08 August, 2008

Putting a mink coat on an old drunk

I was on a visit the other day with one of my mums. We were lamenting the situation of her sons, one who is twelve and in a spot of trouble and whom we are working with to prevent further hardship. She was telling me about her teen years in the inner city and how her sons never would have survived back then. Her eyes lit up with stories of pub brawls, broken glasses and bar stools and general drunkenness and hilarity. She repeated several times, ‘it was all so exciting’. She went on to talk about that area and how it’s just not the same. I was waiting for the inevitable, ‘drugs have ruined the old burbs’ story I get a fair bit out here. But this time I heard quite a different take. She was concerned that the place had been cleaned up and beautified and was over run with the trendy middle classes and their cafes and art galleries. She said, ‘it’s just crazy…like putting a mink coat on an old drunk.'

It got me thinking a fair bit about transformation and how we measure success. Sometimes we view an outcome in terms of outward appearance rather than inward conversion. Now I’m not going to talk spiritually, though the applications are there too. Today I am going to reflect on a government initiative pulled from the UK a couple of years ago.

‘Neighbourhood Renewal is an initiative of the Victorian Government to reduce inequality and improve community well-being for areas with a high proportion of public housing. It emphasises the value of local communities participating in the decisions and planning that affect the future of their neighbourhood.’

It sounds like a great plan, and to an extent it is, but the plans flowing from NR are often about beautifying the suburb and the individual.

Now these are noble aims, but one of the most visible projects in my suburb has been the ‘upgrade’ to 76 government housing properties at a cost of $1.1 million dollars. You drive around our streets and see amazing landscaped gardens out the front of these freshly painted commission houses, and in many ways they really do make an improvement to the morale and pride in the area. But I work with the families inside those houses and believe me, their situation has not improved! I can’t help but think, it’s like ‘putting a mink coat on an old drunk’. How much can external appearance really change the people inside the home, and the bigger question, how much do our people really want to be changed? Being lifted from poverty and increasing health, education and employment outcomes is essential, no question. But have we moved at all from our patriarchal policies? Are we still the rich settler trying to convert the savages? Our business is to transform the whole person and make real changes to their social standing. So let’s stop playing dress ups and talk to a real person and act on their real needs and desires today.


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