EXCLUSIVE: An Indigenous skills centre built with government funding for Indigenous Vocational Education and Training (VET) hasn’t been used by Indigenous students for at least five months.
Between 2010 and 2011, Youth Connections (now YC Group) received a total of $567,000 in funding to build the centre in Kariong, New South Wales as part of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations’ funding for ‘VET Infrastructure for Indigenous People (pre-2009).’
The project was titled ‘Ngaruki Gulgul’ (‘Standing Strong’ in Darkinjung language) and the skills centre was equipped with a ten-workspace commercial kitchen and training café for students, plus a training room for theory work.
Training in hospitality, governance, automotive, landscaping, horticulture and more were all undertaken at the newly built centre.
Bara Barang, an Indigenous organisation that was originally the Indigenous program ‘Koori Connect’ at YC Group, managed the Indigenous Skills Centre and its following social enterprise café, Coolamon on Green Central.
Mandatory Annual Project Reports from 2013 and 2014 obtained by NIT about the use and success of the skills centre showed a large increase in Indigenous students completing VET courses.
In 2013, 147 Indigenous students completed VET courses and in 2014, the number increased to 197.
The centre also became a hub for the Kariong community, with other unaffiliated organisations using the space for different purposes such as meetings, workshops, social support and strategic planning days.
Now, the skills centre is empty, only being used as a board room for YC Group and the training room being used as a staff room for employees.
Astronomical rent proposal
Denise Markham was the Manager of Koori Connect (now Bara Barang) from 2009 to 2014.
This was the Indigenous program of YC Group when the funding for the Indigenous Skills Centre was received.
Ms Markham was responsible for managing the Skills Centre and ensuring Indigenous students had a place to undertake vocational training.
After Koori Connect developed into Bara Barang and became independent from YC Group in 2015, YC Group tabled an astronomically expensive lease for Bara Barang to keep using the skills centre.
“They tabled a tenancy lease for us that we couldn’t afford,” Ms Markham said.
“It was for $65,000 a year – included in that was to lease the Indigenous Skills Centre to us. That was included into it for $10,000 a year.”
During discussions for the lease, Ms Markham said YC Group CEO Claudia Devlin repeated multiple times that the deal was non-negotiable.
For Ms Markham, the issue is in plain sight.
“A mainstream organisation applied for funding that’s specifically Indigenous funding, and [now] after the reporting times are finished, the infrastructure or equipment is not utilised by Aboriginal people anymore,” Ms Markham said.
Ms Markham said it is “heart wrenching” to see the once thriving Indigenous Skills Centre now sitting empty.
“It’s just been absorbed into their organisation which is not inclusive of Aboriginal people [or] the Aboriginal community,” Ms Markham said.
Andy Grauner, Bara Barang CEO at the time the lease was tabled, was contacted for comment however no response was received prior to publication.
Not the only ones
A similar situation occurred with Ngaruki Gulgul Central School (NG Central), a special assistance, non-government school located on Green Central.
NG Central were previously on approximately 80% of the site and were able to use the Indigenous Skills Centre to train its students, half of which are Indigenous.
After becoming independent from YC Group last year, the school lost 30% of its site and access to the Indigenous Skills Centre.
NG Central declined to comment.
YC Group scrambling
YC Group CEO Claudia Devlin said the organisation is currently in a “state of transition.”
After a change in lease agreement, YC Group now leases 50% of the land on Green Central, and NG Central leases the other 50%.
The CEO said the only reason YC Group has the Indigenous Skills Centre on its side of the site is because that is the way the boards and CEOs of YC Group and NG Central split the land, straight up the middle.
“It was just easier to allocate spaces,” Ms Devlin said.
She said NG Central mainly used all of the classrooms on their side, so it “just made sense” to divide the site through the centre.
“We could share the Indigenous Skills centre if there was a need for it,” Ms Devlin said.
Ms Devlin said YC Group hasn’t decided how to best use their half of the site and that they are currently using the skills centre just as “back of house functions” at this stage.
