It’s 6am on a Friday and Shane Phillips – the CEO of Tribal Warriors – is once again punching rapid fire. Uppercut. Uppercut. Uppercut. He breaks for a second or two and figures out with his sparring partner the next few moves of what will be an hour-long workout.

The two blokes take a couple of steps this way and that, and then bang, bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang, bang, as Phillips’ boxing gloves slam into his mate’s hand pads.

There are about 120 people of all shapes and sizes, colours and ages working out on the basketball court of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern. There are some familiar faces in the crowd. Is that the ex-Dragon Bert Gordon over there, his still impressive frame head and shoulders above the throng?

And is that Mick Gooda, the Social Justice Commissioner, puffing and panting away but keeping up with his younger, fitter sparring partner and they weave, duck and dodge? And NSW Governor David Hurley over there? Surely not.

Every few minutes the couple rotate and find another partner. It could be an eight-year-old kid, or a 60-year-old woman. Everyone fits in and gets on with the next workout instructions being bellowed out by the one of Phillip’s hand-picked mentors.

Among the crowd are three young blokes from Long Bay who are on the Never Going Back program, one of various Tribal Warrior ideas that have caused stakeholders in and around Sydney’s toughest suburb sit up and take notice.

Low risk, under discreet guard and keen to get back into society, the trio have been given the opportunity to get out of prison three mornings a week for a great work-out, some decent breakfast and a chance to show authorities what they are capable of.

Redfern Police, the NSW Department of Corrective Services and the NCIE have been working with Tribal Warriors to expand this and other programs that focus on engaging young people through healthy lifestyles and empowerment. So far so very good.

They are testimony to the fact that things are going in the right direction. An element of trust is beginning to emerge from all sides.

Tribal Warriors Association actually started in 1998 as the only indigenous maritime training company in Australia as a way of getting young indigenous men and women jobs in the seafaring industry.

While the organisation also runs a tourism venture from the vessel “Tribal Warrior” on Sydney Harbour, their big focus remains on maritime training and mentoring young Indigenous people to make sure they make the right decisions. Keeping fit and strong with a sense of self-worth.

“It’s about teaching routine and by doing that, giving them empowerment,” Shane says. “If we can teach our kids a sense of belonging through some of our programs, you can see a light comes on, and they then realise that they can control their own destiny.

“They create healthy habits and lifestyles, they start to think about it themselves and realise what their own value is.

“We are trying to create positive peer group pressure, and the concept that every kid has leadership qualities in them. There are lots of laughs, but there are also lots of tears because we want to make sure that they push themselves way out of their comfort zone. Sometimes some issues come out that have held them back.”

Phillips is a tough nut from The Block but believes a fundamental shift has occurred in the fabric of Redfern over the past seven or so years.

He says back in the “bad old days”, heroin, gunja, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and easy crime made Redfern a brand that did little to endear itself to authorities that were as equally violent, untrusting and suspicious.

Shane casts his mind back to 2009 when the police and the Indigenous community were sworn enemies; the recidivism and incarceration rates of young indigenous men were through the roof. Enter a new head copper in the form of Superintendent Luke Freudenstein. He met with local Indigenous leader Mark Spinx, Shane and others and told them he could either “arrest my way out” of the problem or they could all sit down and come up with some ideas.

The men identified 10 of the most “influential” boys in the suburb who were well on their way to Long Bay. Shane visited them and convinced then to get involved in the program. That visit was followed by one from the police, who urged them to become involved in the Tribal Warrior program, Clean Slate Without Prejudice. The alternative, they promised, was not pleasant.

“Some of the welfare departments were saying, ‘we know these kids, they’re not going to get out of bed at six am, you’ve got a better chance of success if we pick them up at 11’.

“We said no. We said no-one gets up for work or school at 11am. We have to have a proper routine and have discipline if it was going to work.

“The first day it was a freezing cold June morning. We were standing outside the PCYC with the kids and we were all so apprehensive, but we knew we had to go in. After the first session, everyone had dropped their guards. We saw the person in the uniform completely different. And I’m sure they did the same to us.

“So after a week, we started seeing these kids changing their lives. These kids were weekly offenders, but then they started getting back to school. The feedback from the judges, magistrate and police was fantastic. Some of them actually thought that the kids had died because they hadn’t seen them.

“And after three months, there was a 82 per cent drop in robberies in this area.”

Shane said back then there were many Indigenous people within their community who were bagging them for working with the police. But after a few months, those naysayers became supportive.

“It was same on the other side. There were many police who thought the program was a waste of time and saw us as the enemy, well, many of them started to see what was happening and started supporting us,” he said.

“But we knew that we had to be part of the solution and that we had to change it ourselves. It was the toughest thing we had to do, as a community, but when we came out the other side, you know what? We accepted the responsibility and empowered ourselves with the truth.

“It gave us the momentum to sustain this forward movement. Before it used to be just about getting fit for footy season, now it’s about pursuing a healthy lifestyle.

“I grew up with anger and resentment, like so many of these kids. We didn’t know how to behave when we were kids. Now the kids know how strong and proud we are as a people, and that empowers them and makes them feel good about themselves.”

Shane said this was the catalyst for real change in the community. The program took away the mediocre benchmark.

“From now on, we are aiming for the stars”.

Back inside NCIE, the early morning session is winding up. Someone yells out that it’s a young fella’s birthday. The kid is overweight and shy, and after everyone joins in a robust version of Happy Birthday To You, one of the Tribal mentors then urges him to do 10 push-ups.

He clearly doesn’t want to, but before long, everyone drops to the floor in support. Before he knows it, he’s knocked off 10 and gets up to ruffled hair and slaps on the back.

It personifies the Tribal Warrior motto; Often down, never beaten.

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Tony Barrass

tb@tonybarrass.com