Recently, Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places was commissioned by the Victorian Government to investigate what makes some place-based approaches so effective. Our team, alongside partners RMIT University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Queensland, explored existing literature and practice, publishing a research report and case studies across the state, including The Gathering Place.

While First Nations-led, community-run spaces may not describe their work as ‘place-based’, a number of initiatives and networks in Victoria work in ways that involve the same or similar principles and practices as place-based initiatives. The Gathering Place, in Morwell, on Gunaikurnai country, is one of them. 

Map showing location of the Gathering Place

Like other First Nations place-based and strengths-based initiatives, The Gathering Place provides a culturally safe and inclusive space for First Nations people and represents, supports and advocates for self-determination. Run largely by volunteers, activities include a  womens’ group, Koori youth group, food bank, information hub and advocacy, yarning rooms, free clothing, Koori homework club and parents’ rooms and Elders art. The Gathering Place is ‘a one-stop resource hub to offer and advise on different services being delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Latrobe Valley’, but the work stretches beyond these services to reach community across a wide region – including distributing food parcels to those who are isolated, delivering special occasion hampers to Elders, helping people in the justice system, talking to people who are unwell and in danger, catering for funerals and running community events. 

We do it totally different. They didn’t know how to categorise it.

The Gathering Place team member

It is essential that The Gathering Place is able to operate as an autonomous organisation – an Aboriginal organisation, run by Aboriginal people and in ways appropriate to their community. Since they began in March 2017, The Gathering Place has operated in an auspice Agreement with Berry Street which ensures support to the Aboriginal community in self-determination while The Gathering Place works towards becoming incorporated and standing independently. 

A key part of The Gathering Place’s way of working is the ‘open door’ approach. As one team member explained, “let’s open the doors and see what the people need. [It’s] no good us telling them what they need.” While The Gathering Place’s core work is with local Aboriginal communities, their open door means no one is turned away. People from a range of cultural backgrounds, who might not be able to access services for cultural safety and other reasons, can find support at The Gathering Place. In effect this means the few funds available are stretched further. 

Many people who come to The Gathering Place are living with multiple intersecting vulnerabilities such as lacking permanent or safe accommodation, poor mental health and involvement in the justice system. In order to support these intersectional issues, staff have strong relationships with a number of different organisations and are networked with local service providers to enable culturally appropriate solutions to complex problems. This may mean continuing to check in on people they know are vulnerable or making arrangements so service providers can come to The Gathering Place to meet someone in a Yarning Room, a safe place to talk: ‘a gathering place in our mob is like a healing place’.  

The Gathering Place’s open door approach constantly comes up against the ‘closed doors’ of bureaucratic systems that do not allow for the flexibility that The Gathering Place’s approach requires. One team member told us, “We do it totally different. They didn’t know how to categorise it.” The issues and impacts that The Gathering Place deal with on an everyday basis are beyond one government department and require a whole-of-government response to address these complex community needs. 

In terms of resourcing, The Gathering Place does not have on-going funding and relies on short term government grants. This makes long-term planning almost impossible. One of the issues with meeting government funding criteria is that The Gathering Place prioritises the needs that emerge within their community so cannot necessarily determine these ahead of time.  

A key enabler of self-determination is the transfer of power and resources back to community. Securing long-term, flexible funding arrangements would allow The Gathering Place to be autonomous, sustainable and able to make decisions about the most effective ways to meet the needs of their community, celebrate strengths and build capacity. 

The Gathering Place shares many of the features of effective place-based approaches identified in our review of the literature  – among them, a commitment to power sharing and self-determination, and a shift from managerial, transactional service delivery approaches to ‘movement building’ demonstrating deep listening of local lived experiences and matched deep hearing that address community-defined priorities. 

The Centre for Just Places was established by Jesuit Social Services with seed funding from the Gandel Foundation and the Victorian Government.