed with me much longer than that.