Five minutes with Bridging Peoples’ Deb Cummins

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Founder of Bridging Peoples and all-round go-getter, Deborah Cummins chats candidly with Cooking Circles about Timorese women, her passion for Timor Leste and the story behind Bridging Peoples…

It’s hard to talk about ‘Timorese women’, because of course their experiences and world views vary so much depending on what class they come from, and depending on whether they consider themselves more country women or city women…

But one of the things that so many seem to have in common is this clear understanding of themselves as the centre of the family. Which is pretty important in Timor—family is everything, it’s the basic building block for how communities are structured.

But that’s not to say that it’s all ok for women in Timor. It’s not. There’s a big problem with domestic violence and sexual harassment of girls and women, and like so many other countries (including Australia) there is systemic sexism—the economic and other opportunities open to them are very different compared to what’s available to men. But Timorese women are making their own choices and doing the very best that they can for themselves and their families in that context, and I honour them for that.”

Cooking Circles: You’ve been involved in Timor Leste (TL) for about 8 years, is that right? What peaked your interest in TL in the first place?

Deb Cummins: That’s right. My first visit to Timor-Leste was in 2008, living in two small, rural villages, called Venilale and Ainaro, to do fieldwork for my PhD on local and customary governance. My real interest—then and now—was how villagers, ordinary people, navigate the coexistence of customary governance (called adat, or lisan) and state-based governance and laws. You know, what the everyday reality is for people who cross between these systems all the time, what impact this has on their lives, and how they manage it. So I ended up living in these villages for a bit less than a year, to experience it for myself.

What peaked my interest in Timor specifically? Before starting my PhD, I’d been working for an NGO promoting Aboriginal rights and reconciliation in Australia (Reconciliation Australia), working on their Indigenous governance program, doing research, policy and other work. And it was clear to me then, and still is now, that as cultures are slowly dying off (and at various times, being deliberately or just negligently killed off) around the world, we’re losing so much knowledge and wisdom. Because I firmly believe that all cultures carry their own ways of knowing, their own wisdom. Once that wisdom is lost, it’s gone. It’s devastating for the people whose cultures are dying—and I saw that first-hand with various interactions I had with some Aboriginal communities. But it’s also a different type of devastating for us as human beings, because we’re losing wisdom that we’re not quantifying. We don’t even know what it is that we’re losing. That scares me.

This issue really galvanised me, so by the time I left Reconciliation Australia, I wanted to see what it was like in other environments. I knew a lot of friends who’d worked in Timor-Leste during the early years of independence; we’d exchanged a lot of stories, and I was always struck by the similarities in some of the stories that we shared, even though the context was so very different. In particular, I was struck by how difficult it is for the ‘state’—that is, the Australian government, or the Timor-Leste government—to recognise and find space for customary ways of life and being.

My thinking was that if I could use this opportunity that a PhD gives you to get a good understanding of how everyday people navigate co-existing systems of governance, and to find out what it means from their perspective, there might be some clues on how to create laws and policies that provided sufficient space for cultural ways of being—without romanticising it. And I certainly did learn a lot of things—both good and bad—which I think gives me a pretty balanced picture now of where culture and customary governance fits with in human rights and democracy.

So, I guess what first brought me to Timor-Leste was more of a thematic interest, but now Timor is in my blood. I have family and people I love dearly there. I’ve made it my home.

I’d like to hear a bit about you. Where did you grow up? What do you like to do in your free time? Can you tell me about where you live now and what a regular day is?

DC: I was born in Katherine, a bit south of Darwin, but we moved down to Victoria when I was still a toddler. I only have a few very vague impressions from living in the Northern Territory.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid. I remember counting one time, and I went to 13 different schools in total. I didn’t have a very happy childhood— mother’s mentally ill and she was a single parent, so it was just her, me, and my brother. Family life was pretty tough and I was put into foster care when I was 13 years old. But the fond memories that I do have were all around growing up in the country. I loved to make cubby houses, to go out and have adventures with friends up in the hills. It’s a very free existence, growing up in the country compared to the city, and I was a bit of a tomboy so I really loved being able to go out for the whole day, riding horses or bikes, walking up in the hills, going swimming in the rivers. I also loved reading, dancing, gymnastics, if there was an opportunity to do those things at school. The usual kid stuff.

My free time now? I still love getting up into the hills, only now it’s generally going to visit my family in Venilale. Or heading out to the beach, going swimming or snorkelling, having a picnic or BBQ with family or friends. I’m also a bit of a home-body and love to read and relax at home. I’m very lucky where I live because it’s not in Dili but up the mountain a little bit with an amazing view over Dili and the harbour—it’s pretty breathtaking. And more importantly for me, it’s like living in a village instead of the centre of Dili, which can get a bit crazy sometimes. I know all my neighbours, we’re a tight little community.

What inspired you to establish organisation, Bridging Peoples?

