The Wadi Wadi Elder bringing out stories from the inside

Aunty Barbara Nicholson in her garden. Photo by Rachael Knowles.

The stories of those inside have been given voice by influential grassroots activist and Wadi Wadi Elder, Aunty Barbara Nicholson.

A role model in community, Aunty Barb has taken strides throughout her life to move mountains for First Australians in custody.

Born on the south-coast of New South Wales, Aunty Barb grew up in the Depression years and remembers more dinner times than dinners.

“Times were hard, and it was tough, but not without a lot of fun. When you’re a kid, you get fun out of anything. Whatever your life is, that is normal, even though it was a very deprived time.”

She began her university career later in life through the Department of Community Programs at the University of Newcastle.

“Gough Whitlam made it possible for all Australians to go to university. I would never have been able to go if not. I can’t say I ever had a lifelong ambition. I think I was 30 before I realised what the term ‘university’ meant.”

“I did English literature and geography, I didn’t pursue geography – it had too much maths and I can only count to fifty.”

“It was really hard, but something my mum instilled in me was ‘whatever you start, you finish.’ So, I finished and I enrolled into a degree.”

And so began a labour of love, she achieved a triple major and a Diploma of Education.

“I couldn’t get enough of it, the learning, I wanted to be an eternal student and just learn and learn and learn.”

Aunty Barb left university and became an Indigenous academic at the University of New South Wales, later moving down to the University of Wollongong.

In Wollongong she sat on the University Ethics Committee for eleven years, became a fellow of the Law faculty and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law.

All the while, Aunty Barb was involved in every Aboriginal protest and social movement.

One of the founding members of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, she sat on the committee for eight years, being both Chair and Secretary in that time.

“It was gut-wrenching, you’re dealing with families of those who died in custody and there’s so much unresolved grief which manifests in anger, you never knew what the meeting would be like. It was always a safe space for people to vent that anger.”

“Going into the jail, we had a round robin hook up for after-hours calls, so you’d be on duty for a week at a time and you could only hope that you didn’t get a phone call in the night.”

“The only phone calls you’d get would be because there’s been another death. And you’d have to go. I lost count of the times I’ve had to leave in the night, drive like a bat out of hell to whichever jail it was.”

“Every one of them was a big moment, and you can’t quantify one over the other. I guess some live with you a bit more than others but when you start thinking about the others then they come into full focus. Really tough stuff.”

During her time on the committee, she began her journey towards Dreaming Inside, the volumes of books created by First Australian inmates from Junee Prison.

Aunty Barb took on a position in the Southern Cross University outreach degree program which ran in jails.

“I was living in Port Kembla, so I put my hand up for Goulburn, it was one on one teaching – I got one lad through a Sociology degree.”

“He used to write poetry, and a couple of the other lads did too. And I had the idea then that I’d like to make a volume of their work.”

However, the timing wasn’t right. Fast-forward a few years later during the South Coast Writer’s Centre Write around the Murray tour, Aunty Barb reached out to Junee Prison.

“I had contact at Junee because my graduate student was transferred there for the last six months of his degree, and so I used to go on my own – so we got a day there reading poetry.”

“One of the officers contacted me and asked me back for NAIDOC Week. I said, only if I can do writing workshops with the lads, and they agreed. Volume one came out of that.”

“I had several other tutors, Bruce Pascoe, Simon Luckhurst and John Muk Muk Burke. I had funds for another tutor, so instead I thought we’d give the boys something back.”

The title, Dreaming Inside: Voice from Junee Correctional Centre, was created through a democratic process and kept since.

Dreaming Inside books by inmates at Junee. Photo supplied by Aunty Barbara Nicholson.

Aunty Barb runs week-long workshops in May and October at Junee Prison.

“I have a team with me and then it’s a year of hard work, I spend hundreds of hours a year, getting the books out. Volumes one and two, the original editions were stapled. When we got volume three – we got a proper bound book.”

Taking place in Junee Prison’s Cultural Centre, which Aunty Barb describes as an indoor basketball stadium, the workshops create a culturally safe space.

“Every inch is covered in art. It’s up the wall and hanging on the ceiling, every surface is painted. Even didgeridoos and guitars, old doors, reverse side of ripped up carpet. It’s on the walls and the floors, it’s on the tables.”

“There’s Chinese dragons hanging off the walls, there’s Buddha, Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandala, Slim Dusty, everyone. I can remember one perfectly – on a door there’s the Aboriginal flag painted and inscribed over that in white paint is the whole entire Apology from Kevin Rudd.”

“All the different cultures from the jail are represented there. And when we are there, with no one else in that space – they can be who they are. They are so vulnerable.”

The benefits for the inmates are more than a creative outlet, it’s a cathartic and healing experience.

“In the October trip last year, I had one lad – I’ll cry talking about it – he had only just come to Junee. He was on remand and never been to jail in his life, he was sitting drawing and I tried to break the ice.”

“I had asked them if they’d like to write to the NAIDOC theme last year, which was ‘Because of her, I can,’ and many did. This lad had started writing something, only three lines, about his mum, he didn’t write anymore. I was talking to him, trying to encourage him, and he just burst into tears.”

“Since he’d been arrested, he’d been too ashamed to contact his family. He’d never been in trouble in his life. For the next forty minutes, he just sobbed his heart out and so did I.”

“Later that afternoon, he came back in and didn’t leave my side. He came to me and he thanked me, at lunch he had called his family.”

“And so, I put him in the book. He’s in here – I don’t correct their spelling. They are so lovely, most are in there for petty crimes, mainly. But they are interesting, they write all sorts of lovely, lovely things.”

“There’s such a therapeutic value in that for the lads, and it’s a space where they know they have a friend. We’re non-judgemental, we all know the score.”

Since starting in 2012, Aunty Barb is still traveling to Junee.

“I’d like to think this will live on, but it may die when I can’t do it anymore. It takes a lot of passion and energy and commitment. My aim is to get ten volumes out and then assess where I’m at.”

The program, though, is struggling with funding.

Recently, it received a generous grant from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the program also has committed support from the South Coast Writer’s Centre.

However, nothing will stop Aunty Barb from telling the stories.

“This was just going to be volume one, I had no vision beyond that. I guess I’ve learnt that from little things, big things grow, and I didn’t know it. I had no plans for it, but even when you haven’t got a plan, things can grow.”

All volumes of Dreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre can be purchased here: https://southcoastwriters.org.au/news/2014/dreaming-inside-anthologies

By Rachael Knowles

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