Growing up in Bentley Park, Queensland, Jesse recalls being inspired to drive change after witnessing his friends and fellow community members struggle with destructive patterns of behaviour.
“We had our issues out in that community; I watched far too many people end up at the bottom of a bottle, in jail or with needles in their arms,” he says. “At the time, our community reached out to the local council and politicians and we asked for help, but no one seemed to care. There was a complete lack of service provision and we thought, ‘if no one is going to do anything, we’ll do it ourselves’.”
So in 2007, as a 20-year-old university student, Jesse founded The Streets Movement Organisation with the mission to create opportunities for young Indigenous people through education, pathways and empowerment.
“We started as a community centre run out of a local boxing gym. It was like a nexus point in community; it kept everyone safe, focused, out of trouble, away from drugs and alcohol and off of the streets,” he says. “We would run community programs out on the street and from the centre. We had basketball programs, boxing sessions, dance classes, homework groups and footy teams; you name it, we had it.”
From there, The Streets Movement began to run outreach programs in schools and detention centres.
“We worked with almost every high school across Cairns, going in with the medium of boxing and mentoring the students on issues like violence, self-worth, identity, community, substance abuse, peer pressure, education and more,” Jesse says.
“Then we started working in prisons. In partnership with another local Aboriginal changemaker, we would go in there and deliver men’s groups focusing on mental health. We’d engage them through the medium of boxing, because if you’re talking about things like mental health in an environment that’s very macho and tense, people tend to shy away. So we started a boxing club, and then afterwards we had the space where we could sit down and have a yarn about things in a much more comfortable environment. It was a very successful program, eventually we had about 450 people on a waiting list, wanting to take a class that was 20 people at a time.”
In 2013, The Streets Movement went international when it became the first grassroots Aboriginal organisation in Queensland to be invited to attend a United Nations (UN) Forum in New York.
“I’ve been very lucky to travel to different parts of the world and address the mob, giving talks about community development and impact. During these talks we try to highlight that, in Australia, what we often perceive as issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities aren’t actually the issues. We always say we need to address things like alcohol, drugs, domestic violence and housing. And don’t get me wrong, these are all very important problems, but they’re not the issue, they’re the symptoms of the issues,” Jesse says.
“The issues we really look to rectify are around economic development within communities, and political control and autonomy being returned to our First Nations. And that’s a primary focus around self-determination, to ensure there is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in that space.”
After visiting the UN, The Streets Movement partnered with universities across the globe to set up an initiative called the Mulumulung International Experience, or the MI-Experience.
“We partnered with the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom so that Indigenous students from remote and regional areas have the opportunity to build real-world relationships and experience some of the top educational institutions in the world,” Jesse says. “More than anything, beyond the formality of encouraging them to get a university education, no matter what journey their life takes them on, we want them to always remember these unique experiences.”
The Streets Movement continued to grow, partnering with institutions and organisations all around the world, in places like China, Los Angeles, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Jordan and more. But when COVID-19 hit, the organisation was forced to pause their international programs.
“Considering the logistical vulnerabilities of a lot of regional and remote First Nations communities, it might be quite some time until we will be able to resume our international work. Hopefully we can reassess in the coming years,” Jesse says.
“Now, our main focus is advocating for and supporting the transition of community infrastructure projects for other local organisations looking for a home or to get started. Whether that be a community centre or collective impact projects, any sort of community structure that’s going to benefit the local population, TSM wants to support that.”