Early on a Tuesday morning, close to Christmas, we gathered at the Sydney Botanic Gardens with a curious crowd to explore what it means to join the dots in our community. The idea sprung from a brainstorm with our friends at Talkpoint who share our vision for transformative change, starting with ourselves and leading to greater social change. We are so grateful to so many from our networks who attended, including a group from The Funding Network (TFN) whose mission is to support grass-roots non-profit initiatives.
Here is a copy of The Funding Network’s blog with some wonderful insights from the event:
Earlier in December 5 staff members from The Funding Network went to Sydney’s Botanic Gardens to join The Welcome Dinner Project and Talk Point’s “Anti-Social” meetup.
The talks were very informative and much more emotional than we were prepared for at 8 on a Tuesday morning! Our thanks to Penny, Manu, Aunty Jenny, Zaki and the rest of the team who did a brilliant job getting a bunch of busy Sydney Siders to stop and take a moment to appreciate the importance of community and family.
At our first talk Aunty Jenny sat with us under a tree with a view of the harbour and the Opera House, and spoke to us about the history of Sydney. She talked about some of the traditions of the local Aboriginal groups, explaining how the gardens had been built on sacred land. She was frank about the devastation that losing sacred sites can cause, but also spoke about the importance of infrastructure to Australia, and the choices we all need to make when we build our lives and communities.
Although Aunty Jenny’s cheerfulness had us grinning for most of her talk, she also elegantly explained the pain that comes with growing up Aboriginal in Australia. She spoke about wanting reconciliation “before it was trendy”, and how the protest in January 1988 – when 40,000 Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous supporters came together to protest Australia Day and advocate for land rights – had brought her not only to tears, but to her first and only beer. A whisper of shock went through the crowd when she described searching for her grandfather’s birth certificate, only to discover that he was not classified as human at birth, and had in fact been registered with Parks and Wildlife Service.
Aunty Jenny finished her talk on a more positive note with the story of Black Lucy, an Aboriginal woman from Gladesville. In the 1920s this woman inspired such devotion from the local townspeople that when her humpy burned down, they built her a whole new cottage. This was during the same time period when Aunty Jenny’s father was denied a birth certificate, but Indigenous and non-Indigenous people still managed to bridge the divide and build a community based on trust and respect. We left feeling inspired to reach out and build friendships in spite of our differences.
We then moved on to Zaki’s talk. Zaki is an asylum seeker and has been living in Sydney for the last 3 years. He is currently waiting to find out the result of his application for refugee status, but despite the unsettling instability and prohibitive restrictions placed on him because of his legal status, he has been studying hard and recently won the prestigious International Student of the Year award.
Zaki’s talk was short but powerful. He told us about leaving his home in Afghanistan: how he had lost his brother, how his father had been taken away, and how at 17 years old he had escaped to Australia alone. He spoke about the difficulties he had faced being in a foreign country, speaking a new language, and what it felt like to be completely without the support of his friends and family.
Zaki spoke very passionately about how getting involved in the Welcome Dinner Project had helped him regain a sense of normality and community in Australia. He remembered the day that he and his friends had first organised to host a Welcome Dinner, and described how they had been rushing around preparing food and checking the windows every few minutes to see if the guests had arrived. They were so excited because for the first time in over two years they were hosting a meal in their home, and for the first time ever they would be sharing a meal with actual Australians. He had tears in his eyes when he described how that meal had helped him to start building friendships after a long and lonely period dealing with loss and dislocation. When he finished Aunty Jenny expressed how we all felt by enveloping him in a bear hug.
What Zaki described was the power of community to give people strength, and how food can be a catalyst for making those all important connections happen. The Welcome Dinner Project is continuing to make those connections for newly arrived and established Australians, and is now up and running in every state capital city in Australia.