Kate Brennan
Kate Brennan

Good morning. In opening I’d like to acknowledge that we are holding the Glebe Society Annual General Meeting on the traditional lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora nation. Acknowledgement of country is a relatively new revival of the profoundly old practice of ceremony around gatherings, an invitation to engage with the soil beneath our feet, the trees, the waterways, the country which supports us and the people who have cared for it since time began. It is a way of understanding our collective history. As a recovering Anglican, I’m no stranger to the value of ceremony and I embrace the invitation of first nation peoples to participate in this practice.

I would like to thank the Glebe Society for the invitation to address the Annual General meeting. My name is Kate Brennan and I am the Facilitator of the Glebe TreeHouse, a community service supporting families with small children. I was hoping to share with you today some of my insights and dreams working in this community. I’m not sure what I am able to add to your knowledge and appreciation for the suburb, but hope to ground this in our common passion for the community of Glebe. I’d also like to share with you the unfinished story of unpacking my own privilege – and how that contributes to my work.

My hope is that this may inspire us to extend dialogue about Glebe’s ‘Community Spirit’ and indeed to highlight how an extraordinary opportunity is sitting right here on our doorstep.

So – What does the phrase Community Spirit mean to you and how do we build that in Glebe? There was a great quote in the Guardian this week – from Monash Professor Andrew Markus who said: ‘social cohesion is not a destination; we do not get to the destination and say ‘we’ve done it!’ It’s something we need to work at’.

It’s important that I point out here, that I’m aware that I’m preaching to the converted; as people who choose to live in Glebe. I know that you love this suburb, in part due to its complexity; and today I will ask you to reach yet a little deeper and be present to what we cannot see so easily about the cohabitation in Glebe of wealth and poverty, advantage and restriction.

So why do I get to talk about Glebe Community Spirit? As mentioned, I have the great fortune of running a community centre located on the grounds of Glebe Public School; it’s called the TreeHouse and it is a Free Fun Family Space where little things grow. (That’s our new tag line and I’m trying to use it a lot). We aim to support families with young children to try and get the best start in those vital early years. The centre has been there for 16 years and is run under the State Government’s Families NSW initiative with the Department of Education.

The TreeHouse is one of 40 similar sites across NSW; they are all placed in communities where there is significant socioeconomic DIS-Advantage. I use the term DIS-Advantage somewhat reluctantly these days, because embedded in the word itself, is the very characteristic which we struggle to discuss when addressing issues of disadvantage – but we’ll get into that in a little later.

When we talk about ‘Community Spirit’, the development of which I was excited to discover is a goal of the Glebe Society, what specifically do we mean? What informs our ideas of community spirit? They are somewhat ethereal notions of not just buildings but the collection of people, stories that make up a community, it’s the interactions, it’s the gatherings, it’s the feelings you have being in a place – going to the shops, talking to your neighbours.

In reflecting upon this, I was recalling some of the influential features of how this notion developed for me. I grew up in an inner city suburb, which back in the 70s and 80s, had some similarities to Glebe.

The suburb was Summer Hill, and we had a pretty wonderful childhood there; my family, including my two little brothers, lived next door to our cousins and just up the road from the lovely Summer Hill village. We played cricket on Henson St and spent long summer holidays wandering the suburb.

In the 80s, my father got involved in a local action group – the group was interested in the amenity of the area and formed partially in response to Ashfield councils plan to allow the building of a ten storey office block over the carpark near the station. The group named themselves the Summer Hill Action Group, which delightfully shortens to the acronym, SHAG.

As a child I went along to some of the Ashfield council meetings with SHAG and watched as the group fought hard for their suburb and eventually won the battle; the building never went up, and Summer Hill continues to this day to enjoy the atmosphere of a village.

This story informed my belief in the power of community based groups who care about the quality of life and amenity of a suburb. I was witness to the power of civic participation.

But another important feature of Summer Hill in that era was the high representation of group homes or what were referred to back then as ‘half-way houses’. What this provided to the suburb was the colourful range of people and stories, and they weren’t always easy stories. These properties housed a range of people of varying mental health conditions, ex-drug users, the elderly and the poor.

