Just how do we communicate with others in our community? and how, apart from the ballot box, do grassroots people actually communicate with government? Although journalists talk of their right to keep the public informed, grassroots info is rarely sufficiently newsworthy for the major media organisations to run with, which means that vital communication becomes an expensive marketing exercise often beyond grassroots projects’ budgets. In Wonthaggi, Vic Gill Heal’s Creatively Connecting Communities Project works with locals on activities to communicate and ‘connect’ them bringing a sense of place and worth. (Bulletin 6, June 6th 2004) but, Gill says, a lot of people have not heard of the project.
The Women who Mean Business Project www.wwmb.org.au may have a communication advantage over Gill’s project as it springs from well established grassroots organizations – Gippsland Women’s Network and the Arts Network East Gippsland. It is a response to issues raised by Gippsland women: youth, unemployment, lack of community volunteers, apathy of community participation and pride, lack of art and culture appreciation, lack of exhibition space and many other issues which affect many rural communities. The apathy towards community participation and the lack of community volunteers was repeatedly raised by community-minded people when setting the Pigs Will Fly pilot project. Clearly these issues affect communities everywhere.
With the aim of increasing participation through community activities by bringing people together to work on common goals, the WwMB project won 3 year funding from the Community Support Fund. They will run art and community projects to develop grassroots talents in leadership, business and the arts with a minimum of 48 workshops in a 9 month period (2004-5) at Bemm River, Buchan, Rosedale, Moe, Warragul, Leongatha, Yarram and Swifts Creek. Each of these locations will have a working party consisting of 20 to 30 interested participants and all community members are welcome to participate in any or all of the activities and workshops on offer.
This need to communicate with people also featured in the Weekend Australian’s editorial (August 21-22 2004). Despite happy stories of Islamic migrants in Shepparton, Victoria, (home to 3500 Iraquis in a total population of 60,000), the editorial says Australians have a right to an explanation of how migrants, including islamists, can help the economy and bring us cultural benefits, and, there needs to be honesty in dealing with cultural problems adjusting to life here. ‘Governments should not make the same mistake they made over the past 15 years of economic reform, in not explaining how Australia would have been worse off in the long term’.
Do journalists NOT have a role to play here? How many people read government publications or tune in to government advertising? Surely the best way of communicating is through mainstream media coverage of stories relating to these issues?
Communication has also been a consideration for Neighbourhood House / Adult Learning Centres. These centres provide a very personal and inclusive approach to a diverse range of students aiming to combat social isolation and stamp out illiteracy. Efforts here can lead to more ‘formal learning’ at TAFE. In this network for many years volunteers and hardworking coordinators have labored to fulfill heavy bureaucratic requirements so as to maintain funding and their very existence! Despite the rapid growth of these centres in response to a clear need in the community for a time it seemed impossible to communicate one clear picture of ‘what they were achieving’ to Government and so enlist their support in alleviating this burden. The ‘one size fits all approach’ simply cannot work in this context as all communities are different and their needs differ – some examples:
a. The Fitzroy Learning Network and its literacy courses for refugees involves huge efforts from staff and volunteers in supporting and educating newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq Eretria, Sudan etc. FLN is re-organising classes to accommodate new arrivals, illiterate in English as well as their own language. They are running an ‘Orientation to Learning and Literacy’ at the most basic level for new students. Volunteers with appropriate skills will be involved having done this all before in a 10 year program with the Hmong community from Afghanistan, in which all students learnt to read and write.
b. In WA, TAFE, indigenous pastoral companies, State and Federal agencies have communicated and collaborated. The directors of two successful Kimberley indigenous stations, Noonkanbah and Millijiddee are the first in Australia to receive formal qualifications in Indigenous Business Governance (funded through the FarmBis WA). Since 1998 the herd turn-off at Noonkabah has increased by 250% and all aspects of the community’s infrastructure, including the school, health services and local store, are improving due to better planning and management. The United Nations last month recognised the WA Government Department of Agriculture as the first Government agency in the world to have a fully integrated, long-term strategy that considered the economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability of indigenous people.
The centres involved in the Pigs Will Fly pilot project in eastern Vic all work very hard to fulfill their particular community needs: Corryong Community Resource Centre; East Gippsland TAFE Outreach; Fitzroy Learning Network; Heyfield Community Resource Centre; Loch Sport Community House; Mallacoota Community House; Mallacoota District Health & Support Service completing construction of a ‘Men’s Shed’ and last but certainly least the Orbost Neighbourhood House.
The final stage in this communication saga was reached in late 2003 when Minister Garbutt announced a grant of $53,000 to help with the changeover to 3 year funding for the sector. There followed months of wrangling with the DHS (Department of Human Services) as to how this additional assistance grant should be spent. Finally in September 2004 a mutually acceptable plan has been agreed – one based on the premise that the money would only be effective it used as a lump sum and coordinated by the ANHLC (Australian Neighbourhood Houses & Learning Centres) collective for sector wide projects.
A final point of interest – the 2002 recommendations for small and remote towns made by Dr Barry Golding and Dr Maureen Rogers to the Adult Community & Further Education Board (ACFEB) after a study into Adult and Community Education in small and remote towns in Victoria (2002):
1. There may be a need for a review or evaluation of the relationships between the ACE ‘sector’ and other sectors and stakeholders in adult learning as it applies in small towns. Such a review would be broader than the current review of the role of Regions and Clusters. The intention might be to begin with the Policy Statement that set the ACE sector up. A review might include an examination of the interface between all the competing or parallel sectors to more clearly identify where ACFE sits as town size decreases and as remoteness increase. There is evidence that the role of ACE in small towns has evolved over time and become more important as lifelong learning has become more critical. There is evidence, however, that the ACE sector’s funding, marketing, staffing, local, regional and State infrastructure have not kept up with this evolution and have become more metro-centric.
2. Long term continuity of staffing is needed centrally and locally to provide some stability in an unstable sector. There is a perceived high level of staff turn-over that is seen as destabilising and counter-productive to providers and to the sector.
3. ACFE needs to talk (and talk and talk) to DHS to get some sense into parallel and multiple funding sources until the talking gets real. The need to access multiple external funding sources, including but going beyond DHS results in great stress. There are duplicated accountabilities (eg ACFE and DHS work to different reporting calendars for the same data); there is needless complexity; work beyond the capabilities of most volunteers and Committees of Management; and reduced time for the essential internal and external networking.
4. There should be an urgent review of the constituent parts of ACFE eligibility. In Remoteness is important but on its own is not an adequate indicator of disadvantage. Social disadvantage might be considered (as it is for schools). Critical mass and learner choice is an issue in small communities. One way of re-thinking the issue is to think about participant learning rather than provider delivery. At present it is delivery that is costed through Student Contact Hours (SCH). One result is that learning needs are often ignored because they can’t be made fit into a (profitable) SCH model.
5. ACE teachers are not covered by an industrial award and should be. The sector is only sustainable with a large volunteer base. This base is seen to be increasingly unique as other organisations that previously relied on volunteers become more professional. Volunteers are not always suitable for complex financial accounting management or for tender writing. An ACE Practicing Certificate might be considered as an incentive.
6. An improved image for ACE is needed. This is a difficult one because an improved image might increase the number of groups or communities wishing to be ACE providers and there simply isn’t any more money to go around. The issue shouldn’t be seen as one where more money to ACE can only result from another initiative being trimmed back. The point is that each of the initiatives and the sectors in question are worthy of additional and sustainable funding.
7. There is the potential to link ACE practice and funding to economic regional and community development. Planned community development is more sustainable rather than one-off projects and unplanned, provider competition.