CEO Blog: National Reconciliation Week

In recognition of the AFL Indigenous Round and National Reconciliation Week, Ladder CEO Elisabeth Tuckey reflects on the unacceptably high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people experiencing homelessness.

On any given night one in 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians experience homelessness and four in 10 are under the age of 18. In total we’re talking about close to 27,000 Australians.

Compare that rate of one in 20 with the rate for non-Indigenous Australians, which is one in 284, and you begin to understand the enormity of the challenge facing our First Peoples and the services that support them.

According to the 2015 report by the Australian Institute for Health and Wellbeing: Indigenous people experiencing homelessness were more likely to be female, and tended to be younger than non-Indigenous people experiencing homelessness. In 2011, 51% of Indigenous homeless people were female, compared with 42% of non-Indigenous homeless people. About four in 10 (42%) of the Indigenous homeless population were aged 18 or under, compared with 23% of non-Indigenous homeless people.

I have to admit I’m not a big fan of quoting statistics as I don’t believe they tell the raw and powerful stories of the faces and lives behind those numbers. However, what statistics like those above do show us is the depth of the problem we face.

This week is National Reconciliation Week – a time when we celebrate and build on the respectful relationships shared by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other people; a time when we remember the incredible referendum decision in 1967 and the landmark Mabo court case in 1992.

But for the thousands of proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians there are still major challenges to overcome and seemingly endless obstacles put in their way and they could be forgiven for thinking there is little to celebrate.

I do not have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island background, so I cannot walk a mile in their shoes as the saying goes. I don’t know what it is like to be marginalised in a country that was mine long before others came and called it theirs. In fact, I know that the land my ancestors farmed in northern New South Wales was likely to have been gifted to them as part of the deal for colonial “settlers” and convicts, from whom I descend. And I am not part of a group that is always overrepresented in those damn statistics.

I have been very lucky, though, to have worked closely with some incredible young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the last few years and privileged to have sat and listened as they told me stories of racism, exclusion and social isolation, as well as stories of culture, family and strength.

It is time community and government services acknowledge the impact colonisation has had, and continues to have, on the health and wellbeing of our First Peoples. What is needed is an inclusive approach to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that recognises their cultural strengths such as kinship and identity and has a focus on resilience rather than negativity.

What I have seen with the Foyer approach to supporting young people experiencing homelessness is the high number of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the programs across the country.

I believe the reason why Foyers resonate so strongly with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is that Foyers have come from the philosophy of ‘advantaged thinking’. This approach builds on concepts embedded in positive psychology and acts to improve the lives of vulnerable populations, and society more broadly.

‘Advantaged thinking’ helps by encouraging young people to focus on their, assets, talents, resources, abilities and relationships, building their confidence and self-efficacy. It also underlines the importance of language and our own internal thought processes in creating the identities we have and how we might choose to change them.

‘Advantaged thinking’ helps us to stop identifying vulnerable groups by their disadvantage and to begin using concepts and language which concentrate on current skills and talents, what success looks like and what resources and personnel they have to get there.

In other words, Foyers allow the cultural strengths of an individual to blossom and for there to be a focus on spirit and resilience, rather than limitations and despair. Young people in Foyers are not bound by the past, but freed by the possibilities of the future.

Last weekend I watched and listened to several AFL games played across the Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round. We were treated to some brilliant moments by players from multiple cultures and backgrounds. But what bothered me was the way commentators spoke about Indigenous culture as something that belonged to those people over there – as if it is somehow removed from the history of non-Indigenous Australians and is something seen as a sub culture of the mainstream.

It’s important those terrible statistics are no longer the headline story. But until the day commentators refer to Indigenous culture as ours and not theirs, those statistics are unlikely to move.