Tribal warriors in Redfern: the Aboriginal community that rebuilt itself

Aboriginal Christian leader Shane Phillips is the king of understatement.

“We make a lot of mistakes and we’re not sinless … But we’re stumbling along as a community and we’re grateful,” he says about Tribal Warrior Association, a sailing and sports-based education and mentoring organisation he runs in Sydney’s Redfern.

His humility is a winsome quality, particularly in Australia, where we don’t like our proverbial poppies growing too tall. But the 54-year-old CEO only has to speak for a couple of minutes before his impressive leadership capacity reveals itself.

“They said we epitomised what goes wrong in Aboriginal communities. You know what happened? We found hope.”

“Hope is amazing. Hope changes things. We were Redfern. We were ‘the block’,” Phillips explains, referencing the streets of terrace houses in which he grew up, known for its dense Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander population and once notorious for high crime rates.

“We were the most dysfunctional … There was a sense of hopelessness you could cut with a knife. They said we epitomised what goes wrong in Aboriginal communities. You know what happened? We found hope.”

And, Phillips says, “if he wasn’t a believer and the Lord wasn’t involved in it”, Tribal Warrior would never have become the success it is today.

The Tribal Warrior story

Tribal Warrior began in 1998 when a couple of the block’s “old Christian fellas” began a maritime training company.

“We were imploding as a community,” Phillips says. “These old men came there and said, ‘We got a boat and want to train some captains. But we don’t want to just train people who are already ready, we want people who are mucking up. People whose lives are falling apart… we want them to find purpose’.”

The two men inspired Phillips with their humility, which he saw as a “real strength”.

Phillips was in the second batch of Aboriginal young men the company trained in maritime skills in 1999, along with his older brother, a long-term heroin addict, whom Phillips says was his “hero”.

“I started to see things differently then. Our parents were pastors and we were struggling in life ourselves. We had to find where to find ourselves … These two old fellows turned up and fed us really cool stuff that made us start to think about it differently.”

The fledgling maritime training company continued to grow and Phillips became involved in running it. To date they have trained more than 3000 people for a range of roles both out at sea and on the shorelines.

These days, though, it’s just one part of Tribal Warrior. There’s also an award-winning mentoring program called Clean Slate Without Prejudice, which uses boxing training to help Aboriginal youths at risk of offending develop the discipline needed for employment. Crime rates relating to robbery offences have dropped in Redfern since the inception of the program in 2009.

Phillips says the program “helped us move our lens from ‘deficit’ to ‘strength’. We launch ourselves from strength, now.”

Clean Slate Without Prejudice, which extends to an after-school mentoring program, has its unlikely origins in past hostility between Redfern’s Aboriginal community and the local police.

“There was hatred towards each other. I get embarrassed when I tell people that,” Phillips says.

“But I was one of those young blokes who had a festering anger and resentment and hatred. And it shackled us… we weren’t going anywhere… we were just polarised the whole time. We were just against each other … It was just us and them.”

When a new police commander called Luke Freudenstein first approached the Tribal Warrior team in 2009 and asked for help with young men in the community who were committing robberies in the area, Phillips admits they “palmed him off”, directing him to other community groups.

Undeterred, Freudenstein returned again with the same request: “I’ve got 15 young men in your area who are committing robberies, I can arrest my way out, or we can do something to work together. What can we do?”

“We actually dropped our guard and saw each other for the first time.”

Together, Freudenstein and Phillips decided to put their shared history in the sport of boxing to good use. Freudenstein organised gear, a trainer and the use of the local PCYC. Phillips and the Tribal Warrior team agreed to get the 15 young men to an early morning training session. Freudenstein arranged for police officers known for their animosity towards the Aboriginal community to be there, too.

“We were outside the police boys club and it was pouring rain, it was dark. And then they [the young men] saw this copper walking in – and I knew his reputation was really bad, he was pretty brutal to people – and they [the boys] said ‘There’s so-and-so. I hate him’,” Phillips remembers.

“We said, ‘Boys, we’re going in there to train with him so we gotta behave in there. Let’s just train with them and see what happens. We need you to park everything – that’s your hatred, anything. We need you to park it here and just come in and let’s just see how we go’.”

Phillips says that by the end of the session, they were all “completely smashed”, but “everyone was the same… we were just a bunch of people training together”. They were even “high-fiving at the end of it”.

“But we actually dropped our guard and saw each other for the first time… I don’t know how to completely explain it,” says Phillips.

The training continued and the program grew – though not without opposition.

“Our people [were] calling us ‘dogs’ and ‘informers’ and all sorts of things. They were saying, ‘What are you working with the police for?’” Phillips says.

“We said, ‘Wait and see what happens because they might ease off on these boys and we might be able to get them to stop commit offences and they might treat us better’.”

“Who’d have ever thought we’d have a relationship with the police?”

The police faced their own critics who called them “nigger lovers” and “do-gooders”. But within three to four weeks, the results spoke for themselves.

“As we became friends, the interaction between these young men and those police minimised and those young guys stopped committing offences.”

