YarnUp 4: Coral Lever
July 12th, 2023
The Centre for Volunteering, in proud partnership with Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation, is delighted to welcome a new addition to its YarnUp series with a story from Wiradjuri woman, mother, and CEO of First Nations Response, Coral Lever.
If there’s one thing Coral Lever understands, it’s the power of Community driven and led initiatives. During this generous account of her life, Coral talks us through some of her formative years, and how she embarked on starting, building, and growing her grassroots organisation, all while raising a handful of kids during a global pandemic.
Beyond the impressive partnerships and corporate opportunities she and her co-founder secured (with the likes of Foodbank and the City of Sydney), Coral also raises many important issues and barriers to accessing support in our sector. She also reflects on how her Black owned and Black-run organisation does things differently, embracing co-design and self-determination to carve out culturally safe spaces.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers and listeners are advised, this series contains stories of a sensitive nature and images, voices or names of people who may have died.
Facilitated by Tribal Warrior Talent
My name’s Coral Lever, I’m a proud Wiradjuri woman from Nanima mission in Central West NSW. Our family was brought up there and moved to Sydney at the age 13, so I have a connection to both the Redfern area and Wellington as well. My connection to community here in Marrickville essentially is the work I’ve been doing with First Nations Response which is really important for me and my sister Kim too. My sister and I were separated, I stayed at Nanima for a while. My sister and mum moved to Redfern in 2000. I was back and forth for a little while. I just didn’t like the city; I was definitely a Country girl and couldn’t cope in the big city.
We were in and out of Redfern in different hostels, we were homeless for a period there and really struggled with that life transition from the country to the city. But I’ve always gone to school and been involved with family and stuff around the Redfern area, so that’s always been home to us. When we were young, we were so shame of this stuff. You’d never know if were living in the park or under a bridge or sleeping at train stations. We were always presentable at school and always hid it. My mum was a heroin addict, and my dad was an alcoholic, you grow up with this sense of shame. Now we’re older, it really empowers us to do this work we do because we didn’t have people or role models to look up to in our childhood, who had made it and got this far. Kim was the first in our family to attend uni, that was the biggest point for us.
We’re a family, when we grew up on the mission, we were a family. The community is everyone’s responsibility. And then we went from Nanima to Redfern, and it was the same thing, so we were always surrounded by community and never outside that circle to realise it’s not necessarily normal to have that upbringing and trauma. It’s not until you get a bit older that you get to know what trauma looks like and what breaking intergenerational cycles looks like. In this job, it’s through lived experience, it’s not a do-gooder attitude. It’s like no, I know how hard it is and I know what these services are, because sometimes it was these services that literally saved our lives. Like the street kitchens that would feed us, the youth workers that would ask, “Are you ok?”. One of the instances we had was when our mum was arrested and spent six months in jail, she left us kids at home alone. It was because of Aunties in the community who helped and supported us with food that we were ok – that’s what community does, that’s the experience we have. To be able to build something that does work along these lines like supporting vulnerable families is huge, it’s a dream and that’s why we’ve done it for three years to this capacity – that’s why we’re passionate about it.
First Nations Response all started when my co-founder Nellie Pollard-Warton started a Facebook group back in the early days of covid to create community connections and support where people felt really isolated and disconnected from each other. She created a group for Mob to connect and yarn online and share things. Soon people started offering up clothes and things, then people would let community know there’s an Elder sick – “Can anybody go and drop off meals?“. At that time, my Aunty Betty owned the Tin Humpy in Redfern, which was shut down, so we used her commercial kitchen to cook meals and we’d go and deliver it to people.
It started off with a responsibility that we felt to community where we saw a need and thought “We can actually do something about this.” We grew up watching our Grandmothers doing this work. Nellie and I have come from backgrounds of grassroots activism and Land Rights, so we’ve grown up watching our community doing this work. You have a responsibility to carry that on I guess in whatever field it is that you work in. When you’re Mob and you just have a job or a sense of commitment to community – you have a sense of responsibility to just do something that you can, so that’s where it’s grown from.
Although we always knew there was a need, in doing this work, Nellie and I realised just how bad it was. It wasn’t just the demographic of people who you’d think are struggling. It was working families; it was mum and dads with jobs that had rego due that week and stuff. The demographic of people we were able to help was insane. We thought once the pandemic was over, we’d go back to our usual jobs, but the demand has grown, and it’s gotten worse since then. I think Covid was the perfect storm for us to open and operate. Back then there was no red tape as volunteers, we could manoeuvre around the rules and regulations because there was no red tape stopping us. Nellie and all our kids during covid were packaging and delivering these parcels. It’s grown from just us cooking in a kitchen to having our own building and having official partnerships with Foodbank and the City of Sydney. It’s grown from strength to strength and it’ s because of partnerships we’ve been able to make like with Tribal Warrior, Mudgin-gal and Redfern Community Centre.
