“Dedicated to advancing the wellbeing of our community.”
Awabakal has provided services to Indigenous people living in the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Port Stephens and Hunter Valley regions of New South Wales since 1977.
Our services are delivered and predominately managed by professional Aboriginal staff experienced with and sensitive to the needs of our community. Awabakal is a multifunctional not-for-profit organisation that delivers a broad range services and community programs:
- Awabakal Aboriginal Primary Health Care Centre
- Disability and Community Services
- Children's Services
AWABAKAL - This Is Our Story
Part 1 - The beginning
In 1973 the beginnings of an Aboriginal Organisation began to rumble, one which would eventually become the leading Aboriginal Organization in NSW. The first incarnation of this organization was known as the Newcastle Aboriginal Advancement Society, and it delivered cultural activities.
The headquarters were located in the Trade Building of Newcastle University, but due to difficulties the organisation ceased to operate and from the ashes it became known as Awabakal Newcastle Aboriginal Co-operative Limited. Commencing business in 1975, it was then formally registered in February 1977.
This was the genesis of an organization which transformed into the largest Aboriginal Community owned and run organization in NSW, which became a leading example of Aboriginal community power in Australia.
Part 2 - The Idea
The concept of Awabakal was first discussed around a coffee table at the house of an Aboriginal family. This group of Aboriginal women and men were concerned about the general living conditions of Aboriginal people who were coming to live in Newcastle and its surrounding areas, and they wanted to provide a service that catered to and supported the needs of the Aboriginal community.
Many of the people who had begun to move to Newcastle were from small country towns - towns such as Moree, Brewarrina, Walgett and Bourke. The first Field Officer to lead this original concept was paid by workers from their own wages; the Field Officer’s job was to provide welfare support for the Aboriginal people of Newcastle.
Part 3 – The Vision
Awabakal Co-operative objectives in 1977 were broad, and centred around providing services in the areas of employment, culture, health and welfare, sport, housing and education. In the 1977 Awabakal Annual report these aims were reflected in the proposed initiatives.
a. Hold cultural camps
b. Establish Health Centre
c. Reclaim the sacred sights
d. Establish an Aboriginal pre-school
These were a few goals that the Co-op worked towards, and the coming years saw a lot of hard work and lobbying by Awabakal, which eventually turned these objectives into a reality.
We must not forget the people who had this vision and made it happen.
Part 4 - The Location
During the early days of Awabakal the organization was located in several buildings within the Newcastle area. One of the locations was in Carrington…Awabakal then moved to a tiny cramped space upstairs in a building in Hunter street. This space was shared with Kirinari Hostel, and was later shared with other Aboriginal Organisations, before it found its resting place in the early 80’s at Wickham, but that’s another story.
One of the decisions that was made in the early years was to publish a newsletter to keep members informed about Awabakal activities and the work the organization was doing - an information source of Aboriginal news in general. It’s wonderful to think that even in those early years that information about the great things that Awabakal did was shared and celebrated.
The achievements of such a history-making organisation should be celebrated and talked about, and each week we will be sharing the journey with you all. The best is yet to come, but we should always remember this history and the people that made it happen because without these people we would not be working in such a dynamic organisation.
As you may recall from our last instalment, we talked about the various locations of Awabakal as the organization evolved. Situated at 810 Hunter Street Newcastle in 1977, the premises then moved in the early 1980’s to the corner of Hunter and Tudor Streets in Newcastle West. Serendipitously, it seems that our current corporate office could be located on the same site! (Which makes you wonder if we have come full circle, and whether this indicates a new beginning?)
After speaking with an Elder this week, Zelma Moran, we found out that early discussions about the advancement of Awabakal were held around the coffee tables of community people such as Gloria Smith, Bill Smith and Dorothy Wotherspoon - these people were very instrumental in realising the concept of Awabakal.
One of the wonderful things we have also learned while researching our Awabakal story and talking with community people, was the involvement of Smith’s General Contracting in establishing the organization. Smith’s company paid the wages of the first Awabakal Aboriginal Field Officers , and they paid for the wages from their very own pockets. This community spirit is something that Awabakal continued to strive toward for a very long time.
By the early 1980’s Awabakal was alive and functioning, and boy did it function! The 80’s were a time of nationwide Aboriginal political movement, and Awabakal was definitely at the forefront of protests and the advancement of Aboriginal rights. Awabakal helped its members organise and participate in major land rights conferences at Morpeth and the University of Newcastle.
This era also saw the appointment of a part-time administrator at the organization and their role was to oversee operations at Awabakal. Another wonderful thing was the commencement of a new radio program, called Awabakal Voices, on 2NURFM.
The 80’s were some very exciting years for Awabakal. It was during this time that the organization evolved into one of the leading Aboriginal community controlled organisations in NSW, but that part of our story is yet to come…
This week we had the pleasure of chatting with Aunty June Rose Thorpe, one of the early founders of Awabakal.
Aunty June spoke about those early days; how conversations around coffee tables was where business was conducted, and where the ideas began. Sitting and listening, it was wonderful to hear how exciting it must have been in those early years to see ideas shaped into reality. Taking part in forming Awabakal into one of the largest Aboriginal organisations in NSW would have created a big sense of confidence and pride in oneself.
We want to dedicate this story to Aunty June, in appreciation for the wonderful support and guidance that she provided to Aboriginal families in Newcastle. Aunty June dedicated 32 years of her life to helping families in need, and this work was done on a volunteer basis. Aunty June should be acknowledged and celebrated for her dedication, commitment and loyalty through all those years.
Aunty June was the welfare worker at Awabakal and shared a few stories about her experiences in this role with us. One of the comments that Aunty June made, was that in the early days of Awabakal we were all a family, and she talked of how people would come into the AMS and have a cuppa. “That is what the Aboriginal community did,” Aunty June said.
This week we caught up and had a yarn with Gloria Smith. Along with Aunty June, Gloria was also one of the early founders of Awabakal, and it seems that their stories are consistent – with lots of conversations around coffee tables came the reality of Awabakal the powerful community organization. We always love to hear and tell stories, drinking cups of tea and coffee together creates a great atmosphere to discuss ideas.
One story that Gloria talked about and thought was important to share, was the story of the women behind the men. She spoke about how the wives were supportive and encouraged their husbands to pursue their dreams and goals, while they were at home looking after their young children. Gloria talked very proudly about her family and the early days at Awabakal, and how they struggled and lobbied and created things from almost nothing.
“This is what we just had to do,’’ she explained.
Let’s not forget the women who were also instrumental in the rallies, the meetings and who sustained their men, the great women behind each great man. This week we dedicate the story to these bold women.
Each week we will share the stories of people who were instrumental in developing Awabakal…stay tuned!!