Lessons from Bourke

My wife and I were lucky enough to travel through Bourke in western New South Wales on a trip through central Australia to visit our son’s family in Melbourne.

I have been involved with the Mowanjum Aboriginal community for over ten years as a member of the Boab Network, which grew out of All Saint’s Floreat Uniting Church. Through the network, we have become very familiar with the issues that confront Aboriginal people in the Mowanjum community and the nearby town of Derby.

Bourke has a similar demographic to Derby, but is unique in Australia because it is the town where the concept of Justice Reinvestment has been actively pursued for nearly a decade. The  concept is to invest heavily in community development preventative programs for young people and adults that reduce crime rates and other social problems, resulting in the lowering of  personal and government costs overall.

I had previously been in touch with Alistair Ferguson, who has been the main driver behind what has been happening in Bourke, so we arranged to stay for a day and meet Alistair. What an  inspiring encounter I found this to be!

Alistair is an Aboriginal man with family roots in several Aboriginal groups in western Queensland and New South Wales. Previously, he was working as a public servant in the courthouse in Bourke and in daily contact with police. Together, with one officer in particular, they became increasingly aware of a ‘revolving door’ of Aboriginal people in the justice system.

About ten years ago, Alistair ‘walked out’ to start a quest to find another way. He was unemployed without financial support for eight months before finding the first sponsor to help him work full-time to develop what became the Maranguka, meaning ‘caring for others’, Project. This was several years before linking up in 2013 with Sarah Hopkins, based in Sydney, and for the Maranguka Project to now be seen as linked with the Justice Reinvestment concept that Sarah had not long before then brought back to Australia from the United States.

I learned some key concepts by talking to Alistair.

Lessons from Burke for Derby to consider:

  1. Start from the grassroots and build-up from what people want and need. Don’t start from the top down (government and money).
  2. Never take ‘no’ for an answer.
  3. Monitor and analyse results.
  4. Deal with individual people (kids and adults) one on one. Consult and listen to what individuals and groups want – violence, antisocial behaviour and offending declines when needs are met.
  5. Find what ‘self-determination’ means – especially in relation to the role of men.
  6. Make it a project focusing on Aboriginal people, run by Aboriginal people.
  7. Be pro-active in both discovering and meeting needs, and in policing by pre-empting problems.

Alistair emphasised strongly that the Maranguka Project was a grassroots initiative that  preceded the link with the Justice Reinvestment concept. It has been shaped and driven by Aboriginal people. It is coming first from seeking to address local issues and needs through relationships between local people before the interaction with government and the related funding issues were tackled.

Thoughts on how to proceed in Derby

Alistair was quite clear that if we start from a ‘government and money’ mind-set, the project will not be as effective as starting from what local Aboriginal people need at a grassroots level. It seems to me, that Derby could benefit from having something like a Derby Tribal Council to establish a project like Maranguka to co-ordinate a way forward.

The Maranguka project has three working groups: Early Childhood, 8 to 18 year olds, and the Role of Men. It has forums in each of these working groups that are a crosssection of local leaders. There is also now a Government Care Group, with representatives from the Ministry of Health and Police and Justice Department, and also champions in Government.

The Boab Network is continuing to actively work with our Aboriginal partners in Mowanjum and Derby to help them ‘close the gap’ in ways that will work for them. Every place has unique  circumstances, but we are sharing lessons from Bourke for Derby to consider.

For more information, watch the ABC’s Four Corners episode, Backing Bourke here.

Read the impact assessment of the Mananguka Justice Reinvestment Project here.

The Uniting Church WA supports Social Reinvestment WA, a coalition of WA organisations working towards justice reinvestment in WA. Find out more at socialreinvestmentwa.org.au.

Ross Gobby

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