Volume 9, Issue 3
In the last edition of De Minimis I described my experience as a legal intern as part of the Aurora Internship Program for the Yawoorroong Miriwoong Gajirrawoong Yirrgeb Noong Dawang Aboriginal Corporation (MG Corporation) in Kununurra, Western Australia.
The legal experience, the support and instruction, I gained in Kununurra were all excellent. The two best parts of being in Kununurra were not, however, directly related to the legal work I did. They were related to how much of the community I was lucky enough to get involved in. The Warringari Corporation runs a Soberup Shelter and a night patrol. This service ferries people around town to avoid drink-driving and other related issues. The shelter is equipped to sleep 24 people and is a safe place to get some food, a clean bed, and to sober up. The staff are a friendly mob of awesome people who work really hard for their community. They are typical of the powerful community leaders in Kununurra whose work goes completely unrecognized in the wider Australian community. These people do not get the attention they deserve.
Another amazing part about being in Kununurra has been what it’s taught me about myself. I know that sounds like earnest drivel, but it’s true. I have stayed in Aboriginal communities for a few nights before. I’ve never lived in the middle of one. It was incredible to see my latent prejudices fall away and suddenly re-emerge at unexpected points. When a drunk Indigenous guy walked past me with a knife one night, stared at me and called me a ‘white cunt’, I didn’t know whether to just run, tell him where to get off or to sympathise. It’s confusing. It turns out his name was David. As part of my volunteering at the Soberup Shelter I found this out because his family history was so horrific I can’t even write about it without feeling like I’m trivialising the sense of loss and grief David must have struggled with throughout his life. It’s not right to lower my expectations, and that’s not what I’m doing. I am simply struggling with my notions about what it means to expect someone to pull themselves up by their boot straps, kick the grog and become a healthy, productive member of society. Some dysfunction might be too ingrained.
Spending one Friday night at the Kununurra hotel was similarly interesting. It was so, so different to spending a night out drinking in Melbourne’s fashionable inner-North, sipping a fruity drink from a jam jar while bikes hang overhead for no apparent reason. Everyone was happy, and happy to share. Most people’s money went quickly. Not on their own drinks, but on those of other people. Despite this wonderful feeling of celebration with the people around me, one thing struck me as upsetting. As a white male in that community different standards applied to me. I’ve lived in plenty of places overseas. I’m not from Australia. And I know what it feels like to be treated differently (read: better) because I’m a white male. A female friend compared her experiences with mine. She put it better than I could: ‘it was probably the first time in my life where I understood what it was like to be judged by criteria that I formerly saw as having nothing to do with me personally. Being a white, western woman meant a whole bunch of things that I wasn’t able to control, both negative and positive.’ And the truth of her observation was palpable in my context: I was acutely aware that being a white man meant people either embraced me or threatened to kill me. There was no middle-ground. The white women in the hotel, however, were perceived as being loose, rich, and if unprotected by men or family were totally available for consequence-free sexual harassment. And I didn’t know what to do or how to feel about that. I didn’t intervene. I might have done. Arrogance is having different standards for yourself than those you have for other people. This wasn’t arrogance: at that point I wasn’t thinking less of the people around me and getting off on a sense of superiority. This was a point where my values and self-understanding were at their most compromised. At that point I realised that I was just confused.
Don’t get me wrong: being here has been incredible. The people, the places, and the stories I’ve heard will stay with me, always. It’s just been upsetting and uplifting at the same time. At any given point I couldn’t decide if I wanted to stay for 5 years or get on the next plane out. The words of Kim Mahood, a Western Desert woman, were haunting me: ‘Kartiya [whitefellas who work in communities] are like Toyotas. When they break down we get another one’. I didn’t get on that plane, though. And I love Kununurra. I feel like it embraced me back. That sense of confusion I still feel is both understandable, I think, and a healthy part of any learning process worth embarking upon. That same friend I mentioned also recommended to me a quote by D.H. Lawrence. It didn’t solve my conundrum, but the following quote just helped me feel like coming here, and the feelings it produced, aren’t so strange:
‘If you want to know what it is to feel the “correct” social world fizzle to nothing, you should come to Australia. It is a weird place. In the established sense, it is socially nil. Happy-go-lucky, don't-you-bother, we're-in-Australia. But there also seems to be no inside life of any sort: just a long lapse and drift...’
To come somewhere totally different, to learn about a new place and to learn about yourself is to live, for a time, without the comfortable hand-rail of daily routine. Being no-one, ‘socially nil’ and making new friends is alienating. For a while it is ‘a long lapse and drift’. It is also, like the East Kimberley, a profoundly beautiful thing. Kununurra is indeed a really ‘weird show’, and one utterly worth the experience.
If you are interested in undertaking a similar internship, the website for the Aurora Internship Program is: http://www.auroraproject.com.au/aboutapplyinginternship. Applications for the winter 2016 round will be open from 7 March through 1 April 2016 online via the website.
David Allinson is a third-year JD student
For Part 1 of this article see:
A Really Weird Show: A Month in Kununurra, WA - Part 1 of 2
Also in Issue 3:
The Level Two Fountain: Students Hail False Prophet
A Food Co-op for MLS?
The Clerkship Diaries: Mission Indispensable
Miss Sian Indispensable
Why We Like It When Leo Wins
At The Movies with Sarah & Tom
Sarah Goegan, Tom Monotti