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Unknown Strangers - Morwell and Maitland

“We need to walk, just as birds need to fly.  We need to be around other people.  We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded.  We need to feel some kind of equality.”

Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota.  From Happy City Charles Mongomery

This week sees the 10 year anniversary of the Hazelwood Mine Fire in Morwell. On the 9 February 2014 a grassfire near the Hazelwood Mine sparked a fire that was to burn out of control for 10 days.  It took another week to put it out, and more weeks to keep it wet enough not to restart. The fire had taken hold in a coal seam and it took 500 firefighters at any one time, with over 7,000 over a 45 day period to put it out. They came from all states and territories. An inquiry into the fire estimated that the cost of this was over $100 million dollars. During that time the town of Morwell was covered in smoke and ash that lingered past the fire being extinguished.  It was not until late February that the Chief Health Office issued warnings about the smoke and ash and advised the elderly, unwell, pregnant or very young to leave South Morwell.  Morwell has a population of 14000 many of them from low social economic groups on government pensions or low incomes. Government grants were made available for those who could not stay.  The La Trove Valley was in crisis.

As the fire burned and ash and smoke covered the surrounding area for those weeks many people complained of headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, nose bleeds, sore eyes, chest pain and fatigue.  The town was both in shock and dealing with a health crisis.  

Tracie Lund Manager of the Morwell Neighbourhood House responded to her community’s need by reaching out to them.  She wanted to let her community know that they stood together and that no one was to be left out. How do you reach out to that many people and let them know they are as one?  How do you let them know you are standing with them?  Social media.

Lund and her team of volunteers cut out large letters in form core.  She approached community groups, as varied as the Country Fire Authority to childcare centres, local radio to the council officers, shops and schools and asked what word they wanted they wanted the rest of the community to know came from them.  Words like ‘Strong’, ‘Love’, ‘We R One’, ‘Creative’, ‘Power’ and ‘Care’ came from these groups. ‘Kind, ‘Inspire’ and ‘Future’ came from groups as diverse as the neighbourhood house itself and Bakers Delight. She took photos and posted them on social media.  They took off.

Neighbourhood Houses are located in local communities.  They all look different, they all do different things but they all work on a community development model which allows their local community to learn, reach and develop.  Neighbourhood Houses are gift Victoria has given the world, with 420 across the state. Neighbourhood Houses are now found in most states and territories across Australia (not the ACT) and across the world in Canada, and East Timor.  

In Victoria neighbourhood houses are funded in a variety of ways. Most by state government, some with additional funds from local government and most raise some funds themselves by way of courses to the community at cost. The funding from state government is for coordination of community development projects to benefit the community. But neighbourhood houses are so much more than places to do yoga. They act as centres or hubs for communities but also advocate for and to develop their people offering skills training, recreation and health courses. Neighbourhood houses work on community development projects as different as each of their communities; public transport, bush fire readiness, festivals, art works, gardens, community lunches, markets, youth groups, social enterprises, foodbanks.  They are often the conduit, not just between individuals, but between state and local governments and the community.

Communities need places to gather: to work and play together.  In his book “Palaces for the People” Eric Klinenberg describes community hubs as the type of social infrastructure needed to allow people to access social participation.  These are safe places that offer programs and projects that include all comers.  These community hubs buffer personal problems like social isolation but also provide the vitality for the communities.  In the US these spaces tend to be centred around public libraries, in Victoria it is the neighbourhood house. Community groups like playgroups and book clubs, photographic clubs use them as a base, environmental groups and Men’s Sheds are often developed through neighbourhood houses.  Not all community hubs work the same way though. Child care centres and schools are given as example by Klinenberg.  Not all childcare centres are the same; some provide a space for the children to be dropped off but no place for the adults to hangout.  Schools rely on the way they are planned and designed and who leads them as to how the community within gels.  They can either foster or inhibit trust and shared commitment to the common good.  Neighbourhood houses have paid staff who organise projects and programs with a commitment to openness and inclusivity that fosters a sense of social cohesion.  Neighbourhood houses often play a role that is not always measurable.  We can count the number of people who come through the doors but not the number of people who walk away with a feeling of joy because they have caught up with a friend or found a gem of knowledge or been listened to.  

