OPINION: Breaking shackles of stigma

Windale: the negative is exacerbated and the positive often goes unnoticed. Picture: Ryan Osland

Windale: the negative is exacerbated and the positive often goes unnoticed. Picture: Ryan Osland

IN the late 1980s, while working as a journalist at the Newcastle Herald, I walked along the small Windale shopping strip seeking comments from locals following the publishing of a research report on the high level of disadvantage in the suburb. All the stats then pointed in the wrong direction, with the research report reaffirming the negative stigma attached to postcode 2306.  

A lasting memory of that visit was the anger that many local people showed towards me and my photographer colleague. We represented “outsiders”, seemingly with the agenda of yet again bringing down the suburb.

Fast-forward 25 years and this week with the release of another report on disadvantage in Windale, I found myself in a very different position as I sat with a Herald journalist chatting about the future of the local community that is now home to a BaptistCare Community Centre and our North West NSW regional office.

In responding to good questions from the reporter, the tension of the “now and not yet” became very real for me.

There is no hiding from the fact that Windale is a community of disadvantage. It has been for many years and it will be for many years to come. And sadly, this still results in much of the Hunter community looking unfavourably and unfairly on the suburb. 

The negative is exacerbated and the positive is so often unnoticed.

Yes, there is high disadvantage, as highlighted again this week with the release of the Dropping off the Edge report, published by Catholic Social Services and Jesuit Social Services. The report found that Windale was joined by other “stigma communities” including Brewarrina, Claymore, Lightning Ridge, Walgett and Wilcannia as the most disadvantaged in NSW.

Alarmingly the report found that just 6 per cent of postcodes across NSW occupied 49.5 per cent of the top spots across the disadvantage measures. In other words, disadvantage is entrenched in a small number of NSW communities and little has changed over the past two decades. 

And, yes, while postcode discrepancy issues need to be taken into account, such as Windale being the only suburb in the 2306 area, compared to a mix of higher and lower socio- economic pockets in many other postcodes, the facts remain that the 2306 postcode faces multiple, complex and long-term challenges. 

But this is not the end of the story. Despite these challenges, disadvantage measures do not define a local community; nor do they scratch deeper and capture the grassroots, “green-shoot” spirit of hope, resilience, optimism and determination that are alive and well in many towns and suburbs labelled as highly disadvantaged, including the Windale community.

As report co-author Tony Vinson commented this week, highly encouraging NAPLAN results at Windale Public School paint a much brighter picture of where the suburb could be heading.

Added to this are innovative community service initiatives being sponsored by a number of organisations, including BaptistCare, which seek to provide local people with enabling “hand-up” support, rather than traditional handout approaches.

Along these lines, it was great to see the smile on the faces of some of my local team at our Windale centre recently when a long-term unemployed man came into our centre to tell our staff he had found work for the first time in 10 years.

From a family who had lived with generational unemployment and no access to the internet, the man had come into our centre, motivated and wanting change. He sought help from a volunteer to learn how to navigate the web and apply for work online. A few months later he was offered his first job in a decade. 

This small story evokes hope in me. It provides a glimpse into what “can be” as we encourage people to look beyond disadvantage statistics and unhelpful stigmas and to grasp opportunity and hope for the future. It calls for courage and determination.

To make the most if this, Windale does need more federal and state government targeted funding to support innovative, collaborative community enabling initiatives. 

The suburb deserves more attention and dedicated local initiatives need more funding if sustainable change is to be realised.

But ultimately my optimism is based in the people who make up this robust community. 

When we  officially opened our BaptistCare community centre in Windale last year, more than 50 Windale Public School students attended, singing the national anthem in both English and the local Indigenous language. They received loud applause from the packed house at our centre. 

As I reflect on this a year on, the applause captured the “now and not yet”. The young people represented a different Windale – one that makes the headlines for different reasons. One that has broken the stigma shackles. This won’t come quickly, but with robust, resilient, authentic, good, hopeful people leading the way in the 2306 community, the green shoots will continue to grow and blossom.

Scott Pilgrim is the North West group manager with BaptistCare

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