Senior Lecturer, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Qld
Board Member, Inala Wangarra Inc.
Business Services Manager, Inala Wangarra Inc.
We are asking those groups most marginal in society to be most resourceful. Participation and self-government make demands on people’s available time and require a great deal of self-discipline. It is therefore necessary to identify those processes which may provide communities with the necessary tools and prerequisite learning to enable their participation in their own development. (Ramirez 1990:131)
The philosophical promise of community development to “resource and empower people so that they can collectively control their own destinies” (Kenny 1996:104) is no doubt alluring to Indigenous Australia. Given the historical and contemporary experiences of colonial control and surveillance of Aboriginal bodies, alongside the continuing experiences of socio-economic disadvantage, community development reaffirms the aspirational goal of Indigenous Australians for self-determination. Self-determination as a national policy agenda for Indigenous Australians emerged in the 1970s and saw the establishment of a wide range of Aboriginal community-controlled services (Tsey et al 2012). Sullivan (2010:4) argues that the Aboriginal community controlled service sector during this time has, and continues to be, instrumental to advancing the plight of Indigenous Australians both materially and politically. Yet community development and self-determination remain highly problematic and contested in how they manifest in Indigenous social policy agendas and in practice (Hollinsworth 1996; Martin 2003; McCausland 2005; Moreton-Robinson 2009). Moreton-Robinson (2009:68) argues that a central theme underpinning these tensions is a reading of Indigeneity in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, behaviours, cultures, and communities are pathologised as “dysfunctional” thus enabling assertions that Indigenous people are incapable of managing their own affairs. This discourse distracts us from the “strategies and tactics of patriarchal white sovereignty” that inhibit the “state’s earlier policy of self-determination” (Moreton-Robinson 2009:68). We acknowledge the irony of community development espoused by Ramirez above (1990), that the least resourced are expected to be most resourceful.; however, we wish to interrogate the processes that inhibit Indigenous participation and control of our own affairs rather than further interrogate Aboriginal minds as uneducated, incapable and/or impaired.
This paper specifically examines these tensions in practice from the perspective of a small Indigenous community development organisation, Inala Wangarra, which is located in Inala, an outer-western suburb of Brisbane. Home of the Jagera people, Inala has also become home for a large number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from other areas and represents one of the largest Indigenous communities in south-east Queensland since its establishment in the 1950s. Inala is also among the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). Comprising of a higher proportion of public housing stock, high levels of unemployment, low income and educational levels and a high proportion of non-English speaking residents, we can easily provide a statistical portrait of despair and disadvantage. What these figures don’t reveal is the immense pride, resilience and strength of this community, which we experience both as members of this community and as service providers working in this space.
The community organisation in question here, Inala Wangarra is relatively new in the historical context of this community but sits within the paradoxical dilemma of working within a ‘disadvantaged’ community in a way that doesn’t reinforce hierarchical arrangements of power upon the ‘powerless’. A not-for-profit community development organisation, Inala Wangarra was incorporated in early-2005, with an original operating budget of $12,000 with activities primarily run by board members and community volunteers. Today, the organisation has an annual budget of $600,000, with a membership base of 93 people from a potential 100, a team of 7 staff and is run by a management committee comprising of local Indigenous community members, half of whom are founding members of the organisation. The organisation proudly identifies itself as a ‘community development’ organisation and facilitates a variety of sporting, recreational, cultural, arts, employment, education and training initiatives that seek to enhance and strengthen the skills and capacity of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community within Inala and surrounding areas.
The reflections of this paper are written from our position as the Business Services Manager (Brady) and Board Member (Bond) of Inala Wangarra and provide important insights from the coalface of local community development. We argue that if community development is about empowering the powerless – than we must ensure that the powerless have a voice both in local community building agendas and in community development building agendas from theory to policy to practice. Here, we highlight the ways in which Indigenous community development rhetoric is visited upon us and how we remain resistant to and resilient against these agendas in a way that works within our community and our organisation. Specifically, we will identify and critique three key contradictions in Indigenous community development discourse and practice within an urban Indigenous context which include: our resistance against the mainstreaming of Indigenous services, the need to reconfigure the notion of capacity building in our community and the impetus for broadening the scope of good governance conversations within the Indigenous community-controlled service sector.
