February 13, 2019

Gold in the Heart.

Today is eleven years since the then Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, moved a motion offering apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples on the floor of our nation’s parliament.

On a rather warm afternoon, I sat with Sharyn Tambo, in the Spectrum Garden, to chat about what this anniversary means to her and her mob.

Sharyn genuinely sparkles. She is one of those people who walks into rooms and brings the light with her.  Sharyn has a knack for understanding what people need to feel at home.  Which is a great thing, as she is Spectrum’s Assistance with Housing Officer, and is on a roll connecting people who seek to put down roots, to public housing that becomes available all around Melbourne.  She supports people teetering on the edge of homelessness, to not just secure permanent shelter, but to connect them to an abode that has all the features that make it unique and special to them – a lemon tree, a rose, a neighbor, access to public transport, a street with a gum tree.  She offers dignity, respect and consideration wrapped up in a translucent bundle of kindness.

In a very sliding doors moment, back in 2002 this, not just a little bit white, woman met a very charismatic bloke by the name of Ian Tambo.  By her own words, “Instantly, it was like I’d known him forever, and he me.  And when I looked into his eyes, I had this over whelming understanding of the linage of his culture – I could almost see it stretch out in front of me, and suddenly I knew I was home”.   They  were quickly inseparable, soon married, and blessed with family too.

Ian is a legend of the Australian music scene, having been performing his songs for more than 30 years, opening for such acts as Troy Cassar-Daly, Christine Anu, John Butler, Bart Williby and Human Nature, and has played many international and national festivals across the world.

In 2005, Sharyn and Ian toured the remote communities of outback Australia, taking their collaboration “Music 4 Kids” on the road, and for Sharyn, it was during this journey that she really got to allow the rich tapestry of Indigenous culture, the oldest continuous culture on the planet, to seep into her soul.

Since then Ian has joined forces with son Mitch, Didgeridoo player, traditional indigenous dancer and singer, who has already made his way from country Australia to the world stage. His renowned and celebrated didgeridoo playing has already taken him to Rome (Italy) to lead the procession at the Canonisation of Australia’s inaugural St Mary MacKillop and opened for Australian icon John Williamson at the Sydney Opera House accompanied by the Sydney Symphony orchestra.  Playing the didge, and performing the Acknowledgement of Country, at Spectrum’s new office site in 2018, pales by comparison,  but was an extraordinary experience for all those lucky enough to be present.

Humble however, does not even begin to describe this extraordinary family.   When Sharyn is not being all round awesome for Spectrum, she works/volunteers in the family’s social enterprise True Culture. True Culture aims to empower youth to make positive and healthy choices for their lives.   Both Ian and Mitch are equipped with social work qualifications and deliver interactive programs and resources that are driven through a culturally-sensitive framework that aims to empower the participants to engage with identity, self belief, cultural location and even career pathways.

The vision of True Culture is to promote positive Indigenous experiences through interactive indigenous cultural performances and workshops, boys mentoring workshops, empowerment programs for young males, music performances and song writing workshops, bush tucker cooking programs, indigenous art experiences and staff cultural awareness workshops.

So Sharyn is speaking from a place of lived experience and connection, when she summarises,  “What we have achieved together as an Australian society over the past 11 years since that speech is a mere pinprick in the universe of stars, that represents the extent of extraordinary that is, as yet untapped, in Australia’s Indigenous communities”.

“Surely the good people of Australia are across the statistics” says Sharyn, as she goes on to list just a few, “Suicide rates amongst Indigenous people are 5 times that of non-indigenous people, the rates of incarceration, overwhelming psychological stress, and the prevalence of disease.”  And of this she speaks very personally as Ian is in the final stages of preparation for a kidney transplant, the precursor of which besets remote communities at a rate up to 20 times more than their non-Indigenous counterparts.   “These are the raw baseline issues, a starting point to simply achieving the foundations for a level playing field”.

In preparation for our conversation, Sharyn revisited the transcript of that momentous speech in parliament.  As the sun really starts to belt down on our dry garden of our shared sunburnt country, she acknowledges that saying sorry was indeed a good starting point.   However, in reviewing that transcript, she highlights the second half of that speech that outlined a far more aspirational future.

“for the future we take heart, resolving that this new page in history of our great continent can now be written…. a future that embraces all Australians.. a future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities, and with equal stake in shaping the next chapter”

She reports that there is indeed amazing things happening, and they are originating from the people, grassroots communities, social enterprises, and by the sheer willpower of individuals to do better and more.  Amongst the luminaries delivering the mechanics of change on the ground, too many to list, we should include True Culture’s own West Papuan Project, that aims to empower other first nations people from around the word, who live here in Australia.

Seeking that aspirational future though, is what gives Sharyn real fire.   “We must find a way to work far better, more authentically, together.  It can’t just be talk any more.  The change must be real change, for all the people.  Sorry, really is no longer enough.  Words can no longer be enough.  We must honor this incredible wealth that walks amongst us.”

With customary gusto and levity, Sharyn challenges us all, “There is gold that lies in the heart of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and if together we could unlock that gold, the whole of Australia would be lifted, and all Australian’s would benefit.  I firmly believe this is possible, but it needs to be now.”


Spectrum gratefully acknowledges the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land in which we work, and pay respect to their elders past and present.

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