What is 'Community Development'? A personal reflection

I grew up in a town of about 150 people about 3 hours east from here, and I absolutely loved going to school. I lived on a farm, so going in to school everyday was exciting. I loved learning. I used to ask so many questions of my teachers. I was that kid bursting to answer every question, getting into every extension class and staying around during lunch to use the resources instead of playing outside. Back then, the town had a pretty even split population of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people. We all grew up alongside each other. Some of my earliest memories are of learning Noongar slang - shouting ‘Balay!’  to put people off as they kicked the footy-  telling scary stories about the mamari (a kind of bad spirit) and learning how to do a corroboree. We were all kids and it was straightforward: we were friends, and we were all going through the same thing.

As an adult visiting my hometown, it doesn’t ring of the same innocence and joy as it did when I was younger, or at least as it does in my memory. All the comings and goings of people and families over the years as well as many other factors has left the community fractured and in many ways, lifeless. I see this shift happening in many communities - and not just rural or remote ones. It’s something that is happening on even the smallest of scales. Our school communities, our friendship groups even - they are different places as adults. They are filled with complexity and things to navigate, politics and emotions. For many people, both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal, this becomes our reality.

My interest in community development has largely sprung from that. It’s been peaked over time by different events and experiences for sure - but I believe it is something that has always been within me. I am tormented by how we define ourselves as Australians. I often find it too difficult to see the ‘fair go’, the common sense, the grounded nature that I once did and that I know is there somewhere. It dismays me to know that in many cases, the relationships I enjoyed so much with my Aboriginal counterparts as a kid would now be riddled with an inability to communicate across barriers that, over time, have been inflicted upon us, often without our realisation or acknowledgement.

As a young person, how we come to identify as Australians in the future is incredibly important to me. I do what I do because I believe that all Australians are deeply and negatively impacted by the fractured relationship between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Australians, and that our freedom, happiness and success is bound up in that, unable to be fully realised.

When I was in Year 5, I sat in the front row of class between two Aboriginal boys. They didn’t like school, and weren’t the strongest at reading and writing. My teacher sat them near me so I could help them finish their work. Now, I have this real crippling sense of responsibility - it’s supposedly one of my greatest strengths. And every day I would help the two boys get their work done because I didn’t want to let anyone down - not the teacher, them, nor myself. It was a struggle. Sometimes just getting their names written at the top of their pages was a win. But I always sat patiently working with them, doing my work slowly so that we could all do it together. Over time, other kids in our row started doing the same until it got to the point where every day, not one of us would hand in our work until we had all finished. This story isn’t about being a ‘good samaritan’. To me, it encapsulates the very basis of reconciliation - of community development. Even back then as a 10 year old, I knew intrinsically that I wasn’t finished until my peers were finished. That I hadn’t learnt until they had learnt. That we all had to contribute our best before our class could be dismissed. We knew that our success was bound together by our shared use of the space and place we were in. And we knew all this without ever being told it - we knew it, because it is an unavoidable, inherent truth. 

Today I work alongside people from all walks of life and in many capacities, and every day I am reminded of the value we bring to each other’s lives. My vision is that every Australian comes to see this truth, so that our Australian identity may be healed and may truly flourish.