Mainstreaming or marginalising
The Indigenous social policy shift under the Howard administration in the late-1990s moved away from self-determination to a policy of a ‘new paternalism’ under a sweep of changes that saw the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the ‘mainstreaming’ of Indigenous-specific services in urban areas (McCausland 2005). This latter shift brought to life public imaginings of the ‘real’ Aboriginal people as existing in the most remote parts of the country and presented real challenges for urban Indigenous community organisations, including ours, to attract financial investment from both state and federal governments. The underlying false premises here were that ‘real’ Aboriginal people don’t exist in urban centres; Aboriginal people in urban settings aren’t culturally different; Aboriginal people in urban areas don’t experience the same levels of disadvantage; and that mainstream services had the capacity to provide the same services to this population.
The evidence tells us that the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (75%) reside in urban and major regional centres (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011:9) and regardless of how quantifiably disadvantaged or advantaged those locations are, Indigenous people’s SEIFA scores remain significantly lower when compared to the rest of the population (Kennedy & Firman 2004:4). In the Inala instance, our SEIFA score is among the lowest in the greater Brisbane region and within this location, Indigenous people in our community still remain more socio-economically disadvantaged than non-Indigenous residents within our community. The qualitative research by Hayman et al (2009), examining Indigenous people’s poor access to the Inala Community Health Service revealed that while health services may be physically accessible to Indigenous people in urban and regional centres, they remain culturally inaccessible. In this study, Indigenous people didn’t attend the local mainstream health service because they simply didn’t feel welcome. Being treating poorly, feeling shamed and not cared for were experiences that Indigenous people experienced here, but it is an all too familiar experience for Indigenous people accessing mainstream services, regardless of whether they happen to live in an urban, rural or remote community. Notably, Aboriginal doctor, Hayman established an Indigenous-specific service within that same facility, employed Indigenous staff, engaged the local community and reconfigured how the service could operate in a more culturally safe way. Consequently, Indigenous access to primary health care rose from 12 clients in 1994 to 3006 clients in 2008. Clearly, Indigenous-led services have the capacity to deliver better outcomes to Indigenous people.
Despite the national policy agenda of mainstreaming Indigenous services in urban areas, our local community have still enlisted and expected the assistance of Inala Wangarra to provide particular services to its members even though we are not resourced to do so. An area of particularly high demand on Inala Wangarra staff and Board has been around assistance with employment, notably advertising jobs, resume and application writing support, as well as access to computers and information technology support to find, prepare and submit job applications. Many of our organisation’s staff and Board have supported these goals both within their workplace as well as within their own homes. This has been intriguing, particularly given the proliferation of Job Services Australia funded agencies who are endowed with this responsibility and who are provided with specific incentives to improve Indigenous employment outcomes within our community. While our organisation is committed to being responsive to community needs and aspirations, using our resources to support Indigenous people to find employment when these resources have been provided to us for other purposes, places us in a compromising position in the eyes of the funding provider. It is our organisation that runs the risk of breaching funding agreements when resources are diverted elsewhere, while little scrutiny is cast over those who are failing to fulfil their funding commitments to servicing and advancing the interests of Indigenous people within our community.
Our response to this dilemma was supported through a strategic partnership with the Australian Red Cross, who recognised the role of Indigenous community organisations in supporting Indigenous people into employment in an often unfunded and unofficial capacity. Through this partnership, Inala Wangarra and three other Indigenous community-controlled organisations in the Brisbane region have together established the Indigenous Employment Portal. This Portal positions Indigenous employment coordinators within each organisation as a complementary service to Indigenous job-seekers already attached to a Job Services Australia agency. The employment coordinator is embedded within existing community networks, activities and energies and provides case management support in job-seeking and on-the-job support in partnership with the employer. The results speak for themselves. Over an 18 month period, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Brisbane were placed in employment and of these, 92% had remained in employment after 13 weeks. Within our site, over 80 Indigenous people were placed in employment, which means for every week we operated, we helped place another Indigenous person into employment. These results are particularly significant given that approximately half of our Indigenous job-seekers who came to us had been out of the workforce for 6 months or more. We helped our community members get jobs and stay in those jobs where other employment support agencies had been unable to do so.
Interestingly, in order for us to be resourced to provide employment support in an official capacity within our community, it required the harnessing of the ‘brand power’ and advocacy of a larger mainstream non-government organisation, the Australian Red Cross. Without doubt, the employment outcomes themselves were generated through local community agency, activism and the strength of Indigenous social capital within each of the partnering Indigenous organisations. The evidence tells us that when Indigenous services are mainstreamed, Indigenous people remain marginalised; however, when mainstream resources, power and advocacy are divulged to the Indigenous community-controlled sector, we see better results and often with less financial resourcing. The provision of ‘Indigenous-specific’ services is not about giving ‘preferential special treatment’ to Indigenous people; rather it is about providing high quality, culturally appropriate service delivery to those who need it most, by those most capable of delivering.
