Growing strong roots – Empowered Communities in the NPY Lands


In Central Australia, the national reform movement Empowered Communities (EC) is deeply founded on community input and ownership. From its beginning in 2013, the regional partnership’s first priority was to understand and represent Indigenous community perspectives, needs and opportunities.

NPY[1] Empowered Communities (NPY EC) is a partnership of regional Aboriginal controlled organisations who are seeking, on behalf of their members and Aboriginal people across the region, to improve the opportunities and outcomes for individuals, families and communities. NPY EC partners are: NPY Women’s Council (NPYWC), Regional Anangu Services Aboriginal Corporation (RASAC), Purple House, Mai Wiru Regional Stores Council (Mai Wiru) & Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Art Centre Collective (APYACC). The NPY EC partnership is supported by a backbone organisation (Secretariat) which undertakes the day to day facilitation and management of the Empowered Communities agenda.

Peter Riley, manager of the Secretariat, embarked on the first direct community consultations with the help of Jawun secondees back in early 2015.  The aim was to engage with Anangu[2]  living in the 26 Aboriginal communities that make up the NPY region, to hear what is important to them, and what they felt Empowered Communities should achieve.  This significant investment of time and energy, over an enormous area, provided clarity around the issues and priorities of local people.

At the top of the list was meaningful employment in communities, particularly for young people. Additionally, the “work for the dole” or CDP scheme was highlighted as a critical challenge for communities, both in how it is administered and the impacts on individuals and families. Education was also identified as a priority with current school attendance figures as low as 50% and unchanging despite substantial investment. Many people spoke of the need for schools and education to be more grounded in culture and accessible to all communities. Housing was another priority for Anangu, focusing on the overall lack of houses, the limited choices for people, and the need for regular upkeep and maintenance.

Finally, one significant concern was consistently raised – an issue that underpinned all others. Anangu spoke up strongly of a general sense of disempowerment, alienated from mainstream government services and struggles with a system that often feels inaccessible and inappropriate to community needs. Regionalisation of funding and service provision, under the banner of “economies of scale”, has left communities feeling increasingly ignored and without agency to influence the decisions, programs, and investments that directly affect their lives. As a result, empowerment of Anangu to participate in and drive local and regional outcomes was added as a priority focus.

Overlaying all these priorities are four Anangu principles that sit at the centre of daily life: tjukurpa (culture), waltja (family), manta (country), wangka (language).

The NPY EC team’s goal was to build on the consultation process to form a systematic plan to address the issues raised, and develop a Regional Roadmap based on Anangu priorities.


The consultation process took time and trust. As the NPY EC team understood the first set of priorities, they worked with EC partner organisations and communities to seek validation and discuss next steps. Regional leaders, including Andrea Mason, former CEO of NPY Women’s Council and Regional Co-chair of NPY EC, spread the message and assured people of the importance of supporting and trusting in this uniquely Aboriginal-led process. Throughout 2017-2018, consultations continued validating community priorities against available data, while the team developed ways of translating priorities into projects to show progress and demonstrate the link between consultation and solutions.

The community-identified priority on employment became not only about getting people jobs but also supporting Anangu to succeed and stay in those jobs. The regional experience is that retention of workers often drops sharply after three or six months. New workers often have significant challenges in balancing the structures and responsibilities of full-time work with family and cultural obligations which may require them to care for children and/or elderly family members, or to be on country for days or weeks for cultural “business”. Supporting large family networks from a small number of income earners can, over time, place significant pressure on workers. Without additional support or mentoring for these workers, the option to not work can be seen as the most expedient way to manage or avoid these pressures. Peter reflected on the personal stories that were shared during the community consultations, from Anangu workers struggling to reconcile personal and cultural responsibilities within the expectations of employment. Communication and cultural barriers often lead to misunderstanding, and many described leaving their jobs as the simplest way to manage these situations. Listening to these experiences, the team looked for ideas for a model that could effectively address these specific challenges.

Based on the community identified priority of education and support for young people, the regional education focus was narrowed, in the first instance, to consider the low Year 12 completion rate in the region (only some 18% of 20-24 year olds have completed Year 12 according to the 2016 census) and how to facilitate a more structured and supported transition from school to work. Ideas were shared about how to achieve this outcome, which led to a series of co-design sessions bringing together Anangu, schools and employers.

