KASAMA Vol. 19 No. 4 / October-November-December 2005 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

There is more to Mackay than sun, sea and sugarcane

Kasama's editor Dee Hunt travelled up country for Dr. Nicki Saroca's seminar at the Queensland Centre for Domestic & Family Violence Research and reconnected with Jean Bingham, the multicultural community worker at the George Street Neighbourhood Centre. The Filipino-Australian Community Association of Mackay and District organised a gathering and there were lots of invitations to meet and eat with Mackay's Pinoys.

Nicki SarocaI wanted to visit Mackay five years ago when my friend and colleague, Emere Distor, was working up there, but the airfare was way too expensive back then. The cost of domestic flights in Australia has dropped considerably and this October there were reduced price tickets on sale for the time when Nicki Saroca would be in Mackay doing research. It was destined! No hesitation, I had to go!

I first met Nicki in 1999 when she was a doctoral student researching her thesis “Hearing the Voices of Filipino Women: Violence, Media Representation and contested Realities”. We found that our interests coincide and we’ve become good friends. Nicki was awarded her PhD from Newcastle University in 2002 and is now working in the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University in Canberra. Her current research project, “Interpersonal and Family Relations in Intercultural/Transnational Marriages”, has a specific focus on Filipino-Australian couples and their families. Nicki was in Mackay to do interviews and also give a talk at Central Queensland University (CQU) hosted by the Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research (CDFVR).

My journey from Brisbane was blessed from the outset. Not being familiar with the airline’s new automated ticketing machine, I got in line behind a woman whose body language oozed confidence as she navigated the touch pad. As I peered round her to watch the sequence of instructions on the screen, I realised I know this woman; it’s Heather Nancarrow, the Director of the CDFVR and we’re on the same flight! So we shared a taxi at the other end and my arrival in a new town was all the more comfortable for being in Heather’s company. I love such exquisite coincidences. That’s part of the beauty of small towns; you are likely to meet friends wherever you go and generally there is an air of care and concern for other people. Another stroke of luck was a motel owned by a Filipina. Zeny Rohdmann’s Blue Ribbon Motor Inn is but a short walk to the town centre which is very convenient as we had no car and the public transport system is not extensive.

I arrived on the day of the Filipino-Australian Community Association meeting where Nicki was scheduled to talk about her research. Mar Gorrion, the Association’s president, drove us to the venue. The discussion was lively, the participants were interested in the research, everyone was relaxed and friendly, and we did what we enjoy most — getting acquainted while we share our delicious cuisine.

On the 18th Nicki presented her paper “Woman in Danger or Dangerous Woman? Contesting Images of Filipina Victims of Domestic Homicide in Australia” at CQU. The University campus, surrounded by cane fields, is itself in a revegetation area where small lagoons have been created among the newly established gardens of waterlilies, ferns and palms. Nicki’s seminar, held in a lecture theatre, was video-linked with four other CQU campuses, as well as the Advocacy and Support Centre in Toowoomba and the Legal Aid Qld offices in Brisbane. After the seminar we strolled back to the CDFVR office where we enjoyed another delicious lunch and stayed eating and chatting with the staff and the guests til late in the afternoon.

The next day we visited the George Street Neighbourhood Centre where Jean Bingham works. Jean had brought three English language students to Nicki’s seminar. We needed more catching up time as I’d not seen Jean for years.

Nicki SarocaDuring the week, while Nicki was busy interviewing and writing up her notes, I indulged myself in some favourite pastimes — going through the local history collection at the city library, admiring the town’s attractive heritage buildings and searching out the local op-shops.

In the evenings we walked around the town and along the river where we found two memorial plaques. One was mounted on a big rock with a tree planted behind in remembrance of women victims of violence, the other was for the people who died in the 1918 cyclone and tidal surge including an “unknown Malay male”. We wondered if he might have been a Filipino. There was another plaque in the town centre pointing out the Leichhardt Tree (nauclea orientalis), which was planted in the 1860s at the River Street wharves where indentured South Sea Islanders were shipped in to work the sugar plantations.

The ethnic composition of the area is quite diverse and the statistics are surprising. At 17%, Filipinas are the largest group of non-English speaking background overseas born women in the Mackay Health District; and the ratio of Filipino females to males is 4 to 1, twice the national average.

So, what more is there to Mackay than sun, sea and sugarcane? There’s a caring, vibrant community — the foundation for a social structure in which good people can thrive. And, if a local authority really wants to encourage community cohesion, the best resource it can fund is a community building.

Jean Bingham invited us to drop in to her workplace for a cuppa and a chat. She was busy with a co-worker drafting the brochure for her program when Nicki and I arrived at the George Street Neighbourhood Centre. While we waited for her to finish, Nicki checked out the leaflets and fact sheets in the display racks while I made myself at home in the kitchen with tea and a box of biscuits. The notice pinned to the cupboard door gave me a giggle: “This is a self-cleaning kitchen, don’t forget to clean up after yourself.” I made a mental note to look out for a fridge magnet with that message for my kitchen. I could hear children laughing and through the window I saw a gathering of women and toddlers in the small garden out the back of the house.

