Seeing Culture as a Real Solution for Indigenous Australians
22 March 2017 at 11:35 am
For Indigenous Australian and CEO of not for profit First Hand Solutions, progress will only come with a major investment in culture and a re-connection to Country. Peter Cooley, a 2016 Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 recipient spoke to Lina Caneva about his work and hopes for young Aboriginal people.
The release of the latest Closing the Gap Report last week has made Peter Cooley determined to work even harder for young Indigenous people and give them skills for life, not just in his home turf in NSW but across Australia.
The Close the Gap Campaign 2017 Progress and Priorities Report found Australia is still failing after 10 years despite Closing the Gap being a national bipartisan priority.
According to the report, the federal government “has failed to listen or act adequately or appropriately” on the recommendations of the Close the Gap Steering Committee.
“We remain deeply concerned that government is yet to fully grasp the interconnectedness of the social and cultural determinants to health,” the report says.
For Cooley, who has been working with young Indigenous people since 2005, the report is deeply frustrating.
“Especially when you see the gap is widening, it is frustrating and I don’t think enough investment goes into local solutions particularly investing in Aboriginal people to provide those solutions,” Cooley says.
“There are some fantastic organisations doing some amazing stuff but you know, there is just not enough investment in those organisations and also you know culture is a real solution for our people and there is not enough investment in culture.
“When I say culture I am talking about reconnecting people to Country and tradition and teaching those traditions and cultural skills. It’s happening sort of sparingly and here and there but it in my opinion it’s not happening enough and there is not enough allocation of funding towards that stuff.”
First Hand Solutions Aboriginal Corporation is a charity whose aim is to find hands-on solutions to issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Cooley grew up in the southern Sydney suburb of La Perouse and is a founding member of First Hand Solutions.
“I grew up in the Aboriginal community in La Perouse… we call it the Mission or the Mish when it was back in the old days when the missionaries controlled those reserves,” he says.
“The mission is still there and my parents still live on the mission. You know growing up there we were taught stuff by our old people, our elders, our grandparents and uncles and aunties out on Country.
“I grew up by the ocean. I am a saltwater person and you know [there were] families going to the rocks and getting tucker out of the sea and cooking them on rocks and teaching us how to get it all and teaching us about the ocean, what we could and couldn’t eat and how to prepare it and cook it on a fire and things like that.
“That’s what we grew up with… As I grew a bit older and started to do other things and getting into employment and a trade I spent a lot of time away from that stuff. When I got down the track of spending 20 years of using tools [as a diesel mechanic] I started to get a bit sick of that and wanted to look at other types of things that I wanted to do and I started to think back to my childhood and the things that we did as kids.”
Cooley said he looked at the local community and noticed that the kind of learnings he got as a young person weren’t happening any more and so he started to create programs around getting kids back to Country and delivering some of that cultural education he grew up with.
In 2005 he started Koori Communications and Training running cultural programs for Aboriginal people and families throughout NSW and Queensland.
“I ran that for nine years and that was more a social business than anything… providing that community aspect [of] working and running programs in the community,” he says.
“I wanted a different challenge but I still wanted to work in that space… the programs we were running [were] difficult to attract funding for when you are a private business and so I wanted to continue what I was doing but I thought what we were doing in community with young people was a better fit under a not-for-profit structure… and so we created First Hand Solutions in 2012.
“We want to try and improve the lives of Aboriginal people, strengthen families and build Aboriginal communities but we have a particular focus on young indigenous people.”
The name First Hand Solutions goes to the origins of Australia’s Indigenous people.
“We are First Nations people. We have first hand knowledge and skills,” he says.
First Hand Solutions operates on two levels – its community training programs and it’s social enterprise.
“We have two core programs and that is… where we focus on those community [training] programs… around cultural connections and wellbeing and then we have our social enterprise which is our business model income generating model but it has certain functions that we want it to do to achieve our outcomes and provide opportunities for young people around reconnecting to culture and training and employment,” he says.
“I think we have had success right across that spectrum. Right from developing grassroots stuff right through to some pretty amazing partnerships as well where we are able to provide opportunities, particularly through our community programs and also our social enterprise.
“That’s underpinning an opportunity for the wider population and community to learn about Indigenous culture and purchase authentic Aboriginal products and supporting small business by purchasing authentic products.”
Cooley says one of the great successes has been through setting up the popular Blak Markets.
Held eight times a year between Barangaroo and Bare Island at La Perouse, the market features a wide range of authentic Aboriginal food, song and dance as well as workshops such as spear-making, shellwork and bush-tucker cooking. Stalls at the markets include Aboriginal-designed clothes, jewellery, artwork, dream catchers, bush tucker foods, spices and paintings.
