The Information and Resource Centre and Inner Voice were central to Regional Council’s activities. Martine Brieger, came for work experience, came back as Inner Voice editor and finished up as a board member.
My mum arranged my work experience with my aunt – Margaret Barry – at a place called ‘Regional Council’. A non-descript name for an organisation that seemed to defy easy definition!
Founded a decade earlier, in a wave of regionalism that washed across Australia under the Whitlam Government, the initial funding for a community development and liaison service proved short-lived and the decision short-sighted. However, thanks to the quick thinking of friends, Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development managed to reinvent itself as an information service and to survive. That it exists today is nothing short of a miracle.
But back to 1986 – I was 15 and feeling nervous as I found my way from Central across Belmore Park to a rundown old building (the pre-renovation Capitol Theatre I realised many years later), creaked up a slow, gated goods lift and then down a long draughty corridor to a warehouse of an office. But not a spacious and airy warehouse – one cluttered with desks, shelves and tables covered with paper of every kind. Deep lounges sat around a communal coffee table grandly overflowing with coffee cups and ashtrays. What a secret and wonderful world it was. My memories are of hard work punctuated by laughter and noisy phone conversations in front of the large, light windows and a dark kitchen corner where you knocked before opening draws to give the roaches time to hide. I had no idea what I was doing there, least of all that this was to be the first day of a 20 year relationship with the vaguely-named mystery organisation.
For the next five days, my job was to sort cartoons, cut or ripped from newspapers, into categories defined by the UWASIS classification system. Boxes and boxes of them towered in a small side room. Shelves heaving with clippings and a strange smell I couldn’t locate (that turned out to be a lost slab of cheddar). I sat cross-legged on the floor making decisions on where each yellowed newsprint joke might best be homed – employment, health, material needs, education, rights and safety, family support, or resources? These 8 social goals were a slight adaption of the United Way of America Services Identification System – the gold standard for a brief period in time.
Days passed and the categories became burned into my brain that week, serving me well seven years later when I became the editor of Inner Voice and Marg refused all attempts by me to ditch the UWASIS-based structure of the magazine. I wasn’t even allowed to alter their order. Some sections were clearly and consistently weaker than others where our information sources were thin – but in hindsight it did force us to take a comprehensive regional view every publishing cycle.
As part of its role as an information service, Regional Council provided a lot of resources for residents and community groups. The printing press took up a whole room – it smelled toxic and roared like a train passing – it printed pamphlets, posters, newsletters and minutes for many groups in Inner Sydney. The meeting rooms were used at all hours of the day and everyone knew Marg was a walking information service – so things seemed to hum along.
The other clear memory I have of that time, the highlight of the week really, was the staff meeting. People might think ‘walking meetings’ are new – but our compulsory team attendance involved joining with thousands of Sydneysiders protesting against the proposed monorail. (What a shame we can’t time travel back to say – you were right! And they are building light rail – a pie in the sky, greenie idea ridiculed at the time, and now digging through George Street around the clock).
While I did another stint of work experience in 1988, my views on what a workplace could be had already been formed in that very first week. A radical idea had planted in my head: that work might actually by fun, exciting and meaningful. I am eternally grateful for this early lesson.
The influence extended to my uni choice – studying journalism and politics at UTS, with teachers including green ban activist Wendy Bacon and Regional Council’s first Chairperson Andrew Jakubowicz. It also saw me popping in regularly to the new office in Alexandria to get help and ideas for my uni assignments.
By the time I became an official part of the team in 1992, the office had moved to the palatial luxury of Waterloo Town Hall. I think the cockroaches had stayed loyally with the crew since Chippendale.
For the next seven years it was an honour and a pleasure (and a burden and a drama) to be the editor of Inner Voice. A badly-paid part-time job fortunately located within a hotbed of story leads, contacts, wisdom, and an ocean of information. The technology was a constantly under-funded struggle and my first edition, number 59, was the first and last one spent trying to do the layout without a mouse. 48 pages of typing in the text box dimension. Insanity.
Then being the ‘90s, stories were faxed in and retyped, or hand delivered on floppy disks the big, black square ones with the holes in the middle. Copy was given in hard copy to the printers, with our photos paper clipped to the pages so they knew where to put the bromide images. Liquid paper and sticky tape were my friends. Marg’s red pen my hardest taskmaster as she taught me the basics of English grammar the school teachers of the 70s had skipped.
This young apprentice learned the different responsibilities of local, state and federal governments; the existence of community health, community radio and TV, community transport, community housing, community colleges. With every edition, and every story, I was learning about Sydney and society, with much more experienced hands around to correct my errors and point me towards fascinating stories and ideas. I loved my job and I needed to. Marg and I literally worked around the clock, with me adding my own empty coffee cups and full ashtrays in the established tradition, as we pushed on at 5am towards the morning’s printing deadline.
I learnt to write, edit, layout, photograph, report to the Board. Then to scan, email, use the internet, as technology changed over time. I unlearnt some of the golden rules of journalism – to give two sides to every story, objectivity. What a luxury to be ‘the journal of’ an organisation that had a position on issues. It knew what it stood for and was proud to say it loudly.
One of the most important lessons I learnt was how to badger, barter and beg for assistance with stories. No writers were ever paid and I couldn’t write all of it myself. To this day, I need those skills in every job – “help me and I will help you”. Those deals get me through every situation and have led to long and valued friendships surpassing the workplace and deadlines long forgotten.
And then after I left and travelled, had children and moved to the burbs. I came back to serve on the board – as Secretary, then as Treasurer.
Regional Council was my first extended family – extending well beyond my actual aunty – the Marg Barry of legend who welcomed me into her fascinating world and where I met Edwina, Faye, Cheryl, Charlie, Jack, Jane, Barb, Vivienne, Ani, Phillipa, Terry, Caroline, Simon and so many more, others I still respect and adore.
No job I will ever hold has a chance of coming close to the unique ride that is Inner Sydney Regional Council and I hope those slogging it out there today, probably for traditionally terrible pay, are keeping the spirit alive – laughing a lot, attending “walking meetings” and knocking before they open the kitchen draws.
Martine Brieger, was Inner Voice Editor from 1992 to 1998 and now works at Transport for NSW.
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