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A bench seat to honour community champion

WATERLOO: On May 13, community leaders, volunteers and friends gathered at the Waterloo Neighbourhood Centre to remember Ross Smith (dec. 2016), and to unveil a commemorative seat in his honour.

The seat recognises Ross’s decades of volunteer work in the community – his housing activism, his involvement with the ALP, the Waterloo Neighbourhood Advisory Board (NAB), REDWatch and the South Sydney Herald (SSH).

“Ross was a champion of community life, a champion of community centres and a champion of community democracy,” said Michael Shreenan, CEO of Counterpoint Community Services in Waterloo.

“I miss Ross every day. His humour. His anger … And I think it’s fitting that we’re holding this [commemorative event] today on the final day of National Neighbourhood Centre Week.”

Graeme de Villiers from the Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) said LAHC’s procurement and installation of the bench was “really a small gesture for somebody who was so larger than life and really worked for the community to make things better for them every day”.

Mr de Villiers, Ron Hoenig MP and Katherine Johnson from Kings Cross Community Centre all spoke of how Ross had drawn alongside them to educate them about the realities of public housing and other pivotal community issues.

“When I was elected in August 2012, Ross adopted me,” Mr Hoenig said. “He took me to hundreds and hundreds of apartments and spoke to hundreds and hundreds of people. I must say a lifetime in the criminal justice system did not prepare me for the way in which the people of Waterloo had to live day in day out.”

Mr Hoenig said this exposure led him to hound Housing with thousands of letters listing every person and every maintenance issue that required attention – but what had ultimately impelled action was involving A Current Affair to expose a number of stories over 12 months.

“It is amazing how 12 minutes of a national television program can motivate governments. All of a sudden Housing responded and all these three-storey walk-ups were, within a year, completely renovated. The laundries were demolished. The fences replaced.

“[Ross took me to see] all these gardens constructed by Housing and there were all these residents out there watering the garden and mowing the lawns of these premises that had hitherto been squalid.”

Mr Hoenig said his most significant parliamentary achievement had been to instigate the changes that brought better homes and safety to people in his electorate – many changes made thanks to Ross Smith’s impetus and input.

“There’s more to defend. And there will always be. But that is because of Ross. And that is the legacy that Ross leaves. It was never me. It was only his perseverance and his adoption of me.”

Jenny Leong MP remembered first bantering with Ross when she was “a young, 20-something-year old on a polling booth” and again years later when she was elected as the MP responsible for parts of the Waterloo community and into Redfern.

Happily, their fun, Greens-vs-ALP political banter continued, she said, but they also recognised that their commitment was to a much larger project to ensure: the community was empowered; people had the right and access to public housing, and; people living in public housing had a say over what was happening in their community and were treated with dignity and respect.

Ms Leong quoted what Greens councillor and former Deputy Mayor of the City of Sydney, Irene Doutney, had written after Ross died in 2016, “RIP Ross, you fought long and hard”.

“I think that sums up the complete passion and dedication Ross had to this community and to the values that he held dear,” Ms Leong said. “The fact that there will be a bench and a plaque to commemorate Ross is a good reminder to us all that the fight continues and we must do what we can together to continue that long and hard fight in Ross’s name.”

José Perez, Chairperson of Counterpoint Community Services, recalled Ross’s “warped humour” along with his clear sense of how people should be treated and respected – a view he would often voice at the Factory (now Counterpoint).

Ross had also dragged Mr Perez along to assist Oddjobbers, a group which helped people in the Waterloo community (especially those who were ageing and no longer able to do the basics around the house) for a donation to cover costs.

“Ross was a very giving, caring, nurturing person. If he decided that you put the effort in, he was prepared to back you to the hilt. It doesn’t matter what your religious, political or any other view was. As a person he saw that you were somebody who may have been through circumstances being dealt a dud hand, and he was there, and, if he could help, he would help you.

“This was Ross. This was the person who held friendship, community, above even himself.”

REDWatch co-spokesperson Geoff Turnbull said Ross had been around in 2004 when REDWatch was formed with people like Jenny Leong, Trevor Davies, Sylvie Ellsmore, Ben Spies-Butcher and others who have been important in carrying the banner for justice and for people having a real voice in the community particularly around government decisions.

He said Ross had valued REDWatch as an important community-controlled space to which bureaucrats and politicians could be invited to discuss the concerns of community members outside of government-controlled settings.

He also noted Ross’s involvement in the early 2000s when Frank Sartor was Lord Mayor of Sydney and the redevelopment of The Block was an incendiary issue.

“One thing built out of that time was the relationship between Ross Smith and Mick Mundine,” Mr Turnbull said.

“Right up until Ross’s death, if Mick saw Ross in Redfern he’d ask him for his permit or his passport and if Ross saw Mick down in Waterloo he’d do the same thing!”

Mr Turnbull said he believed the seat was a very appropriate memorial for Ross, because it showed “the very basic approach Ross had in terms of valuing people, talking to people and taking the opportunity to hear, really listen to what people are saying and if there is something you can do about that, do it.

“I certainly encourage the community to take the opportunity to have those conversations, to ask people how they’re going and to use that seat to actually build community,” he said.

The Rev. Andrew Collis, minister of the South Sydney Uniting Church and Assistant Managing Editor of the SSH said he was on study leave in Boston when he heard that Ross had died en route to pick up the newspaper bundles for delivery.

“I didn’t get to share my Boston news with Ross but it has helped me process what I learned there [about anatheism: faith as ethical action] just imagining the conversations I might have had with him.”

Mr Collis hailed Ross’s commitment to housing rights, independent media, community services, accessibility, road safety and participatory democracy.

He also introduced a number of SSH volunteers who were present at the memorial event, including Sue Dahl, a very dear friend of Ross’s who would have coffee with him at 7am every morning at Café Abercrombie.

Prior to the unveiling, Mr Collis said, “May this seat be a site for many conversations about essential services and good government, friendship, sustainability, or simply a place to sit quietly and rest or to remember the man that we knew as Ross Leslie Smith. Volunteer. Dog whisperer. Key master. Fundraiser. Co-worker. Companion. Enigma. Friend.”

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