I write this reflection from the land of the Tonkawa and Comanche people of Turtle Island, land otherwise known as Austin, Texas. I recognise the Tonkawa and Comanche people’s continuing cultural and spiritual relationship with the land, waterways and skies, as well as these connections back home: the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people’s continuing custodianship of country otherwise known as Canberra, where I live and study; the Arrernte people’s custodianship of Mparntwe, otherwise known as Alice Springs, where I was placed with Ninti One; and my own mob’s custodianship of Wiradjuri country throughout the Central West of NSW. Having just attended the first Indigenous People’s March in Piscataway land (Washington D.C.), I wish to recognise all Indigenous people’s connection to this earth since time immemorial. I pay respects to elders and ancestors, and acknowledge our sovereignty has never been ceded.
When I applied for the Aurora Internship Program, being placed in Mparntwe was at the bottom of my preference list. I’d just finished the final exams of my third year of a Bachelor of Arts, and was hesitant to travel somewhere so far away, so quickly afterwards finishing uni for the year. I wasn’t excited by the prospect of spending five weeks in the blistering summer heat of Central Australia, and instead had preferenced hosts on the North Coast of NSW where I’d grown up. This all changed when I got a phone call from the placements team explaining who Ninti were, the project I could get the opportunity to work on around the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) – a passion of mine as a carer – and how I’d be supported during my stay by the Centre for Remote Health, who would provide me a student community, wonderful accommodation and even a car to use.
Sure enough a couple of days later I was on a flight to Mparntwe and getting my first glimpses of Arrernte country, of Central Australia and of the heart of the continent – it was the first time I’d seen the red earth represented on our flag. Hugged by mountain ranges, I moved into a Centre for Remote Health unit on Mahomed St, met my housemates Syan and Ally, and made my way to the Ninti office. My time at Ninti was incredibly fulfilling, with staff and my supervisor Tammy immediately making me feel at home with a huge morning tea. The Ninti family were quick to offer recommendations of places to eat, spots to visit, and Sharon quickly took me under her wing, providing me lifts to and from work and even taking me grocery shopping!
The work I undertook at Ninti was diverse and at times, challenging. Working on a project to connect remote communities to the NDIS, I helped transcribe interviews Tammy had conducted with mob with disabilities in Groote Eylandt and the Tiwi Islands, helped organise focus groups with community members living with disability in Ntaria, and helped guide and contribute to the Interplay app being designed to directly connect people in remote communities to the NDIS application process.
This work was personal work for me as a carer for my mum – an Indigenous person and an NDIS participant herself – and as such I felt deeply invested in what we were doing. One of my initial hesitations about working in the Indigenous sector and for NGO’s was the complexity of negotiating boundaries that mandate you fulfil the brief government tenders outline (briefs often at odds with community needs), whilst trying to escape the cycle of government failure and deliver genuine services and development our mob feels ownership over. Our Interplay app design, which focused on keeping NDIA staff accountable to remote communities, was an exercise that showed me how to walk this line. I was so grateful for Tammy’s advice and guidance in negotiating this, and her persistent reminders about why we were doing this work and who we were here for.
Whilst at Ninti I also got to take a visit to the remote community of Papunya with the Trachoma team, and do some research on child development evaluation tools such as the ASQ-TRAK for the Stronger Communities for Children project. Both these experiences pushed me outside of my boundaries as neither a health student nor someone versed in child development and education. Despite having little background knowledge, the Ninti project supported me and I was able to learn from community about the ongoing programs being implemented around these spaces.
My five weeks in Mparntwe flew past. When not learning at the Ninti One office, I was exploring Tjoritja (the West MacDonnell Ranges), swimming in ancient waterholes, admiring breathtaking landscapes, getting up close with local wildlife at the Alice Springs Kangaroo Sanctuary or simply joining in on community events like the annual Christmas Carols or trivia at Monte’s. I was even lucky enough to be directed to the local healing centre and purchase some traditional medicines to take back home for my family!
This chapter in my life will forever influence what I go on to do, in my career and in my community. I was lucky to be able to work and meet with the people I did, and witness the leadership of women like Tammy and Sharon. Their values and commitment to our people demonstrated to me what the Indigenous sector looks like at its best, and I can’t wait to see our communities grow stronger because of their work.