By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
The day Victoria was plunged into a seven-day COVID-19 circuit-breaker lockdown also marked the first day of Reconciliation Week.
The nationwide week of connection for First Nations and non-First Nations people, from May 27 to June 3, encourages all Australians to learn their shared histories.
It is celebrated on the same dates every year to mark the May 27, 1967 referendum to include Aboriginal people on the Australian census, and the 1992 Mabo decision, a historic legal case that recognised Traditional Owner land rights.
But with 2021 events cancelled and members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in isolation, Whittlesea Community Connections’ Aboriginal engagement and caseworker and Gunditjmara woman Sharna Brown said it would be a difficult week.
“It gutted me, I felt like there was a cloud hanging over my head,” she said.
The surge in COVID-19 cases in the City of Whittlesea forced her to cancel Whittlesea Community Connections’ first Reconciliation Day barbecue.
“I could imagine how an elder or a young teenager or even school kids would feel. It’s going to be hard work for them staying home by themselves and it’ll be triggering,” Ms Brown said.
Casual, community-based events are at the core of Reconciliation Week, she said, and her aim for the barbecue was to bring the wider Whittlesea community together to share stories and experiences.
“When you’re sitting down having a feed, having a cuppa, you’re having those conversations and you’re sharing and you’re learning about each other, that’s what reconciliation’s about,” she said.
“It’s about healing, talking, listening, sharing and getting a better understanding of each other.”
Ms Brown joined WCC six months ago and calls herself a ‘connector’.
She helps connect clients to specific services by listening to their needs, whether they be emergency or long term, and their goals.
In the past 12 months, the number of Aboriginal clients has more than doubled, which, despite showing a vast need in the community, she said was a step in the right direction.
“With Aboriginal community, usually they’ll go to Aboriginal organisations because they know that they’re trusted services, and me being an Aboriginal woman in a mainstream organisation, they’ll come to me if they know that I’m a trusted person and they know that the organisation is culturally safe,” she said.
“It’s incredible because we’re giving our people options.”
Ms Brown said in the past people had to travel long distances from the Whittlesea area to Victorian Aboriginal Health Service centres at Fitzroy or Epping.
“I wouldn’t be working at Whittlesea Community Connections if I didn’t think that the leadership was authentic with [its] path to reconciliation,” she said.
“They really want to connect with the Aboriginal community, they want them to access their services, and they understand that they may be a bit hesitant about service providers, because of the past that’s happened to our people.”
Since she joined WCC, two more Aboriginal caseworkers have joined, including one former client whose goal was to work to support her community.
Now Ms Brown has aspirations to build a team to support more Aboriginal people, particularly elders and youth, and help educate the broader community.
“Part of my role is sharing the significance of these days with my staff and helping them understand, from an Aboriginal person’s perspective, why these dates are important, which is really exciting because you’d be surprised how many have no idea and I’m their first experience of an Aboriginal person,” she said.
As a single mother of three, Ms Brown said contributing to her community was important, and that she played a ‘big role’.
“Whatever I get out for myself I’m getting for my children too, so I’m showing them, yes, we can lead, we can do great things, we can create better paths. I’m leading by example,” she said.
During lockdown, Ms Brown said she would putt her efforts into connecting with clients and their families remotely, which for her usually meant simply picking up the phone, checking in and having a chat.