Volume 19 Number 4
Black Sunshine in Wagga Wagga
01 August 2006

Ron Lawler meets a group of young Aboriginal people who are changing their town.

THE FRONT COVER of the local phone book is a certain way to get your face recognised by all in your community. Luke Penrith (24) and his mates in the Black Suns have found this in the past 12 months.

Three years ago, Penrith and a group of eight young Aboriginal men decided to make an impact on their communities. Together they formed the Black Suns. One of them is a butcher, another works for a phone company, while the others work in a variety of community and government agencies. Recently two young women have joined them too.

The origin of the name, Black Suns, expresses their aspirations imaginatively. They aim to be like the sun bringing warmth and hope to their communities. The majority of those communities live in the most disadvantaged suburbs of the regional centre of Wagga Wagga—population 58,000—the largest inland city of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Wagga Wagga’s indigenous population is around 3,000. Historically a rural centre, the town’s population is becoming increasingly mixed through expanding defence force facilities, a regional university and recent arrivals of refugees from Africa.

In the 1970s the state government introduced resettlement which brought indigenous people from all over the west of NSW from diverse Aboriginal nations. Resettled to welfare housing estates, often without employment or prospects, many of these people experienced disadvantage and discrimination.

The results of those policies a generation back have helped create division and sometimes despair, as indigenous people still confront significant challenges in the areas of health, education, employment, criminal justice and housing. In NSW, 51 per cent of youth in detention are indigenous while indigenous Australians constitute only 2 per cent of the population as a whole. Statistically, 85 per cent of juveniles in detention move on to jail, completing a picture of a social disaster, costly to the individuals, their families and the state.

‘There was a cry from the community for something to be done,’ says Penrith, who also works with the Aboriginal Legal Service. Quietly spoken and strongly committed to the work, he is father of three-year-old Jayden, and deeply conscious of his responsibility to future generations. ‘We started the Black Suns and its programmes so that Aboriginal kids could say, “Look they are Aboriginal people and there is something to aspire to.” Us boys have always been proud of who we are, while the new generation seemed to look overseas to all the “rappers”, possibly because all they had were [negative] stereotypes of Aboriginal people.’

Shane Atkinson (26), another member of Black Suns, says that there are also positive role models for Aboriginal people, mainly athletes—usually footballers—or artists. ‘That is great,’ he says, ‘but the reality is that only a select few make it to the top levels. We are trying to be realistic role models in the Wagga Wagga community to give them avenues to succeed at other things.’

Penrith and Atkinson, the articulate Aboriginal Liaison Officer of the Wagga Wagga City Council, are careful to stress that the choice of name did not reflect inflated egos. Their name caused a stir among some who feared that this was a black radical group forming in their community. ‘We do want Aboriginal people to be proud of who they are,’ Penrith reflected. In acknowledgement of the Black Suns’ intention and scope of activity, Wagga Wagga Shire Council has backed their programmes with the provision of a former tennis club shed and grounds, and support to help with its renovations.

The Black Suns’ first initiatives were arranging discos. With the acquisition of a base of operations in the heart of the area they service, the Black Suns Youth Centre now offers drop-in programmes after school for young people ranging from six to 22, and some afternoons may see up to 40 in attendance. There are programmes planned for older people and children in the mornings and a strong focus on literacy, arts and cultural activities as well as sport and a space to do homework.

Recently, the Black Suns received funding from the Attorney General’s National Community Crime Prevention Programme (NCCPP) to employ a full time coordinator, Joy Cornish. She summed up a key factor in the success of the operation: ‘Their integrity level is extraordinary, really amazing. That is part of what the kids are responding to—the Black Suns’ openness and honesty. It is also a good indication of Wagga’s strengths that nine young men are so inspired to enrich their community.’

Penrith expresses a vision that motivates them, ‘As young leaders we need to start doing business differently. This is not about money but outcomes; creating a safe space where we can be open to each other. We have robust debates. A couple of weeks ago we had a really heated meeting, but after that we were best friends’.

At the beginning some of the community wondered how long the Black Suns would last: they had seen people and organisations come and go. As time passes, Atkinson says there is a growing acceptance and expectation from the elders and the communities who get behind them: ‘It is amazing how the community now wants the Black Suns involved in everything. They see us as a positive group and we must keep that in our minds when we decide what to be involved in. We need to keep the Black Suns’ name associated with positive things.’

Being involved in the positive helps sort priorities. As Atkinson notes, ‘We don’t spread ourselves too thin. We would rather do a few things really, really well than try to do everything and have it fall apart.’

The Black Suns reach out to the non-Aboriginal community in the area as well. ‘By including everyone we are giving the whole community a better understanding of where Aboriginal people are coming from,’ says Atkinson.

The Black Suns aim to be social entrepreneurs; they’ve created considerable social capital through their networking, development of a grassroots support base and extensive community building, and in the local business and private sector there’s significant support for their activities.

Reflecting their typically self-effacing and honest manner, Atkinson remarks, ‘We just fumble our way through and don’t always know where we are going. We don’t pretend we know everything about everything but we find a way to make things happen.’ As part of the funding from the NCCPP grant they will develop a strategic plan setting down their targets and actions for the future. It will not totally eliminate ‘fumbling through’—nor should it—as working instinctively remains a key source of learning and inspiration.

The Black Suns have made some important discoveries of relevance to many places where Aboriginal disadvantage is leading to explosive community relations. Atkinson concludes, ‘[People] want us to go and talk in their communities because they are inspired by us. We draw inspiration from things in our own lives, from our families and from our role models. We also draw inspiration from not wanting Wagga Wagga to slip into that (bad) sort of thing that happens in some communities. There are a lot of good stories and we draw from them as well. We want to hand on something to the next generation that is successful, that stands alone, and that does not lose its focus, but empowers the community.’