Building capacity to see capacities
Capacity building remains one of the most widely used terms in Indigenous community discourses among politicians, policy officers, philanthropists and community development practitioners. The mantra of capacity building is espoused in community development philosophy, but resonates more strongly in the context of Indigenous community organisations and an inglorious history of mismanagement in Indigenous community controlled services. What confounds us most, however, is the tendency for ‘capacity building’ agendas to serve as ‘capacity-limiting’ realities for Indigenous people. The premise of capacity building is that the community lacks capacity. Capacity building is a commonly touted catch-cry that never sits within a specific context – it is implied, it is presumed, it becomes sedimented and secures the position and power of ‘helper’ and ‘helpless’ alike.
We are disturbed by the ways in which the capacity-limiting agenda is reinforced within our own community. Too often, the ‘impoverished’ community is understood in terms of the ‘impoverished’ nature of its members and the ‘impoverished’ infrastructure that surrounds them. Certainly, the lack of local industry for people to get employment and the educational levels within our community are part of this problem. However, there is a bustling local industry in Inala in which our local community has tremendous skills and abilities to contribute to. This industry we refer to are the health, community, education and welfare agencies that intrude upon our local landscape as much as they intrude upon our lives. A quick drive or walk around our neighbourhood and you can witness how these services encroach upon our landscape – they are the new buildings, the two-storey buildings with carparks (for the staff who drive in to our community each day) and even represented as ‘scenic’ locations in neighbourhood signposting (see Figure 1).
These buildings stand in stark contrast with the low-set stucco Housing Commission homes that line every street of our neighbourhood and are in a much better state than other public infrastructure such as the local shopping centres and the dilapidated skating rink, pool hall, swimming pool facility that now only house pigeons and weeds. One walk around our local shopping centre and you will find many shop fronts aren’t selling ‘goods’ in the usual sense; instead you will find employment agents, parole offices, youth and health organisations. They don’t offer jobs – they offer the opportunity for our community to be clients. And every day, hundreds of professional helpers drive into our community to work on us, to save us, and never once question the very conditions that locate us as ‘disadvantaged’.
Inala Wangarra philosophically and practically positions itself as an organisation that works from a strength-based perspective; it doesn’t have a discourse of clients or consumers – we instead talk about our community in a way that positions them as the change makers. Our Board and staff are members of our local Indigenous community. Our community members are all future Board and staff members. The notion of the helper and the helped is blurred. A young school leaver is a potential trainee or an MC for an event, a young single dad is a performer at a festival or future security guard, the recently released prisoner is a leader among his peers. Every person is a person with a skill, a family and a community. Every person has something to offer, both to us as an organisation and to themselves, their family and their community. Within the past 12 months, Inala Wangarra have employed 15 Indigenous people on staff, placed 4 Indigenous students on work experience and a further 58 individuals have been enlisted on a casual basis as community facilitators in the delivery of our programs and services. This figure does not factor in the hundreds of Indigenous people enlisted as volunteers or the thousands of people who have participated in our programs.
What we wish to emphasise here, however, is the importance of Indigenous people as service providers and the importance of recognising and remunerating them for their expertise. Participants in our programs are the drivers of our services, both philosophically and pragmatically. For instance, at least 6 of our youth group participants have become employees within our organisation as Project Officers and Inala Wangarra has directly assisted in scaffolding their careers within the community services sector. Our organisation engages in recruitment processes that privilege the capacity of individuals who live within and know the local community and we are cognisant of the need to invest in their capacity building in other areas. In fact, that is much of the joy that comes with our work: supporting local people to further develop their existing skills set to work within their own community. A real risk to our capacity building agenda for our Indigenous workforce are the short-term funding arrangements that often demand hard and fast quantitative outcomes which at times are unachievable for even the most skilled practitioner. Unfortunately, Indigenous-practitioner capacity building is often an unrecognised achievement within funding provider expectations, yet capacity building remains the mantra espoused within policy documents produced by these same funding providers.
It remains a logical step for Inala Wangarra to skill our people up to work in their own community, because we know that they have the capacity to be most effective, because it is THE local industry in our community for people to gain employment and because changing the economic base from which they operate is fundamental to addressing their individual and community disadvantage. Making the agenda of capacity building helpful for Indigenous people in effecting change requires reconfiguring how we think about Indigenous people and communities and demands greater specificity of what capacities are to be built and whose interests they are intended to serve.
