14 Jun

The power of listening

Words by
John Holton
Pictures by
AJ Taylor

For this young community leader there’s only one way to create lasting, systemic change… and that’s one conversation at a time.

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Listening, yarning, healing.

It’s these three things that underpin everything Darcy McGauley-Bartlett does, both in his work within the Victorian prison system and his daily life.

Darcy is a proud young Gunai/Kurnai man, born and raised on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, and the list of achievements he has racked up since graduating from Bendigo Senior Secondary College in 2016 is a testament to his ability to listen – really listen.

“If you don’t listen, you can’t hear,” Darcy says. “And if you can’t hear, you can’t help.”

Wise words indeed, and a message that Darcy now shares with other young Indigenous students on the cusp of leaving school. He’s adamant that career opportunities exist for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who show the resilience to stay at school, complete Year 12 and want to succeed.

“There are jobs out there in the Public Service for people in our position,” he recently told students in BSSC’s ATSI program. “Government jobs are a great opportunity – we need more young Aboriginal people coming up through the ranks and moving into positions of responsibility.”

At just 22 years of age, Darcy leads a state-wide project called Strengthening Aboriginal Health Care in the Victorian prison system. He is responsible for all 17 prison locations and the health of Aboriginal prisoners in his role as Aboriginal health and governance team leader at the Department of Justice and Community Safety.  

His career journey began the day after Year 12 graduation, when he was offered a position as an Aboriginal health practitioner with the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative.

In 2018, he became a qualified Aboriginal health practitioner after completing a Certificate IV in Aboriginal Primary Health Care Practice, and that same year accepted a position with Victoria Police as Aboriginal community liaison officer covering a huge area that included Bendigo, Campaspe, Central Goldfields, Macedon Ranges, Loddon and Mt Alexander police service areas.

“I’d just turned 20 and was really thrown in the deep end,” Darcy remembers vividly. “I honestly had no idea, so very early on in the role I went to the various Aboriginal Co-ops and asked, ‘what can I do for you?’.

“Within three months, I was entrenched in the Central Victorian Proactive Policing Unit – some of the very best police in the state.”

Darcy was the project manager for the Aboriginal Youth Cautioning Program and the Live Without Fear project. That same year, his team created the Aboriginal Youth Mentoring Program that included taking a group of young people on the Massive Murray Paddle.

“It was life-changing for the kids,” Darcy says. “They came out of their shells and became committed to continuing their education.

“I loved working with young people to create better justice outcomes. We made a real difference. Early intervention and prevention – that’s the key.”

Darcy was 12 when he first identified as Aboriginal, but has spent the past eight years immersing himself in his culture.

“The stories I hear from my elders have assisted in my cultural journey,” he says. “The power of listening and sharing is not only meaningful, but it creates a long-term impact that will help me share and continue to educate when it comes to my culture and journey.”  

Darcy spent a large part of his childhood living in out of home care and says a lot of his family have either been in trouble with the law or been disadvantaged.

“Some of us have come through the other side and really want to make a difference,” he says. “I think back now to when I was struggling as a teenager. If I’d had someone come and speak to me the way I speak to young Aboriginal people, it would have made a huge difference to my confidence and self-belief. That’s where a lot of my drive comes from.”

Darcy left Victoria Police in 2020 to take up his current role with the Department of Justice. He is responsible for all Aboriginal health complaints in prisons, which includes deaths in custody; a huge responsibility for such a young man.

But Darcy’s focus is set steadfastly on creating change.  

“I came into Justice Health with the goal of creating a better reputation and rebuilding trust,” he says. “We’ve embarked on a journey that just wouldn’t be possible without community support.

“I can’t personally make a difference to the number of Aboriginal people in custody, but I can try and make a difference to the lives of those who are there.

“One of the hardest things is to change practice, but I work with management and people who want to provide the best outcomes for Aboriginal people. We can’t give up.”

Darcy is married to his high school sweetheart, Dee, and has two young children – a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. He says it’s because of them he’s able to do what he does.

“I look at my children and think, ‘you are going to make a difference’, Darcy says. “When I was growing up and things were going badly, my nan would say, ‘you are beautiful, you are important, you are special’… I want my kids to know that, too.”

For Darcy, life is about being real with people. He believes it’s the only way to make a difference in the justice system.

While his role is an administrative one, Darcy continues to visit prisons and yarn with prisoners and staff. His starting point is always, ‘tell me what your expectations are and I’ll tell you realistically what I can do for you’.

“Trust is a process,” he says. “It takes time. Listening and yarning – that’s where the healing begins.”