AYC – a history through documents

For my community engagement I have been working with Auburn Youth Centre (AYC), an organisation which brings together people of all cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic backgrounds to provide support, entertainment and programs for local youth. The centre has been around since 1983, and has, through various initiatives, touched the lives of many and played a dynamic role in fostering community spirit.
This year is their 30th anniversary, and as such the centre is keen to look into its history – in particular the achievements that have been made over 30 years of existence. The centre is certainly interested in exploring its history, but having changed locations several times over the past three decades, most original documents have been lost.
Having heard this, I’d reconciled myself with the fact that I’d be trawling through a range of different sources to find anything I could about the organisation – local libraries, local papers, you name it.
“Actually, we do have a few boxes of stuff somewhere – just some photos, documents – probably useless”, I was told.
The historian in me rejoiced when I was shown two giant boxes, filled with files, filled with promise. I could almost detect a faint halo emanating from the plastic bins.
There, in a little storage room at the back of Auburn Youth centre, with nothing but the glow from the files to guide me (I was so excited it took me an hour to realise there was a light switch), is where I spent the last four hours.
I looked through the first few files with the care and precision of a total amateur. One of the first files I open is about a BBQ purchased in 2009. It contains a tax invoice, warranty, a user manual, correspondence between the supplier in Melbourne and AYC detailing quotes… For someone writing a history on barbecue culture in Australian community organisations, this may have been like striking gold. The hoarder in me thinks: “better preserve this just in case, you never know when barbecue history may become the next big thing”. But my common sense (and timing restriction) says otherwise. Three files and twenty minutes in, all I have to show is my newfound expertise on barbecue installation, which may come in handy someday, but certainly not for this project. Now an expert on how to best maintain and service my Tucker ‘Friar Tuck’ BBQ, I close the file.
I start scanning through the documents more methodically. There are insurance forms, car registration papers, maintenance checklists, OHS procedures, takeout menus for local Chinese and caterers they presumably used. Riveting stuff. But none of which is telling of the many achievements, the wonderful people and the noble character of the organisation. I find myself skimming over the files from the past couple of years, searching for something older.
This gets me thinking. At what point do everyday documents become history? We are told that history is anything in the past, but few of us would consider last week’s phone bill to be of historical importance. In my study of history, I have been exposed to files which may be equally trivial, and did not once question their historic significance, because they were old and rare. If I can depend on an official’s list on a scrap of paper to tell me about censorship in the GDR, then surely these files here are of significance.
I come across a Vodafone phone bill from 2011, glance at it for a few seconds, and move on. Why? Is it not old enough? If this file was from 1986 would I have looked at it differently? Is it because I have a deep-rooted underlying resentment for the Telco? Is it because it’s just plain boring?
I realise, that it is because what I am looking for cannot be found in business transactions and insurance forms. I am looking for something which will tell me about the character, the people, the community story of AYC, and no amount of phone bills will tell me this. The history we look for so deeply influences the history we see. An historian sets upon an investigation with a purpose, albeit a noble one, which will ultimately influence the information they do and don’t see.
As I am looking through the documents, a group of boys play basketball in an adjacent room. They soon call it quits and begin to strum some chords on the guitar. One of them begins to wail something, which I soon recognise to be Justin Bieber’s newest song, and the others join in.
This is the story of AYC that I want to tell. Of the people whose lives have been touched by the organisation. Their stories.
Beside the two plastic boxes are a handful of photo albums. There are pictures of AYC members at discos, at parties, at talent quests and at, would you believe it, backyard barbecues. Photos of smiling faces, of people having fun together, of what would certainly be unforgettable memories, thanks to the work of Auburn Youth Centre. There’s one boy who features in so many photos I begin to think he is the unofficial leader of the group. He may be the life of the party, but I bet he didn’t anticipate some stranger would be looking at his photos decades later wondering how AYC featured in his life. Wondering who were the people he met here? The relationships he made? Did they last?
The answers to these questions cannot be found in reports and statistics. The achievements of an organisation like AYC aren’t quantifiable through numbers and dates. They are measured by stories, by histories, and as I finish trawling through these documents, and look to the other sources I can gather, this is what I hope to find. From a brief look at portrayal of the organisation in local papers, it is so evident that Auburn Youth Centre has had a profound impact on local youth, has featured prominently in the lives of many, and has fostered community engagement and community spirit, which is what I hope to show as I continue my project.

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