For good governance sake
Indigenous governance discourses often parallel capacity building discourses by focusing efforts on ensuring ‘compliant’ Indigenous minds. Here, attention is diverted to educational programs which teach Indigenous people how to be good managers within western frameworks, such as educating Indigenous people about their roles and responsibilities as management committee members and the financial management systems required by the state. We don’t suggest that these aren’t worthy investments and it has certainly been part of Inala Wangarra’s agenda; however it remains just part of the good governance conversation within the Indigenous community controlled sector. We argue that cultural governance (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) is a space that requires further consideration and, in particular, how Indigenous management committees navigate local community cultural politics, needs and aspirations through the bureaucratic, neoliberal agendas of the state. This has been particularly important in the context of our local community which has witnessed more than its fair share of failed Indigenous organisations over the past few decades and, in many cases, has revolved around family disputes and nepotism (actual and perceived). In fact, it was from the demise of a fairly large Indigenous organisation within the Inala community that Inala Wangarra was itself established.
Inala Wangarra was established as a steering committee in 2003, after a major Indigenous organisation within the community went into administration. The Administrator advised of the organisation’s closure at a large community meeting and suggested that various services provided by the organisation’s ‘community arm’ were effective and important for the community to continue. The Steering Committee was nominated by those in attendance and was tasked with developing a new community organisation model. Supported by Brisbane City Council’s Community Development Officer, the steering committee invested in a two year process of consultation with the community to chart the future model and focus of the organisation as well as investigate what could be learnt from the past. Much was learnt, but two very important recommendations came from our community which focused on ‘getting the right people’ and ‘keeping the right people’ to run the organisation. From this, community members recommended that all future Board members be subjected to regular criminal history checks and that no more than one family member should serve on the Board at any given time. For the purposes of our constitution, a family member is considered an immediate family member (such as a spouse, parent, grandparent, child, or sibling), though we acknowledge family has a different cultural resonance in our community. It is the latter strategy that has proven most effective in how the organisation is perceived within the community and among funding providers and what has enabled it to be resistant to local community political turmoil.
Quite recently, the organisation had to manage a grievance with a disgruntled community member, upset that he had been overlooked for an employment opportunity within the organisation. The organisation’s Board and staff were subjected to ongoing experiences of abuse, harassment and slander and this led to the rejection of membership applications from the complainant and a close relative who also engaged in the same behaviour. Both individuals also threatened to ‘take over’ the organisation and tried to enlist the support of other community members to step in to ‘roll the Board’, which is an all too familiar path for many of our Indigenous organisations. Inala Wangarra convened a special general meeting to enable the complainants to appeal their membership rejection and ensure that community members had their say. The membership did have their say and voted unanimously to uphold the Board’s decision. What was significant about this event was that it was the first time the organisation rejected an individual’s membership and it was also the first time the organisation had to manage this type of community politicking.
Upon reflection, we now appreciate just how profound the constitutional rules we’d developed around family and management committee membership actually were. In the past, community organisational conflict often centred on family versus family and organisational governance often sat in the hands of whoever had the biggest mob. However, the governance framework of Inala Wangarra provides for a model of community management with at least 8 different family groups from within the community represented. Attempts to destabilise the organisation because of personal grievances thus became more difficult. Rather than prevent community members from having a role in their local organisations, this strategy requires broader community investment and ensures greater accountability to the community rather than vested interests of more outspoken individuals or families.
The other part of the good governance story for us are the cultural systems and processes of the state that render community development goals almost impossible to achieve. The lack of trust toward the Indigenous community-controlled sector to manage our own affairs limits the capacity of Indigenous organisations to deliver and grow. Since the organisation’s inception, many of our programs have been delivered in partnership with or auspiced by ‘mainstream’ NGOs, initially to get some runs on the board as a new organisation. However, 10 years on, we still find it necessary to partner with mainstream NGOs in order to harness their brand power. It is not because we are incapable of developing strategic and innovative service delivery models, write grants, manage projects, employ staff, deliver on outcomes and perform acquittals. It is simply that we still aren’t trusted and it is clear that funding providers have a higher degree of anxiety about funding Indigenous organisations generally and the glossy tenders of larger competing NGOs are all too appealing.
The notion that Indigenous people can’t be trusted to manage the money still runs through the minds of many of those assessing the suitability of Indigenous community organisations to deliver services, despite the emergence and uptake of Indigenous governance training across the country. For us, good governance requires the provision of financial capital as much as investing in human capital. We have learnt that a highly skilled and educated Indigenous management committee can only do so much. In the organisation’s early days, many of our funding providers would not allow us to draw any management or administrative fees from the grants we received and we considered ourselves fortunate if we could obtain office on-costs as a budgetary item. Consequently, back then, Board members would process payroll and expenses for project staff, as well as provide operational management and supervision, prepare acquittals and engage in strategic advocacy with funding providers and Ministers while also navigating local community issues and problems, as well as run their own households, care for their children and families and maintain their own paid employment. Needless to say, this experience of community development didn’t feel all that empowering for the Indigenous community members of this management committee.