For us to be able to harness the knowledge of our Elders and have them share that with us has meant a lot and why it’s been so successful. We’ve come on as a grassroots idea and it’s been supported by the community. The respect that we’ve received from doing this work is incredible, people have been so supportive of it. It’s definitely a community effort ‘cos stuff like this doesn’t get off the ground with two people. It’s the volunteers, it’s the help, it’s the support. Black politics is thick sometimes and it can be hard to operate and do stuff, so to have people like Uncle Shane reach out and say, “Whatever you’s need, you just reach out and let me know” has been really valuable, and I recognise we’ve had some ridiculous questions. Aunty Marg from Redfern Youth Connect has been incredible, she’s forever schooling us and telling us what it looks like and how they started. Drawing on that knowledge saves us from making those early mistakes which means we can navigate this landscape easily. We’ve had Elders and community leaders show us the way and it’s been amazing.
Some of the best feedback we got has been from the likes of Foodbank or Ozharvest who do similar work in the same area. They say “We’re not getting the same crowds that you do. What’s the difference, what’s happening here?” Well, this is Black owned, Black run and this serves the community. What you’re not doing is the Culturally safe protocols that we do. Elders get in first, we have cups of tea and cake and stuff for people to sit down. We’re sending Elders home in Ubers. We understand the community, so we know how to respond to it. There’s an element of dignity in what we do which is missing from so much of this work around food relief and stuff, so we don’t use the word charity at all. We don’t want that word anywhere near FNR. The feedback we’re getting from Elders is when they go to other services like Vinnies for instance, one of the Elders told us they had to do an interview over 30 mins and dredge up trauma to explain why they’re in that situation. At the end of it they walked away with a $20 gift card. They’re going to home to 4 grandkids, it isn’t worth the stress for what they had to go through. Whereas you come to FNR and walk away with fresh fruit, vegetables & meat, milk, and a week’s worth of groceries. You meet other people there in a community space and have a cup of tea. It doesn’t feel like charity, it feels like community essentially. We’re creating something new with food relief that doesn’t look like anything that’s been done before – it’s different because it’s been done by Mob, for Mob.
From our experience growing up, we didn’t enter a lot of those food relief spaces because we were so scared of us being removed from our mum or intervention happening that we did not need. We just needed food and support but often that comes with surveilling and all that stuff. Families will more often not seek help because they’re scared of what that looks like and what could happen. Then there’s the shame element, eating at soup kitchens and all that stuff is really de-humanising and makes you feel shame. What we wanted to do is create a space where people can get help and not feel an ounce of shame for asking for help.
Some of the stories and the feedback we get are really heartbreaking. We’re having Elders telling us they’ve cut down to one meal day and by the end of their pay cycle they’re on dry toast for a couple of days before pay day again. The health implications of that are disgusting, they’re not eating well and already have poor health outcomes; this cost-of-living crisis is attributing to it. We’ve got Elders who are suffering and can’t afford to eat. It’s just wrong… it’s so, so wrong. If we can provide milk, eggs and bacon and fruit that’s amazing, it means that Elder isn’t struggling for food.
We feel like it’s a privilege for us to be doing this work, to help each other. This is how we grow. There’s no shame in asking for help because we don’t have the generational wealth that other people are afforded, we don’t have these support services.
So, when the rego comes, or there’s a big bill or a funeral on – if mum and dad can save a bit of money from food – then it means we don’t have to struggle. It’s putting dignity into food, a basic essential that everyone should have, but we notice all too often in our community that it’s not accessible.
Aside from Marrickville & Redfern, we were at Woolloomooloo for a while working with an Elder who unfortunately passed away last year. Aunty Selena Blakely was a wonderful advocate for Woolloomooloo and in her honour, we’re hoping this year to come back to Woolloomooloo and finish off what we started together. The idea is if we can show other communities what we’ve done so they can adapt that for themselves. Each community is different, even between Marrickville and Redfern. If we want to spread outside of the communities we know, it’s teaching other communities how we’ve done it and them adapting that for themselves. They have the community knowledge, and we have the assets and partnerships to make that happen. In the long term, hopefully this is something other communities can implement themselves.
We’ve now got 6 FNR staff that help with the day-to-day running and organising, as we’re registering and doing our constitution. When we’re running, we’ve got a roster of about 150 volunteers who come through and chip pin. We post on Instagram when we need help and about 150 people in a roster will message and tell us ‘I can help’ or ‘I can do this.’ It’s a huge effort when you think about it, if we had to pay each of those volunteers we couldn’t afford to run. Without those volunteers giving their time, we couldn’t do what we do.
