Youth voices creating change for justice

26 Nov 2018

The Ngaga-dji report includes composite stories that include the real experiences of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children in the youth justice system. Details and names have been changed for confidentiality.


As the Koorie Youth Council heads to the land of the Eora Nation to discuss the power of cultural healing, I want to share the voices of children calling out for connection and support – those behind bars in Victoria.

Ngaga-dji (hear me) captures the voices and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Victoria’s youth justice system. Ngaga-dji shares our vision and solutions for a Victoria that supports Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children to thrive in their culture and communities.

I yarned with every child who contributed to this report. I remember the stories, the reflections and the visions for systems that truly support our children in their culture and communities. These yarns are the driving force for this project and will forever hold a place in my heart.

‘Ngaga-dji’ translates to ‘hear me’, in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people. The Wurundjeri are a part of the Kulin nation, whose lore is drawn from Bunjil, the creator spirit. Bunjil’s lore states that those who walk on this land must care for the Country and waterways as well as care for the children and young people. Bunjil’s lore keeps this land and its people strong, as it has for over 60,000 years.

The Victorian Government and opposition are not adhering to Bunjil’s lore for children in youth justice. Each yarn with these children demonstrated how choices by those in power have created systems and services that turn our children away, inflict harm and push them into the quicksand of the justice system.

The Ngaga-dji report includes composite stories that include the real experiences of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children in the youth justice system. Details and names have been changed for confidentiality.

I want to share Murrenda’s story with you. Yarning with young people around the state, we heard many stories that demonstrate the depths of institutional violence against Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander children as well as the power of healing that lies in our communities and culture. Murrenda’s healing began in a cultural healing and detox centre, which desperately needs sustainable funding and support in Victoria.

I call on everyone reading this story to take action, share our stories, share our solutions and share our vision. Let’s walk together with the leadership of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander communities to break down discrimination and injustice to ensure that our children grow up happy, healthy and strong in their culture and communities.

The Koorie Youth Council will be presenting Ngaga-dji at the Healing Our Spirit Conference on Tuesday 27th November at 10am.

Murrenda (pronounced muu-rren-da) means alive in Woiwurrung. This name represents the way Murrenda feels alive with culture and community.

This is our spot.

Dad used to bring me here and we’d fish all day. I bring my foster brother and sister here to feel life in the dirt under their feet and the breath through the trees above them. I bring them here to feel the calm I missed growing up. To be that person who is always there, an anchor in culture and identity.

When dad died I lost my anchor. I felt like he’d left me alone with pain in his place, grief sitting on my chest. At school I learnt that people hate blackfullas. I learnt that I should be ashamed of who I was, reject culture, not be like ‘those’ blackfullas. I wrote essays about Captain Cook, a happy white history where my people didn’t exist. The hate was so strong I felt like I was drowning in it. My loneliness turned to anger and pulled me under. My head trapped in that hate I heard and played it over and over and over. It swam through my mind until I believed it, accepted the stigma and stereotypes the world told me about my people.

When I had drugs I could shut my head up. I could talk with people, connect, even charm them. For a while I had a mentor, but the program got shut down. I started hanging with some guys outside of school. I was 14, they were older. They’d get me weed, later we’d get harder stuff, whatever we could get our hands on. We did stupid shit to pay for it ‘cos no one ever had money. I felt accepted, confident, part of something.

One guy really took me under his wing. He’d always have an arm around my shoulders, look out for me round the cops and share what he scored. Other people were shit-scared of him because he was built like a truck and he flogged anyone who got in his way. He was cool with me though, I even cut my hair same as his. After a while he got me into harder stuff. Some nights we’d get really high and his hand would slip from my shoulders and down my back and push under my school top. Hands heavy and cold, moving over me leaving invisible scars. I’d hear white noise in my head get louder and louder, like I went somewhere else while his hands were there. After he finished the noise would slowly fade and I’d tune back in again like nothing happened.

I was so ashamed I moved away from mum and the young ones. I’d rather sleep rough than let them see how I was living. I didn’t wanna make them worry, to be that fuck-up brother bringing them down. The hate swimming in my head got so loud I did more drugs to shut it up.

For years I had lifelines from police and courts, but they just bailed me to the same situation with a warning or order they knew I would breach. They didn’t know my story and they didn’t ask. What did they think would change? My life was the same, I was the same, my stupid crimes were the same.

The hate in my head is getting quiet as culture and connection get loud and strong. Culture keeps me afloat, keeps me alive.

The guys in town knew how to get to me. They’d follow me down the street yelling racist bullshit, pushing me, standing over me, waiting for the angry blackfulla to blow up. Eventually I’d had enough, I punched one, then punched a wall. They got a laugh out of it. I got a broken hand, spear tackled by cops and a prison sentence.

I waited for hours in the cop shop cell, the pain in my hand pulsing through me. Felt like my head was gonna explode. I pressed the distress button for hours waiting for help. Cops told me to hold my arm up so it didn’t swell so much, wouldn’t give me a sling ‘cos they said I’d hang myself.

At court I saw my family for the first time in months. Mum, sis, bub. Three people could still see me down in the deep, under all the hate, all the bullshit. To them I still mattered. I watched Mum as they read out the list of charges. The shame was so heavy I could hardly breathe. The person Mum raised wouldn’t do all those things. I searched for the words to explain, but my lawyer said it’d be better if I didn’t speak. The magistrate looked at Mum and said, “If he were my son, I would disown him.”

In the lock up I didn’t feel alive, just like I was surviving. I didn’t sleep. At night I made my own scars next to the ones from police dogs. I couldn’t relax in a concrete box scared of punches, rape, isolation. I got out a few times on parole, avoiding Mum’s so I wasn’t a bad influence on the young ones.

They put me in a house full of other people who offended and used, so I stayed on the street to avoid all that. Didn’t take long till I was back inside again. Each time I went home I’d hear about another brotherboy passing away. I felt like it was my fault. I wasn’t there for him, to talk him out of it.

Life started making more sense inside than on the outside. I didn’t have to worry about letting people down, getting food, paying bills, getting Centrelink. I got to a fucked up point where I loved it inside. I didn’t have to worry about all that stuff like on the outside. Other people were in control of my life.

Mum caught the train down to meet me at the gate on my last release date. At first she didn’t recognise me, skinny from fear and sleep deprivation.

“Time for a different way,” she said, “whatever you do, don’t leave us.” Mum started to pull me up from the deep where I’d been for so long. She saw the grief sitting on my chest, felt the emptiness that stopped me healing, heard the silence where I needed to talk up. She made me feel worthy of the life she gave me.

A cultural healing centre and detox brought culture and Country back into my life. I felt the pride in my identity that the world had taught me to reject. I hung out with an Uncle who told me it is not weak for a man to talk up, care, be vulnerable. I shared pain I had buried inside myself because I was trapped in the idea that strong men were silent. I got a youth justice worker who listened to me, we’d yarn, paint and fish together under the scar trees down the river. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.

The hate in my head is getting quiet as culture and connection get loud and strong. Culture keeps me afloat, keeps me alive. I want other young ones to feel that too, know the strength of who they are by feeling life in the dirt under their feet and the breath through the trees above them.

*illustrations feature artwork by children in Parkville and Malmsbury prisons

This article was created in partnership with the Healing Foundation for Healing Our Spirit Worldwide The Eighth Gathering 26th – 29th November 18 #HOSW8 

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