Photographer: Anthony Ket, NJC staff member

Creative and collaborative solutions 

Police, retailers, members of the Aboriginal community, and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre held a music festival for the community to celebrate Aboriginal culture, and community spirit.

Held in 2013, the festival was the culmination of work conducted by the NJC to improve relations between police, retailers, and members of the Aboriginal community.

A seminal moment for 'doing justice locally' as a case study it now illustrates the community justice practices of collaboration, decentralising authority, solving problems, and the importance of walking in someone else's shoes.

Context

For decades, relations between the Aboriginal community and retailers working on Smith Street, a main thoroughfare that intersects the inner city municipality of the City of Yarra had been dire.

Retailers complained that the behaviour of members of the Aboriginal community caused public nuisance that drove customers away, and police reported to the NJC that responding to the retailers calls for assistance took up time and resources.

Conversely, the self-named “Parkies”, justifiably pointed out their right to gather in a public place, and pointed to a history of dispossession, racism, and other harrowing effects of colonial rule.

Over the years attempts had been made improve Smith Street, including new laws to manage public drinking. However, no measures were appropriate. Equally, gentrification was changing the street, a factor that compounded the situation as a new breed of businesses stepped in.

By 2012, relations were at crisis point. Police attended up to ten incidents a day, and retailers laid responsibility for slowing trade on the behaviour of the Parkies, who in turn felt unfairly and overtly targeted.

The NJC, in collaboration with police, decided to investigate ways to improve the situation applying a collaborative problem-solving approach. To this end, the Crime Prevention team was deployed to take action.

Community justice approach

To find common ground, the Crime Prevention team met police, retailers, and members of the Aboriginal community in parallel to understand the issues from all perspectives.

They also spoke to business and Aboriginal peak bodies, and attended Aboriginal community events facilitated through the NJC’s Koori Justice Worker.

By late 2012, the NJC, in collaboration with police, brought police, Aboriginal Elders (senior and respected members of the community) service agencies, and business representatives to the table.

Working Group forms

Regular meetings coalesced into the formation of the Smith Street Working Group with the goal to repair harm so that “different sectors of the Yarra community to reach peaceable coexistence based on mutual respect, and a shared stewardship of the community.”

To get there, the group focused on building:

  • Positive image of Smith Street
  • Good relationships between everyone who resided, traded and used Smith Street.

Achieving these goals meant the group focused on a complex amalgam of issues that included:

  • Public drinking and anti-social behaviour
  • Concepts of culture and belonging
  • Lack of public amenities
  • Changing economic landscape

Practical activities

The group identified projects to pursue in 2012/13 including:

Mentoring

  • Smith Street Traders Association to implement a mentoring program for new retailers to understand the history of Smith Street, and its importance for the Aboriginal community.
  • Develop a cultural awareness leaflet, and induction training for police new to the City of Yarra.
  • Walk in our Shoes Project. Police, traders and members of the local Aboriginal community walk in each other’s shoes for a day and share their culture and concerns.

Public improvement

  • Remove illegal tagging and promote Aboriginal culture through street art.
  • Host Koori night markets to use art and culture to increase visitor numbers and improve retail opportunities (Koori refers to the Victorian Aboriginal community).
  • Host a live music event. 

The last project consumed most of the Working Group’s attention in 2013.

Uniting a street  

Why the group hosted the a festival is a question with many answers, but music is a unifying force and Aboriginal artists are celebrated across the nation.

Smith Street Dreaming was conceived to:

  • Celebrate Aboriginal culture and ties to the City of Yarra, particularly Smith Street.
  • Foster empathy, understanding and respect
  • Generate economic activity  

Symbols of good faith

The group hosted the festival on the corner of Smith and Stanley Streets, a place the Aboriginal community often met friends, and often the scene of the issues the group was alleviating.

As importantly, everyone worked together on all aspects of the event from branding, promotions, to designing the event ground.

Celebration

The 2013 festival was very successful. Put together in a short period of time by a nascent collective, it was a tribute to shared desire for things to get better.

Hearts and minds

In the two years after the inaugural festival, police reported to the NJC that the call out rate fell from some ten a day, to around ten a month.

The Smith Street Working Group has held four festivals, and the group continues to meet. 

Role of the NJC

In accordance with the NJC’s principle of handing autonomy for community engagement to citizens as early as possible, the NJC has stepped back from the Working Group, providing support and advice as requested