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report from the 1999 Indigenous Young People's Forum

From: Friends of Tranby Newsletter, No 32 1999

Nothing inspires hope in an older generation more than the younger generation stepping forward to take up its responsibilities

Tranby College was recently the venue for the Indigenous Young People's Forum involving 60 youth from all over Australia.

Bill Jonas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, makes no claim to being young, but he knows the voices he should listen to.

"If we are going to be dealing with issues affecting youth then I want to hear what young people are going to say, because when it comes to living as a young person, young people are the experts on it," he said. "That doesn't mean they know everything about being young or everything about youth issues. It would be unfair of me to expect that they did."

"They bring to bear knowledge and a particular perspective and I want to share that. That's the reason we have this conference."

Leadership, identity and reconciliation were the chosen topics for discussion.

"They have been wonderful on all of these," he said.

There were also other things they wanted to talk about but were unable to for a variety of reasons.

The reports that came back from the workshops showed they had carefully considered the issues they were talking about, from subjects like the United Nations, to Aborigines and the internet.. "in ways which meant a lot to them and in ways which we can learn from," Bill said.

"The way in which they have approached the issues, the way in which they have articulated things, the solutions that they come up with – and their absolute understanding across a whole range of issues – gives me great hope for the future."

Identity was the big issue talked about all the time, Bill said.

"These are young people who are at the stage of identifying problems and articulating the problems and from that, even tentatively starting to put forward solutions."

"Given that they are so young in doing that I am fairly confident that it is leading towards a brighter future. There have been achievements in the past. You have to look back every so often, because if you just look into the future it does look bleak. But if you look back there have been achievements. I think that this sort of process will help with those achievements," he said.

Leoni Williamson, a student of Aboriginal studies at Newcastle University, had encouraging things to say about such forums – and suggestions for improving them

She said the most important thing was "meeting other people, not so much in the forum as outside, and realising that there were people concerned about the same issues.

"At university we tried to form a students association. There are 280 Indigenous students and we got 25 to be members. A lot of the time it is disheartening to think that no one out there cares about fighting for their rights as an Indigenous person, especially young ones."

"It is very isolating to say ‘this is wrong, we should be doing this, and doing this,' trying to get organised and everybody looks at you and sits and waits for other people to do it for them," Leoni said.

"It's so good to see people here taking their own initiative, there are so many issues that a lot of people are concerned about and know a lot about."

"One of the problems was that a lot of people had good things to say but didn't have much of a chance to voice it in some of the forums," Leoni said.

A lot of time was spent listening to people and "talking time got cut into. I think it would be important next time to have a lot more emphasis on allowing the floor open to delegates."

Leoni said she did not particularly see herself as a leader, because when you have leaders you have followers, but if people like those at the conference could all work together, "then really good things could happen".

"The sad thing is that there are not enough forums of this type for young people and students which means they are overlooked."

"There is also a tendency for the same people to go to conferences and receive the information, depriving others of the opportunity," Leoni said.

"There needs to be a lot more conferences. They need to be annually and they need to be held in different locations. Just to hold one conference for two days, supposedly for the Social Justice Commission, is a bit like tokenism, it should be an on-going process."

"You can't get a grasp of what is happening with the youth from just two days in one year. It is something you need to follow up."

She compared the facilities at Tranby, which she was visiting for the first time, with those at the university – and found the university came off a poor second best.

"The university was to have had new facilities for Indigenous students built two years ago but they were still waiting," she said.

"It's really good to see something like this; the book shop, the resources."

"They don't have things like this going on at Newcastle University and it's really sad "

She compared the facilities at university with the vastly superior ones at a local DEP she visited recently. There were new computers and computer room and training facilities. "We have 280 Indigenous students, yet we can't even get a decent computer. Our resource library is not up to scratch There is nothing being done for students."

"Yet you have a DEP, the work for the dole program, which is basically about creating a black labour market. These people do training courses for retail, secretarial work, mowing lawns, working in a bagging shed."

"They have all this money but you go to university to try and get your degree and there is nothing there."

"Three of us came to this conference and what we had to do was ring up and nominate ourselves, go to the university students association for our funding and travel. We basically had to do it ourselves, which I think is wrong. The university should automatically be sending students on these courses," Leoni said.

John Harvey, works at Fregon, a community some 500km south west of Alice Springs, on a petrol sniffing project.

This project is trying a new approach to the widespread problem of petrol sniffing, by concentrating on one community, rather than dispersing scarce resources over a wide area.

"We are trying to have activities for young people and also set up at an out station, like a homeland, about 50km outside Fregon, at Walalkara, for drying out. It is a place where they can get right away from petrol and cleanse their body," John said.

They sniff petrol for many different reasons, like lack of recreational activities, worth-while employment or their financial situation.

John said a good thing about the forum was it was "young people here talking, rather than older people talking for younger people, which happens so easily. It is good that they have set it up that way, so young people can talk."

"There was a really good session about identity, different people talking about it. It is good to get these perspectives. In these kind of forums you can get people from heaps of different places and it's good for them to hear other stories. For me, that's one of the biggest things, hearing people's personal stories," John said.

"The reason why identity was such a big issue at the forum was because so many people have been removed from lands and taken from their families, they are growing up not necessarily on their homelands," he said.

"There is a really strong push within this group, and I think this group is reflective of young Indigenous people, in the sense that they want to find out more about a family. I know that myself, that need to know your roots."

John's mother is from Saibai Island, close to Papua New Guinea, and he grew up in Queensland. One ancestor was from Vanuatu and another, on his mother's side from Sri Lanka. His father's side of the family is English.

On the question of whether the voices raised at the forum will be heard, John was not sure.

"Indigenous people are always raising concerns and they are quite often not heard or not acted on. For indigenous young people it is even harder. I think the focus is more towards building up that momentum within the Indigenous community. You can put a lot of effort into knocking on government doors.

"That can consume so much of your time that you are external from the community. But if you go into the community and build up that momentum for change, then you can get it rather than try to change a big institution, although that's important too," John said.

For the future? "I think there should be more of these. It is important to have these on a regular basis. What we want to do in central Australia is have a youth council where we have young people from different communities talking about youth issues."

"It would be good for people in that youth council to come to these kinds of forums and meet people from cities and all different places and talk to them about what are the issues for them."

"They might find that there are a lot of the same issues for very different communities," John said.

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