I want to share with you a story that captures some of the character these people added to the community. Early one sunny morning, as my brothers and I were at the breakfast table at the back of our home, an elderly lady in a mauve terry-towelling dressing gown, with wild and dishevelled hair, swept up the back steps and into the kitchen; she stood arms outstretched at the end of the breakfast table, her dressing gown dancing about her swaying frame. And she exclaimed ‘All the other kingdoms have been thrown into heaven! This is the last one!’ She told us we could have our breakfast but then we would have to leave.

My little brothers and I sat at the table frozen to our seats, still in our PJs, suspended spoonfuls of porridge, wide-eyed and trying to integrate this vision in purple who had so spectacularly interrupted our breakfast. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity my mother, stirred by the ruckus, emerged from the front of the house and offered our visitor a cup of tea. It didn’t take long for us to be ushered into our rooms to get ready for school. By the time we were leaving a nurse had arrived from the hospice next door to accompany our visitor back to another ‘kingdom’.

Fast forward some 30 years and it’s hard to locate such a property in Summer Hill. The suburb – saved from urban vandalism by SHAG’s diligent work, has become like much of the inner city of Sydney, where the median house price now sits at $1.5m, and in the main we do not respond to the steady and silent push of ‘the poor’ to the outer edges of our city.

These stories from my childhood juxtapose things that are vital to health of a community’s spirit. People power and the strength found in diversity. So, as members of a community which very much represents these two worlds, I want us to consider: What cost does a community pay, where there is a loss of one aspect? And; Who should be fighting to stop it?

As a community worker in this suburb I can assure you we are working hard to minimise the impacts of poverty; the services I work alongside are dedicated, focused and modestly funded. We service a community which faces some of the most debilitating symptoms of poverty and where the shadow of invasion and colonisation still rests heavy on the lives of many.

Add to that that we have an increasingly uphill battle on our hands; as wealth distribution remains on a divergent and climbing scale, the gap between haves and have nots is widening and the government purse seems to be shrinking, especially in the area of social housing. And here we are smack bang in the middle of the biggest city in the country, occupying a tiny inner city suburb which holds the interesting title of the most socio-economically diverse suburb in Australia.

Yet here lies our extraordinary opportunity. And when I say opportunity, I don’t mean the opportunity to overcome poverty or lift the poor and disenfranchised up out of the mire – these are far reaching social challenges. I mean the opportunity to build real and equitable relationships across this divide and, through this, truly transform the Community Spirit of Glebe.

The next question then: Whose responsibility is it to reach out and form these relationships? I feel increasingly, as I have understood my own privilege, to see it as more my responsibility than others. At the risk of getting back to my biblical roots again, ‘to whom much is given, much will be required’.

So what is this terrible word ‘privilege’ and why does it just stick in our throats and generate such discomfort? I’ve been afforded chances to recognise and begin to unpack my own privilege. I expect it to be a lifelong journey and in talking about this, I do not wish to take away from or assume to understand anyone else’s; here I’m just talking about my own.

After high school there were two formative experiences which helped. Firstly, I moved to Alice Springs and spent time on the Tiwi Islands off the Top End. This experience was like being gently woken up by country. I didn’t really have much educational or lived experience of Aboriginal people or culture when I got there, but when in the desert, I just changed. My heart and brain started to feel the story of this country. Working in communities and with people in the top end, I was a guest, I behaved as such and was welcomed. My understanding of Aboriginal people began to be turned on its head; slowly the veils lifted and I found teachers and family, I found the living history of my country.

Two years later, I went to Palestine with my mum, who was a doctor working for World Vision, and again the story of dispossession from land and the unbearable grief this dislocation brings, was shown to me as an outsider. I felt totally helpless; and all I can tell you is in the grief and chaos that was Gaza I spent countless hours receiving the warmth and welcome of Palestinian families who shared their stories, as we drank sweet mint tea.