Then Jean came down, introduced us to various people who, although busy at their jobs, took the time to say hello and welcome us to the Centre. I was given their “10 Tips To Stress Less” kit and clutching a big brown paper bag filled with health information, brochures from local service centres, and sample goodies of hand cream and shampoo, we followed Jean to her office upstairs.

I was curious about Jean’s new job and I’d come equipped with a tape recorder. I asked about the George Street Centre.

JEAN BINGHAMJEAN: George Street Neighbourhood Centre is like a community house. Sometimes when I’m at the Reception Desk and I see people come through the door, they seem so relaxed coming into this place where they can get some information they might need. George Street is a community hub where anyone can drop in and feel comfortable, have a cup of tea and a chat.

There are lots of activities in the Mackay community that use George Street’s facilities: the Mackay Children Contact Service; Mackay Regional Financial Counselling Services; the Literacy and Numeracy Program; Mackay Community No Interest Loan Scheme; Good Beginnings Home Based Family Support Program; Access Card and Consumer Advisory Group; Home Care Dementia Service; Mackay Writers Group Inc.; Mackay Autism Support Group; the Legal Advice Service, just to name a few.

Every community needs a place where people can get together to meet each other and feel that friendly, non-threatening environment where people can be themselves. That is what I observe people at George Street doing, being themselves and being busy working on a lot of programs. We need more hours in the day to really meet all the demands, and to address all the issues that come up.

My job is specifically aimed at people from diverse cultures. The Multicultural Community Worker Program is the initiative of Multicultural Affairs Queensland.

I also tutor in the literacy program which is customised to the needs of the participants who are adult learners from non-English speaking background. The program links their needs to the improvement of their English grammar at whatever level of achievement they aim for. That’s the beauty of a community literacy program; you can customise the training. TAFE delivers a competency based training but the community literacy program is based on needs.

Most of the students are housewives, many with overseas qualifications acquired before they came to Australia. Some are participating because they feel the need for a refresher course or to familiarise themselves with Australian idiomatic expressions and terminology used here. For example, community development workers really like to use the words ‘utilise’ and ‘provide’. In plain English we could say, “use our facilities” rather than say, “utilise our facilities”; we could say, “we can give” rather than say, “we can provide”. Every occupation has its own language jargon and our students need to get familiar with these terms and expressions.

As to how many Filipino students attend the literacy program — I think we had three in June. And now they are accessing some of the courses at TAFE and one is on a traineeship. These are pathways. One of the goals of the program is to give the participants learning pathways to access further education and vocational courses, to enhance their confidence to use whatever education services that are available in the community.

Adult Learners Week is a good vehicle for community workers to link with because it is a national activity and the media promotes it very positively. I’ve been involved with Adult Learners Week since 1999 when I was doing community literacy at Mackay Central State School. It is very strong in terms of student involvement. This year they had a multicultural cooking demonstration which was linked with a literacy learning outcome. One George Street literacy student produced a booklet of multicultural recipes. She designed it herself without any input from me. This is what it is all about — critical, functional literacy — encouraging students to speak out, ask questions, challenge, argue, debate. That is the best way to practice language.

The Mackay City librarians get involved too. Recently they came to talk about story telling activities in the library with people from different cultural backgrounds.

We also had an origami workshop. One literacy student from Japan showed us how to make baskets, cranes, flowers, little boxes using very finely textured decorated Japanese paper. Her husband also attended our language workshop. He teaches Japanese at the school. He played the guitar and they sang in Japanese. He was interviewed by the media and was on television. It’s a wonderful feeling when people of diverse cultural background share their skills and the richness of their cultures.

Just recently Lily Bartley, a Filipina, made a miniature model of the George Street Neighbourhood Centre building out of wood and paper and whatever bits of materials she could get in the shops. She presented it to the George Street AGM on October 3. This craft work is a hobby for her here, but in the Philippines she was doing that work with architectural students. Lily was also in local government in her province in northern Luzon.

Filipinos make up a large percentage of the population in Mackay. There is a Filipino Association. They do lots of charitable activities and cultural presentations for festivals and fundraisers. I would like to see more activity in some other areas; maybe using the Artspace Regional Gallery or the botanical gardens or the library. It would be good to have a display at the library to promote the group and show our culture. I’m proud of my Filipino culture. We could borrow displays and artefacts from our Brisbane network. It would be good for the children so they can be proud of their Filipino heritage. Maybe we could apply for funds to pay a multicultural arts worker to put such a project together.

DEE: Please contact me, Jean, if you want to borrow anything from the CPCA library. We have many posters and woven cloths and hand crafted items from various regions of the Philippines in the collection as well as art and history books for display.

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