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Newly-found Indigenous ancestry sparks revitalisation project

21 December 2016

UTS Design students with some of the Murrin Bridge locals

UTS Design students with some of the Murrin Bridge locals.

Something was always missing for UTS PhD student and town planner, Allan Teale, growing up, he never really feel like he really fit in or belonged.

"In each part of my growing experience I always tended to gravitate towards Aboriginal people," he said.

"When I was in school there was only one Aboriginal kid in the class, he was my best mate and I used to believe we got along only because we were the naughtiest in the class." 

But that all changed on his fortieth birthday.

"My wife decided to make me a family tree for my birthday, I had no idea, and it was a complete surprise. She was always saying our daughters needed to know their true history. Her family traces back for generations, mine went as far as my grandfather," he said.

"So she said 'I’ve got another surprise for you.

"'You’re an Aboriginal Australian,' she said and I looked at her and said 'what?'"

It all started to make sense for Allen. He had this connection to land that his wife didn't.

Leyla with one of the young locals from Murrin Bridge

Leyla with one of the young locals from Murrin Bridge.

"I used to remember sharing special moments with all of my daughters, we would take nature in its whole entity, we'd spend ages just looking, smelling, observing... my wife would always be the one hurrying us back on track, she never felt the connection we did and I believe that's because she's not Aboriginal, it's not in her blood."  

After he traced back his heritage to the Euabalong area the former property developer wanted to venture on a journey to Murrin Bridge to discover his past.

"For two and a half years I was a stranger, I’d go out to the land and council meetings but I was gradually being accepted. Two and a half years -imagine if I was doing a building project, I’d be broke."

He found a new connection to his community when he was finally accepted into the local land council.

"There was a lady there, I call her the alpha lady, and she had her arms crossed and was like here we go another person that wants to be part of the land council who is he… I told the story… my great grandmother was Mary Lamb and she said the Lambs? I went to school with the lambs!'

"It was at that time ... I knew I belonged.

Leyla-Elisa zu Stolberg (bottom, centre left) with UTS students and community elders from Murrin Bridge

Leyla-Elisa zu Stolberg (bottom, centre left) with UTS students and community elders from Murrin Bridge.

He knew he had to help make a difference for the next generation.

"So you find your connection and that’s a bit of a bad drug because you know you’ve got to do more," he said.

"We got a concern, we have to fit round pegs into round holes but not all the pegs are round so there are differences and the main thing is that boredom creates problems."

After planning with local authorities - a group of 35 UTS students from Interior and Spatial Design arrived in two rural New South Wales towns.

Concept designs were presented to many members of both communitiess

Concept designs were presented to many members of both communities.

Lake Cargelligo and neighbouring town, Murrin Bridge, are at the centre of a dual plan to establish vibrant new community and recreational hubs by transforming and reimagining neglected buildings and public spaces.

They spent five days interviewing residents, visiting sites and pouring over historical documents - to develop a new space for youth.

UTS Interior and Spatial Design lecturer, Campbell drake says it's about putting thoughts into action.

"Actually seeing them piece together their studies, proposals and designs was fantastic," he said.

"For the students to work in an immersive capacity with communities that they would not normally have access to is really formative for their development as designers."

Once in the rural towns students identified there was a lack of activities for youth. There were run down sports ovals with no equipment, no cinemas, nothing for them to do in their spare time.

Students like Angela Chun decided to use simple materials to facilitate the children’s needs.

"There was a kid there who wouldn’t move anywhere except for with his bike, his dream was to become a professional BMX rider so we decided to use existing infrastructures which he had built, like behind the water tank in Murrin Bridge and actually just improve on it by giving simple solutions like tyres under the jump track."

It also gave foreign exchange students the chance to immerse in a unique community and go out bush to get their hands dirty.

German exchange student Leyla-Elisa zu Stolberg says it's important to revitalise what existed many years ago and believes this transformation will have a positive impact on the community.

"I think it’s important to help them provide their own facilities to rebuild the community and to revitalise something that already existed years and years ago and also to give them some much needed inspiration and goals which they may achieve," she said.

“We’ve made sure to include designs for an outdoor gym, bike and skate park, with the intention of having the community help build these facilities – these activities will hopefully provide some much-needed inspiration and motivation.

“Plus, we’ve also suggested refurbishing the old men’s shed into a working garage or workshop space where community members can collaborate, share and learn from one another, building on valuable technical skills.”

Their efforts received high praise from Indigenous elders.

Chair Person of Murrin Bridge Aboriginal Land Council, Vicky Bell says the kids had nothing, but now they have something to do in their spare time as well as big hopes for the future.

"They're renovating units where we can take our drugs and alcohol programs, youth out there and women’s business and just cultural camps and that’s a big help to us and a step in the right direction for our young people, they’re our future," she said.

"Before the students came out, our mob didn’t realise there was universities like UTS that offered so many careers."

"These kids came from all walks of life so some of them began to think well Aboriginals be welcome there, we can go and learn too. So now a couple of year 12 students and 11 students are ready to come down to UTS for the opening day and see what it's got to offer for them."

Allan says he's worked continuously with Indigenous elders and they all want to see a change for the next generation.

"On a Friday night when the police ring up and say there’s a car missing – they (Indigenous Elders) don’t want to ring their nephews to find out if they’ve borrowed it. They want to say well it wouldn’t have been one of ours because they’re at a gym class or playing a team sport or holding a cultural meeting."

Students working hard on their design proposals

Students working hard on their design proposals.

The next step is about looking at what the community sees as priority, and then once that’s been approved, UTS construction and project management students will head to the field and begin to put big ideas into reality.

Senior Engagement Officer with the Indigenous Affairs Group in Murrin Bridge, Paul McFadyen says it’s about revitalizing a community that’s seen a lot of trauma.

“Murrin Bridge has had a tumultuous history... it was originally set up as a mission town in 1949 - The stolen generation happened on our doorstep and Aboriginal culture and language was stripped away."

McFadyen says it’s about community driving change.

"By working further with the university and looking at what they can bring to the table and what they can get out of the experience that’s where the real benefits are going to be," he said.

"Having people around and people that engaged the elder’s down to the young people and the kids in the community, they feel they’re part of something."

From local residents of Lake Cargelligo and Murrin Bridge, to UTS design students and teachers; everyone is looking forward to watch something big grow from the bottom up. 

Allan says it's a whole community transformation, where a ripple effect continues to reach out to everyone involved.

"What I’d like to see – that would be my big picture- to give a learning education and an opportunity to the people from the bush to say hey we care," he said.

"All of a sudden these children are aspiring for more, they've seen people just like them, with big ideas - putting them to action, and I think that if you give hope to someone, they’ll grab it."

"Everyone’s gone out there with a big idea to do something and it’s forgotten about… we’ve got to make sure this keeps going."