Introduction to Ngaga-Dji: listening for change

The Ngaga-dji Report,  titled with the Woiwurung word ‘Ngaga-dji’, meaning ‘hear me/hear us’, was released by the Koorie Youth Council in August 2018. It offers sustained insights into the challenges faced by young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who come into contact with the criminal justice system in Victoria. These insights, drawn from children’s perspectives, are crucial for researchers, advocates, policymakers and practitioners from across a range of institutions to consider when working with young people.

By prioritising the voices of First Nations young people who have experienced the youth ‘justice’ system, the report offers a unique and much-needed account of the lived realities of children and young people today. The Ngaga-dji Report comes amidst increasing numbers of children on remand, an extensive campaign across Australia to lift the minimum age of criminal responsibility from ten to fourteen years old, and the persistence of patterns of historical injustice in the present, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The report reflects the concerns raised in the Family Matters Report 2020 through the perspectives of young people affected by child removal, separation from family and culture, and placement in ‘out of home care’. It highlights the pathways between child removal, child ‘protection’, youth detention and adult prison. Importantly, it also puts forward a range of recommendations and possibilities for transforming the experiences of the young people highlighted in the report and enabling stronger communities and better services for Indigenous communities in Victoria.

The report is based on the stories of forty-two Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people who, at the time of interview, were currently or had previously experienced youth justice supervision. Participants had experienced various contacts with the justice system, from police cautioning to diversion to incarceration and community-based orders. Group yarning circles and individual interviews were conducted to provide safe spaces for children and young people to express their views. The Koorie Youth Council then de-identified the interview and yarning circle data and created three composite accounts of the experiences shared to protect participant privacy and safety. A focus group of young people with lived experience of the justice system then reviewed the stories. The report includes the written accounts of these composite stories, a set of illustrations, and four solutions that form a vision for Victoria, accompanied by specific measures to support the concrete implementation of these solutions.

The solutions put forward in the Ngaga-dji Report are: 1) Give children services that work; 2) Keep children safe and strong in their culture, families and communities; 3) Create community-designed and led youth support systems; and 4) Create just and equitable systems. All are underpinned by the guiding principles of self-determination, youth participation and culture, family, Elders and communities. In addition, the report advocates a vision of wellbeing for Koorie young people that takes into account social, cultural, historical and political factors and addresses connection across seven aspects of life: community, culture, land, spirituality/ancestors, physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing and family/kinship.

In this series we have invited academics and practitioners working across a range of disciplines – criminology, education, politics, history and law – to consider what the findings of the Ngaga-dji Report mean for their work. We asked them: What challenges does the Ngaga-dji Report raise for your discipline/area of work? In what ways does your discipline/area of work need to transform to respond to the stories and solutions contained in the Ngaga-dji Report? The Ngaga-dji Report is a call to action to address the discrimination that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience – how might your discipline/area of work respond to this call?

Beyond survival: Indigenous history and the politics of justice is written by two historians based at the University of Melbourne – Julia Hurst and Zoe Laidlaw. They show how the Ngaga-dji Report prompts a reflection on the ways Indigenous stories are told (or not told) and how history is engaged within Australia by posing direct challenges to these stories. Subverting legal paternalism to deeply engage with young people is by Samara Hand – a young lawyer, currently working in education – and John Tobin, a Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne. Samara and John reflect on how the legal system could change to better engage with young people and to truly hear their stories and their hopes and solutions. Experiences of youth detention and young people’s voices calling for informed change is a reflection on the challenges that Ngaga-dji poses for the youth ‘justice’ system and for the discipline and field of Criminology. Here Bonnie Dukakis, a youth worker at Parkville College, Claire Loughnan, a criminologist at the University of Melbourne and Faith Gordon, a criminologist at Australian National University, combine to highlight how the criminal justice system can learn from the methods of the Ngaga-dji research in centring young people’s voices and building on their strengths rather than adding harm to their struggles. They urge criminologists to keep challenging the conceptual categories and foundations of criminology, which has historically failed to address the structural impact of colonisation upon Aboriginal peoples, children and their families and communities. Children’s voices and an Australian Charter of Rights is by Holly Doel-Mackaway, a children’s rights lawyer and academic at the Macquarie University Law School. Here she reflects on what the Ngaga-dji Report reveals about the status of First Nations young people’s rights in Australia. She argues that human rights law reform in Australia is a matter of national urgency and the development of an Australian Charter of Rights, designed in collaboration with First Nations young people, is a good place to start. Taking history, racism and community seriously in education is co-authored by Melitta Hogarth and Sophie Rudolph, both education academics based at the University of Melbourne, who argue that the key messages of Ngaga-dji compel teachers and education researchers to reflect on how First Nations families are engaged in schools and on how schools need to address issues of racism – both structural and interpersonal – that impede First Nations students’ education.

Importantly, these responses uncover connections across each field which point to the far-reaching implications of Ngaga-dji, not just as a report which challenges, and invites reflections from each professional and academic field, but which shows how interconnected these challenges are. The reflections in this collection are also a provocation to the settler colonial ‘worlding’ of Australia, one which crosses intellectual and institutional boundaries.  For example, the historical privileging of white history that Hirst and Laidlaw reflect upon, has clearly impacted on Aboriginal children’s experiences of the current education system discussed by Hogarth and Rudolph. Doel-Mackaway suggests that the failure by the youth justice system to hear the voices of young Aboriginal people explored by Dukakis, Gordon and Loughnan, could be addressed by according them an active role in shaping an Australian Human Rights Charter. It also requires that those working in the courts and in the legal system take their voices seriously, rather than just offer ‘supports’ once kids are in the system. There has to be a shift from paternalism to self-determination, as Hand and Tobin point out.

We encourage you to both read the full Ngaga-dji Report and these articles, to reflect on what the stories and solutions offered in the report mean for the work that we do with young people across a range of disciplines and institutions.


Cover image: Jacob Komesarof, Koorie Youth Council

Read the rest of Reflections on Ngaga-Dji: listening for change, edited by Sophie Rudolph and Claire Loughnan

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Sophie Rudolph

Sophie Rudolph is a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her teaching and research interests encompass the sociology and history of education with a particular focus on Indigenous-settler relations and racism in education. She is a settler living and working on the lands of the Kulin Nation.

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Claire Loughnan

Claire Loughnan is a lecturer in Criminology, at University of Melbourne. She researches the modes, practices and effects of carceral and confined spaces, including immigration detention, youth detention, prisons and aged care. She lives and works on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation.

More by Claire Loughnan ›

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