Helping the community takes a lot more than just 'thoughts and prayers'

Posted on 30 Jul 2023

By Tamara Pararajasingham

Community consultation

When traditional methods of helping the most vulnerable members of the community don’t seem to be working, it’s time for a new approach, says Uniting’s Tamara Pararajasingham.

Every day one of our key concerns at Uniting NSW.ACT is to make sure that the people we serve get the services they need.

It’s also one of our key challenges.

Prioritising and supporting the most vulnerable in our communities is at the heart of what we do as the faith-based service delivery arm of the Uniting Church.

Making good on this kind of commitment, however, takes a lot more than just “thoughts and prayers”.

Our research, alongside that of other service providers, shows us that despite spending billions of dollars each year, our sector’s traditional models of service delivery are not as effective as they should be.

Over the past 30 years or so, poverty rates across Australia haven’t budged and the data tells us that postcodes are the biggest predictors of hardship.

For some communities this has meant the disadvantage dial simply will not move and their experience of complex, entrenched problems isn’t getting any better.

That’s why several years ago, Uniting, along with others in our sector, including members of the Strengthening Communities Alliance, decided it was time to try something different.

Alongside traditional service delivery, we’ve been investing in a new way of working that involves meeting local people where they live, listening to them and learning what their issues really are, and supporting them to design and create solutions they think will work best for their community.

It’s a way of tackling entrenched disadvantage that our federal treasurer, Jim Chalmers, is particularly passionate about. He’s seen it work in his own constituency and we're also seeing some very promising changes – especially with groups that have been hard to reach in the past.

Tamara Pararajasingham
Tamara Pararajasingham, general manager impact and innovation, Uniting NSW.ACT.

Young people on the Mid North Coast of NSW are dealing with a lot – youth unemployment, drug addiction, increased mental health problems and youth suicide. They’ve told us that if we want to help, we need to hear them and give them agency in the programs being put in place to help them.

In Nambucca Heads, Uniting community connectors helped young people to forge links with local community leaders and the Becoming U program was born.

A few years on, the work is thriving. Uniting's community connectors facilitate links, but it’s the energy and ideas of the young people that continue to shape and drive the initiatives.

The program’s success has prompted us to look for similar ways to meet the needs of young people living in the Bay and Basin region on the NSW south coast – by responding to their specific issues and trying not to superimpose something we think is a good idea because we’ve seen it work somewhere else.

Getting input and direction from local young people is our starting point and critical to finding the best solution to the problems they’re experiencing.

We’re also discovering that this kind of place-based, collaborative work is crucial when we’re working with First Nations communities as a positive way to enable self-determination.

Our Aboriginal Families Together scheme started as a playgroup for Aboriginal families but has become so much more.

Uniting’s First Nations–led teams in Nambucca and Dubbo now work closely with local elders through our local advisory councils to develop culturally safe places and connections for parents and kinship carers.

In each place, these groups look and work differently. As they should. No two communities are the same.

Even more exciting is that in both places we’re also seeing the natural growth of other initiatives and projects thanks to the First Nations–led approach, which values relationships and listening.

While the federal treasurer can see the value of this kind of place-based, locally led problem solving, and invested nearly $200 million in the May budget to support it, the reality is this approach needs more than just money.

The promised funding must be tailored to support and sustain policies and programs that help providers like Uniting to work better with other agencies and encourage us to share our knowledge.

Most of all, we need time.

Time is the most crucial element of this work because that’s what allows us to build relationships and listen deeply, without the pressure of delivering specific outcomes by some kind of artificial deadline.

Three-year election and funding cycles just won’t cut it.

In the not-for-profit funding world, these are huge asks.

If we have the opportunity to work together, though, to disrupt the problems holding people back in the first place, isn't it worth a shot?

Imagine an Australia where not-for-profits are no longer needed because communities are confidently self-sufficient.

This is the Australia we actually dream of – one where we're out of business.

Tamara Pararajasingham is general manager, impact and innovation, Uniting NSW.ACT.

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