“The police and us are like friends now… Who’d have ever thought we’d have a relationship with the police?” Phillips laughs. “We’re involved in what they do and they’re involved in what we do. The relationship changed. We stopped being just the recipient. We were valued in the relationship and that changed the game.”

The ten most influential of the boys in the first training group were rewarded with the opportunity to become mentors for a new group of Clean Slate boys.

“We got their families to engage. They had the routine, the discipline, the seeing the big picture and had a new relationship with people. That gave them a sense of worth and a sense of belonging and they started to believe they could do anything,” Phillips says.

Tribal Warrior Success

Clean Slate Without Prejudice was an obvious success for Tribal Warrior.

“I don’t know how, but obviously the Lord blessed it … it just happened,” Phillips says. “Robberies went down 82 per cent in this area. Those boys never committed an offence again. They’re all doing really well. They’re really doing all sorts of careers now. They’re the young leaders. They changed the dynamic and everyone wanted to be part of it then.”

These days about 80 people on average train in the mornings as part of the Clean Slate Without Prejudice program, with up to 200 some days.

“Robberies went down 82 per cent in this area. Those boys never committed an offence again.”

“That Clean Slate movement has had an impact on all of us. It’s made our place safer, our community safer. It’s given people value for themselves and for other people. It’s created relationship,” Phillips says.

“What I love about this place here, is that people are just people together and they all look after each other.”

More recently, Tribal Warrior has added a social enterprise initiative to the company which provides cultural tourism products and much-needed employment opportunities for the community.

“We don’t owe the bank anything – we own all of our own assets,” Phillips says proudly. “Government didn’t fund this thing… We don’t want to have government to control it … and I think that’s the reason it’s grown. There were three people at the beginning of the organisation that were actually volunteering most of time – just getting paid when they were on charters. To think we now have about 27 staff, it’s just blows my mind.”

Which raises the question of funding – how does Tribal Warrior pay the bills?

“We make enough for ourselves – everyone except the mentors,” Phillips explains.

Originally denied any government funding, Tribal Warrior spent years struggling to pay for Clean Slate Without Prejudice’s mentors themselves, with the help of corporate sponsors. They then commissioned the University of Sydney, the Bureau of Statistics and high-profile accounting firm KPMG to do a pro bono project case study quantifying their work financially. It mapped the trajectory of ten young men leading up to, during and after participating in the mentoring program and found it would save the government $7.9 million in incarceration rates in the following three to four years.

“So we asked them [the state government] for $300k per year to pay for six mentors… and we didn’t get it,” Phillips reports. “The state government gave us nothing and still doesn’t. But the federal government can came along and backed it and we now actually measure everything to show them how the empowerment of people can have big impacts.”

‘The Lord has made the difference’

Phillips says it’s “the Lord that’s made the difference” in Tribal Warrior’s success and “everything we practise is what we’ve learned from the word”. Some of his young mentors are also Christians.

“As a young man, I would have never imagined we were in this position… I didn’t think things were going to turn out good at all. I thought they were going to turn out really bad.

“For me personally, if I wasn’t a believer, if the Lord wasn’t involved in it,” he shakes his head, “This would not have been anything like this.”

Though Phillips wants the kids he serves to know he believes in the Lord and to be a good example, he’s careful to ensure they choose their own path.

“We’re in an Aboriginal community where lots of churches and lots of people who did use the Lord’s name did some horrific things to our people. It’s always going to be a battle, you know… to keep people knowing that it [the Christian faith] is actually bigger than those people. One of the things we’re mindful to do here is to try and live it…”

“I think it’s really important these kids know we see them,” he explains.

“I remember my parents were struggling in the early days before they found the Lord. And I remember being a kid in the house growing up so dysfunctional. I was waiting for some grown-up to see me … and I do remember those adults who saw us.

“We want to be those adults – that’s what I say to our mentors. We have to be those people who see these children. They need to know you know their value and you’re going to push them to that value.”

Similarly, when asked how non-Aboriginal Christians can build better relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Phillips advises building genuine relationships that really see the person.

“It helps us when people see there are good things happening, so please proactively go out and try and find what’s right. People can do that every day of the week.”

New challenges of success

In its highest crime period, Redfern Street’s properties were heavily shuttered every night and became “a no-go zone”. As it got safer, Tribal Warrior became part of a movement to see the shutters removed.

“When they came down, those shutters, it almost gentrified overnight,” Phillips explains. “And as it did, we [the local Aboriginal community] became victims of it because the value of the properties have gone up so much it priced us out.

“So we have to find innovation to stay here now. We have to find a way that our footprint is here because it’s the land that we connected to.”

He jokes that he wishes they’d bought some properties before campaigning to see shutters removed but quickly clarifies, “But that’s the thing. This isn’t all about money.”

Tribal Warrior now has ten mentors (Phillips stresses they aren’t social workers) with a caseload of more than 70 kids.

“A mentor helps them see their value, helps them push themselves and helps them succeed themselves. Independence is what the kids need. So we do that and we do it differently. We do it community way – that’s what helped us.

“We’re seeing less kids in the criminal justice system from the old days. The old days were bad. It was normal … like a badge of honour to go to jail. Not anymore. Now it’s badge of honour if you’re strong and healthy and you’re doing something for someone else.”