Brief summary of Robert’s involvement with Aboriginal people in the Kimberley

Robert has related to the Mowanjum Aboriginal Community which comprises three language groups, Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambal is located near Derby, WA. The community was formed from the Presbyterian mission further up the coast which began in 1913.

He joined the Boab Network, a non-profit community organization situated in Perth, WA. which works in collaboration with Mowanjum people. This Network is concerned with issues of justice and the common good, giving preference for those who are vulnerable in Australian society.

Overview of community engagement

Robert has worked with the Mowanjum community since 2002, assisting in many programs detailed below, and being introduced to the peoples’ culture and ethos:

  • The Arts Centre – Robert, as a volunteer, assisted in the organisation and practical work associated with at least 12 annual festivals, including writing a organizational book, business plan.
  • Land Rights and return to country – Since2010, Robert helped organize important back to country trip to Majaddin, the traditional lands of Eddie Bear, chair of the Mowanjum community, assisting in various other trips to traditional country including the Native Title determination on the Kimberley Coast.
  • Collaboration – Since 2008, Robert has also contributed substantially to the Boab Network, recording the history of the organization, and substantially contributing to its ethos; spiritual and philosophical understanding.
  • History – In 2013, Robert organized a three-day event to remember and celebrate a century of relationship between Mowanjum people and the Presbyterian/Uniting Churches. He edited a book to record the history of this relationship and assisted the film-maker with a video to mark the occasion. In late 2017 Robert is launching Return to Majaddin: a Kimberley homecoming. He is currently writing the history of the Boab Network, having interviewed many volunteers and Mowanjum families.
  • Communication – Robert assisted film-makers in interviewing people for films involving Mowanjum families.
  • Support and encouragement – given to many people within Mowanjum and within the Boab Network.
  • Community concerns – including involvement in discussions concerning land rights, and other issues.

Learning, reflection and growth

Key Mowanjum elders have introduced Robert to their culture, particularly in many up-country visits. This has resulted in a PhD, (Beyond Collaboration), and now the publication of the book, Return to Majaddin: A Kimberley homecoming. Key learning has included the importance of being guests rather than hosts, a difficult challenge for churches and other non-Aboriginal organizations used to hosting program; the importance of being allies and advocates, knowing when and how to speak in white society for Aboriginal people, the importance of relating to people and land as a precursor to action.

A two-way learning, including challenges and obstacles

Mowanjum people have shared their culture and ethos with volunteers such as Robert. This takes time, and certainly is not an easy process, as Robert records at length in his PhD. The greatest challenge is to let go of Western presuppositions, such as wanting to do things quickly. It is very difficult for ‘whitefellas’ to appreciate the subtlety of an Aboriginal culture. At the same time, Mowanjum people have been keen to learn and engage with what whitefellas be able to share: this applies in many areas including the Computer Resource Centre, organizing trips up country, seeking funds, approaching and affirming history. Robert and the Boab Network have been conscious of the trauma caused by inadequate resources, poor education and health and the ever- present police ready to charge youth and send them to the nearby multi-million dollar prison. They seek to counter ever-present racism and injustice which challenges effective reconciliation.

A positive impact

Eddie and others have acknowledged the impact of the Boab Network and Robert in various interviews.  Some of these have been included in Robert’s dissertation and are also included in a draft history of the Boab Network which Robert has compiled. Many of the Boab Network volunteers records extraordinary change as they were involved in this trans-cultural program. For example, David, a young Boab volunteer who took part in several up-country trips stated:

My involvement in the Boab Network has completely changed my perspective. This makes me very fortunate to have had this eye-opener experience. I am thankful that I have had these experiences.  It is far better to have had them now.

Many other volunteers shared similar responses, including changes in their life perspectives, the shock of encounter with a vulnerable community, the difficulty of engaging in a trans-cultural relationship.

Mowanjum community: its extraordinary heritage and culture

Robert has been involved in the difficult task of relating a Western University with academic requirements to an Aboriginal community with radically different understanding and ways of relating. His PhD records the importance of subsidiarity, namely empowering Aboriginal people to take an active role in both the PhD and subsequent outcomes such as writing the family story.  For example, the methodology used came from Eddie’s insights, rather than imposed on the community. Robert’s work and that of the Boab Network begins with an affirmation of the extraordinary heritage and understanding of this community and therefore respect their dignity and rights. It has resulted in a profound expression of the common good that has clearly shown an awareness and preference for a vulnerable community and people.

Reconciliation: an ongoing process

Robert and the Boab Network are committed to Reconciliation, noting that such work must involve creative relating that reverses the attitudes of the past. Being a guest and ally of the Mowanjum people is a practical and ‘down-to-earth’ engagement rather than simply words on paper. Robert has staked a major portion of his life on demonstrating how this can be done at the grass roots level and now seeks ways of sharing these insights and experiences. Robert has contemporary experience of issues that are vital for the Australian people, such as his long-term engagement with Reconciliation, his involvement in issues of Native Title and land rights at the grass roots level and his awareness of the implications of the Gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social indicators, and how these can be bridged with creative program.