Jamaal Cross is part of the 3.7 per cent of Australian Indigenous people to finish university. And he says if he can do it, anyone can.
We’ve met Jamaal at the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Corporation in Prouses Road, where he has worked as a Family Safety Project Officer since finishing his Bachelor of Human Services/Master of Social Work last November.
“I didn’t really take year 12 seriously and didn’t even think I was going to go to uni. I wasn’t really blessed with many opportunities… I think everything’s fallen into place because I made those decisions,” he says on committing to education despite the challenges.
From Yorta Yorta Nation to Bendigo
Jamaal is a descendant of Thomas Shadrach James, who was a herbalist and a teacher on the Cummeragunja Reserve in the Barmah Forest. “He’s very well documented and was a very important person in Yorta Yorta culture and in history,” Jamaal says. Thomas married an Aboriginal woman, and the couple were the grandparents of Jamaal’s maternal grandmother. He says although his Indigenous culture has always been a part of his life, “there’s lots of it that’s missing and lots of it to learn, for sure”. His new role is filling in many of the gaps.
After finishing VCE at Mooroopna High School near Shepparton Jamaal took a gap year. “There was some uncertainty with what I wanted to do,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to be a tradesman because I was never any good with my hands. I was mucking up a little bit as a teenager. Nothing stupid. Just some minor hiccups at a time where I felt like I had no purpose or direction. My old man actually pulled me aside and had a tricky conversation and suggested I’d be good at social work.
“I’d never even heard about it. So I read up on it. You’re working with people and talking with people constantly, and I thought I could do that, it sounded good.”
Jamaal got accepted into the Bendigo course and spent two years studying before deferring to work as a local justice worker alongside police and the sheriff’s office. Despite being offered ongoing employment and a pay rise, he left that position after two years to return to La Trobe.
“I had a job to do and that was go back to uni and finish the course,” he says. “I didn’t want to put it off until I was in my late 20s. Having had a little bit of experience I went back to uni with a different mindset. Uni is quite theoretical and a lot of it is on paper but to be able to align that with my own experiences, things just made a lot more sense.
“I didn’t know what to think at first, I was probably young and naive,” he says of the initial two years. “At the start I was thinking, we’re not going to need to know any of this, and that was wrong. It was all relevant.”
Breaking new ground at BDAC
Jamaal says he didn’t necessarily set out to work in the Indigenous community, as he didn’t want to typecast himself, although he’s happy to have been given opportunities at BDAC, where he’s combining work with learning about his own culture.
“We run the men’s shed,” he says. “On Tuesdays we have between 12 and 20 blokes come to the shed, most of them are fellas who are looking for something to do. It’s a lot of group work with men. And we’ve just completed a 14-week pilot program that’s essentially a men’s behaviour change/family violence program, but it’s culturally appropriate. We’ve got elders coming along and we’re learning about our culture and most importantly there’s a healing component to it.
“As it worked out, the elder that was there, and the cultural expert, were both from Mooroopna. All from the same bloodline as me, from the James family. So I was a pupil at times. I’m doing my work but I’m learning about my culture as well … I grew up in a modern house in a western society. I’d like to learn more. I think I missed out on a little bit.”
Jamaal says the pilot program, which his team has just received funding to run again, shared Dreamtime stories and knowledge on cultural landmarks, ecosystems, plus the way of life and the roles in traditional Aboriginal communities compared to now.
“Some of the results we have seen among the participants include increases in connection to culture and general wellbeing, stronger relationships with each other, greater support networks in place and a deeper understanding of family violence and its impacts.
“The program employs narrative and trauma-informed practice approaches that allows the guys to tell their stories first and foremost. It’s all part of healing and developing qualities of a good father/partner.”
It’s a field Jamaal plans to continue working in. “I like this space because it’s a developing one,” he says. “If you look all the way up the levels of government, family violence awareness is growing and it’s what they’re putting funding into … I think I’ll be working in family violence prevention for a while.”
NAIDOC WEEK and beyond
Jamaal has a few further work commitments for NAIDOC Week. Last week he and the men’s shed crew handed over 1000 clapsticks they’d made to gift to Indigenous children for the celebrations. Plus, he’ll be helping with a community barbecue in Maryborough.
“I’m an Indigenous person but I always kept my options open as to what field I’d end up working in,” he says. “Social work is very broad, so this may change down the track. Right now, I’m grateful for the space I’ve ended up in.
“I’ve been blessed with a big opportunity, in a supportive team for an organisation that’s doing great things for the community. I’m looking forward to the future.”