John Cunningham

Recollections of the Starting of the Foundation


After I retired from Argyle Diamonds in 1994, Fred Chaney, a family friend, asked me if I would you be interested in helping to establish a Foundation to assist young Aboriginal people. I believed that Aboriginal people had received a rotten deal since white people came into their country over 200 hundred years ago. And that something had to be done. I truly believed that with support Aboriginal people could better share in our way of life and have healthier and more involved lives.

At this stage the Foundation hadn’t been legally constituted. Mallesons were doing some pro-bono work and Arthur Anderson was arranging to get us a small grant from DEETYA. We were really just a bunch of ‘do gooders’ looking for a way to assist young Aboriginal people. Up until then I hadn’t even sat down and had a cup of tea or proper conversation with an Aboriginal person.

In that very first year, we thought we’d give $500 awards to the top four Aboriginal TEE students in WA. I contacted the Dept of Education. They said; “we don’t know who they were if we paid them $200 they would interrogate their data-base”. They came back some time later and said there were no Aboriginal students in WA who had completed their TEE that year.

This was a huge shock to us but it focussed our minds as to what we needed to do. Until then we had thought that sport was the area in which we would probably be more involved, but education was to become our major focus from then on.

May O’Brien, who was involved in many Aboriginal organisations and indigenous education issues, said to me; “if you want to look at indigenous education you need to talk to Mark Simpson at Pundulmurra College”. With Hamersley Iron’s help we organised a meeting in South Hedland. I remember it well. The room was packed. The interest from industry and education people was immediate. Hamersley agreed to get involved and also agreed to pay for a research proposal. The first Polly Farmer project, “Gumala Mirnuwarni” (Coming Together to Learn), was born.

As a direct result of this meeting Mark Simpson went to work for Hamersley Iron and we were offered 50 per cent of his time to help establish the project. We couldn’t have done it without him. Woodside also came on board as did Dampier Salt, and the Education Department agreed to commit to 50 per cent of the costs of a school teacher who would work fulltime on the project.

The model we were developing was based on providing an after school program for indigenous secondary school students who wanted to achieve and to finish high school. The Foundation’s role was to manage the project through a local steering committee and to raise funds and basically to provide the glue to hold everything together if and when it was needed. Other important findings to come out of our research were, not surprisingly, that Aboriginal people pretty much wanted what we want for our own children; their kids to get a good education; good jobs; retain their culture; and their kids to stay local.

After nearly fifteen years of the most satisfying and enjoyable period of my working life I retired for the second time at the end of 2008 and handed over the reins to Neil and Douglas. Working in the not-for-profit sector has been an amazing experience. I have met so many wonderful and generous people; people who have a genuine commitment to improve the outcomes for our hundreds of students now spread across Australia.