Watching kids of the East Kimberley go about their life in community, one gets a rather uncomfortable front row seat to the wide disparity that exists between aspiration and opportunity. One might add another element into the pool, that ethereal creature: potential. It’s there if you look carefully enough – on the sporting fields, in the classrooms of primary schools, one or two items at local community concert, and even in those prison cells where a social worker looks across the table at his teenage client and comes to accept that potential means nothing, if one’s aspiration has left the room.

What do these kids want to do? Do they have dreams? Did they ever have dreams? What were they?

For many of the young people in the East Kimberley, hope and dreams can come from something as basic as a connection to a job. A job that touches on their potential, and seeks to build a path towards a fraction of what they are capable of. A job that entrusts them with a meaningful responsibility of contributing to their community – and empowers them by doing so. The equation is linear, after you remove the walls of insecurity, prejudice, trauma and abuse that line much of their lives like windows, ceilings and carpets. 

From a small town in the East Kimberley comes a young woman whose journey offers hope in the face of countless adversities. It’s the story of Rowena Alexander.

It is a fact that in Australia today, that most of the young people in remote Aboriginal communities, or for that matter regional and urban communities, face several obstacles in their path to finding a meaningful job let alone one close to home.

The story of single mother, Rowena Alexander is one of a minority in Australia, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Gooniyandi from her mother’s side and Ngarringman from her maternal grandfather’s side, Rowena is a child of Indigenous Australia. Raised mostly in Kununurra, she grew up in an environment that knew a certain kind of toughness beyond the imagination of many of the rest of Australia. While the lives of Australia’s children are all unique, the lives of many young Indigenous kids in remote communities, and particularly young Indigenous girls, are outliers in all the ways that ought not be.

The East Kimberley town of Kununurra, where Rowena spent much of her youth, has had a number of things supporting its cultural, economic and social growth over the decades. The town’s geographic location with natural resources has seen economic development opportunities via mining, irrigation and farming. The cultural significance of the land in the Kimberley has seen the survival of a number of cultural institutions, and in one corner of the town which is home to some 8,000 odd people – an Indigenous Broadcasting Service.

Not always do opportunities available in remote and rural areas trickle down to some of the most marginalised in the local populations. The economic inequity between various groups in Kununurra is evident – all you need to do is take a walk through the town, from one end to another. The disparity in wealth is something that local non-government organisations do their best to address, by means of providing families and individuals with ways to access financial advice, counseling, job training and education, and broader family support.

A young Rowena, would make the most of the opportunities around her. She would work as a trainee at her local radio station; a station that she would successfully and single handedly bring back to life, later in her career, as Station Manager. She would be given experience in a community engagement role with the Mining company that had set up operations just outside the town. With her combination of private and community sector experience, Rowena would later land one of the most sought after roles in the region, of working for the Wunan Foundation in a senior corporate engagement role which focussed on building the capacity of several local organisations.

Rowena’s story is one of a young girl who began her life by facing any number of challenges underpinned by social and economic disadvantage; familial dysfunction as well as racism from a world that looked down on Indigenous kids as potential trouble makers.

As she grew up, Rowena would see members of her immediate community enter the justice system. She would see first hand how the juvenile justice system shaped once promising kids, into adult men and women who would never be the same again and far from the potential they may have once had, albeit briefly.

What was it that was different about her path, that shifted her trajectory? A part of it, she would say was about the local opportunities to access meaningful jobs, and the other – education and training. Being given a pathway to do meaningful work in your local community and/or access the knowledge that could prepare you for such a role, could be all that it takes to provide a child with the tools he or she needs for a decent shot at life, in the face of a long list of competing destabilising pressures and challenges.

Today, Rowena works as a mentor to Indigenous children living and studying on educational scholarships in Melbourne. While recognising the opportunities available to kids from small remote communities in resource rich capital cities, she doesn’t believe that that should be the suitable long term solution to economic and social development of Indigenous Australia. Kids would prefer to be close to home, to their country, to their cultural inheritance.

Rowena’s story which saw her potential being fed by a groundswell of opportunities that came to her when her early development needed them most, and close to home, is an outlier when it shouldn’t have to be. Young aboriginal kids across the country are today excelling in sports, music, science and many other areas of life curriculum. We celebrate those achievements, we export a number of them – making this nation selectively proud of our first people, on the global stage.

Rowena Alexander’s achievements speaks to the need for local resources to address youth education and training by:

  • Identifying potential
  • Nurturing aspiration, and
  • Providing opportunities

These steps alone, none of which are groundbreaking or new, must be supported by strong local institutions and agencies. That the investment in Rowena’s potential, now sees her working today for her community as a force for motivating the next generation, speaks to a larger vision that cannot be ignored: success breeds success, even in what might seem to be the most unlikely of places and after several attempts.