Sosefina Fuamoli speaks with Tjindu Foundation Chairperson April Lawrie about how they’re helping young Aboriginal women reconnect with their culture through their Aussie Rules Academy.
The Tjindu Foundation may still be in its infancy, but the groundwork and momentum the South Australian non-for-profit organisation has already stirred is a massive indication of the legacy it is quickly beginning to carve.
Built around core concepts of delivering opportunities for the growth and development of young Aboriginal people through a number of innovative programs, the Tjindu Foundation has become an encouraging and nurturing presence for Aboriginal youth statewide.
The development of Tjindu’s Aboriginal AFL Academy in particular, has been a way that the appeal of sport within the community meets cultural development and industry pathways.
To break it all down a bit further, we spoke with Tjindu co-founder and chair, April Lawrie. Lawrie, a proud Mirning and Kokatha woman, is also South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.
Having worked as a key figure in Aboriginal health, education, youth justice and more for 30 years, Lawrie has been championing new avenues for the elevation and development of success within Aboriginal young people with continued drive and passion. Co-founding the Tjindu Foundation with former Director of the Port Adelaide Football Club’s Aboriginal Programs (and now the AFL’s Diversity Talent Manager) Pauly Vandenbergh, Lawrie has been able to bring this passion together with sport; delivering a range of programs to cultivate cultural and community wellbeing in South Australia.
A key player in Tjindu’s agenda is the Aboriginal AFL Academy, which sees a squad of 60 girls and boys selected to take part in a once-per-week cultural education, football/fitness training day, alongside their regular schooling curriculum. The participants (in years 10-12), get to not only develop their love for AFL, but learn more about their cultural identity and gain access to potential industry pathways beyond high school.
Mentored by Tjindu staff, the participants will complete either a Certificate II or III in Sport Coaching or undertake Aboriginal Studies, which will go towards their high school (SACE) certificate. It’s a model that Tjindu are hopeful can be replicated in other states but for now, the Aboriginal AFL Academy is definitely thriving in SA; trials having already been completed for their 2022 season, and Gavin Wanganeen announced as their coach.
As Lawrie says, it has been inspiring to see how the students selected for the Aboriginal AFL Academy have taken to the program.
“They grow as young people, strong and proud,” she says.
“They develop an awareness about their own sense of self and have a bit more of an understanding of where they can go in their journey. Being in a position to make really good, intelligent life decisions about their path beyond their secondary education. What happens through Tjindu, our youngfullas getting connected to industry and learn about the pathways to joining up within the industry. You can be part of something that, on an individual level, is part of closing the gap in Aboriginal outcomes, young person by young person. Family by family. Community by community.”
Acknowledging that sport—particularly Aussie Rules—within the community has always been a popular presence, Lawrie (who also spoke with us about her own love and career playing football in SA) says that an important part of the academy is showing young people the breadth of careers and opportunities in the industry that are available outside of playing too.
For the female participants especially, as we’ve seen the structures within the AFL shift significantly over the years, programs like the Aboriginal AFL Academy gives girls the opportunity to gain important leadership skills early. Perhaps more importantly, it gives them the opportunity to thrive within this environment and find pathways of their own into this professional realm.
“They have the opportunity to make connections with industry by being in the same room as part of the program,” Lawrie explains. “With our sponsors or people who have contributed to making that program come to fruition. Part of the program’s agenda is that we expose our kids to industry as well as being a participant in sports. For me, sport is a very good vehicle; it’s got very good health outcomes and it’s got very good outcomes in relationships and peer support.”
The intersection between sport and cultural identity has been a very key and crucial one for Tjindu’s staff and program coordinators. Developing programs for the kids to immerse themselves more in their culture is a concept that the Foundation has been built upon, as well as celebrating it, and sharing it with their peers too.
The Aboriginal AFL Academy, which was launched in partnership with the AFL Max facility, fleshes out the ambition both Lawrie and Vandenbergh had to develop new programs for Aboriginal youth that weren’t necessarily centred around State or Commonwealth funded roll outs around social welfare or vulnerability concerns. Here, Tjindu exists to support the cultural, emotional, physical and professional development of young people in a way that is sustainable and definitive of a bright new future.
“We wanted to actually be in a position to support their cultural identity development; their leadership development, developing pathways through sport.” Lawrie says.
“It’s one of the launching pads that gets our youngfullas engaged in their education. Because it was very present, the issue of some sports programs being impacted upon, [we knew] that was one of our first entry points. We knew there was going to be some traction, we could get some funding and we could develop a response to saving some programs.”
Lawrie speaks of Tjindu’s journey so far with pride, but says they’re just getting started in terms of how their overall creative vision is set to come to life.
“We’re doing work around developing programs that put our kids through very deliberate cultural education,” she says.
Empowering girls to become young leaders in their own right; teaching them about the depths and richness of their culture and their place within it—both professionally and personally—is a massive part of Tjindu’s purview.
“We’ll bring in cultural educators to teach our girls, our young women, our young leaders about the things that really make us who we are.” Lawrie says.
“Those things are everything from basket weaving, to learning our traditional songs, learning our language, but also knowing about Aboriginal affairs in a historical context and also in the contemporary contexts of the 20th and 21st centuries. Politicising our kids to have a really robust understanding about the things that they need to have knowledge and understanding about, in terms of their own development and growth into their leadership.”
Sose Fuamoli is an award-winning writer and podcast host, originally from Adelaide, currently based in Melbourne.