Committed to change … from left, Gus Fitzgerald, Melle West, Todd Fernando and Tara Liddy have been learning about leadership at the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.THERE are no street lights at Nanima reserve in western NSW. The school was closed five years ago and the buildings have been vandalised in the Aboriginal community that lies at the edge of Wellington, 360 kilometres north-west of Sydney.
The local land council is in administration and the progress association has stalled, to elders’ despair, while drug and alcohol abuse tear at Nanima’s heart.
Enter Melle West, 22, who grew up on the reserve and after three years studying social work at the University of NSW, moved back early last year with her baby son Alister.
”Because of the state of my community and my reserve, I feel I am obligated to step up and do something because everyone out there knows the issues. They know how to fix them. But they need someone to be a leader.”
Ms West is one of the 100 heirs of the Tent Embassy generation aged 18 to 25 from across the nation who have just returned to their communities after learning the fine points of such leadership at a week-long Redfern gathering held by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
They are among a fresh surge of bright young indigenous activists, largely equipping themselves with degrees, who are more likely to use the keyboard and the keypad rather than the street demonstration as they practise the two-century-old art of Aboriginal protest.
According to Gus Fitzgerald, 22, a Darwin arts-law student, they have come of age in a more peaceful era than their elders, when there was a cry from the streets of police brutality and secret violence was more rife in some indigenous communities.
Inspired by the work of his mother, journalist Ursula Raymond and his father, the late Tony Fitzgerald, who was the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, he wants to unite the country and end racial division.
He opposes the federal government’s Stronger Futures legislation passed last week, extending its Northern Territory intervention, because it selectively targets one race.
Todd Fernando, 23, a university-trained western Sydney sexual health worker who matriculated despite being homeless as a teenager, points out that half the nation’s indigenous people are young like him.
He passionately wants Aborigines to be recognised in the constitution as Australia’s first people because of the symbolic inclusion in the nation’s history.
The national director of GetUp!, Simon Sheikh, advised using the internet to build a mass movement of people supporting constitutional change. ”That’s the only way we’re ever going to win a referendum vote,” he said.
Tara Liddy, a Darwin arts law student of Aranda and Gurindtji descent, said that Kevin Rudd’s prime ministerial apology to the stolen generations was the first step in addressing past injustices. Constitutional recognition was the second.
Back at the grass roots, Ms West plans to work with Nanima elders to lobby for their deserted school to be handed to the community.
”You need to be proud of where you come from, no matter how many people say negative things about it,” she said.
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