The ‘Yuwaya Ngarra-li’ partnership between the DEG and UNSW was forged through collaboration on a research study that investigated the experiences and pathways of Aboriginal peoples with mental and cognitive disability in the criminal justice system. As part of this, UNSW researchers partnered with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations including in Walgett. The DEG then invited UNSW to collaborate through a whole-of-university partnership over the longer term to improve wellbeing and social, economic and environmental outcomes in Walgett. Walgett has been measured over decades as one of the most disadvantaged locations in Australia but also has great strengths, including the advocacy and leadership of its local Aboriginal community-controlled organisations over many decades.

Key areas of priority for Yuwaya Ngarra-li identified by the DEG Elders Council have become even more urgent during the response to the threat posed by COVID-19: improving water and food security, addressing the over-policing of Aboriginal young people, and building community capabilities and control in Walgett.

Vanessa Hickey, Project Officer for Yuwaya Ngarra-li in Walgett and a local Aboriginal community member, has been gathering data about local food security and families going hungry in recent weeks. She’s identified that some families rely on meals provided by the school canteen and breakfast program, and this has contributed to food shortages since children and young people have been home full-time due to COVID-19. Vanessa’s work has informed advocacy efforts, including work by researchers from the George Institute for Global Health around improving the accessibility of food quality and supply in remote communities including Walgett.

The over-policing of Aboriginal young people has been of significant concern for some time in Walgett, which has a population of around 2000 predominantly Aboriginal people but a police force of 40. The state-sanctioned use of police to enforce public health measures during COVID-19, including hefty fines and even imprisonment, has the potential to exacerbate the criminalisation and inequality already experienced by Aboriginal people.

Through her convening of the Walgett Youth Justice Working Group, Peta MacGillivray, Project Manager for Yuwaya Ngarra-li at UNSW, is amplifying the perspectives and priorities of local Aboriginal community controlled organisations in protecting the health and interests of Aboriginal people during this stressful time: ‘Advocating and supporting community-led and locally-driven approaches to responding to COVID-19 is paramount, with a focus on measuring the effectiveness of reducing the spread through the support of community, not punishment’, said Peta.

‘This partnership is contributing to the evidence base around Aboriginal community-led solutions to systemic issues, drawing on the expertise, influence and resources of UNSW to work towards the long-term vision of the Dharriwaa Elders Group’, said Dr Ruth McCausland, Research and Evaluation Director for Yuwaya Ngarra-li.