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Indigenous voices are heard in Redfern, and a beloved community sporting hub is saved

ABC Grandstand logoABC Grandstand 1 day ago By Tracey Holmes for ABC Sport and The Ticket
Gym manager Dean Widders spoke to the people protesting against the NCIE's closure. (Supplied) © Provided by ABC Grandstand Gym manager Dean Widders spoke to the people protesting against the NCIE's closure. (Supplied)

The impact of what a national Indigenous Voice to Parliament might achieve has had a real-life example in Sydney's Redfern this week.

There were tears, cheers, relief and cautious celebration on Friday when the immediate closure of the National Centre 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 their jobs, sports facilities and cultural programs would be forced to close within in a week.

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

"Here is the bottom line," Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told them.

"I want to see the tenants who work out of NCIE given permanency … I want to see that this place stays open, and most importantly that people keep their jobs.

"I am saying very clearly to the people making decisions about this place, you've got a week to sort it out.

"It can't be beyond people to sit down and negotiate in good faith because this joint is important.

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

"To the parties involved, get your act together and sort this out."

Regular users of NCIE's gym and sporting 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 provides crucial after school care, job-ready programs, health and cultural classes, as well as learn to swim programs for toddlers through to elders.

Out of the shadow of the 2004 Redfern Riots, with contested facts around a bicycle 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, making a positive contribution to closing the gap and improving community relations. Crime rates and arrests trended downwards while education and confidence levels trended up.

The former Redfern Public School was bought by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) but the land the centre is built on was divested to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) in June, with the ILSC retaining the licence for the operation of the centre.

Tenants, staff and community leaders were shocked to be told on Monday the centre would remain operational for one more week with all staff offered redundancies and one-off payments to sign 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 at the facility being permanently locked. 

"This place is for our local 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 closure of the school. And I remember when the proposal was … the ILSC will buy it and it will forever be for the community.

"That's what the promise was and that's the promise we expect to be kept. This place has to be for the kids … but it's not just the kids, it's for the whole community."

When it comes to measuring success, the community's measurement stick is at odds with a traditional business model focused on profit.

NCIE costs money, and it doesn't make money. It currently has a $2 million deficit, which for now will be covered.

Strategic projects advisor Indu Balachandran worked at NCIE for five years.

Part of her job was measuring the social impact of the organisation.

"The question we need to ask ourselves today is … what do we need to do to make this place work for community wellbeing?" Ms Balachandran said. 

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

"[That was] in terms of health, wellbeing, culture, gathering … we had a technology program, we had job-ready … we were building a really beautiful organisation," she said. 

"After I left the SROI was done again, from with an Aboriginal framework. The SROI was actually three times more [than originally reported]."

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 that – cultural, social, educational, health, gathering value, people value, the value of having a place for people to come together in Redfern — is that worth $2 million? That's the question to ask."

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

"My grandson's 13, he lives with me, he's been with me since he was two," Ms Jarratt told The Ticket.

"He attends after school care here for cultural programs, mentoring, they get fed, they do sporting activities and I'd be lost without it.

"I work two jobs … this is my big concern. They've got nowhere else to go, this is like extended family, they look after Junior. If I'm working late they pick him up and hold him for me until I can get home.

"They go above and beyond to make sure the kids are looked after."

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 of being an Olympic swimmer and what he calls a zoo doctor, "because my dad is worried all the animals are dying".

For Kyeh and hundreds of other kids, NCIE provides regular community connection 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 boy," he said.

"My mother and father, my grandfather, my nan, we're all a big part of the community around here … it's been such a great turnout … to see everyone supporting us and to see how much this facility means to Redfern."

One fitness centre employee is a refugee from the Middle East. He gave his full name to the ABC but in order to protect him, we'll call him Farhad.

He describes NCIE as his home, his family having worked there for five years since being released from immigration detention.

"NCIE is like a house for me – not a second house, first house because I have spent more time at NCIE than my own place," he said.

"I'm a refugee from a different country but I don't feel that, I feel I belong to this community … they are really warm with 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 it, how bad it [closure] can be for the community.

"Straight away after we got the news people got teary and started crying. I was like a lost person. I had a flashback to what happened to me, I lost everything when I had to leave my country. It's definitely going to have bad consequences for the community."

For now, that imminent threat has been averted.

Community elder Aunty Margaret Campbell understands the sense of loss Farhad and others were feeling.

"It's almost like there's another terra nullius," she told The Ticket, pointing to the failure of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to reach an agreement on the long-term future of NCIE.

"We need to work out how we can work together and develop a program and governance to make it [NCIE] viable.

"We feel stuffed up by the whole process, so our confidence has been shattered by them … but I am also excited in one way because it's taken this community to make them realise that all of these voices are there."

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

While Monday's closure is temporarily off the table, there are those in the community who know it will take more than words to guarantee the long-term future of their cultural hub.

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

[newsletter]

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