Strengthen a community and anything is possible, says Aboriginal Christian leader

Local indigenous communities are critical to “fixing” their own problems, according to an Aboriginal Christian Leader whose grassroots organisation has helped reduce crime rates in Sydney’s inner suburb of Redfern.

“We found that policy-makers don’t fix people. People, families can fix themselves,” says Shane Phillips, CEO of Tribal Warrior Association, a sailing and sports-based education and mentoring organisation.

“You strengthen a dynamic in the community with the people that are there. Those people are actually the best catalysts you’ll have. They’ll change it and the narrative will be consistent.”

Tribal Warrior has been praised as an organisation for its success, including reducing crime rates in the local area by 82 per cent and changing the life trajectories of troubled Aboriginal young people. But Phillips says the credit belongs to the community itself.

“We never even thought this could happen but it grew itself because the community bought in. And the community found they were re-building themselves.”

“Policy-makers don’t fix people. People, families can fix themselves.” – Shane Phillips

The fruits of Tribal Warrior’s strengths-based approach are not only anecdotally evident. They also have been confirmed by a recent study done by the University of Sydney, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and high-profile accounting firm KPMG. The study mapped the trajectory of ten young men leading up to, during and after participating in Tribal Warrior’s Clean Slate Without Prejudice mentoring program. It found the program would save the government $7.9 million in incarceration rates during the following three to four years.

Phillips possesses the rare combination of skills of being able to both speak frankly about injustice and outwork solutions on the ground which address the problems effectively. And, when it comes to the distribution of government funding aimed at “Closing the gap”, Phillips describes it as “the one thing that does my head in”.

“If you look at the equation, it’s all based on essential services and it’s all based on what’s wrong,” he says about the Government’s approach. “There is nothing there for innovation … that’s proactive building and for the restoration or strengthening of culture and people.

“We have to try and flip that … We need to show how it should impact …” he says.

Essentially, Phillips’ message is: ‘Give us the opportunity to innovate your services to make sure they impact better.’ Because… [for] our people… it’s just not working.”

Tribal Warrior has intentionally carved out its own path, a “lane” whose destination is “building community”. As Phillips describes, the programs offered by Tribal Warrior place responsibility back in the hands of those whom the program aims to support.

“We’re believing that everything is possible. You’ve got to work for it. We’re going to pull together. We’ve got to keep messaging it, we got to keep going together. You’re going to make mistakes – you’ve got to keep going.”

“Give us the opportunity to innovate your services to make sure they impact better.” – Shane Phillips

Phillips’ dual capacity for critique and construction makes him an insightful thinker who doesn’t shy away from discussing so-called “controversial” topics. But, importantly, he always does so within a bigger context of Australian history.

For example, he explains Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a wealth of “ecological knowledge” that equates to a “simple sciences”, holistic approach to the land, plants, animals and waters.

“We were really industrious for a long time” he says, describing how Indigenous peoples became disconnected from the land when laws forced colonial landholders to pay Aboriginal workers wages, rather than rations. Instead, the landholders banished them.

“Then we had a few generations that had been dormant and had no old roles to do because they had no land … We started to have our real issues hit us then and breaking that cycle has been really hard. You can break a people by doing that …”

Phillips knows that when Aboriginal stories of resistance and resilience were excluded from national narratives, it resulted in his people being portrayed as “museum pieces” in the vein of “the noble savage” – “soulless” and “brainless”.

“It was really tough. You had to break a stereotype – we’re still breaking it,” he says, referring to the work of Tribal Warriors in which a strength-based approach is followed in all programs.

The stolen generations added more trauma, with effects still felt today by Phillips and his team at Tribal Warrior. He explains how his own mother’s grandfather went to war and, soon after, the family’s kids were removed, not to be re-united until they were adults. Many of the Redfern families which Tribal Warrior works with have similar stories, he says.

“There was no one telling them about their connection to their family… Maybe [nobody] hugging them or maybe [showing] the things that parents do. So they grew up in these sterile environments. After that, they ended up imploding, a lot of them … And then people started to say more negative things about them.”

“So some of those [stolen generation] families have got kids whose children we’re dealing with now. But we’re, as a community, we’re looking at the big picture and we’re looking at this stuff together – the grief, trauma and loss and how we help each other through that, and how the modelling of what family’s about and rebuilding that.”

“Those other things everyone talks about – the high-level stuff – it’s important that we talk about them,” says Phillips.

“We want to bring Australia together … to see people pull together and the relationship change.”