Once the Morwell Mine Fire project was over Lund kept her letters.

The following year a large amount of rain fell in the Hunter Valley in NSW. Over the 20-22 April 2015 a storm brought hourly rainfall of 100-150 mls with major flooding of the local rivers effecting Dungog and Maitland.  Combined with high winds with gusts of up to 135kms ph the destruction to houses and local environment was great.  Four people died, 250 homes were severely damaged or lost completely.  The community was in crisis and shock.

Lund brought out her letters and the Valley to Valley Project was borne.

She went back to the people and groups she had gathered before.  She got them to pick words of support for the people on Maitland and Dungog so they knew they were not alone.  She took over 400 photos.  The photos were made into 6 books to be delivered by her and a couple of councillors from La Trobe City Council to the people of Maitland and Dungog.

Tracie found out how important these books were when a Recovery Officer called, from Dungog, to tell her she was using it as a tool.  As people who came to seek advice from the Recovery Officer waited to be seen they would look at these books with photos from the people of the La Trobe Valley telling them to have ‘Strength’ to feel ‘Love’ and ‘Mateship’ and to ‘Be Brave’’.  These people told the Recovery Officer they felt seen and heard. The fact that people from another state cared enough about them to create such a book touched them. They felt connected.

The Valley to Valley Project took off.  Twenty-three of the photos were blown up large on canvas and were displayed at the La Trobe Regional Gallery in 2016.  The 2000 people who participated in the project got an invite.  MPs and Councillors came to the opening.  The people of the La Trobe Valley connected with the people of the Hunter, and just with letters!

Tracie Lund had tapped into something.

Projects like this illustrate how you do not have to know people to have an impact on their lives, you do not have to meet the stranger to feel the connection. We are social beings.

As humans we want to assist people we know are in need.  Appeals for war torn and famine struck places receive money from all sorts.  We pledge money for cancer research, we offer our organs after our death to others, we give our clothes to charities, we pay it forward so others benefit.  We do not have to know the recipients of our kindness.  

Why do we do this?

There is much research about how giving makes us happier people.  Giving stimulates the  reward centre in our brains.  This gives a ‘helper’s high’ that boosts self-esteem, elevates feelings of happiness and can assist with counteracting depression. It does not matter what we give; money, clothes, advice, assistance.  But there is something else going on too.  It gives us a sense of belonging.  It is not just the knowledge that what we have given has assisted someone, made their life different in some way, but it is the sense that we are now connected to those people, even if we do not know what they look like, how they act or who they really are.

The Valley to Valley Project illustrates that art can be instrumental in assisting to move through trauma.  The gathering together of people to pick words of hope and love for another community acted as a rallying cry to people who themselves were still in trauma, this project acting as part of the recovery of the La Trobe Valley residents. The mine fire in Morwell left the community fractured and hurt.  Coming together to sending messages to another community also in trauma acted as a catalyst bringing the people of the La Trobe Valley together.  Lund tells me that it was not just the communities coming together but she got a better understanding of the local council and how it works (she is now a councillor herself) and she lost her suspicion of ‘the powers that be’ and recognised they were all working for the same thing.  She lost her anger, fear and terror of what she did not know.

The Valley to Valley Project also highlights the importance of community development.  Communities often come together on their own, especially in times of crisis (floods, fires, cyclones or industrial accident) or against some kind of adversity (inappropriate development, environmental issues, political acts) but having Lund as part of her paid work be able to instigate ideas, act on them and then deliver, smoothes the way for connections to occur.  The top down, or welfare approach to fixing things in communities often fails.  The sense of powerlessness communities feel is never overcome and the issues resurface.  The Valley to Valley Project did not solve all the issues the La Trobe Valley had remaining from the mine fire but it lifted the community spirit in a way that nothing could, with Lund at the helm being directed by others around her.  

This project continues to give; the large canvases exhibited at the gallery were given back to the groups the photos were taken of.  One hangs in a pub with ‘Mateship’ declared to all who walk in.  

This post was done with cooperation and many thanks to Tracie Lund, Manager of the Morwell Neighbourhood House.  


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