A parliamentary inquiry recommended redeveloping The Block under Aboriginal ownership and control.
In 2006, the ILSC – set up to help Indigenous people acquire land after the Mabo judgment – bought the old Redfern Public School from NSW for $16 million. A few years later it opened the NCIE to create a place where “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples can access opportunities to achieve excellence”.
As Redfern gentrified, the center has become a hub for the local Indigenous community.
It’s home to Redfern Youth Connect, Tribal Warrior and the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy, to name just a few. Elders use the pool and gym alongside kids learning to swim. Teens are given tutoring and taught hospitality skills. Parents rely upon it for out-of-hours care.
One estimate found that, for every dollar spent on the centre, it created three times as much value for local Aboriginal people.
Shane Phillips, the chief executive of Tribal Warrior, which empowers the community through connection to culture and family, said the hub had changed lives. He has watched it help young men, who were at risk of a life of crime, embrace work and sport.
“This has given us a place to come to,” he said. “And what happened was, organically, other stuff grew. Kids became employed. Kids became invested in it. There are so many other spinoffs. Ace [Redfern] gentrified, the footprint of our people has been diluted out.
“This is the last bastion. We don’t want to be diluted out of here, too.”
But the corporation, which has struggled with its own internal turmoil in recent years, must divest the land it buys to Indigenous communities. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council approached it, unsolicited, about the Redfern site a few years ago.
An agreement was made to divest the land to the council. That has angered members of the local Redfern community such as Margaret Haumono, the co-founder of Redfern Youth Connect, who said local organizations should have been allowed to make a pitch, too.
But the chief executive of the land council, Yuseph Deen, told the rally that the council had only intended to take on the property, not the business, which makes a loss of more than $2 million a year. From April, however, it was clear the ILSC wanted to divest both.
Deen said the council could not afford to cover the losses. It pushed for a three-year period in which the corporation would subsidize the business until the council could work out a better business model.
“Unfortunately after the last meeting we had here last week, the negotiations with the ILSC broke down over what an adequate envelope of funding would keep the doors open,” Deen said.
He wanted to keep the center open and would call for expressions of interest for “a reputable and capable delivery partners to take over the running of the fitness and aquatic center… we’ll move heaven and earth to keep this space open for community ”.
A former chief executive of the National Center for Indigenous Excellence, Clare Ingrey, described what the center meant to the community. “A big beautiful space where Aboriginal people… could come and see and feel Black excellence around them”.
“You did not need to achieve Blak excellence at the NCIE because you were already Blak and deadly when you walked through those gates.”
However, Ingrey was critical of the corporation’s management. “It became apparent that despite every effort by the NCIE, the parent company that gave it life was intent on winding it down and handing over the site to NSWALC as an empty space void of the soul that is the NCIE,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
“As sad as I am to learn of the fate of the NCIE I am not shocked. The ILSC’s handling of the divestment of NCIE is deserving of an independent inquiry so that the lessons learned are never repeated.”
Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, described the center as the beating heart of Redfern’s Aboriginal community. “I strongly encourage the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to work together to find a solution,” she said on Twitter.