Getting Down with the Fitzroy Learning Network

By Declan Fry

So many of us in limbo
How to get it on, it’s quite simple
Three stones from the sun
We need a piece of this rock
Our goal indestructible soul
Answers to this quizzing
To the brothers in the street
Schools and the prisons
History shouldn’t be a mystery
Our stories real history
Not his story

Public Enemy, Brothers Gonna Work It Out

It is often said that Australia is a nation of migrants. But Australia was a multicultural country long before migrants arrived. It is estimated that over 500 language groups held title to land prior to colonisation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples owned, lived on, and were taught knowledge of particular tracts of ‘country’ – the term used to refer to one’s territory/land of origin, or a person connected to that same piece of land.

After colonisation, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would experience their own migration – not in the sense of crossing the ocean to arrive in this country, but in the sense of mass-scale displacement: through dispossession, the Stolen Generations, and assimilation policies. Many people were removed from their traditional countries but carried the knowledge of country with them. How we relate to country and conceive of inter-generational relationships, extended families and communities, and the ties that we create through descent, place, and kinship, are part of that experience. And it is also very important to acknowledge that many First Nations were never displaced at all. 

There is a quote that sits in the offices of the Fitzroy Learning Network (FLN), an organisation dedicated to helping migrants in Australia. Often attributed to Murri artist and activist Lilla Watson, its origins remain somewhat unclear:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.

Lilla Watson

The FLN’s work is deeply imbricated in questions of place and belonging. A large part of their mission is to empower people and give them a voice in the community.

On Friday 24th March, the FLN, in partnership with Yarra Libraries and Fitzroy Legal Service, hosted the Bridges to Harmony Festival in Condell Park, right in the middle of Fitzroy.

FLN CEO Jemal Ahmet began by introducing Aunty Georgina Nicholson, who told attendees about the history and geography of the Wurundjeri country on which the festival took place. Wurundjeri country encompasses the Melbourne CBD and extends north to the Great Diving Range, east to Mount Baw Baw, south to Mordialloc Creek, and West to the mouth of Werribee River.

Author and human rights advocate Arnold Zable talked about the history of the FLN, recounting stories of how refugees from Afghanistan, having been detained in places like Woomera and Baxter, eventually ended up living in Fitzroy’s high-rise flats. He related how some of them came to access the FLN after having seen a sign outside their office saying ‘Welcome’.

He went on to connect the tens of thousands of years of Australian Indigenous history to that of his journey as the son of Polish-Jewish refugee parents. His own family having been victims of genocide, he told us of his shock at realising that in Australia, the country where he grew up and went to school, he had never once heard the words Wurundjeri or Kulin,words representing cultures that are an inalienable part of this land. Standing in front of a map depicting the sites of Victoria’s massacres of Aboriginal peoples, Zable realised he had once seen a similar map depicting the places where his Polish ancestors had lost their lives. Movingly, he described how he was told to see Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, a Wurundjeri Elder. Her door had ‘opened into 40,000 years of history’, and Zable had gone on to learn about her great-great-uncle William Barak, a prominent Wurundjeri Elder during the 19th-century.

Zable then found, as he drove around the city, that he was able to begin to connect Victoria’s present to its past. He realised how, even in urban areas, we are still on country.

Having set up the tents and gotten things ready in terms of initial preparation for the festival, I got on to the more important part of preparations for the evening: playing with the dogs.

First up to perform that night was the Senegambian Jazz Band. Their acoustic set was something majestic, and you’re doing yourself a serious disservice if you don’t check them out.

Next up was Fadil Suna and Matt Stonehouse.

In the space between acts some of the kids were really starting to get into things (could it have been the star presence of MC & DJ Chris Gill of Northside Records? Or maybe the special appearance of Australian icon – and voice of many a childhood Sunday spent listening to Roy and HG Nelson’s This Sporting Life on Triple J – Greg Pickhaver?).

Midway through, we got to experience what was perhaps the highlight of the day: Girl Zone! They’re part of a roster of Fitzroy Clubhouse rappers at the FLN. Even if you’ve listened to the great masters of hip-hop, nothing can prepare you for the attitude these girls bring to the game:

Between acts DJ Chris Gill made sure to teach the children their James Brown. A few of the kids caught my attention because I remember having very similar dance moves to them in primary school. (My moves have improved only slightly since then.)

Of course, what party would be complete without the ultimate banger, Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”? Let’s face it, there’s simply no such thing as a situation in which you should not play this song.

Next up was Windari.

Pumped after seeing their peers on stage, the kids took to it again as 1/6 as stepped up to rap.

I also managed to catch a bit of The Public Opinion Six, whose grooves are very much in that sweet, sweet Fela Kuti vein. They’re signed to local label Hope Street Recordings.

All in all this was a great event: a testament to the power of community, and of indestructible soul.

You can follow Declan on twitter as @DeclanFry1 at https://twitter.com/DeclanFry1

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