Indigenous disadvantage exists in all indigenous communities, including urban and regional communities, not only in the remote communities of far north Australia.

I was introduced to the indigenous community of Shepparton, a regional city 175km north of Melbourne, about three years ago by the late Ron Evans, former Essendon player and AFL chairman. This is Victoria’s second largest indigenous community after Melbourne, making up about 5% of the city’s population.

Some statistics looking at greater Shepparton’s indigenous population versus the rest of its people paint the picture.

The rate of low-birth-weight babies is 50% higher. The number of babies born to teenagers aged 15-19 years is nearly four times higher. Child protection substantiations for children aged 0-8 years are nearly five times higher. The gap in life expectancy is startling — according to the 2006 Census, only 12% of the indigenous population is over 50 years old compared to 32% of the general population of Shepparton.

The Year 12 retention rate for Shepparton’s indigenous students is 24%, compared to 32% for indigenous children nationally, 70% for all regional students and 86% for all Victorian students. Finally, look at the number of indigenous students enrolled in Year 12 in Shepparton — in 1999 there were nine, in 2004 there were five, and I can tell you that in 2009 we are no further advanced.

About 18 months ago, after several years of involvement, I became chairman of a group called the Eminent Australians Group. Our role is as objective and independent observers to help develop a realistic scorecard on the challenges facing indigenous people in Shepparton, to measure the real situations in terms of living standards, to identify what policies work to improve their standards and why, and which ones don’t and why.

Addressing this level of disadvantage ought to be easier in urban and regional centres, with their economic and social infrastructures, compared to remote communities, but the evidence shows it’s not. We have seen some great things being done in Shepparton and the indigenous community is working hard to help itself. Nevertheless, a substantial gap still exists.

One of the major things I have learned is that any solution needs to be a whole of community solution. Clearly social inclusion, or lack of it, is a major part of today’s problem.

I conducted a workshop on indigenous identity in Shepparton a few years ago and asked indigenous people for their views. I fully expected the response to be about reconciliation, apology, and land rights. The immediate response was “there are no indigenous checkout chicks in Safeway and Coles. There are no tellers in bank branches. I want our younger people to feel welcome in the mall. I want to see my kids skipping to school.”

These responses are not about politics; they are about the lack of social inclusion. The indigenous community simply cannot do it by themselves. The whole of Shepparton and the city’s leaders need to participate in making the situation better.

A high-profile example of what Shepparton’s indigenous people are up against comes from Deborah Cheetham, an internationally renowned soprano, who sang at the opening of the 2000 Olympics and who was refused service in a Shepparton shop because she is indigenous.

The Essendon Football Club doesn’t see itself as expert in indigenous issues. What we can do is harness the power of our brand to be conduits to attract and deliver support to those who are experts. We can broaden awareness of the issues and marshal support to find solutions.

This year the Club has joined with Shepparton’s remarkable Rumbalara Football and Netball Club and the Bill Hutchison Foundation to launch the Barpirdhila program.

Barpirdhila — which means “dawn of a new day” in the Yirta Yirta language — aims in just a small way to be a whole of community solution, we want to engage all sectors of the Shepparton community. It will be a mentoring program with the aim of retaining Indigenous students in school in greater numbers, through to Years 11 and 12, so they can go on to undertake apprenticeships, traineeships, TAFE or university educations, depending on their academic capability and their interests.

In 10 or 12 year’s time we might have some ordinary attainable role models for future Indigenous students coming through the system. And the mainstream community might respect their achievement and work on improving social inclusion. It won’t be easy. If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.