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Pride turning public perception for Pilbara town once described as a "war zone"

Tom Zaunmayr -

It may be hard to believe for outsiders conditioned by years of negative national headlines, but Sean-Paul Stephens is adamant the Pilbara town of Ieramagadu (Roebourne) is one of the safest, most beautiful communities he has lived in.

Mr Stephens was in August appointed chief executive of the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation, an Indigenous enterprise which channels Woodside-operated North West Shelf funds into community projects of benefit to Ieramagadu.

Ieramagadu is a town which has suffered from a poor public image over the past few decades, but internally there is a strong sense of pride among the 900-odd mostly Indigenous residents.

Mr Stephens said that pride was starting to turn public perception.

"The language that's been used to describe Roebourne over the past five or six years has changed," he said.

"It doesn't mean people's lives are a whole lot easier, and we have to be really clear that there are still many people who are disenfranchised, who who are living lives that really should be better.

"With that being said though, there is this change in tone that I've observed in chatting with a lot of the young fellas about being proud.

"The sense of place seems to have evolved and grown."

That sense of pride sits in stark contrast to the well-worn line Ieramagadu is a town in crisis.

While the news interest has waned in recent years, high profile commentary about the town being a "haven for pedophiles" and "like a war zone" are still raw to the largely-Indigenous population.

A host of prominent Elders, aided by community-led programs and Aboriginal organisations, have worked hard to restore pride within town.

Among them is Yindjibarndi Elder Allery Sandy, a prominent artist who spends much of her time with Ieramagadu's youth on myriad creative projects.

"Seeing all the negative things, it just breaks your heart and makes you feel down," Ms Sandy said.

"We are all families, we are all friends and things do happen

"I don't want to dwell on the negative things, we want to look to the future and how we can work together."

NYFL itself has seen the highs and lows - establishing a cultural centre in town, expanding its reach into visionary projects such as Cossack and the Whim Creek Hotel's revitalisation - the latter of which it has now divested from, investing in accomodation and establishing community programs.

On the flipside the group in 2018 it fell into adminstration under $2.5m in debt, at the time being described as an "asset rich, cash flow poor" operation.

Those days are behind NYFL now and there's a strong sense in the community the organisation is in something of a green patch.

When asked to single out one program which exemplified NYFL's work, Mr Stephens named two.

The first was Foundation Food, which opened this year providing affordable groceries and employment to the community.

The second was the Warrgamugardi Yirdiyabura Program, a work-ready initiative which now counts about 30 Indigenous people on its books working in the area.

Yindjibarndi boy Mathias McKenna, 16, is one of the teens learning how to rap.

"That is not just as a result of improved funding, but a greater energy from Roebourne people wanting to be involved in employment and training and bettering their lives," Mr Stephens said.

"We create those opportunities... but that drive to be participating in the local economy, obtaining accreditations and working and taking charge of their lives is absolutely led by Roebourne people."

Once maligned from the outside as a cause of social dysfunction in Ieramagadu, the town's young people are also contributing greatly to that sense of pride and place.

Aspiring Yindjibarndi rapper Mathias McKenna, 16, recently moved to Ieramagadu and has quickly found his voice.

"I come to Roebourne to experience my culture and learn how to be with my people," he said.

"I want to rap because I want to put my people and my culture out there, and let my people know they are not by themself out there - that there is other people out there trying their hardest.

"It is the most fun thing I can ever do, I never done this before in my life."

Mathias was one of a host of Ieramagadu teens who rapped together at the community's annual Songs for Peace concert organised by Big hART in September this year.


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