Connecting girls to culture, family and one another, Gemiga Yarning is a program focused on supporting and empowering young Aboriginal women in Armidale, NSW.

Gemiga Yarning is the brain child of youth worker and Gamilaroi woman, Jusinta Collins.

Collins’ family come from Brewarrina and Goodooga in western NSW, however, Collins was raised by her Aunty in Moree.

“I didn’t grow up understanding my Aboriginality at all,” said Collins.

“I grew up very disconnected, with a lot of identity issues not knowing who I belonged to and how I was connected. Now I live in Armidale on Anaiwan Country. I am raising thirteen children; I have eight foster kids plus my five. I am a youth worker.”

Collins has a deep passion for supporting and advocating for her people. She began her career in early childhood working in a mobile preschool.

“It was really hard, like anyone who knows that game, you travel for hours, you set up in a hall, there’s snakes and goannas in the long drop toilet,” she said.

“I’ve always been someone who gravitates to children and children gravitate to me. But you can’t work in a childcare centre all day and then go home to five kids—it does not work!”

From there Collins moved into a role as a support worker in a women’s housing program and then moved into youth work.

In 2015, she started Gemiga Yarning.

“Gemiga Yarning is all about cultural connectedness. Gemiga is from the Anaiwan language, and I have permission to use that, it means ‘girl’. Yarning is obviously talking—so it’s about girls having an opportunity to talk about what they have been through, what they are going through and where they want to be,” she said.

“I had a real moment of these girls coming from these really large Aboriginal families that I was very aware of and I’d ask them about their connections, their totems and their Dreaming stories and they had no idea.”

“I was horrified to think they were growing up in family and didn’t know, and yet I grew up in a family that didn’t understand their Aboriginality. So, I designed this program around connecting girls back to culture.”

Collins has administered the program in schools, with out-of-home care agencies and has plans to introduce it into the juvenile justice system. The program consists of ten-week blocks which sees Collins come in weekly for two hours a session.

“It starts off with the first session around the program expectations. I expect the girls to commence and complete the program, there is a large reliance on them making a commitment … if I have girls that drop off, I actively re-engage them,” Collins said.

“We then start out with mapping and talking about their mob, where they’re from and who their mob is. If they don’t know anything, we do Uncle Google!”

Jusinta Collins’ story: An example of the mapping Collins does with the girls. Photo supplied.

“It doesn’t matter if what we find isn’t correct, today that is what we find, that is the journey point today. In six months’ time, if an Aunty comes into the loungeroom … and tells you different, that’s great, because that’s the conversation and now you can find out more.

“I’m really big on the fact that nothing is wrong, you haven’t made a mistake, you haven’t connected with the wrong totem, this is just what you know today. This is your journey today.”

“We can’t put that on kids, we can’t expect kids to undo the missing pieces that have come from our generational trauma.”

As it stands, Collins’ employment circumstances are changing and therefore there may be changes to the delivery of Gemiga Yarning. Despite the uncertainty, Collins is dedicated to moving the program forward to provide more avenues of support to the girls involved.

“I’m actively trying to purchase a block of land. This isn’t my nation but I’m raising my kids here. I want to purchase a piece of land, I have some traditional custodians that are going to work with me,” she said.

“We want to buy a piece of land we can do cultural camps on, where we can teach language. We’re in the process now of doing up a proposal to put in front of IBA Business or the bank or whoever—because we can see a real desire from the community to have something that they own and they can feel a connection to.”

Collins also wants to continue the program in schools and juvenile justice.

She is encouraging anyone who connects to her story to reach out and build their own program for their community.

“I don’t have any ownership over this. I’m happy to put this out there for others. I can’t explain how simple it is and how well it works, there is a real flow,” she said.

“If anything, Gemiga Yarning has its own Dreaming story. I’m more than happy for people to give me a call and happy to help anyone to set it up.”

By Rachael Knowles