Greg Kennedy went through troubled times when he was a kid.
His parents separated when he was young. He grew up in a single-parent home in Robinvale, a small country town on the banks of the Murray. He had a rough time at school and didn’t do well, leaving after Year 10. He moved to Melbourne as he turned 17, but didn’t settle. He enrolled in courses, but didn’t finish them. He was homesick for Robinvale and constantly made the five-hour trip back to the place he calls "my country".
“I was getting into trouble and living transiently,’’ he says.
It’s an experience, Greg says, that’s not uncommon for young Aboriginal people, but it’s one he recalls without any hint of self-pity. Instead, he says he’s sustained and nurtured by his upbringing, and the lessons his father and his wider family taught him.
Greg, like his father, is a Tati Tati and Muthi Muthi man. His mother was a Noongar woman, from Western Australia.
"Dad always talked to us about having connections – to place, to stories, to people and family, and to cultural protocols,’’ he says.
“I was blessed to have that, even though we had troubled times. It was the core that he gave us. I want that for every young Aboriginal person, that core and nourishment from a young age.’’
For the past two-and-a-half years Greg has been state co-ordinator of the Koorie Youth Council, set up to give young Victorian Aboriginal people a voice in government decisions.
He admits he came into the job with limited experience in youth work, community development or government policy.
This meant he had to quickly grasp and then navigate his way around the complex world of government bureaucracy, the dynamic landscape of a diverse Aboriginal community, and make connections with young people.
“It was tricky,’’ he says of his early days with the Koorie Youth Council. “It took a while to get my feet and get my head around government policy. But what I found was that we (the council) had a very important role in telling the stories of young people who aren’t heard in some quite senior discussions," he says.
“But understanding is one thing. Working out how you can fix things is another, and so is seeing the gaps and maybe idealizing how things should be and where the focus should be, rather than where they currently are.’’
Leading a statewide advocacy body seems a big leap for a young man (he’s about to turn 28) who struggled at school with learning difficulties. Yet, despite his early setbacks, he came to the youth council after a successful career working in education.
After drifting through his first two years in Melbourne, he decided to "knuckle down down and do some training’’. He enrolled in business and accounting TAFE courses and then secured a traineeship in accounting at Kangan Institute.
Next came a job at Kangan, a business development role focusing on Aboriginal education, a position he held for four years. While working, he also became a member of the Victorian Indigenous Youth Affairs Council, now the Koorie Youth Council.
While he draws strength from his heritage, Greg admits there can be tension between the aspirations of young Aborigines – around 58 per cent of Victorian Aborigines are under 25 - and their elders.
"Aboriginal young people can sometimes have different views to our elders” he says. “They (young people) grew up in different times, and now have far more opportunities than our elders. There’s a very different emerging consciousness around young people, who want to do things differently – even though they still respect their elders, who will always lead our communities.
“I think our elders know that life’s very short and there needs to be succession planning for our communities.
“And there needs to be some relevance in how communities work with young people, by involving them in the process. Research suggests it’s a lot better for communities, it’s a lot better for young people, it’s a lot better for program and policy development, if they (young people) are involved.
“And I think there’s more harmony in communities when older people and young people are working together.”
He says young voices need to be heard so government programs are directed to areas of need and are relevant to young people. He’s concerned that much government funding is spent on dealing with problems after they emerge, rather than preventing them in the first place.
This is where he thinks young voices are important – in areas like education, child protection, and the interaction between young Aboriginal people with the police and justice systems.
"Governments focus too much money at the wrong end of the system, in things like building more prisons’’ he says. “We need to invest a lot earlier by building strong young people and strong families – doing things at the start, rather than trying to fix them at the end.’’
When he’s asked what issues worry him, Greg talks about Aboriginal young people growing up without their cultural connection.
"We know that Aboriginal people who grow up without their culture, without being connected to community, without feeling they belong somewhere, are more likely to offend, more likely to do the wrong thing. That’s why it’s important from a social disadvantage point of view.
“I guess from a more spiritual point of view, our culture is very fundamental. It’s a core thing that sustains us.”
It’s also a strength non-Aboriginal Australians can draw on. "As a country, we can take a lot of pride from Aboriginal history, from Aboriginal success as a people going back over 40,000 years, and not just look at disadvantage.”
So what encourages him, and makes him optimistic?
“I think there are some extraordinary young leaders who are ready to take up the mantle and ready to do things in a different way, to be more innovative and more daring.
“I think the door has been knocked down and we’ve got a seat at the table now. Our elders have fought to get us there. It’s up to us now to work out, ‘right, what do we have to do now there we’re here?’
“And that’s what gives me heart.”