The Centre for Volunteering, in proud partnership with Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation, is pleased to share the latest instalment in this series featuring young Wiradjuri woman and community leader, Elisa-Jane Prentice. 

What does your volunteering look like? For Elisa-Jane, it’s a myriad of things. From tax agent, recruiter, real estate agent, babysitter, to furniture removalist, she adopts many roles to support Community. As part of this discussion, Elisa-Jane describes her profound connection to Country and Culture, power of Kinship bonds, and offers sage advice to anyone thinking about approaching Community. She also debunks some common misconceptions, rooted in Western expectations and markers of success.

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.

Full interview with Elisa-Jane Prentice

Facilitated by Tribal Warrior Talent

I’m a proud Wiradjuri woman with three bloodlines from Wiradjuri. We are the second biggest nation in the country. I was raised in Western Sydney, my mother was born in Western Sydney as well, so our family represents two generations now.

For me, travelling on Country and the concept of belonging to Country gives me a reminder of how big the world is and what things really mean. It gives me a bigger sense of purpose.

“Through travelling I’m able to sit, listen and learn from Country and understand what Country has to share.”

Country and Culture go hand in hand. If you imagine the map of Australia, our songlines look like a spider web on that map. Songlines are just one example of the relationship with Country and Culture. There’s something so powerful about sharing 60,000 years’ worth of history in depth as you walk through the places where they happen. Culture passes down that history, along with the community and family structures that allows us to thrive and stay connected with each other.

Being on Country, watching Mob from Country dance and be a part of that you know that where you are placed, where you’re stepping is the exact same spot that Mob thousands of years before you have done the exact same thing. We don’t have to dance to feel Country, the history of that place is within us, and dancing is a way of connecting even further to Country through Culture.

For me, the connection stays alive through Kinship as well. As I travel on Country, I stay with community, meet Aboriginal families I haven’t met before and they invite me to stay with them. Aunties and Uncles would travel through town for another event and I can stay with them, we look after each other through Kinship and connect on Country through Kinship.

Even growing up, I didn’t realise the depth of community where I was growing up in Mt Druitt, I didn’t understand it back then. I grew up in a time where every positive and negative experiences were valid to the space I work in now and I’m really grateful for that. I’m lucky enough to work in a space where if those Kinships bonds reach out for help now and I’ve got the capacity to help them, I can. Now I have found my way to a space where I can give back to my community.

“People typically don’t choose or pursue to give back, it finds you naturally.”

As a young person, I would have friends going through court systems, being their support person, writing them letters, even though I probably didn’t have the knowledge how to do it properly back then. Sometimes all we have is each other. That keeps growing and takes different forms, like looking after people’s babies when they have another appointment. When I started to build my career in employment services, I developed the knowledge on how to articulate things on paper and unlock opportunities for people.

I was working in recruitment for a while, but my role didn’t end there. I was everyone’s tax agent, their real estate agent, their furniture removalist. Anything that people needed. I can’t count how many people I’ve helped move apartments along with their new jobs or write court letters or get them meals.

I’ve been on Country and formed kinship bonds on Pitjantjara language Country for a while, Bundjalung, Wiradjuri, Dharug and Gadigal.

“Once you establish yourself in the space and capacity for supporting Mob, you become that go-to person to support anyone who needs it. It’s a lifelong connection and that Country and community becomes part of you and is embedded in your Kinship.”

We all like to consider everyone family, so once you’ve stayed or lived with someone for a few months they’re family. If my daughter travels through those same communities when she’s older, those people will remember me and extend that Kinship to her, so it goes well beyond my own life. If I look after someone, one day their siblings will look after my child when she needs it. I’ll never be alone and my daughter will never be alone because I have Kinship.

The dream is to regain those traditional community structures, lots of different cultures around the world have those traditional structures and we need that back. It’s only modern western culture that’s embodied in business culture which is so success-driven, where they have one day of giving back a year, the kids move out as soon as they can start working, etc.

“With Aboriginal people, we’re trying to hold onto that traditional community structure. Our capacity to give back is stronger when we’re community and when we’re supported to have that structure.”

It can be challenging when we’re navigating the Western way of doing things, where people will inevitably want to leave town for a while and do their own thing for a while. But they always come back and return to Culture.

The main age group that tends to drift off are people in their early 20’s to 30’s. They drift off sometimes to find themselves and sense-check their community environment to understand if that’s what they want for themselves. They also look to seek out opportunities elsewhere outside community and in the worst cases they drift off because drugs got to them.

In my experience as a young person growing up in Western Sydney, we were all about the same age, trying to navigate living between toxic households. So we stuck together and formed our own Kinship together. At that time there wasn’t much support, respect or leadership from our adults as things were rough back then. Right now there’s not many Elders left in Western Sydney, it’s a reflection of the time that our adults haven’t been able to take leadership roles in Western Sydney.

There’s a lot of work to be done still, especially back in Western Sydney, Mt Druitt. I would like to see more done out there as I know there’s less support out there than other areas. It’s lacking some of the much-needed foundations for people to step up out there.

Still, community gets through some tough times together. They do it for each other, there’s no body to pay that income. It can lead to community burnout because it’s hard to sustain. In many places, people survive on Centrelink income, but they also volunteer because they enjoy it. So, you might find them working essentially a full-time unpaid job at the local community centre or health service, but they’re full-time volunteers.

The mentality a lot of Aboriginal are raised with is that the concept of taking isn’t recognised. So, it’s difficult to build a career when it’s all about taking opportunities and taking a better position, or more income.

“We were taught our whole lives not to take, so the concept of taking is challenging but the environment we are in and the societal structure – you need to take to succeed.”

So, it may seem like people are doing nothing but really they’re doing everything, because they’re not taking in the general sense of the word.

I love seeing the impact of community giving back. Knowing you can help with something small like getting a job or helping their move house and seeing the impact for their families. The smallest things you do today can grow a whole new world for someone and their kids and their kids’ kids. It’s seeing those results that keep you going and keep you remembering why you do it.

Of course, people can slip through the cracks and that is the worst feeling when someone has asked for help, and I didn’t have the time or energy to help them immediately in that timeframe. The impacts of missing out on helping someone can be huge and it weighs on you sometimes. I have come to understand that I’m a finite resource, so I wish there were more people who were able to stay in community, develop their skillset to be able to fill in those gaps for Mob and help out.

My mum was born in ’75, Aboriginal kids were technically still being removed back then. Education wasn’t a thing for their generation and now our generation is the first to step into a lot of these spaces. So, by the time the next generation are ready to step up it shouldn’t be an issue anymore.

A lot of people don’t understand the relevance or necessity around giving back to community.

“People can be quick to say, well there’s an ‘Aboriginal issue’ but it’s interesting that they’re usually just finger-pointing and not ready to put in the work themselves or address the root cause of colonisation creating those issues.”

For anyone looking to help or find a solution, I would advise them to abandon the deficit mindset. Listen to Mob on Country, they know what works for them and what enables their community to be able to thrive. We’re an open and sharing Culture, just try not to be too assertive or extroverted when you approach a new community. Even if you have good intentions don’t push those too hard. Go gently and let them welcome you.


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About YarnUp

To learn more about this project and partnership, visit our website.

About Tribal Warrior

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.