When programs are designed and delivered by the communities involved, measures of wellbeing improve, according to the experiences of community members from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia and researchers.
Rosalind Beadle, Olive Nyalypingka Lawson and Bill Genat write:
Leading up to the referendum, those in the Yes camp are referring to how the Voice will help to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, with benefits for their health and wellbeing. But what does this mean in practice?
Here is an example of a program in a very remote community that demonstrates the implications of Aboriginal input into program design and delivery.
In the community of Warburton (Ngaanyatjarra Lands, Western Australia), between 2008 and 2015 a group of grandmothers responded to low school attendance by providing school breakfast for the children.
While school breakfast programs aren’t unusual in this context, they are typically instigated and delivered by outsiders, such as teachers, youth workers, and through food donation programs.
However, this program was initiated, designed, delivered and governed by local Ngaanyatjarra women.
Factors for success
What were the factors that enabled their entrepreneurship to flourish in this location, which is typically characterised by very low employment?
First, local initiation meant that the community were responding to an issue that was of immediate concern to them, not one that had been identified by outsiders. Initial meetings about the “problem” were instigated and organised by community members, and done at a time, place, and in a way that suited the participants. This ensured effective local decision making and meaningful context-relevant outcomes.
Second, the grandmothers who designed the program did so in a way that was grounded in their tacit knowledge of family relationships and community life. Their deep understanding of the context ensured the program reflected the needs of the school children and broader community. Thus, they achieved the desired outcome: for kids to come to breakfast at school.
As well as ensuring that the breakfast program suited the school children, the women designed their work and worker role in a way that met their needs.
For example, in acknowledgement of the many responsibilities to family and community that prevent them from attending work every day, the grandmothers established a “pool” of workers by recruiting additional women from their families to work.
At any one time there was a “pool” of 8 to 12 women, with nearly 50 participating over the duration of the activities. As one of the “breakfast ladies” explains, this ensured breakfast was able to run every day:
More and more young girls keep coming to work. They want to have a job so they keep working. It’s good to have lots of women working ‘cause then if one is you know sick, or needs to stay home and look after her tjitji (kids), she can tell one other lady to come to work.”
Third, program delivery controlled by local women resulted in immediate buy-in from the community.
As well as the women knowing how to effectively spread the word about the program, the children now saw familiar faces at school in the mornings who spoke their language, who knew how to manage the children and maintain order, and who understood the cultural and social intricacies of their lives beyond school.
School breakfast emerged at a time the school employed a predominantly imported non-Indigenous workforce. One of the local grandmothers explained how the presence of the local grandmothers offered a sense of familiarity and safety which attracted the kids to come to school and stay in class:
Now the kids they know, ‘Oh ladies there’, and…they get up quick and they go to school. If their mummies work as breakfast ladies they go to school with them…kids close by see those ladies going to school so they know that breakfast will be ready soon and they follow them.”
Fourth, within their self-governed program, the women experienced personal agency: the autonomy to direct, manage and make decisions regarding their work.
Under the leadership of a senior Ngaanyatjarra woman they developed and evolved their work in a way that was meaningful and reflected existing cultural leadership practices. This form of governance contrasts with many remote agency structures whereby outsiders commonly determine decision-making processes and workers are often answerable to a non-local “boss”.
Grounded in self-directedness, the program quickly became characterised by high engagement. As described by one breakfast lady, their involvement enhanced their confidence, autonomy, pride and self-esteem (as well as boosting financial security for them and their families):
It’s important to work so I can have more money for the kids, you know, like [putting] $20, $30 in their bank [kitties]. When we work it feels walykumunu (good) and I can save my money for weekends. The kids say, ‘My mum’s got money, she’s been working and saving it for the weekend’.”
Wider benefits for wellbeing
The program’s success led to the women initiating a broad suite of additional activities that addressed other issues of wellbeing: meals for the elderly, a teenage girls’ support program, developing relevant literacy resources for school children, and catering for school and community events.
This culminated in a robust locally-initiated community enterprise whereby the women – many of whom had previously not been engaged in any work – given both the opportunity and necessary autonomy, fashioned a working role that meshed with the context of their lives. This increased personal and collective agency constitutes empowerment.
The difference between this and many other programs delivered in remote communities is that the women were able to determine the program and the scope of their role as workers on their own terms.
They were able to establish a pathway to better their wellbeing, and that of their family members, in ways that were meaningful to them and made a positive difference to themselves and their families:
I like the breakfast program because it keeps me from staying home and keeps me busy. It makes life easier for me and my children. My children are happy, they see me go to work. Kids see us, what we do and learn to do the right thing.”
In contrast to the women’s experience, programs and work opportunities for remote Aboriginal communities typically are determined by outsiders, such as policy makers and politicians in Canberra who are geographically and culturally far removed from their intended program recipients.
Ironically, the breakfast program struggled to continue in the comprehensive way described here due to a major shift in Australian Government work engagement policy in 2015, when the introduction of CDP (the Community Development Program) minimised opportunity for local control and creativity in the design of work activities.
There is ample evidence to show that such outsider “experts” rarely understand, empathise and incorporate the social realities of Indigenous people into programs and hence do not understand the relevant and required pathways to wellbeing. The consequent ill-fit of these programs and policies for Aboriginal people is reflected in the abysmal statistics in the annual Closing the Gap reports.
The Voice is proposed to be a representative group of Indigenous people who will have a deep understanding of Aboriginal social and cultural contexts and worldviews, and the implications this has for program delivery.
Members of the Voice will offer independent advice based on lived experience that will ensure policies and programs deliver a much better fit for Indigenous people; an area of policy and service delivery failure that successive governments – both Labor and Liberal – have acknowledged.
The Ngaanyatjarra women’s experience demonstrates how when programs are designed and delivered by the communities involved, measures of wellbeing improve.
Dr Rosalind Beadle: Following a five-year period of work and research in Warburton, Western Australia, in 2019 Rosalind published a PhD thesis based on the worker experiences and perspectives of a group of Ngaanyatjarra women. The findings are used to provide policy recommendations for meaningful work engagement in remote Aboriginal communities, findings which Rosalind is currently applying to her research and work in Galiwin’ku (Northern Territory). Her passion lies in taking a developmental approach to supporting community initiated and guided projects, participating in community-led and participatory action research, developmental evaluation and working closely with local people to develop culturally safe research practices. Rosalind has an adjunct academic status with the College of Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University.
Olive Nyalypingka Lawson is a senior Ngaanyatjarra woman who lives in Warburton, Western Australia. She was one of the first grandmothers involved in initiating and establishing the Warburton Breakfast Program referred to in this article. Olive was central to the design of the research that unfolded to inform the PhD by Rosalind – ‘Remote Aboriginal women and meaningful work: key dimensions for Ngaanyatjarra women’ – that told the story of the Warburton Breakfast Minyma. She has held a number of senior positions in her community, including as a Director on the Board of the NPY Women’s Council.
Dr Bill Genat is a Senior Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and works in community health research at the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO). He has conducted evaluation research at VACCHO over the past decade on the systematic collection of population health data in ACCOs, nutrition, smoking cessation, maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health and harm reduction programs. He is a joint author of Aboriginal Healthworkers: Primary Health Care at the Margins, UWA Press: Perth, WA, 2006 and Action Research in Health, Pearson Education, N.J. 2004.
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