The CEO said YC Group is working on a number of business proposals as to how the centre can be used more effectively.
“I put up to the board two months ago a business proposition to manufacture a product, a food item in the Coolamon café,” Ms Devlin said.
The CEO said local young Indigenous Australians will be given the opportunity to be trained and employed in the process of manufacturing and distributing the item.
The product is still in the early stages of development, meaning quality control work won’t begin in the skills centre for another two to three months.
This will leave the Indigenous Skills Centre empty for up to eight months.
While YC Group is now developing its food product pathway, they have no other plans for use of the Indigenous Skills Centre in the meantime.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for community to come on site,” Ms Devlin said.
However, the CEO said there was no possibility in running something immediately as YC Group must ensure what they create is acceptable, appropriate and self-sustainable.
“Strategy takes time – we just have to get it right.”
Ms Devlin said she has not contacted any other Indigenous organisations apart from Bara Barang to invite them to use the Indigenous Skills Centre.
Ms Markham said YC Group hasn’t included them at all since Bara Barang left the Indigenous Skills Centre.
Questionable reconciliation actions
In late January, YC Group held a cultural engagement event for its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) launch.
The day involved a range of cultural activities like weaving, dancing and spear throwing, plus a community bush tucker meal at Green Central.
All this, despite not officially having a RAP.
A spokesperson from Reconciliation Australia said YC Group is currently working with Reconciliation Australia’s RAP team to develop their RAP but it has not yet been officially endorsed by Reconciliation Australia.
Ms Markham has reservations about the sincerity of such actions.
“My concern is that they’re putting it out there, that they do have a RAP, and they don’t. It’s not on the Reconciliation Australia website,” Ms Markham said.
Reconciliation Australia has a searchable online index of organisations, companies and other entities who have RAPs.
To date, YC Group is not listed on this index.
Ms Devlin confirmed YC Group’s RAP is still being finalised and that the third revised version has just been sent to Reconciliation Australia for review.
“We’ve been working together on it since November last year. So, we’re just doing the edits still,” Ms Devlin said.
The CEO also said she worked with Lindsay Stanford, founder of Indigenous employment solutions organisation Blakworks, to kickstart YC Group’s RAP in August last year.
She said Ms Stanford ran a three to four-month workshop to help YC Group design their RAP.
Ms Devlin’s explanation for having a RAP launch was that she acted on advice from Ms Stanford, who said it was fine to go ahead with their action plan items despite not having official approval from Reconciliation Australia.
“We just did what [Ms Stanford] informed us to do,” Ms Devlin said, adding that YC Group paid a fee to Ms Stanford for her services.
Ms Stanford denied being involved in YC Group’s RAP development and declined to comment further.
“The very first thing that was on our action plan was to launch RAP in terms of our commitment,” Ms Devlin said.
The CEO said she also contacted Reconciliation Australia and they said this was okay, however they said YC Group should include their RAP review dates in their timeline instead of listing them as milestones.
“Even though the RAP hasn’t been formally finalised, we’ve already been [actioning the plan],” Ms Devlin said.
Reconciliation Australia (RA) was contacted for comment. In a statement to NIT they said, “Whilst we’re unable to provide any specific information about communication between RA and our RAP partners, RA’s position is that organisations should not launch a RAP without it being formally endorsed by Reconciliation Australia.”
Ms Markham said she is concerned with the confusion surrounding YC Group’s RAP.
She believes it’s purely tokenism.
Ms Markham said she has been in contact with local Gosford MP Liesl Tesch to investigate the matter further, however she has not heard back whether Ms Tesch has taken any action as yet.
With election policies from the Coalition promising an increase in skills centres around the country, the management of such centres and conduct of managing organisations need to become more transparent and accountable.
Should this pattern of mismanagement continue, government funding may be wasted and skills centres operationally redundant, sitting empty across Australia once reporting requirements expire.
By Hannah Cross