The suburb of Bellambi often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. But a new initiative is bringing the University of Wollongong together with the community to celebrate the people of Bellambi.
Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre is buzzing with colour and commotion. Strings of vibrant bunting drape the hallways, cheeky toddlers run, giggling, through the garden, a musician gently strums his guitar in the sunshine as the barbecue spits and hisses in the background. It is a special day in this pocket of the Illawarra's northern suburbs. And the universe has responded in kind, with a kaleidoscopic spring morning that seems to shrug off the gloom of winter and suggest that only bright days lie ahead.
That is the hope in Bellambi, as the small suburb celebrates the inaugural Festival of Community Mapping. The initiative, led by researchers from the University of Wollongong, has taken a novel approach to a place that often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, using visual arts to engender a sense of pride in the community. Close to 200 people have come together to create a huge community map, with nothing but a piece of canvas and lots of paintbrushes, using their memories to craft a piece of local history. That is the ostensible purpose of the event but it is also the perfect excuse for the people of Bellambi to chat, laugh, eat, and enjoy each other's company.
For Associate Professor Kate Senior, who has spearheaded the festival on the back of her tireless work in the community, it is a day to celebrate the beauty, strength, and resilience of Bellambi. "This is such an amazing and diverse community, and it is so incredible to see everyone come together like this," Kate says.
A pocket of disadvantage
Located in Wollongong's north, Bellambi is a suburb with a low socioeconomic status, surrounded by more affluent areas such as Bulli, Thirroul, and Woonona.
Kate, from the University of Wollongong's Faculty of Social Science, says research shows communities that experience disadvantage feel that disadvantage more acutely when surrounded by prosperous suburbs. It is a social trend called relative socioeconomic advantage. Data from the 2016 Census showed Bellambi's Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (SEIFA 2016) was 705, making it one of the most disadvantaged areas in the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region. Close to one in three residents are renting social housing, compared to 7.4 per cent across Wollongong as a whole.
"Bellambi has always been the place that is looked down upon," Kate says. "When you hear mentions of Bellambi in the media or in conversation, it is inevitably negative. There is a real stigma and that is felt by the community. There is an us versus them mentality.
"That becomes more pronounced when you consider the close proximity to affluent suburbs nearby, such as Corrimal and Towradgi, and Bulli and Thirroul further north. There is an us versus them mentality."
An anthropologist and a researcher dedicated to effecting social change, Kate has been a frequent visitor to Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre for more than two years. Initially, she began working with local high school students who attend the centre. The aim was to encourage these young people to pursue education beyond their high school years and provide them with training and job-ready skills to help them on this path. She wanted to encourage Bellambi's youth to aspire to great things.
Associate Professor Kate Senior and former UOW Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Ken McKinnon contribute to the Bellambi Master Map.
In her many conversations with the students, Kate was struck by the disparity between how they viewed their suburb and how those outside the community viewed their suburb. She soon realised that this was not confined to the students, but was felt throughout the entire community, who felt Bellambi was given a rough deal by outsiders.
"The people of Bellambi are funny, warm, welcoming, and resilient. It is completely at odds with the negative perceptions of the suburb," Kate says. "The community is a scapegoat for everything negative in the Illawarra, but I wanted to share a different view.
"We've been working with students who come to Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre and we've trained them in interview techniques, note-taking, and research, and they've had to go out into the community and collect stories about what makes Bellambi special. For many students, this was their first time interacting with UOW. But it has really opened their eyes to the power of education."
A section of the Bellambi Master Map, created at the community festival.
The power of storytelling
Using visual arts and storytelling, Kate connected with the students, encouraging them to share their experiences of growing up in Bellambi. They were from Engage 2518, a program that provides students at nearby Corrimal High School with the opportunity to have a positive impact on their community. Like all suburbs, it holds many memories - some positive, some not - for the students, locations that over the years have become part of the local lore. The students began to create a makeshift map, a visual touchstone of the suburb.
"It was so funny and whimsical to hear about the things that are important to the people of Bellambi," Kate says. "There's the beach, the high school, the preschool, but there's also the shops, where everyone hangs out, and the Bellambi monster, which seems to mean different things to different people."
Kate was itching to do more. She approached Professor Glenn Salkeld, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, about how the University could further work with Bellambi to empower young power, which she hoped would have a ripple effect throughout the community. Kate had a plan; she brought the first Bellambi map, on paper this time, a colourful, whimsical artwork created by Engage 2518.
Professor Salkeld was blown away by the artwork and by the students' initiative. He approached UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE, who was also impressed by the potential of the project.
"Most academics write a few pages for grant applications, but I went into the Vice-Chancellor's office with the map, and that was the application. The map was so big we had to clear space on the floor. He was really impressed and loved the concept," Professor Salkeld says.
The Bellambi research project was funded by the McKinnon Walker Trust, which was established in 2016 following a $1.3 million endowment to the University from former Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Ken McKinnon and UOW alumna Ms Suzanne Walker. Professor Wellings distributes the trust annually, with the aim of supporting new projects that will have a positive social and economic impact.
Professor McKinnon was the second Vice-Chancellor of UOW, serving from 1981 until his retirement in 1995, while Ms Walker graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. "The core goal is to foster widespread commitment to innovation and be a particular avenue of support for excellence," Professor McKinnon said at the time.