It is little wonder that these experiences had such a significant impact on me; I come from relative affluence. Yet still I struggle in life, still I find life a battle some days, I still cry myself to sleep, I lose my loved ones and occasionally my hope and direction. My privilege does not protect me from existence, but it definitely gives me a huge head start; a range of obstacles have never been placed in my way.

To understand privilege we must distinguish between influences of suffering. To be alive is to experience suffering, but there are special categories of suffering reserved for certain groups of people. If we are not a part of that group, it is close to impossible to understand the cumulative effect of the discrimination they experience. We probably cannot; however we can seek to understand what it means to not be at risk of this, and through that gain some insight, some humility and create an opportunity to LISTEN and LEARN from people who do know.

These are some of the features of my life which make me a person of privilege:

  • I completed high school
  • English is my first language
  • I have a university degree
  • I am a citizen of the country I live in
  • I do not have a visible or invisible disability
  • My parents were married and never divorced
  • I had employment opportunities as a result of family connections
  • I have never been ridiculed for my sexuality
  • I have not been followed around a department store because of my clothing
  • I have never been refused entry based on the colour of my skin
  • I have never missed a meal because there was no food in the house.

The list goes on.

These features of my life have created a solid platform for me to create and determine my destiny. And you know, when you really sit in that location it still just feels incongruent. It’s just an unpleasant feeling; and because we are human we tend to shy away from discomfort. Often this is where my brain cues the song, ‘‘What about me, it isn’t fair!!!’’

But what is really exciting, if we choose it: this discomfort tells us there something to be done!! It’s a key; it’s a signal for possibility and change. And here is the clincher: simply bringing it into awareness starts dismantling it. It doesn’t leave, it just starts to shift power.

After 20 years in the ‘helping’ sector I have lost most of my conviction that I am here to rescue people; but what I do know, with great rigour, is that I can be present to people. I can be there with them in the struggle and difficulty. I can choose to stand there, with them, at that time, and that alone can be powerful.

I work hard in my professional capacity to find a balance between the paradoxical realties of personal responsibility and wider social forces, such as capitalist democracy, cross generational trauma or attempted genocide. But as a person of privilege, I choose to place the latter at the apex of power when calling for change. I refuse to turn my gaze and to blame and I stop demanding people overcome such odds, when apparently I can’t even reliably get myself to yoga once a week.

Recent events make it a greater challenge. Where we have the Don Dale revelations, followed by the Australian cartoon depicting an Aboriginal father as an unengaged alcoholic, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and divisive politics, all do little to strengthen our resolve about how we keep at this work of building a cohesive and safe society. Yet in all this, we can gain insight from leaning into the discomfort and raising our awareness of the power for positive change that we do have.

When I was getting my thoughts together around this, Robyn Kemmis popped in to my mind, just as she did in real life into my office, and her ability to walk in many worlds; how she seemed just as comfortable at the Old Fire Station as the Sydney Town Hall. She was ‘interested’, ‘curious’, ‘passionate about …’; she wasn’t ‘worried for …’ or ‘feeling sorry for …’. Her concern was not directed toward people but toward systems and, what there was of it she transformed into action. SHE WAS ‘ENGAGED with’, not ‘COMPASSIONATE toward’.

So if we can take a leaf from her book and learn to bridge these gaps we have a job to do; it is to be open to learning about people’s lives, truly learning and being engaged.

So my call out to the Glebe Society is to continue to work deeply into this space of Community Spirit; to continue to challenge ourselves as we consider what would be lost for Glebe, if the sale of the public housing estate continues to erode diversity.

It is very easy to want to live in a place which doesn’t have social problems; it may feel safer, less chaotic. It is certainly less provocative or painful than asking us to consider our own role in systems of advantage. However in this brave new time of history, when Pokemon Go is an actual thing and climate change looms and a man like Donald Trump is poised to become the leader of the free world, it seems that we do well to be exposed to a wide range of people, life experiences and behaviours.

Let’s reconsider DisADVANTAGE in the context of its strong and robust brother, ADVANTAGE. Let’s lean into a bit of discomfort and find that it falls away – as we are roused and shaped by the breadth of relationship we can form across great distance. This is Glebe – only together can we create and protect a space were Community Spirit can truly flourish!