“At the Blak Markets… we have up to 45 small Aboriginal businesses… that’s right across your traditional Indigenous products like artifacts and paintings and stuff like that,” Cooley says.
“We are providing a lot of opportunities now for a lot of small Aboriginal businesses and to see those businesses where they start from at the markets to see some of them now getting a lot of opportunities outside of the markets and we have been able to help that business grow – mentor them and help them grow – to a point now where if they didn’t attend the markets they would still be quite successful. That is a really good outcome for us.”
Cooley says the training program also has benefits for the internal operations of the organisation.
“We now have quite a few young people employed with us, young Aboriginal people and we have got one particular case. She’s a single mum [and] this is her first job and she started in our little pop up shop we have at the markets. And she’s now the market coordinator and she’s working with organisations like BT Group and event management being taught by these guys and she is organising our major events,” he says.
“She controls and deals with all the stallholders and she has really just grown as a leader and we have seen her go from a very shy single mum to now a really confident person doing high-level work. It’s fantastic. We have other young people employed and we have have about six young casuals employed working at each market day trained as barristers, food handlers and they have retail experience.
“For me I am a big believer in that people have to start somewhere. We don’t just all of a sudden have all these great skills and knowledge and do all these wonderful things. People have to start somewhere and grow.
“As with Paul Kelly’s song From Little Things Big Things Grow, I think First Hand Solutions is an absolute prime example of that. I donated, for instance, $100 to kick it off but now we have grown to be running some of the leading events in Sydney and we are growing as an organisation more and more and we are developing some really great partnerships.
“I see that right across First Hand Solutions and you know we have some kids out in the community now who are doing our programs for the first time, particularly our fishing program which we send kids back to the ocean.
“In the last few weeks we have been running that program where kids come along and catch their first ever fish and to see the smiles on those kids faces, and last week one of the kids that has been coming every week pulled in this gigantic flathead. That kid is now ‘hooked’ for life on fishing. So we have given that kid – from coming along and not knowing how to do anything, not knowing how to even hold a fishing rod – the skills to cast it and be patient enough to catch that fish and pull in some really good ones.
“We have now given that kid a skill and activity to do for the rest of his life. That potentially is a catalyst for kicking off other things in that kid’s life and that‘s the beauty of what we do… we just provide kids with the experience, teach them give them skills and that then triggers a whole range of things like confidence, self esteem and they are the things you need to tackle other challenges in life,” he says.
Cooley is keen to praise the partnerships his organisation has formed both within communities and also corporate and not-for-profit partnerships.
“We have a range of partnerships. We have partnerships with community where we run programs in community and that community is [in and around Sydney],” he says.
“We have a partnership with Freehills Law Firm and from day one, when I met and said I have this idea and want to set up this not-for-profit organisation they were involved right from the start and they are still doing our legal work and our major contracts right through to employment stuff as well.
“They are very proud to be helping us out and they have seen us grow, from helping us register the organisation and writing up our constitution and now looking at what we are doing in Sydney. We have pro bono accounting and auditing… and we have a whole range of things and we have picked up quite a few organisations that want to help.
“We have some good partnerships with government particularly National Parks. Our biggest partner at the moment is World Vision. We partner with World Vision to deliver extension activities for a program called ‘young mob’ and we have been delivering those activities for about seven years.
“We also have a really good relationship with an organisation called KARI and they provide us with in kind office space and they have funded our programs and they are probably the biggest aboriginal out-of-home care agency in NSW and we enjoy a really positive relationship with those guys.”
Harking back to his keenness to deliver a sense of culture and heritage to young Indigenous peoples across Australia, Cooley is still thinking big for the future.
“Look expansion or growth is a really challenging area for any organisation, whether it’s a for profit, not for profit, Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal. Expansion is always a major issue. Again all organisations need that investment to be able to grow,” he says.
“For us we have grand plans around building our capabilities and programs to more in community through our community programs but also on the social enterprise side of things.
“Our economic support hub where we work with all those small businesses… on a national scale through our pop up shop we source items from all around the country both regional and remote and I suppose for us we would like to get some permanent space in a prime location where we can grow those opportunities to sell products 365 days of the year and provide a lot of training.
“We [are trying] to get some space for an art gallery, retail cafe space. And if we were able to get that it would be a natural transition on where we are at at the moment to the next stage but we would be able to do a lot more in the community by running programs in there and providing employment and a lot more economic development opportunities for organisations, businesses and individuals around the country.”
Peter Cooley was named as a 2016 Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 recipient. Find out more here.