Professor Ken McKinnon cuts the cake, with the community of Bellambi.
From little things, big things grow
That seed of an idea, planted more than a year ago when Kate asked the students to create a map of what Bellambi meant to them, took on a life of its own.
"It was an intimate way of looking at Bellambi but at the same time, it was a great way to use visual language to think about the whole community," Kate says.
At the heart of it all is the Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre, which is truly the meeting place of the community. It is home to youth outreach programs, adult education classes, a sprawling vegetable garden, the Young Beans coffee shop run by the youth group, and a shop that offers groceries to those in need. Every Wednesday, there is a big community lunch, to which all are welcome.
When Kate put forward the idea of a one-day festival to centre volunteers, it was received with gusto. The community quickly mobilised to create a day that could showcase all that is beautiful and unique about Bellambi.
It began with a new look for the suburb. A group of third-year graphic design students at UOW were tasked with the responsibility of rebranding Bellambi, creating a new identity that could be used to promote the festival. Their design brief was the prototype community map and, originally, they were asked to create a handful of animations but the students had bigger plans. Instead, they rebranded Bellambi.
Jaya Degur, a lifelong Bellambi resident and undergraduate in a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts and Graphic Design), was one of the students who spearheaded the design of Be Bellambi, a vibrant, quirky new brand that captures the personality of the community.
Jaya, who designed the collection in association with a team of fellow students - Cameron Porter, Emma McNair, Bec Kitson, Jed White, Taylah Johnsen, and Brianna Cornock - says his intimate knowledge of Bellambi was essential to creating the branding.
"We decide to create a new brand for Bellambi as part of a perception strategy. We wanted to reduce the stigma around the suburb and also give the wider community an insight into what it's like to live there," Jaya says. "The designs were inspired by the community itself. We wanted to capture things that were important to the people of Bellambi," he says of the designs, which include the infamous Bellambi monster, the bus, the ocean.
"I grew up in and around Bellambi, so I understand the community and I wanted to capture the pride the people of Bellambi have in their home. I wanted to give a deeper understanding of how the community works. The perception is vastly different from the reality. Any community experiences hardship.
"Bellambi is a big, friendly, beautiful community."
Creative arts student Jaya Degur in the studio at UOW.
It is clear that friendly community has embraced the team's new look for Bellambi. At the festival, which was the soft launch for the brand, the logo was emblazoned everywhere: in badges, posters, tote bags, and t-shirts. Jaya was in amongst it all, screen printing tote bags and putting his incredible artistic skills to use on the Bellambi Master Map.
"We created t-shirts for the volunteers to wear," Kate says with a laugh on the day, pointing to the people sprinkled throughout the crowd proudly wearing their shirt, "but everyone loves them so we have to do a bigger run. Anyone can order them now."
The brand does not end with the festival though. It can also be seen throughout the community, on bus stops and signage, and there are plans for the brand to be put on the Number 7 bus, which travels throughout the suburb.
A changing community
One of the recipients of a Be Bellambi T-shirt at the Festival of Community Mapping was State Member for Keira Ryan Park. During his visit to the festival and tour of the centre, Mr Park, the Shadow NSW Treasurer whose electorate takes in Bellambi and the surrounding suburbs, told the crowd he was thrilled to be involved in the event.
"Today is the day to celebrate, acknowledge and support everything that makes Bellambi great," Mr Park said. "I love this area not just because it is beautiful, but because of the people. I love the people in Bellambi.
"We are a resilient, proud community, but we need to do better at celebrating everything that makes us great. I hope everyone leaves today with a better understanding of what makes Bellambi special."
Member for Keira Ryan Park, Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre Manager Andrew Vidic, Associate Professor Kate Senior, Professor Ken McKinnon, and Professor Glenn Salkeld outside the neighbourhood centre.
Among the crowds of people enjoying the sunshine and the food, the music and the company, was David Lavender. A Bellambi resident for more than a decade, David began volunteering at the neighbourhood centre not long after moving to the area. He was visiting the centre to buy discounted groceries - a fixture of the centre that helps residents to access fresh food for a small fee - and said he realised he couldn't keep taking without giving something back.
David began helping out around the centre and soon put his hand up to teach Broadband for Seniors twice a week. He has since become a fixture of the centre and says it is the heart and soul of Bellambi.
"I enjoy working here," says David, who accepted an award on behalf of the volunteers during the day's festivities. "I've met some great people and there's a real sense of community here. No one's here to judge or look down on anyone else.
"Anyone can come here. If they're lonely, or need something to do or somewhere to go, there's always support here."
Bellambi community member David Lavender at the festival.
The future starts now
The inaugural festival is over. The cake has been eaten, the barbecue is finished, and, most importantly, the map has been created. It will soon find a home on the side of the Number 7 bus that weaves its way throughout Bellambi every day.
But this doesn't feel like the end. Rather, it's just the beginning for this beautiful, vibrant community.
"The festival was an incredible experience. It was so much more than I could have ever imagined. We want this to become an annual event," Kate says. "Hopefully this is just the start of an exciting new chapter for Bellambi."