With so much underway, Jawun secondees provide valuable extra “pairs of hands” and knowledge to support this reform agenda. Since NPY EC began, 38 six-week secondments have brought skilled professionals from Westpac, APS, NSW Govt, CBA, the University of Melbourne and Freehills to work with the team.

With the NPY EC partnership committed to building a credible evidence-based approach to their work, data analysis has been a key theme of secondee contributions. Across the tri-state NPY Lands it is not easy to acquire or aggregate data. A cost of living survey drafted by Jawun secondees through Nganampa Health continues to be explored as a way of collating otherwise un-attainable household economic data for the region. This, along with a recent Jawun secondee who supported the EC team in seeking opportunities for partnership with Universities or other research organisations, are developing a strong evidence baseline for EC priorities.

In 2018, Christine Wijeratne from Westpac analysed 2016 Census data to glean insights into education and employment for the region to help NPY EC tell its story. In early 2019, Madeline Pryor, an employee of the Australian Public Service, spent time supporting and building the capacity of the team, including compiling guides for future management, analysis and storage of data. The NPY EC team describe Madeline’s support as ‘an exemplary, genuine contribution’, and are using the outcomes to drive ‘actual change’. As Peter says,

“So much work is just ‘holding the line’ – that’s not good enough, but the only way to do more to actually change things is to measure things. With evidence, you can’t be dismissed, and EC is about transformation to break away from just holding the line”.


NPY EC is now delivering on a number of the aforementioned first priority initiatives and continuing to build on the engagement and trust it has garnered from communities.

A co-design workshop on employment held in 2018 clarified ways for students, families, schools and employers to better navigate the challenges of finishing school and moving into the workforce (or undertaking further study).  This process produced a proposed model for School to Work transition which focuses on “brokers” to provide support and connection between students, families, schools, Government(s) and employers. A range of stakeholders including regional employers across the Lands are keen to put this into practice. Commonwealth and State/Territory government funding is being sought for a pilot education initiative with a cohort of young people and a group of employers offering internships and traineeships while engaging directly with schools, young people and their families. This will work in combination with a school support structure to help young people complete Year 12 and secure work experience, while employers are being rallied to create opportunities for graduates ready to make the transition.

To address the disempowerment felt by many Anangu, the EC team are working to increase the involvement and empowerment of Anangu in regional funding decisions and have now secured a joint decision-making agreement with government. Similar to some other EC regions, an innovative joint decision making process (Kulintja Kutju or “One Vision”) is now reviewing the region’s Indigenous funding as programs come up for renewal, with a view to ensuring all levels of the service delivery model are accountable to community-led priorities, feedback and input. One of the regional Emerging Leaders, Chris Reid, Chair of the Community Council in Irrunytju (Wingellina), explains what the Kulintja Kutju work and Empowered Communities as a whole means to him:

“As communities we need to have an input, we need ideas coming from us. We’re just asking for standard things you know, nothing more. We just want to have our say, to be empowered, to achieve things in life.

It’s exciting for us to be able to come here to talk about things – this sort of process could change the way government delivers services, and where. It’s also us showing the government that we’re passionate and we’re positive. It shows our commitment. Hopefully in the future we can all work together. It makes sense you know, if we can all work together in this country it will be really positive for everyone”

Empowerment of young Anangu leaders is being addressed through a regional Emerging Leaders program. Following a successful pilot, support has been received for the NPY Lands Emerging Leaders program to continue for another 2 years, with the aim of building the confidence and capacity of young leaders to take up responsibilities at a community and regional level. In 2019, the first NPY Emerging Leaders cohort traveled to Redfern and La Perouse in Sydney to meet EC and Jawun Indigenous partners and learn from their approaches to youth empowerment.

Next steps

Following a strategic communications-focused secondment in late 2019 by Rubina Bulot of the University of Melbourne, a new NPY EC website has been launched. First priority project implementation continues and will draw on the support of Jawun secondees. Meanwhile, the consultative focus of NPY EC remains firm, consolidating a foundation of trust and credibility. In this way the NPY EC agenda aims to generate solutions that not only work but also, more than simply holding the line, drive transformation and change for Indigenous communities in the NPY Lands.

More information

[1] The Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjarra Yankunytjatjara (NPY) region spans 350,000km2 across the central Australian WA, SA and NT cross-border area.

[2] Anangu is the Pitjantjatjara word that Aboriginal people of the NPY region use to describe themselves.