Spotlight On: Connecting with Community

28 April 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 28 April 2023.

For a few days in March, I was part of a group of Queenwood girls visiting the community in the Kempsey/South West Rocks area of NSW, a slice of country on the coast between Sydney and Brisbane. This is an area that experiences high rates of poverty, incarceration, unfinished and uninterrupted education, violence, hunger, and deep trauma. It is also an area with a high First Nations population, who have been both directly and indirectly affected by various government policies, the most notorious and visibly scarring being the Stolen Generations. In this highly disadvantaged and complex area, a connection has been formed between Queenwood and the local community. Through this, our group were able to visit and gain insight into both the terrible struggles and incredible triumphs of the region.

On our first morning in Kempsey, we visited Macleay Vocational College (MVC), which is a school for disadvantaged teenagers in the area who may not have coped with traditional education for a multitude of reasons, ranging from incarceration to teenage motherhood to misunderstood trauma. If you are not already familiar with the remarkable story of MVC, I recommend you watch this excellent episode of Australian Story. Queenwood has had a partnership with MVC over many years which has enriched both schools – as you can see in this ABC news story.

Class sizes in this school are very small, with the largest classes no more than twelve students. The Monday morning seemed very quiet to us, and the Principal explained that Mondays have the lowest attendance at MVC. Staff are often trying to chase up where students were over the weekend, and what might have happened to them in the two days where they weren’t coming to school. I think this highlighted a few things for us; the first being the reality of how hard life is for these kids, and the second being the structure and support provided by MVC.

The school catered to issues that we had not previously witnessed at close proximity, such as food poverty, which the school addresses through a system whereby students earn “coupons” for food when they attend classes (more lessons means more coupons) and are given food from a pantry on campus. The Principal explained that the College makes a point of hiring members of the local mob, to provide culturally-specific support and understanding to Indigenous students. The staff and the local community care deeply about the students and tirelessly to find solutions that would suit their complex situations and contexts.

Meanwhile, in the wider region, we could see this approach to solving deeply embedded issues reflected in the work of the community in nearby Bowraville. The local mob works carefully to integrate culture with community and action. We were impressed by the work on restoring local vegetation for both traditional and modern uses, which was shown to us through a visit to a local, Indigenous-run plant nursery. As well as learning about what the plants could do, it was beautiful to hear the story of a local cafe that had used some of the plants as ingredients and donated all Australia Day proceeds with the aim of supporting the crucial restoration and regeneration work.

The restorative work and regaining of knowledge are positive developments but they are needed as a result of the interruption by White European settlers of the traditional education and natural resources of the area. The remarkable (and remarkably funny) stories of an Elder named Uncle Martin, who describes himself as someone “of the saltwater and the freshwater peoples” were delivered with a lightness of spirit and depth of knowledge which were tinged with sadness when he admitted that he did not know all the traditional properties of the plants due to the suppression of Australian wildlife and Indigenous culture.

After the trip, we were asked if anything made us uncomfortable while we were there. My response - which I think was shared by the others - was that elements of the trip were uncomfortable and confronting, but that this was healthy. It’s impossible not to feel discomfort at the reverberating devastation of colonisation for communities like those we visited, especially when non-Indigenous Australians (myself included) have indirectly profited from it. It is impossible not to be warmed by the incredible resilience, generosity and humour of the people we met. It is impossible not to want to know more when we’ve met people who defy their difficult circumstances to take hold of opportunities and create new avenues of growth for themselves and others.