In more recent years, Inala Wangarra has been more forthright in advocating for administrative and management fees to be drawn from grants with some success, though it continues to be a fight. Obtaining a 5, 10 or 15% management fee is almost always met with cautionary advice from well-meaning funding providers about their need to ensure ‘value for money’. We’ve come to the realisation that we can no longer allow our passions, concerns and commitment to our community to persuade us to accept less than what is required to deliver high quality services to our community. This form of emotional blackmail has been used as a weapon against us on occasions; that is, “if you don’t take what we are prepared to give, the community will miss out on the program”. We now know that if we don’t put our good governance first, there will be no programs at all.
It should be noted that despite these challenges, Inala Wangarra has been highly successful in securing funding to deliver services to our community. In fact, this year alone, we are managing 42 different grants, each of which required a funding application, milestone reports, financial acquittals and written reports. This financial year, the organisation’s annual income was around $600,000, which equates to an average grant value of $14,000 each. Clearly, Board members and volunteers, no matter how skilled, cannot carry this burden and, according to ‘good governance’, should be dealing with strategic, not operational matters. Our endeavours to secure funding for a Finance Officer and Chief Executive Officer(CEO) either directly or via management fees from grant income have been made possible through our own creative writing skills. The current joke within our organisation is how many names can you give a CEO? Very few funding providers want to fund CEOs of Indigenous organisations, but they love funding ‘projects’. All of our CEOs and Finance Officers since our organisation’s inception have had different names in order to couch their work into a project. While the objectives of these projects align perfectly with those of a CEO and Finance Officer, for some reason we can’t call them that.
Given the moral imperative about good governance in Indigenous community organisations, we are perplexed that funding for management infrastructure causes so much anxiety. But more seriously, this game-playing hinders good governance rather than securing it. The only real and present threat to Inala Wangarra’s future as an organisation today, is our ability to secure the necessary funding to pay the wages for our CEO and Finance Officer. We remain in a tenuous position in that our organisation is too big to not have this type of management infrastructure in place, but we remain too small to generate from existing grants the funds required to fully fund both positions. We agree wholeheartedly that good governance matters. We just suggest that the remedying of ‘governance’ issues in the Aboriginal community controlled service sector needs to move beyond remedying Aboriginal minds and be prepared to make the financial investments necessary to enable Aboriginal bodies to collectively act and take control.
The story we share here is not a sorry story. In highlighting these contradictions within Indigenous community development practice, we are not positioning ourselves as helpless victims. Because we are not. We are proud of our community and what Inala Wangarra has achieved, as well as our own resilience and creativity in our journey thus far. This is a story of how our organisation and our community continue to “walk tall, united in culture, spirit and identity” (Inala Wangarra 2010) regardless of the challenges we face. We hope that our reflections and learnings encourage more critical conversations around the taken-for-granted assumptions about Indigeneity which limit possibilities and capabilities, as well as around community development theory, policy and practice more broadly. Clearly, there are many competing tensions for Indigenous organisations situated at the interface of national Indigenous social policy agendas, state bureaucratic frameworks and community aspirations. While critical of the contradictions of community development practice within these sites, as a small Indigenous community controlled organisation, we remain hopeful that the community development goals of resourcing and empowering people to take control of their own destinies will feature more centrally and meaningfully in the lives of Indigenous Australians and in the minds of those that seek to work with us.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013) New data from the 2011 Census reveals Queensland’s most advantaged and disadvantaged areas, media release, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 25 September 2013
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The authors would like to acknowledge the knowledge, wisdom, strength and resilience of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Inala, as well as the passion and commitment of our current and previous Board members, staff and volunteers who all walk tall together. We also thank those that have walked beside us, including The Inala Elders Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation, Wandarrah Preschool, West Inala Rugby League Football Club, McCullough Robertson Lawyers, Foundation for Young Australians, Australian Red Cross, Inala Indigenous Health Service, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health, Access Arts, Brisbane City Council, Contact Inc., and Vulcana Women’s Circus. We would especially like to acknowledge Sara Lawless, a community development practitioner whose passion for community development inspired the formation of our organisation and continues to influence our practice today.