We’ve gotten huge support from the queer community who are always allies of Blackfullas. They’ve been coming through in swarms. We’ve got a Mob of queer fullas here in Marrickville who are the backbone of our operation. There’s no job too hard for them. It’s important to acknowledge that because that is huge to have that support system. We’ve also got whole systems of nurses who work shift work who, when they have a day off and they have some time, they will come through. We’ve got teachers, retirees, a whole list of people who come through and happy to chip in and help. The feedback we get is that they feel so rewarded having done this work and they notice the difference they’re making.
They give endlessly. Because we have so much on and wear so many hats at FNR, we’re constantly on the go. It’s a case of, the volunteers understand the work. We do have a bit of an on-boarding to ensure that people who work with us have some knowledge of Mob and community because you want to make sure it’s for community first. Everyone that comes on board sees the work we do and aligns with how we set it out and it just works.
We were initially funded during covid when the City of Sydney operated some emergency quick-response grants which we were able to access early on. A donation was made to Foodbank by the City of Sydney Council for community, and we were able to access that account. After covid, that money ran out and we continued a partnership with Foodbank doing some consultancy work in exchange. Between our resident Elder, myself, Nelly, and my sister we all do consultancy work for Foodbank in exchange for our food account, which is at the moment running $6,000 a week worth of food.
Foodbank are incredible and have supported us from the very beginning. We’re now looking to get corporate sponsors on board to sponsor our accounts. Otherwise, it won’t continue to be sustainable to continue doing the work we do, working for food without getting paid. We want to make it more sustainable and get a corporate sponsor on board who can help pay the bills. We’ve recently able to secure an Aboriginal Affairs grant to help set up our office space and hire a van because currently we borrow vans and utes and lean on PCYC, so it’s been a different van every week which is inconsistent for us. We’ve also got some help from the City of Sydney; they have been great. The team there are incredible helping us with some small grants and stuff. Now that we’re going to register as a deductible gift recipient, we can have some legitimacy and start going out for some funding so all our programs are funded. We want to work towards making sure that our staff, especially our Elder in residence, are paid for their time. The majority of what we do as a program will continue to be run from our volunteer network. We’ve been in discussion this week and started a Gofundme page to start paying some bills because so far, we’ve paid for everything from petrol to delivery fees.
In line with this week’s NAIDOC theme, we’re going to make a contribution to our Elder, my father-in-law, Sam Lever It certainly won’t cover the work he’s put in, but we are proud to give him a lump sum for everything he’s done for us. The expectation from him is “No, I don’t need to be paid!“. But we’re determined he definitely deserves that pay. He’s been working for free with us for two years and is down there gardening, cleaning the building, doing the Elder drops and unpacking and loading all our vans. FNR wouldn’t be what it is today without his contribution. He just enjoys it and genuinely loves being part of the community and doing stuff. The knowledge that we’ve got back from him has helped us navigate some tricky spaces so far and it’s a good partnership. No-one else except your own family would do this for free for so long. That’s how it works with family. That’s how these little networks start, we ask so much of everyone to invest in this. Even though we say, “I’ve got a full time job for you…but I can’t pay you“, so it’s down to family and networks to pull together.
I love doing the food, that’s the core stuff that we do but I also get a real kick out of and the advocacy work that we do. People will come in and ask if we know about other things. We’ve been able to get people into full-time work, we’ve helped dads in court and getting mums access to legal resources or help with DV. Providing food to Mob brings a lot of things through the door. It’s huge for us that we’ve been able to build connections with other orgs so we can say, “Well we don’t do that, but we know how does” and so we can refer them on. When someone comes in for food and we can get them housing or somewhere safe and support them with daycare for the kids, that’s probably the best thing for me, it’s the unexpected stuff. We’re starting to look into the social aspect and analysis of what we do but it’s hard sometime to sit down and write down what we do because we’ve done so much and our work is always go, go, go. We don’t usually get time to stop and reflect. These six months that we’ve taken off to set up our governance has allowed us to take stock and see the scope of work that we’ve been able to achieve from this. Nelly, with her research background is incredibly set to do that stuff going forward.
What we do is so broad that when we start to talk to people, we’ll forget some of the stuff we’ve done before. We’ve helped people move houses, we helped them move, we paid medical expenses. When the Lismore floods happened, we pivoted and sent three semi-trailers worth of relief to Lismore. The things that can happen when community pulls together is just incredible. The Lismore campaign went absolutely went viral which was great, and we quickly realised that we had to be really specific with the stuff we were asking for. It goes to show the power of what can happen once things get off the ground a little bit, you can actually make a huge difference! We had no intentions of FNR being a thing, we just thought it was a covid thing and we’d go back to our regular jobs afterwards. We love the name First Nations Response – it’s us responding to what the community needs from us.