DC: There were two major reasons for establishing Bridging Peoples. The first was pretty practical: to promote community-sensitive development by providing high-quality, professional training and expertise that will help people get better at working with communities. The second was a bit more esoteric, and is the big dream—actually where the name came from. What I want is for Bridging Peoples to promote direct dialogue between postcolonial communities in different cultures and countries, to provide a basic infrastructure where we can learn together about what works, what doesn’t, and why in different communities. I’ve personally learned a lot from different community-based organisations and local NGOs, and I think they have a lot to teach each other if they have the opportunity to share experiences.

Like I mentioned earlier, although the cultural contexts are obviously really different (and not only between different countries, the cultures in Timor are very different as well) there also seem to be a lot of commonalities in the challenges that communities and community-based organisations and local NGOs face. In really simple terms, I put many of these challenges down to a common denominator, which comes from us: this insistence that all communities must ‘develop’ according to a particular Western vision. I don’t think it has to be like that, and I certainly don’t think that good development is as simple as becoming more capitalist and ‘Western’—that’s often where other problems start creeping in. Local leaders deal with this tension all the time, and I want Bridging Peoples to begin to systematically capture, and look for ways to use, this knowledge and experience. So it’s also our way of staying accountable, and continuing to learn!

What is unique about your approach to community development?

DC: I call myself a community-sensitive development expert. My work is heavily based on community development principles and methodologies, but I use this other term because it focuses more on what we (as outsiders) can do to improve our work in communities—rather than simply looking to ‘develop’ communities.

It’s also true that my approach is a little bit different to a lot of community development work. Because I started out studying law and doing policy and advocacy work rather than the more grassroots work I did later, I bring a very systematic (and systemic) approach to helping others get better impact in their work with communities—even if their work doesn’t originally come from a community development mindset. It seems to work, there seems to be a real interest in this approach, which is why I decided it was time to stop operating as a single individual and create Bridging Peoples.

What’s also different about my approach is the issue of scale. When you use the term community development, it gives the impression that all you’re focussing on is what’s happening at the community level. But because I have this weird brain that thinks in terms of systems, my approach involves taking a step back to look at the links between communities and other levels of governance – right up to the national level.

What have Timorese women taught you?

DC: Strength. Grace. It’s funny, in my Venilale family it’s pretty clear that the men think they’re running the show—but so often, the women are. Well, they run the show in their environment—particularly the kitchen, which is where I like to spend most of my time. One woman, who’s kind of like my cool aunt, she works incredibly hard and has very clear ideas on how things should be done. She’s always bossing me around, I love her to bits.

It’s hard to talk about ‘Timorese women’, because of course their experiences and worldviews vary so much depending on what class they come from, and depending on whether they consider themselves more country women or city women. But one of the things that so many seem to have in common is this clear understanding of themselves as the centre of the family. Which is pretty important in Timor—family is everything, it’s the basic building block for how communities are structured.

But that’s not to say that it’s all ok for women in Timor. It’s not. There’s a big problem with domestic violence and sexual harassment of girls and women, and like so many other countries (including Australia) there is systemic sexism—the economic and other opportunities open to them are very different compared to what’s available to men. But Timorese women are making their own choices and doing the very best that they can for themselves and their families in that context, and I honour them for that.

What’s coming up for you in 2016?

DC: The next big thing for me is an online course I’ve developed called Working With Communities. It’s a ten-week course, designed to help development professionals use community-sensitive development principles and tools in their everyday work. It’s a really practical course, taking people through different ways of incorporating good community engagement practices at every stage of the project life-cycle. And it’s not only for people working with Timorese communities: it’s for people working with developing communities in other countries too. The idea is to help people think outside the box a little, and look for ways to approach community engagement not just as an add-on to their existing work—like, having a community meeting and ticking the engagement box—but really integrating it into their basic work practices. Enrolment closes in February, and the course will kick off in March.

The other thing that we’re about to start is our CBO and local NGO network—which is the beginning of this big idea of promoting learning and sharing between different post-colonial communities. We’re finally in a position where we can do this, so we have our first meeting coming up in January where they will decide what direction to take it and what sort of support would be most useful for them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

DC: Yes. Going back to our discussion a bit earlier, I mentioned my own early years, which were a bit tough. Mainly, I think this was because here in Australia we’re not very good at valuing community, so families like mine become invisible, they slip through the cracks. But in Timor, family and community are everything. It’s not perfect, people still slip through the cracks of course, or are forced into situations they’d prefer not to be in. But I think in Australia we’ve forgotten that we need each other, which is the basic prerequisite for community, so I think re-valuing and honouring community is something very important that we can learn from Timorese.

Deborah Cummins is the Founder and Director of Bridging Peoples, and the creator of the Working With Communities course. For full details on the Working With Communities course, go to www.workingwithcommunities.com, where you can also get a sneak peek by accessing a free sample training video.

This interview first appeared on the Cooking Circles blog. You can find it and more stories at www.cookingcircles.org

Find Bridging Peoples on LinkedIn.

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