Redfern once clocked 100 robberies a month. Now the cops and young people are cutting crime, thanks to a boxing program run by the ‘unofficial champion of Redfern’, Shane Phillips.
As dawn breaks in a quiet Redfern Street, a group of young Aboriginal men take turns throwing punches at the local police chief.
Despite the flurry of blows and the sweat dripping from his face, Commander Luke Freudenstein isn’t worried. This is how he and local Aboriginal leader Shane Phillips want troubled neighbourhood kids to start their days.
In an area long associated with crime, mornings now see police officers sparring with Aboriginal men and women in a program called Clean Slate Without Prejudice that’s so successful it’s seen Shane Phillips declared Australia’s local hero for 2013.
That Australia Day Council award, to an Australian who’s made an ‘extraordinary contribution’ to their local community, went to Mr Phillips because, the council said, in the three years since the Clean Slate program began, “the number of robberies committed by local youth has declined by 80 per cent.”
That dramatic fall is part of the transformation of Redfern – from something of a no-go zone to one of the City’s trendiest suburbs.
Mr Phillips, born and raised on the infamous Block, has worked much of his life to improve the lives of its Aboriginal residents; however, he downplays his role in setting up the program – and its results.
He says any credit for a dramatic fall in crime rates should be shared with other Aboriginal leaders and with Cdr Freudenstein, who took over in Redfern four years ago when the area clocked 100 robberies a month.
“Luke said to us, to myself, Mark Spinks, Mick Mundine and Millie Ingram, ‘We’ve got these 15 kids committing robberies in the area, and we need to do something about it’,” Mr Phillips recalled.
“We said we’d rather do something; we’d rather catch them now, push them hard to change their lives so they don’t become worse and grow into becoming a bigger criminal.”
Police and community leaders then struck an agreement, visited the main offenders one by one and gave each of them a choice: join the new program or be hassled by the cops.
They agreed to join.
Growing up in Redfern in a family of 10 kids, Mr Phillips watched drugs and crime destroy the lives of many close to him. He brushed with trouble himself before he learnt two things he believes all kids need: a job and a routine, and the routine comes first.
“We thought ‘we got to teach them to get up, to get up early’, especially if they come from a troubled family, so we said we’ll start at 5.30am, pick them up and get them training,” he said.
In the beginning, they struggled.
“Sometimes we’d get there, kids would be in bed, we’d go into their rooms wake them up and they’d swear at you but after a while they saw the value of it and we didn’t need to do that.”
These days as many as 80 people turn up for the training sessions on the basketball court in Redfern’s National Centre of Indigenous Excellence where, at 6am three days a week, officers from Redfern Police station and local men, women and children take turns holding and punching pads.
“I’ve lost 20 kilos since we started this,” Mr Phillips said after leading a session where he called for jabs and uppercut combinations in a routine he says is reshaping Redfern as much as it’s reshaping his body.
“The endorphins release; you are purging the frustration and getting healthier, you got a purpose.”
Suffering push-up and punching sessions together is also breaking down hostility between police and young Aboriginal men and women.
“At one time if the police talked to someone about what they were doing with their lives, the kids would tell them where to go; but now they respond to it, they’ll listen and they’ll try it.
“The police involved in the program are not just the police who are the converted; we didn’t want it just to be police who were pro looking after Aboriginal people.
Kids in the program must follow the rules: no talk about crime, no turning up drunk or on drugs and, when training ends, they must go to school or to work.
Finding jobs can be hard.
Some are employed by the Tribal Warrior Association, a non-profit community group supported by the City of Sydney, set up by Aboriginal people to teach maritime skills to help community members get jobs on and around the water.
A qualified seaman himself, Mr Phillips has been Tribal Warrior’s chief executive for five years and a decade ago helped sail a 15.4-metre timber ketch around Australia in the first circumnavigation by an Aboriginal crew.
That boat, also called Tribal Warrior, is now the oldest working timber vessel in the country and plays a big role in teaching skills Mr Phillips says are essential if Aboriginal men are going to keep jobs.
“One thing about boats is it teaches chain of command,” he said.
“For kids who don’t like authority, if they can understand the concept behind authority and pecking orders, that helps. We thought we’ll teach them that, the skipper gives an order and everybody has to know their role so the kids learn that pecking order.”
Skills learnt on the boats have helped many young Aboriginals men and women find work, often with big companies and organisations that support Tribal Warrior, including The City of Sydney, Qantas and Linfox.
Mr Phillips has built Tribal Warrior, Clean Slate without Prejudice and other programs with little government help, relying instead on private donors he woos with his humble manner and a smile that can light a room.
It’s a lifetime of work that these days see him known as the ‘unofficial champion of Redfern’.
Consultant Simon Balderstone runs his own foundation to help disadvantaged people living in the Himalayas and in one private donor who supports Tribal Warrior because he’s convinced of the value of Mr Phillips’s work: “It’s grass roots stuff and it’s impressive. It’s very hard work and it’s hard to get things happening cheaply, but he does that very well.
“He seems to be able to spot good people.”
Jay Palese is one of those.
The young Aboriginal man has been a mentor in the Clean Slate program since it began, driving in from his home Baulkham Hills three days a week, taking kids to boxing, trying to inspire Redfern’s Aboriginal youth by setting an example.
“I’m from a different community,’ he said explaining how he came to work with Clean Slate.
“I did some training with them, got to know the kids, did the mentoring course and then, after a while Shane offered me a position because when I did my year 12 I was focused and tried to be a role model to these kids.
“So I started picking them up in the morning, getting them into a routine, talking to them in the car while I took them to school.”
Now studying business administration at Macquarie University, he brims with enthusiasm for the Clean Slate program and the values it instils.
“I killed my year 12; every year since I’ve been building up from that. I try to show the kids firsthand what hard work can lead to.”
The Australia Day award to his boss confirmed to him the value of his work.
“Because I worked with this bloke, seeing him getting Australian of the Year ̶̶ that’s a huge inspiration. “In the end, it shows me you can do anything you like.”