In one aspect we’ve gotten community support, but it can also be really hard to validate yourself at this grassroots level. Especially when you have to connect with government and Aboriginal Affairs and corporate partners. They all expect this really put together organisation, when in reality it’s just two mums with kids in a little building in Marrickville. It’s hard to stress the importance to these organisations of supporting us at a grassroots level and to deliver to where the assets are.
Trying to translate the importance of what we do and the impact we’ve been able to make at a Cultural level has been really hard. We can talk about it and we know the work we do, but getting those corporate partners and people to understand how that works and why it works – why you can’t have certain policies and why things need to be done a certain way from a cultural perspective has been hard to navigate a culturally safe space in a western context where you do need to have the processes, procedures and red tape and insurance and all that stuff. We’ve really tried to build an org on our Cultural context rather than from a western sense.
The change in community happens at such a great level when we do this stuff for ourselves. There’s been so many times partners or sponsors have offered to absorb our program or want to take it over and we say “No, it works because we do it this way.” This is why it’s so important that we need the support to do these things for ourselves and we don’t need corporates or governments or other orgs to do this work for us, but to support us do the work for ourselves – essentially, supporting self-determination.
Blackfulla community spaces are really diverse, and the inclusivity has been really great for us in that aspect. In Redfern for instance, we get a whole different demographic of Blackfullas and all kinds of other community members. It’s a diverse group you get through the doors and it’s really great to see that it’s for the whole of community run by Blackfullas for once. Something that was a real learning curve for me, especially with the queer community was that I wasn’t the best at using the right pro-nouns, that was new to me and though I was open to it and fine with it, at first, I didn’t have the knowledge to understand. Creating a space where you can ask questions means it’s a safe place for people to say I don’t understand. It’s been a real sharing of knowledge; people from the queer community knowing what our culture looks like, and me understanding what their community looks like. It’s that shared space of respect that you can learn and grow with each other.
The work we do keeps us all engaged and motivated because it’s such rewarding work. People have come to volunteer, and I say thank you, but the volunteers say “No, thank you. I really needed this” or “I really needed the genuine interactions and kindness and to be in an accepting environment.” All our volunteers get more back from the work than we do. There’s a lot of people looking for that and it’s not always easy to find a space when you can give back and help people in a genuine and meaningful way. Not being from Sydney but spending most of our lives here, we do feel connected to home because that’s where our family, legacy and where our Elders have done the work there. For us to create this in Sydney, our kids are growing up having watched this grassroots org being built. It’s so powerful for them to see what they can do and what their mums have done, they can follow up in our footsteps as well. Going to the Redfern Youth Connect opening recently, we were watching Aunty Marg and Uncle Sol and their kids. We’re like, “This is what it’s about, this is what it looks like.” Families and communities creating a space that help community is so important.
There’s plenty of people who are doing this good work, but if you’re gonna start from scratch it has to be authentic from your own lived experience. To do something that aligns with yourself, something you’re passionate about, not just an idea. Because it is hard and sometimes you want to pack it all in and quit. It’s really testing, but when you can fall back on why you do it, it keeps you going.
Everyone’s got a different lived experience, whether you grew up knowing you’re Black or not we’ve created a Black space where people can come and learn and educate themselves about their own community. It’s so important to highlight what mothers can do. When Nelly and I started this, we had six or seven kids between us sitting down at Marrickville trying to home school, pack food and stuff. Kim has three kids now and Nelly has a new baby, we’ve been doing all this work with young children. We’ve been able to do this with kids on our hips and as Black women this is really important. With our new space it’s going to be half a creche and half an office. When we did a NAIDOC panel last year, some of the women were saying, “This is incredible, do you know how much of a difference it would mean to me if I can take my baby to work?“. At all our pop-ups my little daughter Kimberley has been there for every single one. She hates school now because she misses the Redfern Community Centre and seeing all the Uncles and Aunties there. The fact we’ve been able to build this with our families and with our kids is something so special.
First Nations Response is a grassroots Aboriginal Women-led organisation that was founded in 2020 during the covid lockdown era to provide culturally appropriate support and urgent food relief to the Inner-West and Inner-City of Sydney mobs.
To cover the costs associated with the incredible work they do in the community, they are aiming to raise $100,000 in 2023. If you would like to contribute or pledge your support, visit their GoFundMe campaign.
To learn more about this project and partnership, visit our website.
Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation website (Tribal Warrior) is a non-profit organisation founded and directed by Aboriginal peoples, with Elders from various NSW Aboriginal nations at its helm. For more information on their range of programs, cultural tours and experiences, visit the Tribal Warrior website.